Ethiopia - Background information

Natural history


Abridged from the History section in Ethiopia: the Bradt Guide


Tutu Fela stelae Ethiopia by Ariadne Van ZandbergenThe Tutu Fela stelae field is the site of about 300 stelae marking ancient graves © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

The most interesting relics of ancient human activity in the Horn of Africa are a scattering of Neolithic rock art sites at various localities running west from the Somali coastline through Harar to Dilla and the southern Rift Valley. The age of these engravings and paintings remains conjectural, not least because the sensitive pigments cannot be tested without causing some damage, but the most recent panels are at least 3,000 years old and the oldest might be thrice that age. Ethiopian rock art often includes depictions of people and wild animals, but the dominant motif on most panels is stylised representations of domestic cattle. Almost invariably, these are depicted in profile, with only one front and one hind leg, prominent udders, no neck or ears, and prominent arcing horns shown as if seen from above. Among other things, these paintings clearly demonstrate that Ethiopia supported one of the world’s earliest pastoral (livestock-herding) societies, dating back some 6,000–9,000 years, several millennia before pastoralism was adopted in Europe or Asia. The art that adorns the rock shelters of Ethiopia also appears to have a strong spiritual dimension, and – bearing in mind that any paintings made on a less durable or protected canvas would have vanished long ago – it probably represents a tiny surviving fragment relic of the region’s sophisticated Neolithic artistic tradition.

Along with Afar, the most researched part of Ethiopia in prehistoric terms is the far north: what is now the region of Tigray and the independent country of Eritrea. The nature of the society in this region prior to about 1000BC is uncertain, but conclusive evidence of millet cultivation dating to around 3000BC has been found at Gobo Dura, on the outskirts of Axum, as has indigenous pottery of a similar vintage.

Natural history  

For wildlife enthusiasts, Ethiopia is a bit of a mixed bag. The once prolific large mammal fauna has been heavily hunted over the centuries, and even those national parks that do protect typical African savannah environments support low volumes of wildlife by comparison with the continent’s top safari destinations. Balanced against this, Ethiopia has a unique transitional geographic location that means its fauna, though essentially typical of sub-Saharan Africa, also incorporates elements from the Palaearctic region. This is manifested in the presence of several oddball creatures endemic to Ethiopia, among them the Ethiopian wolf, Walia ibex, gelada monkey, mountain nyala and at least 16 bird species. Indeed, whatever Ethiopia might lack in mammalian abundance, it is one of Africa’s key birdwatching destinations, with a national checklist of 920-plus species that incorporates more than 50 Horn of Africa endemics that are logistically difficult or impossible to see anywhere else in the world.


Ethiopia supports a comparable variety of large mammals to countries such as Kenya and Tanzania, but populations are generally low, with many species being restricted to relict pockets in remote areas. Ethiopia’s most numerous large carnivore is the spotted hyena, which tends to favour thinly populated and lower-lying parts of the country, but also scavenges on the outskirts of some towns. Wild hyenas are most likely to be seen near Aga Edu Cave in Awash National Park and in the Dera-Dilfekar sector of Arsi Mountains National Park. The so-called hyena man of Harar lures a few semi-habituated spotted hyenas to a feeding place outside town every evening. 

Gelada monkey Ethiopia by Ariadne Van Zandbergen Simien Mountains National Park is the main stronghold of the striking gelada monkey, the most common of Ethiopia’s endemic large mammals © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

Africa’s three largest felid species are present but scarce. Ethiopia’s population of lion is currently estimated at up to 1,000 individuals, most of which inhibit remote Sudanese cross-border territories such as Gambella and Alatash national parks. The most reliable site for wild lions is Maze National Park, to the south of Sodo Wolayta; but they are also quite often observed at night in Bale National Park’s Harenna Forest. The leopard has been recorded in most national parks and also inhabits the forests of the south and west, but it is notoriously secretive and sightings are very unusual. The slighter cheetah is now very rare in Ethiopia, but an estimated 500 individuals still inhabit the dry plains of the southeast and Rift Valley, representing around one-quarter of the global population of a distinct Sahelian race known as Sudan cheetah.

Ethiopia’s best-known canid is the Ethiopian wolf, but the country also supports all three African jackal species, with black-backed jackal commonest in the south and golden jackal in the north. The endangered African wild dog was once common in southern Ethiopia but is probably now extinct there.


Ethiopia’s proximity to the Equator and great habitat diversity mean its avifauna is one of the richest in Africa, with more than 920 species recorded including a high proportion of eagerly sought endemics whose range is restricted to Ethiopia or to the Horn of Africa. It is also very possible that further species await discovery in the little-known forests of the south and west, or elsewhere (the wing of an apparently endemic species of nightjar was discovered as recently as 1992 in Nech Sar National Park, and the live bird was first seen in 2009).

Abyssinian roller birds birdwatching Ethiopia by Ariadne Van ZandbergenThe Abyssinian roller is just one of Ethiopia's many colourful bird species © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

The main birding circuit through the south requires an absolute minimum of ten days, though two weeks would be more realistic, and the extra four days would effectively double your birding time. With reasonable levels of dedication, luck and skill – or a skilled local bird guide – a total bird list of 350–400 species should be achievable over two weeks on this circuit. About 20 of the Ethiopia–Eritrea endemics are all but certain if you follow this route in its entirety over two weeks, though there are a few (Salvadori’s serin, Degodi lark, Abyssinian woodpecker) that are occasionally missed by visiting birders – and you’d be extraordinarily lucky to see a Nechisar nightjar. 


It is fair, if rather simplistic, to say that Ethiopia is where the ancient world and Africa meet.

Ethiopia has a cultural, historical and linguistic identity quite distinct from that of the rest of Africa, largely because it has spent long periods of its history in virtual isolation. It is fair, if rather simplistic, to say that Ethiopia is where the ancient world and Africa meet. Northern Ethiopia, or more specifically the ancient Axumite Kingdom, which centred on the modern province of Tigrai, had strong links with ancient Egypt, the Judaic civilisations of the Middle East, and Greece, evidenced by much of the ancient art and architecture that has been unearthed in the region. Pre-Christian civilisation in Tigrai is divided by historians into several eras, but stripping away the technicalities it can be said that Axum was an urbanised culture of blended classical and African influences from at least 600BC and quite possibly earlier.

Modern Ethiopia is heavily influenced by Judaism. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, founded in Axum in the 4th century AD, has multifarious Jewish influences, which – along with the presence of an ancient Jewish community in the former provinces of Gojjam and Wolo – suggests a large pre-Christian Judaic influence in Ethiopia. Islam, too, arrived in Ethiopia in its formative years, and it is the dominant religious group in eastern Ethiopia south of Tigrai. In this torrent of well-attested Judaic influences, it is often forgotten that much of what is now southern Ethiopia has few ancient links to the Judaic world. The Oromo (referred to as the Galla prior to the 20th century) are Ethiopia’s largest linguistic group. They were pagan when they first swept up the Rift Valley into Ethiopia in the 15th century, but are now predominantly Christian, with imported Catholic and Protestant denominations more influential than they are in northern Ethiopia. The society and culture of southern Ethiopia are more typically African in nature than those of the north. In the Omo Valley and the far western lowlands near Sudan is a variety of peoples whose modern lifestyle is still deeply African in every sense – in fact, you would struggle to find people anywhere in east Africa so cut off from the mainstream of modern life.

Before plunging into further religious and historical discussion, it should be noted that the term Ethiopia, as used historically, need not refer to Ethiopia as we know it now. The term Ethiopic arose in ancient Greece (it means burnt-faced) and was one of two used to describe the dark-skinned people of sub-Saharan Africa. The other term, Nubian, referred to the almost black-skinned people of the Nile Valley in what is now Sudan. Ethiopians, in biblical or classical terms, are in essence Axumites, or more broadly the people who lived in the Ethiopian Highlands roughly north of the Blue Nile. In medieval times and during the Renaissance, nobody in Europe knew quite where Africa began or ended – medieval literature often uses the terms India and Ethiopia interchangeably – but there was a strong association of Ethiopia with the wealthy and isolated Christian kingdom of a person who Europeans called Prester John. Once again, then, medieval Ethiopia is best thought of as the Christian empire of the highlands which, judging by the distribution of churches from this time, extended from Tigrai to Showa province just south of modern-day Addis Ababa. As Europeans gradually came to explore Ethiopia, the terms Ethiopia and Abyssinia (the latter deriving from the Arabic word habbishat, meaning ‘mongrels’) became interchangeable.

Again, the Abyssinians or Ethiopians would generally be seen as the subjects of the Christian empire, who were often at war with the Muslim empires of the eastern highlands and the Galla. Modern Ethiopia is a by-product of the 19th-century Scramble for Africa, and it incorporates the old Muslim empire based around Harar, vast tracts of thinly inhabited Somali, Afar and Borena territory, the lands occupied by the Oromo and, in the far west, areas that the Greeks would have considered to be Nubian. In my opinion – and in the context of what follows – Ethiopia, Abyssinia and habbishat are approximately synonymous terms relating to the Christian empire of the highlands, at least until the great unifying leaders of the late 19th century – Tewodros, Yohannis IV and Menelik II – laid the groundwork for the modern Ethiopian state. None of which means for a moment that, in a modern sense, a Muslim from Harar is any less Ethiopian than a Christian from Axum.

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