Mystery and myth has always surrounded the land of Ethiopia. In the bible, it is the home of the queen of Sheba, and many of its rulers claimed descent from King Solomon himself. Ancient Greek poet Homer wrote that “the Ethiopians had been blessed by the gods”, and Europeans in the Age of Discovery believed Ethiopia to be the location of Prester John – a Christian king ruling an isolated yet powerful kingdom in the depths of Africa who would welcome European explorers with open arms and shower them with gold if only they could find this legendary monarch (and a Portuguese explorer named Pero da Covilha eventually did find a Christian king in Ethiopia who showered him with riches, though he was never allowed to leave).
Ancient Egyptian writings spoke of the land of “Punt”, believed to be their ancestral home, and some believe these writings may be referring to Ethiopia “where the indigenous plants and animals equate most closely with those depicted in the Egyptian reliefs and paintings”. Legends also speak of it being the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.
But myths and legends aside, Ethiopia has plenty to attract equal fascination from those interested only in the scientifically documented. It is the location of some of the world’s most significant archaeological discoveries. Evidence of powerful ancient civilizations, early Christianity and even the earliest forms of humanity have all been discovered amongst its many famous archaeological sites.
Archaeologists played the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” in camp to celebrate their landmark discovery in 1974, and subsequently chose that name for the 3.2 million year old skeleton that was, at the time, the oldest known near-complete skeletal remains of early humanity.
Two key stages in the evolution of humanity were walking upright and increased intelligence, but scientists weren’t certain of the order. They theorized that “walking upright” was the first step, since doing so would have freed the arms to engage in tool use.
Lucy’s remains seemed to prove that theory: Her skull capacity was closer to that of an ape, but the structure of her pelvis resembled modern humans and the angle of the femur between her hip and knee-joint indicated she walked upright. She had longer arms then modern humans and curved fingers, probably well-suited to climbing trees though its unclear whether this was something she did, or just an evolutionary by-product of her ancestors.
Later discoveries would predate Lucy, namely the skeleton of 4.4 million year old “Ardi” found near the Awash river in Ethiopia. She is an older, more complete fossil; but it’s not certain that her kind evolved into Homo Sapiens.
Earliest Human Tools
Another significant discovery made in the Afar region of Ethiopia is that of the earliest known stone tools. Dating around 3.4 million years old, they provide evidence of tool-use amongst early humans a million years earlier then what was originally assumed.
The fossilized carcasses of mammals roughly the size of a cow were found nearby, with clear evidence that the tools had been used to cut meat from the bone and extract marrow. So not only were tools in use 3.4 million years ago, they were being used in more sophisticated ways then might have been believed.
Earliest Remains of “Modern Humans”
The discovery of human skulls around 160,000 years old in the Afar region of Ethiopia is one of the most significant finds in the history of Archaeology – the earliest known fossilized remains of modern humans.
Anthropologists long believed that time period to be the point when modern humans began to emerge. As well as providing a critical piece of the puzzle in the transition from primitive to modern forms of humanity, the discovery of the skulls provided evidence to back up two theories long held by anthropologists:
1) That modern humans had originated in Africa, before spreading to Eurasia
2) That modern humans were not descended from Neanderthals. The skulls predated Neanderthal remains, suggesting the latter species (recognizable for their shorter, more heavily-muscled body structure when compared to modern humans) do not represent a stage in human evolution, but were rather a separate species with the same evolutionary roots (like apes). Neanderthals went extinct about 30,000 years ago, probably wiped out by humans in battle for “survival of the fittest”.
Before this discovery, anthropologists had only molecular studies to back up their theories. Now they had fossilized evidence as well.
The Empire of Aksum
Modern Ethiopian tribes are descended from the founders of Aksum, a powerful African empire that rivalled Roman, Persian and Chinese civilization in the 1st to 7th centuries AD.
Archaeological discoveries of remnants of the Axum empire all provide evidence of a rich and powerful trading power that exported goods such as gold, silver, wine, olive oil and glass crystal to Egypt and the Roman world; and the first Christian power outside Europe (Axumite kings adopted Christianity in 356 AD). Their power began to deteriorate around the 7th Century AD as the Islamic empires rose, cutting Axum off from their trade routes and the rest of the Christian world.
Uncovered Axumite coinage indicates they produced their own currency from around 270 AD. Examples of advanced metalwork, pottery and glassware have been found. Mausoleums and the famous stone obelisks known as the ‘stele’ – built to mark the burial sites of royalty – are monuments to their culture. One of the stone obelisks was famously seized by Mussolini following the Italian conquest of Ethiopia and carried to Rome, but finally returned to the Ethiopian government in 2008.
The Lalibela Churches
Carved from volcanic rock in the mountains of Ethiopia are the 11 churches of King Lalibela, some of them built into the very cliff-face.
The dating is not certain, but it’s believed they were begun as stone monuments during the latter stages of the Axumite empire, and a few hundred years later converted into church-like structures to become a symbol of Medieval Ethiopian Christianity.
King Lalibela may have built them as a response to the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem in 1187, intending his capital to be a “new Jerusalem” and a pilgrimage site for Christians. They remain preeminent examples of both Christian culture and rock-cut architecture.
It’s likely that many more secrets of humanities past lie waiting to be discovered among Ethiopia’s rich archaeological sites.