Ethiopia - Background information

Natural history


Abridged from the History section in Ethiopia: the Bradt Guide

This is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa with tangible historical remnants stretching back to the ancient Mediterranean civilisations.

Much of Ethiopia’s fascination lies in its myriad historical sites. This is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa with tangible historical remnants stretching back to the ancient Mediterranean civilisations. One might reasonably expect there to be a huge body of writing on Ethiopian history and its relationship to other civilisations. There isn’t. To quote Philip Marsden-Smedley’s A Far Country: ‘Ethiopia crept up on me ... Often, where I’d expected a chapter, in general histories of the Christian Church, books of African art, there was a single reference – or nothing at all. And soon I found the same facts recurring and realised that Ethiopian scholarship was, like its subject, cut off from the mainstream. The only general history of the country I could find was published in 1935.’

In 1994, when I tried to get a general grasp of Ethiopian history before visiting the country, I had a similar experience. I was startled to discover that Oliver and Fage’s Short History of Africa contains not one reference to Axum. In the end, my limited knowledge stemmed from a French history translated into English in 1959, unearthed for me by a friend who works in South Africa’s largest library, and a 1992 book by Graham Hancock called The Sign and the Seal which attempts to substantiate the Ethiopian claim that the Ark of the Covenant resides in Axum. The situation improved when I arrived in Ethiopia to find a fair number of locally published books of a historical nature. But, even then, armed with all I could find on Ethiopian history, I felt a strong sense of dissatisfaction with my booty. What was lacking was a centre from which a layperson could explore more esoteric or specific writings. This situation has improved since 1994, with the publication of a couple of useful and concise general histories, though both of these are primarily concerned with modern rather than ancient Ethiopia.

A basic grasp of ancient Ethiopian history is integral to getting the most from the country. Tourism to Ethiopia revolves around historical sites; no less important, Ethiopians identify strongly with their history, and they generally enjoy speaking to visitors who share their enthusiasm. I only wish there was a balanced general history I could recommend to readers. To produce something that will suffice, I have to work from a plethora of sources that are consistent only in their divergence. The traditional beliefs held by most Ethiopians and the orthodoxies of Western historians might as well be parallel universes. Even ‘proper’ historical writing is riddled with contradictory dates and ideas, and many of the oft-repeated orthodoxies are refuted by more recent and mostly unpublished archaeological research taking place in the country right now.

Fortunately, it is not my job to resolve the apparent contradictions of Ethiopian history, but to attempt to transmit its fascination and my enthusiasm to tourists. Bearing this in mind, what follows draws equally on the fantastic speculation of folklore and the necessarily conservative speculation of historians; in order to provide some balance, I have not been averse to a little speculation myself. Ethiopian history is too absorbing to be treated as blandly as sticking to the ‘facts’ would require. Determining the facts before about AD1600 is in any case full of open questions. To me, it matters less that the Queen of Sheba was really Ethiopian or Haile Selassie was really descended from the Jewish King Solomon than it does that most Ethiopians believe it to be true. It is such beliefs that have shaped Ethiopian culture; through repetition, they have attained a vicarious truth.

In the section below on pre-Christian history, I am indebted to Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal, a book that is certainly not without flaws, but which does have the virtues of ignoring the orthodoxies where the evidence points elsewhere, and of probing the past with enthusiasm, imagination and an apparent lack of preconceptions. I also owe a great debt to Bahru Zewde’s excellent and commendably plainly written A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855–1974; were it not for this book, the relevant period in this section would be considerably less cohesive than it is.

The Cradle of Humankind?

The East African Rift Valley is almost certainly where modern human beings and their hominid ancestors evolved, and Ethiopia has as strong a claim as any African country in this respect.

Hominids are generally divided into two genera, Australopithecus and Homo, the former extinct for at least a million years, and the latter now represented by only one species – Homo sapiens (modern humans). The paucity of hominid fossils collected before the 1960s meant that for many years it was assumed the most common australopithecine fossil, A. africanus, had evolved directly into the genus Homo and was thus man’s oldest identifiable ancestor.

This linear theory of human evolution blurred when the Leakeys’ discoveries at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania suggested that at least two types of australopithecine had existed, and that the later species A. robustus had less in common with modern man than its more lightly built ancestor A. africanus. Then, in 1972, the discovery of a two-million-year-old skull of a previously undescribed species, Homo habilis, at Lake Turkana in Kenya, provided the first conclusive evidence that some Australopithecus and Homo species had lived alongside each other for at least one million years. As more fossils came to light, including older examples of Homo erectus (the direct ancestor of modern humans), it became clear that several different hominid species had existed alongside each other in the Rift Valley until perhaps half a million years ago. Increasingly, it looked as if all known members of Australopithecus and Homo belonged to two discrete evolutionary lines, presumably with a yet-to-be-discovered common ancestor. The only flaw in this theory was the timescale involved: it didn’t seem possible that there had been adequate time for thHominid fossil Ethiopia by Ariadne Van Zandbergen Africa Image Library www.africaimagelibrary.come oldest-known australopithecine to evolve into Homo habilis.

In 1974, an almost complete hominid skeleton was discovered by Donald Johanson in Hadar, in the Danakil region of northern Ethiopia. The skeleton, named Lucy (the song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ was playing in camp shortly after the discovery), turned out to be that of a 3.5-million-year-old australopithecine of an entirely new species dubbed A. afarensis. The discovery of Lucy not only demonstrated that bipedal (or semi-bipedal – the length of afarensis’s arms suggest it was as comfortable swinging through the trees as it was on its morning jog) hominids had evolved much earlier than previously assumed, but it also created a likely candidate for the common ancestry of later australopithecine species and the human chain of evolution. As more A. afarensis fragments came to light in the Danakil, many palaeontologists argued that the wide divergence in their skull and body sizes indicated that not one but several australopithecine species lived in the Danakil at this time, and that any one of them – or none of them, for that matter – might be ancestral to modern humans. This discrepancy was clarified in 1994, when the first complete male afarensis skull was uncovered less than 10km from where Lucy had lain. It is now clear that the difference in size is because afarensis males were almost twice the weight of females. And if all the Danakil australopithecine fossils are of one species, then that species was remarkably successful, as the known specimens span a period of almost one million years. The history of palaeontology is littered with fossils that rewrote the human evolutionary tree overnight but, until another such fossil is unearthed, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Lucy and her kin were the common ancestor of the genus Homo and later australopithecine species. Incidentally, Lucy is now on display in the National Museum in Addis Ababa (see photo).

In the 1960s it was widely thought that humans and apes diverged around 20 million years ago, but recent DNA evidence has shown modern man and chimpanzees to be far more closely related than previously assumed – in fact, many biologists feel that less biased observers would place us in the same genus as chimpanzees, who are more closely related to humans than they are to any other living creature. It is now thought that the hominid and chimpanzee evolutionary lines diverged from a common ancestor between four and six million years ago. A recent fossil discovery in the Danakil is being mooted widely as the so-called missing link, the most recent common ancestor of modern African apes and modern humans. The fossils consist of the incomplete bones and the dentition of 17 hominids that lived in a forested habitat about 4.4 million years ago. The few bones discovered to date don’t include specimens of legs or hips, which makes precise classification impossible, but the dentition is closer to that of chimpanzees than to any known hominid species, yet it has several hominid features. The species has been classified provisionally as a form of australopithecine, dubbed A. ramidus, but it may well belong to an entirely new genus that provides the final link in tracing the broad sweep of human evolution.

So, is Ethiopia the cradle of humankind? Well, the specifics of human evolution remain controversial, and are likely to do so for some time, largely because it is impossible to gauge how complete or representative the known fossil record is. The discovery of large numbers of hominid fossils in one area may indicate simply that conditions at the time were suitable for fossilisation, that current conditions are suitable for recovering those fossils and, crucially, that palaeontologists are looking there. If a vital link in the evolutionary chain was once distributed in an area not yet explored by palaeontologists, it will remain unknown to science.

What does seem certain is that the entire history of human evolution was played out in Africa, including the evolution of Homo sapiens from Homo erectus. The fact that most crucial discoveries have taken place in the Rift Valley makes Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia the most likely candidates for the cradle of humankind, but it should be noted that the Rift is where palaeontologists have tended to focus their attentions in the search for our ancestry.

Natural history  

It is probably fair to say that Ethiopia’s greatest natural attraction to the average tourist will be the wonderful and ever-changing scenery.

Ethiopia is a land of dramatic natural contrasts. Altitudes span the lowest point on the African continent as well as the fourth-highest peak, while climatic conditions range from the scorching arid badlands of the Somali–Kenyan border region to the drenched slopes of the fertile southwest. The vegetation is no less diverse than the topography and climate, embracing parched desert, drenched rainforest, brittle heath-like Afro-alpine moorland, and pretty much everything in between.

Far from being the monotonous thirstland of Western myth, the southern and western highlands of Ethiopia boast the most extensive indigenous rainforest anywhere in the eastern half of Africa. The central highlands, though more openly vegetated, are fertile and densely cultivated. Towards the end of the rains, in September and early October, the wild flowers that blanket the highlands are second only to those of Namaqualand in South Africa. The northeast highlands of Tigrai are drier and generally thinly vegetated except during the rains. The Rift Valley south of Addis Ababa has a characteristically African appearance, with vegetation dominated by grasses and flat-topped acacia trees. The western lowlands around Gambella have lushly tropical vegetation. Only the vast but rarely visited eastern and southern lowlands conform to the image of Ethiopia as a featureless desert.

It is probably fair to say that Ethiopia’s greatest natural attraction to the average tourist will be the wonderful and ever-changing scenery. Wildlife, though once prolific, has been hunted out in most areas, and even those savanna national parks – Nechisar, Mago, Omo and Awash – which do protect typical African savanna environments support low volumes of game by comparison with their counterparts in most eastern and southern African countries. Balanced against this, Ethiopia’s fauna and flora, though essentially typical of sub-Saharan Africa, also display some strong links to lands north of the Sahara, ie: North Africa, Europe and the Middle East. One manifestation of this is the presence of several species that are endemic (unique) to Ethiopia because of their isolation from similar habitats, including the Ethiopian wolf, gelada monkey, mountain nyala, Walia ibex and Somali wild ass.

Whatever it may lack in terms of mammalian abundance, Ethiopia is one of Africa’s key birdwatching destinations. A rapidly growing national checklist of more than 800 bird species includes 16 endemics, as well as a similar number of near-endemics whose range extends into a small part of neighbouring Eritrea or into Somalia. For birdwatchers based in Africa, Ethiopia is also of great interest for a number of Palaearctic migrants and residents that are rare or absent further south. For birdwatchers based elsewhere, Ethiopia offers as good an introduction to African birds as any country. True enough, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania all have significantly longer checklists, but specialist ornithological tours to Ethiopia often pick up in excess of 450 species over two weeks, a total that would be difficult to beat anywhere in Africa.

Mountain nyala Ethiopia by Ariadne Van Zandbergen Africa Image Library www.africaimagelibrary.comEthiopia’s one fully endemic antelope species is the mountain nyala which can be found in Bale Mountains National Park.

Overview of Ethiopias protected areas

There are 15 national parks in Ethiopia, including several newly designated parks, and two sanctuaries. In the highlands, the Simien Mountains National Park and Bale Mountains National Park protect Ethiopia’s two highest mountain ranges. The primary attractions of these parks are scenic and they are most popular with hikers, though Bale is accessible to non-hikers by the highest all-weather road in Africa. Neither park protects large volumes of game, but they do form the last remaining strongholds of Ethiopia’s endemic large mammals. Bale is the better park for wildlife viewing: the endemic Ethiopian wolf and mountain nyala are common, as is a variety of more widespread mammal species and 16 endemic birds. Simien is the more scenic reserve and the best for trekking. Three endemic mammals – Walia ibex, Ethiopian wolf and gelada monkey – are present in the Simien range, but only the baboon is common enough to be seen by most hikers. About halfway between Simien and Bale, the newly designated Borena Sayint National Park lies on the plateau in the heart of South Wolo. Its dense forests harbours some 23 large mammals including klipspringer, caracal, black-and-white colobus, jackal and bushbuck as well as 57 bird species, while endemic Ethiopian wolf and gelada can be spied in the higher-altitude moorlands.

Four national parks lie in the Rift Valley. The northernmost of these is Yangudi Rassa National Park, set in the very dry Somali border region. The park has been set aside to protect the Somali wild ass, the ancestor of the domestic donkey. It is reasonably accessible, as the main Assab road runs right through it, but is of marginal interest to most tourists, especially as the odds of seeing the ass are negligible. The more accessible Awash National Park, which lies a few hours’ drive east of Addis Ababa and protects a varied though somewhat depleted mammalian fauna, is a dry-country reserve abutting the Awash River below the impressive Fantelle Volcano. In the southern Rift, Abiata-Shala National Park and Nechisar National Park protect, respectively, lakes Abiata and Shala, and lakes Chamo and Abaya. Both parks are scenically attractive and provide wonderful birding, but only Nechisar supports significant herds of game, most visibly common zebra and various antelope.

The most important reserves for large game are Omo National Park and Mago National Park, which adjoin each other in the Omo Valley near the Kenyan border. These national parks still support thin but substantial populations of elephant, buffalo, lion and a large variety of antelopes and primates. Finally, Gambella National Park lies in the remote, marshy west close to the town of Gambella, and as with Mago and Omo it still supportssignificant though diminishing herds of elephant and buffalo, as well as the localised white-eared kob and Nile lechwe, and predators such as lion and leopard. Several important sanctuaries have not yet been awarded national park status. The most accessible of these is Senkele Game Sanctuary near Shashemene, which despite its small size forms the main stronghold of the endemic Swayne’s hartebeest. Yabello Wildlife Sanctuary near the town of the same name supports a variety of dry-country antelope, large herds of Burchell’s zebra, and endemic Stresemann’s bush crow and white-tailed swallow. The Babile Elephant Sanctuary near Harar is home to a small but seasonally accessible population of small-tusked desert elephants. The Entoto Natural Park on the outskirts of Addis Ababa supports some large game, but is mainly of interest to birders, as is the underrated Menegasha National Forest to its west. A well-developed area of great interest to hikers, trekkers and wildlife enthusiasts is the trail through the Dodola–Adaba Forest Reserve, where five cabins offer access to highland species similar to those in Bale National Park.

Then there is the little-known Guassa Community Conservation Area near Debre Sina, a 300-year-old community reserve protecting the country’s third-largest population of Ethiopian wolves, as well as most of the endemic highland birds. Many unprotected parts of Ethiopia offer good but limited wildlife viewing; the following overview is far from comprehensive, and several other interesting spots are covered elsewhere. The forests of the western highlands still support a high density of monkeys, often to be seen from the roadside, as well as a rich selection of forest birds. The Rift Valley lakes all offer superb birding, particularly the unprotected Ziway and Hawassa, the latter also home to troops of guereza monkey. Also in the Rift Valley, the forests around Wondo Genet are known for their excellent forest birding and prolific monkeys. Hippos and crocodiles survive in many unprotected areas, of which Lake Boyo outside Jimma and the Koko Dam near Adama are very accessible. Gelada monkeys are often seen outside national parks in certain parts of the northern highlands, notably Ankober and Mugar Gorge. Another great birding spot in the north is Lake Tana, and the nearby Blue Nile Falls. Due to the conservationist ethics of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, many old monasteries and churches lie in isolated patches of indigenous woodland, which often support a few monkeys and forest bird species. For further information, see the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority’s website:


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.

Back to the top

Ethiopia articles

View all

9 runs around the world

Some of our favourite alternative marathons from around the world.


Our favourite alternative African cities

You might go to Africa for the wildlife and safaris, but its cities shouldn't be an afterthought.


Five unusual destinations for coffee lovers

From Colombia to Kosovo, we pick some of our favourite lesser-known places to enjoy a good cup of coffee. 


Related guides and other books

View all