Ethiopia in Prehistory and Antiquity

Ethiopia lies in horn of Africa and is the largest and most populated country within the horn. It is also one of oldest countries in the world, and has been universally known and engaged with since ancient times. It is the early days of Ethiopia – its prehistory and ancient history – that I want to focus on in this blog.

Ethiopia’s first mention in historical texts is in records from Egypt, dating to the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 BC – c. 2181 BC). However, human habitation of the region is far earlier, though this has only come clear within the last fifty years or so.

Stone tools discovered at the archaeological site at Kella, Awash, by Gerrard Dekker. The discovery was not until 1963, and numerous years after similar discoveries were made in the neighbouring countries of Kenya, and Tanzania. However, since the discovery by Dekker, Ethiopia has unleashed a tide of Palaeolithic finds, that have now placed the country as one of the most prominent in Palaeontology. The original discovery by Dekker revealed stone tools of the Acheulian style and culture – mostly characterized by oval and pear-shaped “hand axes”; the tools date to over one million BC and often associated with the hominid species Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis. Since then, even earlier discoveries have been made including the skeletal remains of hominid species. The Oldest from Ethiopia, discovered in 1994, is known as Ardipithecus ramidus – also known as “Ardi” – one of the earliest hominid species, dating to c. 4.4 million years ago. Likewise, the 1974 discovery of Australopithecus afarensis – known as “Lucy” – has become one of the most well know as one of the best preserved and most complete examples of this species; the name even refers to Ethiopia in honour of the discovery of Lucy, estimated to be 3.2 million years old. Alongside these, Ethiopia also holds claim to revealing some of the earliest known projectiles, such as javelins. These types of stone-tipped weapons are quite characteristic of our human species (Homo Sapiens). Discovered in 2013 at Gademotta, Kulkuletti, the projectiles date to c. 279,000 BC. Discoveries in 2019 also revealed more projectile weapons at Aduma, dating from c. 100,000 – c. 80,000 BC; these are smaller examples and believed to be darts used by spear throwers also. This habitation of the region would appear to continue but would gain its first international recognition during the Bronze Age.

As mentioned, the first reference to Ethiopia appeared in records from the Old Kingdom of the Egyptians during the Bronze Age. The records are believed to be from Egyptian traders referring to lands South of Nubia, including the land of Punt. Punt, located within Ethiopia, appears to have been a trading partner of the Old Kingdom. Punt was known for exporting gold, aromatic resins, ebony, ivory, and exotic animals. With Egyptian traders possessing mur, it has been argued that this is evidence of trade between the two – an argument put forward by Richard Pankhurst. Other evidence also indicated to the presence of ivory and exotic animals imported form areas such as Punt. Relations appear to develop to deeper levels during the Fourth Dynasty, when an individual from Punt is mentioned as serving the son of Cheops who was believed to be behind the construction of the Great Pyramid, between 2789 – 2767 BC. This relationship would seem to continue, with expeditions to Punt during the Late Bronze Age, and it would not be until the period of antiquity that Punt would begin to be recognised as its current name.

During Antiquity, although, Ethiopia lacked any direct involvement in the events of the ancient world and the emerging world of the Hellenics and then the Romans, kingdoms did appear during this time, and the region was known to ancient travellers and ethnographers. Ancient Historians, such as Herodotus refer to the region as Aethiopia, to refer to the peoples living to the immediate South of Egypt. The name is not necessarily a complimentary term but is a result from the science of physiognomy (the science of determining characteristics through physical appearance); the name Aethiopia derives from the term Aethiops or “burned look”. Thankfully, this is not pointed out in today’s society and was not a racial slur as it would be today – but analysing racism in the ancient world is certainly worthy of its own blog.

During antiquity, Ethiopia sees the rise of the kingdom of Axum, during the 1st century AD. Axum appears to be a successor kingdom of D’mt. Axum was also able to unite the Ethiopian highlands and expanded South. The kingdom became so prominent, that it was mentioned as one of the four great powers of the time – admired within the company of Rome, Persia, and even China. The end of the Axum is still debated, and (like the fall of the Western Roman Empire) several theories have been put forward. These theories include persistent droughts, deforestation, plague, trade routes changed that meant less traffic and importance for the area, or a combination of factors. Whatever the reason, it does seem that Axium did survive into the early Medieval period – potentially to around the 8th century AD. However, with the rest of Europe transition from the late Antiquity to that of the Middle Ages, the shift in geo-political powers and relations also meant change for Ethiopia, and so the ancient period of Ethiopia’s history came to an end. I hope that was an interesting read, and grants a new perspective into the early history of Ethiopia – a country that, for prehistory and antiquity, is as important as more well known cultures such as the Greeks or Romans. That’s it for “E” this week – check back for what is instore for “F”. Until then, take care 😊.

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