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Bones atop Bones: Walking through a Colossal Graveyard


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  • January 29, 2013
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Bones atop Bones: Walking through a Colossal Graveyard

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by

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Paul Salopek
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The Afar Triangle, Ethiopia, 10°7'39'' N, 40°30'59'' E
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The Afar pastoralists of Ethiopia live and move comfortably among their uncounted dead.

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

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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.

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Apr 11
Ronny Morales (Apr 11 2014 11:02AM) : In my words Paul Salopek is trying to say that the afar know as people they prey to the dead people they wake to them they walked past them.They also play argue and camp next to them
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Apr 10
Cindy Rodriguez (Apr 10 2014 9:41AM) : In this part of the story he explains his journey and what he saw. more

wile he was walking he saw rocks and stone and this was used for the dead.

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Click below to hear Paul talk about Afar graveyards.

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

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There is a precise taxonomy of graves in Afar land.

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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.)

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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

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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.

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DMU Timestamp: March 21, 2014 21:54

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