Melka Kunture lies in the upper Awash valley, 50 km south of Addis Ababa, at 2000m asl. The site, discovered by Gerard Dekker in 1963, was surveyed by Gérard Bailloud in 1964. It was then systematically explored by a French mission directed by Jean Chavaillon (1965-1982 / 1993-1995), and subsequently, since 1999, by an Italian mission directed by Marcello Piperno and later by Margherita Mussi for the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the University of Rome “La Sapienza”. The research is carried out in agreement with the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage of the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and with the Oromia Culture and Tourism Bureau.
The Awash basin extends for about 3000 km² at a height between 2500 and 2000 m a.s.l. It is delimited by several Pliocene volcanoes, the largest being the Wachacha and the Furi to the north, and the Boti and Agoïabi to the south. It is bordered to the east by the Ethiopian rift, part of the great rift system of eastern Africa. Fluvial sedimentation (pebbles, gravel, sand, and clay) was frequently interrupted by volcanic activity, whose products are important markers for stratigraphic correlations between the different archaeological sequences identified so far. Over 70 archaeological levels have been discovered so far, and more or less wide extensions of about 30 of them have been excavated.
The Awash Gorges
The sequence begins with the Oldowan site of Karre, about 1.7 million years old, which can be correlated to level B of Gombore I, on the right bank of the Awash. A probably contemporaneous Oldowan site has been investigated at Garba IV. The magneto-stratigraphic sequence of Jaramillo lies between Tuff A, which overlies the Oldowan sites, and Tuff B, which is dated between 1.0 and 0.84 Myr. Some important sites, such as Garba XII, Simbiro III, Atebella II, also lie within this chronological span, and are related to a transitional phase from the late Oldowan to the Early Acheulean (Garba XII) or to an early phase of the Acheulean (Simbiro, Atebella).
A later phase of the African Acheulean is well represented by several sites in the area of Gombore II (dated to about 0.8 Myr). The latest Acheulean site is Garba I, dated to ca. 0.5 Myr, while the end of this long sequence is represented, at Melka Kunture, by the site of Garba III, where there are also Middle Stone Age layers.
The East African Late Stone Age is poorly documented at Melka Kunture, being found so far at Wofi and Kella. A little less than 7 km from Melka Kunture, at Balchit, obsidian outcrops. As evidenced by the analyses of samples from several sites, this volcanic glass was an important raw material, frequently used ever since the Oldowan. The exploitation of obsidian in the Melka region went on until historical times, leaving in the area of Balchit extensive accumulations of tens of thousands of blades, cores, and residues.
Paleontological and paleobotanical investigations have provided evidence of environmental changes in this area of the Ethiopian plateau during the Lower and Middle Pleistocene. The vegetation was similar to a savannah, but oscillations occurred, with changes in temperature and humidity, the expansion of arboreal species and modifications in animal population. In drier periods, bovids and equids were more abundant, whereas in more humid phases they were partially replaced by species better suited to a forested savannah, such as hippopotamus and warthogs. Elephants are nearly non-existent all over the sequence, while hippo remains are generally very frequent.