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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 June, 2003, 23:18 GMT 00:18 UK
Ethiopia's pride in Herto finds
BBC reporter Damian Zane was in Addis Ababa for the unveiling of the oldest known skulls of modern humans

The curtains had been drawn in the conference room, the audience of politicians, scientists and journalists spoke in respectful hushed tones - and on a black velvet cloth on a table in the corner lay one of the 160,000 year old skulls.

Dr Berhane Asfaw, Zane/BBC
Dr Berhane Asfaw: The skulls will remain in Ethiopia
Dr Berhane Asfaw, one of the team that uncovered the three skulls, had earlier removed it from its casing of hundreds of polystyrene balls, and placed it carefully on the table.

He looked at it like a protective father, and was nervously glancing at it throughout the press conference, as photographers edged closer and closer to capture an image of this unveiling of the earliest human remains.

As Dr Berhane began to speak, it was as if a dam had broken. Ever since he had begun painstakingly to uncover the 200 hundred scattered pieces of the child skull in 1997, he had not been able to say a word about this in public.

Herto discovery: The ancient people would have looked very like us

"Until we get something older and better," he said, "this is it... this is definitively the answer to the question of whether Homo sapiens evolved from Africa."

He then started a 15-minute lecture on the paleontological discoveries made in Ethiopia. Remains of several hominids - the oldest being almost six million years old - have been found in the country, and Dr Berhane said in Ethiopia "we have the full sequence of human history... you can call it the garden of Eden".

The 52-year-old scientist could hardly disguise his pride at Ethiopia's place in human history.

"Sure I am proud," he said after the press conference.

"As a scientist I'd be happy if the skulls had been found anywhere, but as a national I am proud to have found them here."

Herto skull, T White
Herto skull: Dated at between 160,000 and 154,000 years old
And that sense of pride permeated the press conference.

In the front row, the state minister for information, Netsanet Asfaw, who organised the conference, beamed throughout.

On the panel sat culture minister Teshome Toga, who spoke of his honour in making the announcement about the discovery of the skulls.

Once it was all over, Dr Berhane carefully packed away the guest of honour, who may have been feeling a little overwhelmed by the attention he was receiving after 160,000 years.

The BBC's David Shukman
"This discovery is seen as a breakthrough"

Oldest human skulls found
11 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Q&A: The Herto skulls
11 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
When humans faced extinction
09 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Tanzania, Ethiopia origin for humans
02 Apr 03  |  Science/Nature
Genetic study roots humans in Africa
06 Dec 00  |  Science/Nature

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