Academic journal article Antiquity

Mursi Ox Modification in the Lower Omo Valley and the Interpretation of Cattle Rock Art in Ethiopia

Academic journal article Antiquity

Mursi Ox Modification in the Lower Omo Valley and the Interpretation of Cattle Rock Art in Ethiopia

Article excerpt


As an adjunct to ongoing archaeological research focusing on the Dirikoro area of Mursi territory in the far south-west of Ethiopia (cf. Clack & Brittain 2011a & b), data were collected in March-April 2013 on how cattle are modified, particularly with regard to decorative pattern branding. Cattle colour patterns have been the focus of research amongst the Mursi (Turton 1980) and neighbouring groups such as the Nyangatom, Dassanetch and Bodi (Almagor 1972; Tornay 1973; Fukui 1996), and, along with horn modification, more widely in northern Kenya and South Sudan (e.g. Evans-Pritchard 1940, 1956; Lienhardt 1961; Hazel 1997). The much less common practice of deliberately branding decorative patterns onto cattle, however, appears to have been neglected except for brief mention of it amongst the Hamar, also of south-west Ethiopia (Dubosson 2013: 83). This is an omission, as it may be relevant for interpreting cattle imagery in rock paintings and engravings in Ethiopia where bovine representation is common.

Mursi--archaeological and historical context

The Mursi number about 10 000, are agro-pastoralists and occupy an area centred on the Mursi Mountains, the adjacent plain to the west referred to dramatically by the Italians as 'The Plain of Death' (Bolton 1976: 135), and part of the Mago Valley (Figure 1). They speak a Surmic language within the East-Sudanic division of the Nilo-Saharan family (Turton et al. 2008: 7).

Although the Mursi have been the focus of anthropological research, notably by David Turton (e.g. 1973, 1980, 1993, 2004), and the subject of six films directed by Leslie Woodhead (Woodhead 1987, 2014), the archaeology of Mursiland was unknown until the Dirikoro Region was first investigated in 2009 (Clack & Brittain 2011a & b). The main feature recorded has been benna kulugto, 'stone circles' that are actually stone platforms constructed from concentric rings of cobbles set on the ground (Figure 2). A horseshoe-shaped cluster, c. 400m long and formed of 26 platforms between 2.5m and 26m in diameter was recorded around the tip of the Arichukgirong Hills (Clack & Brittain 2011b: 34-35). Each platform had a gulley running usually north-west to the outside edge. This and fragments of burnt bone recovered from between the cobbles suggests the platforms were used for cattle sacrifices and roasting (Brittain & Clack 2012: 54-55). A single radiocarbon date of 170 [+ or -] 40 BP (cal AD 1650 to 1890 (2a); Beta-268958) has been obtained. The Mursi do not claim links to the platforms, and oral traditions suggest they pre-date Mursi settlement and might be associated with prior Bodi occupation (Clack & Brittain 2011a: 88), reflecting the historically fluid nature of ethnicity in the region (Brittain et al. 2013: 136).

'Arichukgirong means 'snout of the bull' and indicates how the Mursi have used cattle imagery to define and describe aspects of the landscape. That is also evident in two of the five names given to sections of the River Omo: Biogolokare, 'take out the eyes of the cattle'; and Ariholi, 'white ox' (Turton 1973: 102). Cattle also physically alter the landscape through grazing and their overnight corralling in cattle camps, and through the creation of features such as the c. 3km-long and c. 1.0-1.5m-deep drovers' ditch recorded running south-west from the settlement of Meganto. This and the henna kulugto comprise the most significant 'unnatural' features recorded in the landscape. Rock art is so far absent, and cattle and cattle exploitation generate the durable archaeological record in comparison to the ephemeral nature of most Mursi material culture, including the shelters in cattle camps and huts in cultivation settlements (cf. Turton 1973: 83-84; Clack & Brittain 2011a: 89-90).

Mursi history is also only partially understood, and does not indicate when processes such as decorative cattle branding began. The area only became nominally incorporated into the Ethiopian Empire when the troops of Menelik II first occupied the Lower Omo in 1897 (Turton 1973:31), so there is an absence of written sources. …

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