Professor of African and Islamic Archaeology

Mursi Cattle Modification, Ethiopia (2013).

I participated in Dr Tim Clack’s archaeological research in the Dirikoro region of Mursi Land, southwest Ethiopia, in April 2013. Working with a Mursi research assistant, Olirege Rege, my objective was to collect data on how the Mursi transform their favourite oxen in various ways. These include horn alteration by breaking the horns at their base with a stone hammer and tying these so they re-grow into the desired shape, ear cutting into decorative patterns, the wearing of secondary ornaments made of warthog tusks and leather, and through the process of decorative pattern branding (see Ethiopia 1). The relationship between ox pattern branding and another dominant domain of Mursi materiality, the human body itself was also explored, as was the transference of patterns used on modified oxen to other symbols of masculinity such as Kalashnikov rifles (see Ethiopia 1).

Cattle imagery is relatively common in Ethiopian rock art. The information collected was subsequently used to interpret some of these images, as cattle modification via horn alteration and, particularly, decorative pattern branding is seemingly depicted in cattle engravings and paintings. The Mursi pattern-branding practices suggest that in some instances the abstract or non-realistic symbols depicted on cattle coats in Ethiopian rock art could be read more literally as signifying actual processes to modify, alter, or beautify cattle (see Publications – Papers). The University of Manchester funded the field research.