Lower Valley of the Awash

Lower Valley of the Awash

The Awash valley contains one of the most important groupings of palaeontological sites on the African continent. The remains found at the site, the oldest of which date back at least 4 million years, provide evidence of human evolution which has modified our conception of the history of humankind. The most spectacular discovery came in 1974, when 52 fragments of a skeleton enabled the famous Lucy to be reconstructed.

Outstanding Universal Value

Brief synthesis

The Lower Awash Valley paleo-anthropological site is located 300 km northeast of Addis Ababa, in the west of the Afar Depression. It covers an area of around 150 km2.
The Awash Valley contains one of the most important groupings of paleontological sites on the African continent. The remains found at the property, the oldest of which date back over 4 million years, provide evidence of human evolution, which has modified our conception of the history of humankind. The most spectacular discovery came in 1974, when 52 fragments of a skeleton enabled the famous Lucy to be reconstructed.

Excavations by an international team of palaeontologists and pre-historians began in 1973, and continued annually until 1976, and ended in 1980. In that time, they found a large quantity of fossilised hominid and animal bones in a remarkable state of preservation, the most ancient of which were at least four million years old. In 1974, the valley produced the most complete set of remains of a hominid skeleton, Australopithecus afarensis, nicknamed ‘Lucy’, dating back 3.2 million years. Afarensis has since been proved to be the ancestral origin for both the Genus Australopithecus and Homo-sapiens.

A recovered female skeleton nicknamed ‘Ardi’ is 4.4 million years old, some 1.2 million years older than the skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis ‘Lucy’.
There is a wealth of paleo-anthropological and pre-historic tools still awaiting discovery and scientific study and these are seen as constituting an exceptionally important cultural heritage resource.

Criterion (ii): The evidence of hominid and animal fossil remains discovered in the Lower Awash Valley testify to developments in human evolution that have modified views of the history of mankind as a whole.

Criterion (iii): The excavated paleo-anthropological remains from the Lower Awash Valley dating back almost 4 million years are of exceptional antiquity.

Criterion (iv): The human vestiges that have been excavated dating back over 3 million years provide an exceptional record that contributes to an understanding of human development.


The boundaries of the sites have yet to be defined. The most extensive remains assigned were found in Hadar, one of the localities within the Lower Awash Valley, but the rest of the valley is seen to have the potential to contribute to further paleontological and historical evidence.

Furthermore, the Middle Awash Valley has been the focus of intensive research since 1981 and it is the entire valley that is now seen to constitute one of the most important paleontological and pre-historical sites in the world. The boundaries of the property need to be defined to encompass all the attributes related to known and potential archaeological evidence. A buffer zone needs to be provided for the property.
In spite of its remote location in the Afar Depression, the property is reportedly the target of individual tourists hunting fossil souvenirs and is thus highly vulnerable.


The material authenticity is explicit in the finds themselves. However, due to the nature of the site, it is necessary to hold the unearthed finds in the National Museum. The authenticity of the immediate settings of the finds remains largely intact as a result of its desert location, but is vulnerable to fossil hunters. In order to manifest the complete storey of the finds from this valley, it is necessary to go beyond the current boundaries. Better information on the property is still needed.

Protection and management requirements

An open site, it is naturally protected by the difficult terrain and by the local Afar population. No special legal framework is provided to protect the Lower Awash Valley, except the general law, Proclamation No. 209/2000. This also established the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage as the institution in charge.
The site has no local management, and is overseen from the Afar Regional Office in Asayta, 160 km away.
A museum has been a long-standing aim of the local authorities. One of the principal American research institutions was prepared to build it in 2004, but how it was to be staffed was not resolved.

Through the Africa 2009 programme, some expertise in training, in conservation and management was provided at a regional level. Pastoral nomads live around the property, and it has been considered that protection might be improved by involving nomadic tribal chiefs in an oversight of the large area.
There is an urgent need to re-assess and define the boundaries so as to encompass all the attributes of Outstanding Universal Value, to define a buffer zone, to put in place local protection, perhaps through the local communities, and to prepare an overall management plan that sets out how protection, management and interpretation will be met in the medium and long term.

Long Description

The development that took place in the Lower Valley of the Awash changed the history of mankind. The hominid remains excavated there are characteristic of a unique type.
Most of the Miocene and Plio-Pleistocene palaeo-anthropological localities that have provided information about the ancestors of mankind are concentrated in the East African Rift System. This is due to the fact that volcanic and tectonic activities were responsible for creating dynamic environments for the proliferation of life and the preservation of faunal and floral remains within the confines of the rift. Volcanic and tectonic activities related to rift evolution created plateaus and mountains; most of the sediments in the basins were derived from these topographic highs located within and outside the rift valleys. Lavas, volcaniclastic sediments, and tephra were responsible for the quick burial and preservation of fossils.

However, there are numerous gaps in the fossil record representing an important period (10-5 million years BP) pertinent to the understanding of the pongid/hominid split and the extinction and appearance of numerous taxa. The Middle Awash valley contains late Miocene fossiliferous sedimentary sequences that can fill this gap. Detailed geological, palaeontological, palaeoenvironmental, and palaeoecological studies in the Middle Awash fluvial and lacustrine fossiliferous sedimentary rocks are addressing the environment-related evolutionary issues.
From 1973 to 1976, a team of international specialists working in the Lower Valley of the Awash excavated a large entire of extremely well-preserved human and animal fossils. These remains, the oldest of which are at least 4 million years old, constitute evidence of human evolution which has modified the history of mankind. The most complete fossil found at this site is the remains of the skeleton of a humanoid, certain traits of which link it with the australopithecine species whereas certain others place it with Homo sapiens. The most spectacular discovery came in 1974 at the site of Hadar, when 52 fragments of a skeleton enabled the famous hominid known as Lucy to be reconstructed.

The term 'hominid' refers to a member of the zoological family Hominidae; hominids share a suite of characteristics which define them as a group. The most conspicuous of these traits is bipedal locomotion, or walking upright. As in a modern human's skeleton, Lucy's bones are full of evidence clearly pointing to bipedality. At Hadar the size difference between males and female is very clear, with larger males and smaller females being fairly easy to distinguish: Lucy clearly fits into the smaller group

The hominid-bearing sediments in the Hadar formation are divided into three members. Lucy was found in the highest of these, the Kada Hadar member. Although fossils cannot be dated directly, the deposits in which they are found sometimes contain volcanic flows and ashes, which can be dated. According to these dates Lucy is dated to just less than 3.18 million BP.

Although several hundred fragments of hominid bone were found at the Lucy site, there was no duplication of bones. The bones all come from an individual of a single species, a single size, and a single developmental age. In life, she would have stood about 1 m tall and weighed 27-30 kg. There are several indicators which give an idea of her age: her third molars; all the ends of her bones and her cranial sutures indicate a completed skeletal development; her vertebrae show signs of degenerative disease. All these indicators, when taken together, suggest that she was a young, but fully mature, adult when she died. No cause has been determined for Lucy's death. The remains are stored in a specially constructed safe in the Paleoanthropology Laboratories of the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa.