IIt All Begins with Crocodiles

My smallest crocodile is golden and only 13 millimeters long. It is actually a pin on the head of a Zairean fetish, holding together a piece of real leopard skin with a synthetic ancillary. I was in Zaïre, today the Congo, in 1981/82. I had passed the diplomatic examination of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs the year before. My father who was a career diplomat and, at that time Ambassador of Switzerland to Tunisia, asked me, “Are you sure?”, my brother said, “You’re crazy”, but I still became a diplomat and Kinshasa was my first posting abroad. After

King Kong Meets Tarzan

The film ‘King Kong’ was shot in 1933, sixty years before ‘Jurassic Park’, but has a much more refined plot. It plays between the Great Depression in New York and a mysterious island with the life of 200 million years ago, a Jurassic park. Adventurers travel to this island to film and capture an oversized ape named Kong. Kong falls in love with a woman amongst the adventurers, Ann, and abducts her. The group searches the jungle for her and is attacked and decimated by vicious dinosaurs. They find Ann and rescue her. On their way back, Kong pursues

At age nineteen, after I had finished high school and enrolled at the University of Bern for my studies of law, my parents left Switzerland. My father had become the Swiss Ambassador to Ethiopia. 1974 was not only the year of my last visit to them there, two other events drew the world’s attention to Ethiopia: Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, was removed from his throne in a communist coup d’état. And in the northern end of the Ethiopian Great Rift Valley, the Awash, the bone fossils of a female hominid were found. Worldwide, this lady became known as

Throughout her history, the Earth’s climate has been fluctuating between hot and cold, ‘greenhouse’ Earth and ‘icehouse’ Earth. When the asteroid hit our planet 65 million years ago, Earth was in a greenhouse period but with the continents moving into their current positions, it started cooling. A new geological era opened. Flowering plants evolved. The main new feature, however, appeared in the fauna: After the Age of Reptiles with its dinosaurs and crocodiles, the Age of Mammals began. – That’s us. And 36 million years ago, the Earth slipped into an icehouse period with the Arctic and Antarctic ice

As a student of law in the 1970s, I had a lot of free time on my hand. This allowed me to visit the countries where my father was the Swiss Ambassador in that time, Ethiopia, China, and Tunisia. After my visits to Ethiopia and leaving Switzerland for Tunisia, it would never have occurred to me to say that I was going to ‘Africa’. Once in Tabarka, the Tunisian wine region, I was surprised by snowfall in spring. Tunisia and Morocco are both fully in the northern temperate climate zone. In Morocco I was only once, for a seminar

South of the Sahel comes the open range of the tropical savanna, one of the defining landscapes of Africa and, of what I have seen of the vast continent, my favorite. Add to an endless plain of grassland a lone acacia tree and a sunset. Or add a giraffe or one of the ‘Big Five’ – a lion, a leopard, an elephant, a rhino, or a buffalo – and you have the perfect advertisement for a photo safari in the savanna of East and southern Africa. In some countries, for a lot of money, you can shoot these animals

The coastline embracing the vast land of Africa and holding together the Arab North and the Sub-Saharan South, the East and the West, measures something over 30’000 kilometers and defines the shape of Africa. The distinct and clear-cut form of Africa has become a recognizable logo for the continent itself. It is printed on tee-shirts, artisans sell it as keyring and necklace pendants, and tourists buy its replica in leather, wood or gold and silver in any African country they visit. Geologically, the shape of Africa shows us what a continent is meant to be: A discrete landmass separated

I am a baby-boomer and a rock’n’roller. In 1951, my year of birth, Ike Turner and his ‘Kings of Rhythm’, a rhythm and blues band, recorded ‘Rocket 88’. Nobody really knows why, but today, Rocket 88 is said to have been the first rock’n’roll song. It does have that back beat but so did other songs of that time. In the sixties, the Rolling Stones picked up that beat and I grew up singing and dancing with them, “I know it’s only rock’n’roll, but I like it”. Ike Turner became the husband of Tina Turner and together they were

The circumstances under which I got posted to Madagascar were a little bit special. But then, when we talk about Africa, Madagascar will also take a special place. Returning to the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs after my tour of duty as the UN Coordinator for Somalia at the end of 1999, I had missed the round of ambassadorial appointments for the following year and found my name in seventeenth position for a possible future appointment. That would normally not bring me out of Bern before at least three years. And above that, I was made the coordinator of

Birds evolved from the dinosaurs in the Jurassic period and the ancestors of the ostrich were already running around in Gondwana, the supercontinent comprising all of today’s continents of the southern hemisphere, plus India. And when Gondwana broke up 180 million years ago, the ostrich rode across the world: On the Indian plate the ostrich moved to Asia, on the South American one to South America, there it took the name of rhea. Down under in Australia, the ostrich became the emu. In neighboring Africa, the ostrich roamed the vast continent and evolved into four different subspecies: The North

2.6 million years ago, the cortex which had started engulfing their reptilian and mammalian brains, brought our ancestors to using crude stone tools. They had become Homo habilis and had thereby opened the Stone Age. Although it has ‘stone’ in its name, this is not a geological designation but rather an archeological and anthropological one. It relates to us humans, to what we did and how we lived. 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus stood up, but he kept on using stone tools. Then 200’000 years ago, was the end of an interglacial period and its warm and comfortable

So, of Homo sapiens’ earliest migrations out of East Africa into the continent, we had the Khoisan arriving in southern Africa 150’000 years ago, and the Pygmies moving into the forests of Central Africa 130’000 years ago. The third population cluster of original modern humans still living in Africa today, is convoluted and split into two, or four, or even more: For a second time, some groups of primal Homo sapiens moved west. In the Congo and Central Africa, they superseded the Pygmies and then moved on to colonize the forests between the Niger River and the coast of

Nowhere has human evolution left more traces than in the northern Great Rift Valley. There, we have the fossils of Lucy, there we have fossils and tools of Homo habilis, and there we have fossils, fireplaces, tools and the first footprints of Homo erectus. And nowhere do we have more fossils, settlements, tools, and artifacts of Homo sapiens. This is a region of Africa I know particularly well. I have crisscrossed it on many long and short safaris. From Djibouti, where I first put foot on African soil as a boy, through Ethiopia and Kenya, where at Lake Turkana

There is no knowing exactly where in East Africa Homo sapiens evolved because ever since Homo erectus, our ancestors were moving around. Fossils of early modern humans have also been found in Morocco and South Africa. Morocco being an outlier, this leaves the three countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania in the Great Rift Valley, and – to a lesser degree – South Africa as possible homes to the ‘Cradle of Mankind’. In these four countries, UNESCO has recognized five World Heritage Sites of importance for the evolution of mankind: The Lower Valley of the Awash and the Lower

Geographically, the Lower Omo River Valley and the Lake Turkana Basin are one area. The reason for which UNESCO lists it as two World Heritage Sites has nothing to do with human evolution. It is due to those virtual lines drawn on the maps in the capitals of countries: Borders. To the East of the northern tip of Lake Turkana, the border between Ethiopia and Kenya is defined. But to the West, it is not clear where the South-West of Ethiopia, the North of Kenya and the South of South Sudan meet. The area is called ‘Ilemi Triangle’, and,

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