Ethiopia & Coffee

On Nov. 11, 1974, the paleontologist Donald Johanson made a discovery that led to the re-imagination of human origins.

On a dig in the Danakil, a lowland region of Ethiopia formed millions of years ago by the Red Sea, which extended far into what's now the African continent, Johanson unearthed portions of a fossilized skeleton that appeared to be something between a human and an ape. A tape of the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was playing, so the team named her Lucy.

The discovery of Lucy further affirmed Ethiopia's role in history, and today this remarkable specimen remains the most complete fossil of an early human ancestor. Scientists date Lucy at about 3.5 million years old. Other teams have found older fossilized bones. But no find from so long ago in our evolutionary past is more complete.

To call Lucy the ancestor of all humanity is an intriguing flight of fancy. But we do know one thing for certain about Ethiopia's seemingly infinite past: This is the land responsible for waking people up in the morning and keeping them up all night.

Ethiopia introduced the world to coffee.

Legend attributes the discovery of the palatable stimulant to Kaldi, a goat herder from Kaffa, circa 850 A.D., who noticed one day that his goats became frisky - dancing on their hind legs - when they ate the little red berries on a shrub in his field. Excited by his find, the goat herder took some of the beans to the local monks, who roasted them in a fire, crushed them into a powder, and put them in water to create a new beverage, which gave them the energy to stay up all night in prayer.

The truth, alas, is far less fanciful. Some scholars believe that the coffee plant grows native only in Ethiopia, where the Oromo people may have been the first to use the bean. The Oromo ground the beans into a powder and then mixed it with animal fat to eat while traveling and to give them energy for the hunt or for battle. Other tribes also began to use the beans to make porridge or wine.

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ęCopyright 2010 by Harry Kloman