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Bones atop Bones: Walking through a Colossal Graveyard

  • January 29, 2013

Bones atop Bones: Walking through a Colossal Graveyard


Paul Salopek
The Afar Triangle, Ethiopia, 10°7'39'' N, 40°30'59'' E

The Afar pastoralists of Ethiopia live and move comfortably among their uncounted dead.

Afar graveyards usually mark the sites of seasonal encampments. Photograph by Paul Salopek

They wake to them. They walk past them. They play, argue, and camp next to them. They use the dead to navigate by. Tens of thousands of dusty funerary markers, some new, many very old, crowd the landscape. They are beautiful and poignant. When Afars die—the spot where the last breath, aki, is drawn is marked also with a large stone—they, too, will add to these memorials. In the operatic spaces of the open desert, there can be no other way. The dead cannot be concealed, as they sometimes are elsewhere, behind walls, fences, hedges, windbreaks. The Afar live out their days wandering their own necropolis.

Click below to hear Paul talk about Afar graveyards.

Guide Ahmed Alema Hessan walks past an old Afar grave. Photograph by Paul Salopek

There is a precise taxonomy of graves in Afar land.

The clan dead inhabit small villages of piled stone—they are calledqabri—huddled together, perhaps, on a hill or barren plain. Larger plinths, one or two yards high, commemorate men fallen in endless wars with neighboring pastoralists. These are the wadils or das that so scandalized European explorers, because until very recently, they included rows of stones denoting how many kills each warrior had taken with him into death. (Some of these monuments notched up dozens.)

An Afar grave in the old style, with rows of stones denoting enemies killed in battle. From Hell-Hole of Creation: The Exploration of Abyssinian Danakil, by L.M. Nesbitt, Alfred A. Knopf, 1935. Photograph by Paul Salopek

We walk through this gigantic ossuary like everyone else. It is odd at first. But soon it becomes natural. If one believes the research, more than 93 percent of all the people who ever existed—some 100 billion individuals—are now dead. They must rest somewhere, of course. In the Rift Valley, they lie scattered everywhere underfoot. We take our bearings off them. Off their wind-smoothed stones. They still point the way ahead.

DMU Timestamp: March 21, 2014 21:54

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