In 1980, UNESCO declared the Lower Omo Valley a World Heritage Site in recognition of its uniqueness: Nowhere else on the planet do so many genetically and linguistically diverse people live as traditionally and in such a small space. It has been a crossroads for humans migrating in many directions over many millennia.

Possessing few items from the modern world besides plastic jerry cans for carrying water, the men, women, and children here ritually adorn themselves to express status and tribal identity, sculpting their hair with animal fat and clay, scarifying limbs and torsos, wearing jewellery of beads, bone, and metal, and painting their entire bodies with white minerals, black charcoal, and red and yellow ochre. The unlikely survival of these customs and of still-authentic rituals such as bull jumping and gladiatorial stick fighting attract a few hardy missionaries, anthropologists, and, increasingly, photographers and curious travellers.

The significance of the Omo tribes is more profound than their visual appeal. Amid layers of cracked mud and volcanic tuff along the Lower Omo’s banks, paleontologists have discovered precious remnants of our shared heritage: the oldest known remains of anatomically modern humans, folks who might not look out of place in Times Square, who hunted and gathered here an astonishing 195,000 years ago.

DNA analysis suggests that every person now living is related to a single woman from the Omo Valley, some of whose descendants left the Horn of Africa during a period of climate change and migrated across the Bab el Mandeb strait to Arabia and beyond somewhere between 60,000 and 120,000 years ago. Her relatives who remained behind branched into fourteen genetically distinct founder populations from which all African ethnic groups descend. If Ethiopia is humanity’s womb, the Omo River is its umbilical cord.

Abruptly, after so many millennia, the old river world may be entering its twilight. In a gorge, three hundred miles upstream from where photographs are shot. the young people of Lebuk sweating in their beads and animal skins, construction is under way on the colossal Gibe III dam, the second-largest hydroelectric project in Africa designed by Italian engineers, partly funded by Chinese banks, and scheduled to begin generating 1,870 megawatts of electricity in July 2013.

With 83 million citizens, Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country, and one of its poorest. Planners of the dam say that the output which is the equivalent of the two nuclear plants will make Ethiopia electricity sufficient, with enough power left over to sell to neighbouring states. Crews are paving roads connecting major towns like Jinka and Omorate.

According to Survival International, foreigners started visiting the Omo River Valley just prior to the 1936–1941 Italian occupation, after historian Carlo Conti Rossini described Ethiopia as a “Museum of Peoples,” a still-repeated reference to its eighty-three ethnic groups. But those early visitors were mostly military officers and anthropologists. Organized tourism didn’t really take off until the 1990s, after the country abandoned socialism (introduced by Ethiopian soldiers who overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974) and Addis-based tour operators began marketing expeditions on which foreigners could meet tribes who are in effect distant relatives with colourful customs living in the homeland of our earliest ancestors.

The “highlight” of the tourist visit is usually a six-hour round-trip from Jinka for a chaotic half-hour stop at a village deep within Mago National Park. Here, travellers photograph women of the Mursi tribe, famous for their pierced lower lips holding clay plates up to seven inches in diameter.

In exchange for permission to be photographed, the Mursi demand from each tourist five birr, about thirty cents in the Ethiopian currency. To attract the lens, the women riff on their culture, for example by wearing old puberty belts on their heads. The resulting scrum is full of antagonism, as foreigners compete with one another over camera angles, and the Mursi vie for attention from the ‘paparazzi’.

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