Several important finds have propelled Ethiopia and the surrounding region to the forefront of palaeontology. The oldest hominid discovered to date in Ethiopia is the 4.2 million year old Ardipithicus ramidus (Ardi) found by Tim D. White in 1994. The most well known hominid discovery is Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy). Known locally as Dinkinesh, the specimen was found in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia’s Afar Region in 1974 by Donald Johanson and is one of the most complete and best preserved adult Australopithecine fossils ever uncovered. Lucy’s taxonomic name refers to the region where the discovery was made. The hominid is estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago.
Ethiopia is also considered one of the earliest sites of the emergence of anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens. The oldest of these local fossil finds, the Omo remains, were excavated in the southwestern Omo Kibish area and have been dated to the Middle Paleolithic, around 200,000 years ago. Additionally, skeletons of Homo sapiens idaltu were found at a site in the Middle Awash valley. Dated to approximately 160,000 years ago, they may represent an extinct subspecies of Homo sapiens, or the immediate ancestors of anatomically modern humans. Homo sapiens fossils excavated at the Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco have since been dated to an earlier period, about 300,000 years ago.
According to linguists, the first Afroasiatic-speaking populations arrived in the region during the ensuing Neolithic era from the family’s proposed urheimat (“original homeland”) in the Nile Valley, or the Near East. Other scholars propose that the Afroasiatic family developed in situ in the Horn, with its speakers subsequently dispersing from there. Craniometric analysis of the Herto Homo sapiens idaltu skull found that the fossil was morphologically distinct from crania belonging to modern Afroasiatic-speaking groups from the Horn of Africa and Dynastic Egypt. The latter populations instead possessed Middle Eastern affinities. This suggests that the Afroasiatic-speaking groups settled in the area during a later epoch, having possibly arrived from the Middle East.
Antiquity (ANCIENT TIMES)
Dʿmt and Kingdom of Aksum
Around the 8th century BC, a kingdom known as Dʿmt was established in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. The polity’s capital was located at Yeha, in northern Ethiopia. Most modern historians consider this civilization to be a native Ethiopian one, although Sabaean-influenced because of the latter’s hegemony of the Red Sea.
Other scholars regard Dʿmt as the result of a union of Afroasiatic-speaking cultures of the Cushitic and Semitic branches; namely, local Agaw peoples and Sabaeans from South Arabia. However, Ge’ez, the ancient Semitic language of Ethiopia, is thought to have developed independently from Sabaean, one of the South Semitic languages. As early as 2000 BC, other Semitic speakers were living in Ethiopia and Eritrea where Ge’ez developed. Sabaean influence is now thought to have been minor, limited to a few localities, and disappearing after a few decades or a century. It may have been a trading or military colony in alliance with the Ethiopian civilization of Dʿmt or some other proto-Aksumite state.
After the fall of Dʿmt during the fourth century BC, the Ethiopian plateau came to be dominated by smaller successor kingdoms. In the first century AD, the Kingdom of Aksum emerged in what is now northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. According to the medieval Book of Aksum, the kingdom’s first capital, Mazaber, was built by Itiyopis, son of Cush. Aksum would later at times extend its rule into Yemen on the other side of the Red Sea. The Persian religious figure Mani listed Aksum with Rome, Persia, and China as one of the four great powers of his era, during the 3rd century.
Around 316 AD, Frumentius and his brother Edesius from Tyre accompanied their uncle on a voyage to Ethiopia. When the vessel stopped at a Red Sea port, the natives killed all the travelers except the two brothers, who were taken to the court as slaves. They were given positions of trust by the monarch, and they converted members of the royal court to Christianity. Frumentius became the first bishop of Aksum. A coin dated to 324 shows that Ethiopia was the second country to officially adopt Christianity (after Armenia did so in 301), although the religion may have been at first confined to court circles; it was the first major power to do so.
As the Aksumite kingdom gradually declined, one of the earliest local Muslim states, the Makhzumi Sultanate, was established in the Shewa region. The polity was governed by the Makhzumi dynasty, which reigned over the province until it was deposed around 1280 by the Walashma dynasty.
During Muhammad’s era
The first interaction that the Islamic Prophet Muhammad had with Ethiopia was during the reign of Aṣḥama ibn Abjar, who was at the time the Emperor of Aksum and gave refuge to several Muslims in the Kingdom of Aksum in 614 AD. According to other authors, Ashama may have been the same person as king Armah, or his father or son. Taddesse Tamrat records that the inhabitants of Wiqro, where the ruler is known as Ashamat al-Negashi, claim that his tomb is located in their village.
Muhammad’s second interaction with Ethiopia was during the Expedition of Zaid ibn Haritha, when he sent Amr bin Umayyah al-Damri to the King of Ethiopia (then Abyssinia).
Zagwe dynasty and Ethiopian Empire
The Zagwe dynasty ruled many parts of present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea between the early 12th and late 13th century. The name of the dynasty is derived from the Cushitic-speaking Agaw of northern Ethiopia. From 1270 AD until the Zemene Mesafint (Age of Princes), the Solomonic dynasty governed the Ethiopian Empire.
In the early 15th century, Ethiopia sought to make diplomatic contact with European kingdoms for the first time since the Aksumite era. A letter from Henry IV of England to the Emperor of Abyssinia survives. In 1428, Yeshaq I sent two emissaries to Alfonso V of Aragon, who sent return emissaries. They failed to complete the return trip. The first continuous relations with a European country began in 1508 with Portugal under Dawit II (Lebna Dengel), who had just inherited the throne from his father.
This proved to be an important development, for when the Empire was subjected to the attacks of the Adal Sultanate’s general and imam, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi (called “Grañ ” “the Left-handed”), Portugal assisted the Ethiopian emperor by sending weapons and four hundred men, who helped his son Gelawdewos defeat Ahmad and re-establish his rule. This Abyssinian–Adal war was also one of the first proxy wars in the region, as the Ottoman Empire and Portugal took sides in the conflict. When Emperor Susenyos I converted to Roman Catholicism in 1624, years of revolt and civil unrest followed, resulting in thousands of deaths. The Jesuit missionaries had offended the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo faith of the local Ethiopians. In June 1632, Fasilides, Susenyos’ son, declared the state religion again to be the Ethiopian Orthodoxy. He expelled the Jesuit missionaries and other Europeans.
Sultanate of Aussa and Mudaito Dynasty
The Sultanate of Aussa or “Afar Sultanate” succeeded the earlier Imamate of Aussa. The latter polity had come into existence in 1577 when Muhammed Jasa moved his capital from Harar to Aussa (Asaita) with the split of the Adal Sultanate into the Sultanate of Aussa and the Sultanate of Harar. At some point after 1672, the Sultanate of Aussa declined and temporarily came to an end in conjunction with Imam Umar Din bin Adam’s recorded ascension to the throne.
The Sultanate was subsequently re-established by Kedafu around the year 1734. It was thereafter ruled by his Mudaito Dynasty. The primary symbol of the Sultan was a silver baton, which was considered to have magical properties.
Emperor Tewodros II’s rule is often placed as the beginning of modern Ethiopia, ending the decentralized Zemene Mesafint (“Era of the Princes”).
Between 1755 and 1855, Ethiopia experienced a period of isolation referred to as the Zemene Mesafint or “Age of Princes”. The Emperors became figureheads, controlled by warlords like Ras Mikael Sehul of Tigray, Ras Wolde Selassie of Tigray, and by the Yejju Oromo dynasty, such as Ras Gugsa of Yejju, which later led to 17th-century Oromo rule of Gondar, changing the language of the court from Amharic to Afaan Oromo.
Ethiopian isolationism ended following a British mission that concluded an alliance between the two nations, but it was not until 1855 that Ethiopia was completely united and the power in the Emperor restored, beginning with the reign of Tewodros II. Upon his ascent, he began modernizing Ethiopia and recentralizing power in the Emperor. Ethiopia began to take part in world affairs once again.
But Tewodros suffered several rebellions inside his empire. Northern Oromo militias, Tigrayan rebellion, and the constant incursion of Ottoman Empire and Egyptian forces near the Red Sea brought the weakening and the final downfall of Tewodros II. He killed himself in 1868 during his last battle with the British Expedition to Abyssinia. Emperor Tewodros II was born in Begemder from a nobleman of Qwara, where the Qwara dialect of Agaw language is spoken.
After Tewodros’ death, Tekle Giyorgis II was proclaimed Emperor. He was defeated in the Battles of Zulawu (21 June 1871) and Adua (11 July 1871). Kassai was subsequently declared Yohannes IV on 21 January 1872. In 1875 and 1876, Turkish/Egyptian forces, accompanied by many European and American ‘advisors’, twice invaded Abyssinia but were initially defeated: once at the Battle of Gundet losing 800 men, and then in the second invasion, decisively defeated by Emperor Yohannes IV at the Battle of Gura on 7 March 1875, where the invading forces lost at least 3000 men by death or captured. From 1885 to 1889, Ethiopia joined the Mahdist War allied to Britain, Turkey, and Egypt against the Sudanese Mahdist State. On 10 March 1889, Yohannes IV was killed by the Sudanese Khalifah Abdullah’s army whilst leading his army in the Battle of Gallabat (also called Battle of Metemma).
From Menelik II to Adwa (1889–1913)
Ethiopia in its roughly current form began under the reign of Menelik II, who was Emperor from 1889 until his death in 1913. From his base in the central province of Shewa, Menelik set out to annex territories to the south, east and west, areas inhabited by the Oromo, Sidama, Gurage, Welayta, and other groups. He did this with the help of Ras Gobana Dacche’s Shewan Oromo militia, which occupied lands that had not been held since Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi’s war, as well as other areas that had never been under Ethiopian sovereignty. Menelik’s campaign against Oromos outside his army was largely in retaliation for centuries of Oromo expansionism and the Zemene Mesafint, a period during which a succession of Oromo feudal rulers dominated the highlanders. Chief among these was the Yejju dynasty, which included Aligaz of Yejju and his brother Ali I of Yejju. Ali, I founded the town of Debre Tabor in the Amhara Region, which became the dynasty’s capital.
Ethiopia and other territories in Africa in 1843
Menelik was born from King Hailemelekot of Shewa and his mother Ejegayehu Lema Adeyamo who was a servant in the royal household. He had been born at Angolala in an Oromo area and had lived his first twelve years with Shewan Oromos with whom he thus had much in common.
During his reign, Menelik II made advances in road construction, electricity and education; the development of a central taxation system; and the foundation and building of the city of Addis Ababa—which became capital of Shewa Province in 1881. After he ascended to the throne in 1889, it was renamed as Addis Ababa, the new capital of Abyssinia. Menelik had signed the Treaty of Wichale with Italy in May 1889 in which Italy would recognize Ethiopia’s sovereignty so long as Italy could control an area north of Ethiopia (part of modern Eritrea). In return, Italy was to provide Menelik with weapons and support him as emperor. The Italians used the time between the signing of the treaty and its ratification by the Italian government to expand their territorial claims. This conflict erupted in the Battle of Adwa on 1 March 1896 in which Italy’s colonial forces were defeated by the Ethiopians.
Haile Selassie I era (1916–1974)
The early 20th century was marked by the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie (“Ras Tafari”). Haile Selassie I was born to parents from three of Ethiopia’s Afroasiatic-speaking populations: the Oromo and Amhara, the country’s two largest ethnic groups, as well as the Gurage. He came to power after Iyasu V was deposed, and undertook a nationwide modernization campaign from 1916, when he was made a Ras and Regent (Inderase) for the Empress Regnant, Zewditu, and became the de facto ruler of the Ethiopian Empire. Following Zewditu’s death on 2 November 1930, he succeeded her as emperor.
The independence of Ethiopia was interrupted by the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, beginning when it was invaded by Fascist Italy in early October 1935, and Italian occupation of the country (1936–1941). During this time, Haile Selassie appealed to the League of Nations in 1935, delivering an address that made him a worldwide figure, and the 1935 Time Man of the Year. As the majority of the Ethiopian population lived in rural towns, Italy faced continued resistance and ambushes in urban centers throughout its occupation. Haile Selassie fled into exile in London and Mussolini was able to proclaim the Empire of Ethiopia and the assumption of the imperial title by the Italian king Vittorio Emanuele III, recognized by the countries belonging to the international organization of the League of Nations.
In 1937, the Italian massacre of Yekatit 12 occurred. This was when there were imprisonments and massacre of Ethiopians. This was because of a failed attempt to assassinate the Viceroy of Italian East Africa Rodolfo Graziani.
Following the entry of Italy into World War II, British Empire forces, together with the Arbegnoch (lit. “patriots”, referring to armed resistance soldiers) restored sovereignty of Ethiopia in the course of the East African Campaign in 1941. An Italian guerrilla campaign continued until 1943. This was followed by British recognition of Ethiopia’s full sovereignty, (i.e. without any special British privileges), with the signing of the Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement in December 1944.
On 26 August 1942, Haile Selassie issued a proclamation that removed Ethiopia’s legal basis for slavery. Ethiopia had between two and four million slaves in the early 20th century, out of a total population of about eleven million.
In 1952, Haile Selassie orchestrated the federation with Eritrea. He dissolved this in 1962 and illegally annexed Eritrea against the UN Federation Agreement, which resisted and finally won its war of independence. Haile Selassie played a leading role in the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963.
Opinion within Ethiopia turned against Haile Selassie I owing to the worldwide oil crisis of 1973. This oil crisis caused a sharp increase in gasoline prices starting on 13 February 1974; food shortages; uncertainty regarding the succession; border wars; and discontent in the middle class created through modernization. The high gasoline prices motivated the taxi drivers and teachers to go on strike on 18 February 1974, and students and workers in Addis Ababa began demonstrating against the government on 20 February 1974. The feudal oligarchial cabinet of Akilou Habte Wolde was toppled, and a new government was formed with Endelkachew Makonnen serving as Prime Minister.
Derg era (1974–1991)
Haile Selassie’s reign came to an end on 12 September 1974, when he was deposed by the Derg, a Soviet-backed Marxist–Leninist military dictatorship led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. The new Provisional Military Administrative Council established a one-party communist state which was called People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in March 1975.
The ensuing regime suffered several coups, uprisings, wide-scale drought, and a huge refugee problem. In 1977, Somalia, which had been receiving assistance and arms from the USSR, invaded Ethiopia in the Ogaden War, capturing part of the Ogaden region. Ethiopia recovered it after it began receiving massive military aid from the USSR, Cuba, South Yemen, East Germany, and North Korea. This included around 15,000 Cuban combat troops.
1977–78, up to 500,000 were killed as a result of the Red Terror, from forced deportations, or from the use of hunger as a weapon under Mengistu’s rule. The Red Terror was carried out in response to what the Derg termed as the White Terror, a chain of violent events, assassinations, and killings carried out by what it called “petty bourgeois reactionaries” who desired a reversal of the 1974 revolution.
The 1983–85 famine in Ethiopia affected around eight million people, resulting in one million dead. Insurrections against Communist rule sprang up, particularly in the northern regions of Eritrea and Tigray. In 1989, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other ethnically based opposition movements to form the coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Concurrently, the Soviet Union began to retreat from building world communism under Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies, marking a dramatic reduction in aid to Ethiopia from Socialist Bloc countries. This resulted in more economic hardship and the collapse of the military in the face of determined onslaughts by guerrilla forces in the north. The collapse of socialism in general, and in Eastern Europe during the revolutions of 1989, coincided with the Soviet Union stopping aid to Ethiopia altogether in 1990. The strategic outlook for Mengistu quickly deteriorated.
In May 1991, EPRDF forces advanced on Addis Ababa and the Soviet Union did not intervene to save the government side. Mengistu fled the country and was granted asylum in Zimbabwe, where he still resides.
In 2006, after a trial that lasted 12 years, Ethiopia’s Federal High Court in Addis Ababa found Mengistu guilty of genocide in absentia. Numerous other top leaders of his regime were also found guilty of war crimes. Mengistu and others who had fled the country were tried and sentenced in absentia. Numerous former officials received the death sentence and tens of others spent the next 20 years in jail, before being pardoned from life sentences.
In July 1991, EPRDF convened a National Conference to establish the Transitional Government of Ethiopia composed of an 87-member Council of Representatives and guided by a national charter that functioned as a transitional constitution. In June 1992, the Oromo Liberation Front withdrew from the government; in March 1993, members of the Southern Ethiopia Peoples’ Democratic Coalition also left the government. In 1994, a new constitution was written that established a parliamentary republic with a bicameral legislature and a judicial system.
Federal Democratic Republic (1991–present)
The 1st multiparty election took place in May 1995, which was won by the EPRDF. The president of the transitional government, EPRDF leader Meles Zenawi, became Prime Minister, and Negasso Gidada was elected President.
In May 1998, a border dispute with Eritrea led to the Eritrean–Ethiopian War, which lasted until June 2000 and cost both countries an estimated $1 million a day. This had a negative effect on Ethiopia’s economy, but strengthened the ruling coalition.
Ethiopia’s 3rd multiparty election on 15 May 2005 was highly disputed, with some opposition groups claiming fraud. Though the Carter Center approved the pre-election conditions, it expressed its dissatisfaction with post-election events. European Union election observers continued to accuse the ruling party of vote rigging. The opposition parties gained more than 200 parliamentary seats, compared with just 12 in the 2000 elections. While most of the opposition representatives joined the parliament, some leaders of the CUD party who refused to take up their parliamentary seats were accused of inciting the post-election violence and were imprisoned. Amnesty International considered them “prisoners of conscience” and they were subsequently released.
A coalition of opposition parties and some individuals was established in 2009 to oust the regime of the EPRDF in legislative elections of 2010. Meles’ party, which has been in power since 1991, published its 65-page manifesto in Addis Ababa on 10 October 2009. The opposition won most votes in Addis Ababa, but the EPRDF halted counting of votes for several days. After it ensued, it claimed the election, amidst charges of fraud and intimidation.
Some of the eight member parties of the Medrek (Forum for Democratic Dialogue) include the Oromo Federalist Congress (organized by the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement and the Oromo People’s Congress), the Arena Tigray (organized by former members of the ruling party TPLF), the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ, whose leader is imprisoned), and the Coalition of Somali Democratic Forces.
In mid-2011, two consecutively missed rainy seasons precipitated the worst drought in East Africa seen in 60 years. Full recovery from the drought’s effects did not occur until 2012, with long-term strategies by the national government in conjunction with development agencies believed to offer the most sustainable results.
Meles died on 20 August 2012 in Brussels, where he was being treated for an unspecified illness. Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was appointed as a new prime minister until the 2015 elections and remained so afterwards with his party in control of every parliamentary seat.
Protests broke out across the country on 5 August 2016 and dozens of protesters were subsequently shot and killed by police. The protesters demanded an end to human rights abuses, the release of political prisoners, a fairer redistribution of the wealth generated by over a decade of economic growth, and a return of Wolqayt District to the Amhara Region. The events were the most violent crackdown against protesters in Sub-Saharan Africa since the Ethiopian regime killed at least 75 people during protests in the Oromia Region in November and December 2015. Following these protests, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency on 6 October 2016. The state of emergency was lifted in August 2017.
On February 16, 2018, the government of Ethiopia declared a six-month nationwide state of emergency following the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.