Thursday, January 10, 2013

A conversation with Dr. Amanuel Beyin

Dr. Amanuel  Beyin

Part I

Issayas: Briefly, tell us about yourself.

Dr. Amanuel Beyin : I was born in Eritrea and lived there until I obtained my BA degree in Archaeology from the University of Asmara (UoA) in 2001. Having been born and raised in a countryside (around Segheneiti),
spending one year in Keren, and later moving to Asmara to follow my high school and university educations, I was fortunate enough to get exposure to varied cultural settings at an early stage of my life. I represent the
generation of Eritreans who witnessed Eritrea’s liberation and independence in their early teen years.  I attended high School at the Holy Savior Major Seminary Catholic Congregation in Asmara, and spent two months in Sawa (5th round) for military training before entering the UoA in Fall 1996. The time I spent at the Seminary was exceptionally formative to building the moral fabric and academic aspiration that guided my ensuing life-journey. For my seminal years at the Seminary, I am grateful to the priests for their compassionate mentoring, the teachers who instilled the value of education in my life, and the dynamic classmates with whom I fought spirited competition for class prizes. The times I failed to win a prize still help me appreciate the importance of defeat while learning.

After entering the UoA, I enrolled in the Natural Science stream and my initial inclination was to study Marine Biology. But when the University announced the opening of a new Archaeology Department during the same year I finished my freshman, I decided to study archaeology. My interest in archaeology was spurred by my inherent curiosity about the origin of human civilizations. The simple question of why/how some human groups have developed advanced technology, while others pursue a simple life had always fascinated me since my early days in school. By studying archaeology, I felt that I will have the chance to uncover the hidden mysteries of past human experience. One thing that I enjoy about being an archaeologist is, every artifact that I find connects me with the mindset of ancient people- their worldview and the decisions they made in the course of their life-time (the food they ate, the tools they made …etc).

During my undergraduate study, I participated in several archaeological survey and excavation projects around Asmara. Toward the final semesters of my undergraduate study I became more interested in human origins research or paleoanthropology, after taking a few courses on African prehistory and observed newly discovered stone tools from the Buia site at the National Museum of Eritrea. I completed the course requirements for BA in 2000, but per the UoA’s policy then, all prospective graduates were required to do one year of National Service before their official graduation. For my National Service, I was assigned to the UoA to work as a Graduate Assistant.

While working there, I applied to several graduate schools in the US. Fortunately, Stony Brook University offered me admission and tuition, and I came to the US in August 2001 to pursue graduate study. For the first two years of my graduate work, I received a fellowship (stipend) from the Leakey Foundation, while the rest of my study was supported through Teaching Assistantships from my department - Interdepartmental Doctoral Program in Anthropological Sciences. In 2005 and 2006, I did a pioneering archaeological survey and excavations on the Red Sea coast of Eritrea, around the Gulf of Zula and Buri Peninsula, where my team documented sites dating from ~100,000 – 5000 years ago (some of the results discussed below). I obtained MA (2005) and PhD (2009) degrees in Anthropology from Stony Brook University, and did two years of postdoctoral study at the same institution after receiving my PhD. Currently, I am working as a contract Assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern Indiana, Evansville (USA).

Issayas: What is the importance of Eritrea in the out of Africa hypothesis (The Human dispersal`s out of Africa)?

Dr. Amanuel: Before giving a direct answer to your question, let me address the theoretical context of the issue so that the reader will not miss the broader picture. Fossil, genetic, and archaeological data currently accumulating from sub-Saharan Africa supports an African origin of early modern humans sometime between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago. So far, the oldest cultural traces and fossil remains of early modern humans have been discovered in East Africa, specifically in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. From the genetic perspectives, African populations display greater genetic diversity compared to others, implying that Africa was populated by Homo sapiens longer than any other continent (older population = more genetic diversity, the same way as an older city would exhibit more architectural diversity compared to a city founded recently). The contentious anthropological question at the present time is; if early modern humans first appeared in East Africa, how did they disperse to the rest of the world? Currently, there are two widely accepted dispersal routes for early modern humans: i) the Northern Route, along the Nile – Sinai land-bridge, and ii) the Southern Route, across the Strait of Bab el Mandeb (gate of tears)- southern end of the Red Sea. Notably, due to its strategic location at the nexus of NE African, Arabian and SW Asian landmasses, the Red Sea basin is emerging as an important region for testing the current dispersal hypotheses.

A less explored, but seemingly a vital region for testing the out of African dispersal hypotheses is the western coastal periphery of the Red Sea basin. This is the only safe corridor for northward human migration during periods of extreme aridity because of the availability of freshwater and access to aquatic food along the coast. During arid climatic conditions, the Sahara desert would have expanded and the Nile dried out, making the Nile Route less hospitable. Likewise, the Strait of Bab el Mandeb would have become narrower during periods of extreme aridity due to global low-sea-level stand, making it easier for African hominids to cross it if they decide to move eastward into Southern Arabia. This hypothesis is gaining momentum at present, partly due to the fact that the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula exhibit similar habitats, thus early humans would have preferred to follow a familiar habitat-zones than moving northward which would have required them to undergo significant physiological and cultural changes to adapt to a temperate climate and the resources there (remember our ancestors first evolved in a tropical region, thus any movement to colder- temperate region would have been demanding). Moreover, recent studies on modern human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), have shown closer genetic affinity between some indigenous populations of East Africa and several native groups to Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Australia.  This pattern has suggested to researchers that early humans may have launched a rapid coast-wise dispersal directly from NE Africa into Arabia (~80,000 – 70,000 years ago) via the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, resulting in the colonization of East Asia and Australia by early humans before western Asia and Europe.

A background map showing the two potential dispersal routes.

Now back to the leading question: what is the importance of Eritrea in resolving the ongoing debate about human dispersal?

Owing to its strategic geographic position along the western coastal periphery of the Red Sea basin, Eritrea (with its 1,300 km of coastline) would have served as an ideal departure point for early human migrations out of Africa.  Hypothetically, any eastward dispersal via the Bab el Mandeb or northward along the western Red Sea coast would have been preceded by prolonged adaptation on the Horn of African coastal landscapes, such as the Somali, Djiboutian and Eritrean shorelines. That part of Eritrea comprising the Gulf of Zula and Buri Peninsula would have been particularly a magnet for continuous human adaptation due to its strategic location at the northern end of the East African Rift Valley, which is considered to have been a viable corridor for human movements between the interior landscapes and the coastal peripheries. Human groups that successfully settled along the Eritrean coast would have gradually spread southward up to the peripheries of the Bab el Mandeb, from where they would have dispersed eastward across the narrowest part of the Strait into Arabia to avoid competition and resource scarcity on the African side. Likewise, there wouldn’t  have been any conceivable obstacle for northward dispersal of early humans along the Eritrean-Sudanese-Egyptian coastal landscapes. But, as I stated earlier, the genetic data supports the former, even though one can’t rule out the latter. It is against these plausible scenarios that the Eritrean coastal territory is emerging as a critical region to understanding the timing and conditions leading to early human dispersal out of Africa. The next question will highlight the nature of current archaeological evidence from the Eritrean coast.

All pictures are courtesy of Dr. Amanuel.

Next, part two of the conversation continues.