History & Politics

Our earliest relatives?

Finding Lucy

In 1974, the almost complete skeleton of an Australopithecine was discovered in the Danakil region of northern Ethiopia. Dated at 3.5 million years old, the small ape-like female (called A. Afarensis by the scientists) was nicknamed ‘Lucy’ – the song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ had been playing in the camp.

Palaeontologists have found some of the best evidence for how early man evolved in the east African Rift Valley – in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. This part of Africa may have been the ‘cradle of mankind’.

Men-like apes (Australopithecus) lived in this region around four million BC, as did our earliest ancestors (Homo species) around two million BC. It's likely these two branches of hominoids lived side by side.

An early civilisation

Ethiopian tradition

Tradition says that Ethiopia’s royal dynasty began with a union in the11th–10th centuries BC between the Queen of Sabea/Sheba (ruler of Ethiopia and Yemen) and King Solomon.

From c.AD100, the city of Axum in the north King Ezana's stele at Aksum, by Pzbinden7 courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stela_aksum.jpg#filehistoryrose to prominence – see Tourism & Communications. From the first–eighth centuries AD, the Aksumite kingdom became the most powerful of the region. Its empire stretched from the Nile River across the Red Sea to Yemen.

In the fourth century AD, King Ezana made Christianity the official religion of the Aksumite people. (The photo opposite shows King Ezana's obelisk or stele at Aksum.) The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is therefore one of the oldest in the world. It is self-governing, having broken ties with Rome and Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in AD451 over a dispute about Christ’s divine nature.

The beginnings of modern-day Ethiopia


Ethiopia's last emperorIn this video… Addisu and Habtam look around Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, where Haile Selassie is buried.

The power of Aksum began to wane as Arab traders spread across Africa from AD750, cutting off the city’s trading routes. Ethiopians turned south, forming the area which is now modern-day Ethiopia (known as Abyssinia until the last century).

Early evangelists spread Christianity further through the region. And in the 12th–13th centuries, the ruling dynasty began the construction of Ethiopia’s famous Christian churches hewn out of rock – see Tourism & Communications.

In the 1500s, divisions between Christians and Muslims led to wars, though Mohammed himself had taken refuge in Axum (in AD615) and warned his followers never to hurt Ethiopian people.

An independent spirit

The Portuguese were welcomed into Ethiopia in the 1500s. The British also became involved in the region in the 1800s.

However, apart from a five-year occupation by Mussolini's Italy before and during World War II, Ethiopia was never colonised by a European power.

Having helped to evict the Italians in 1941, Britain paved the way for the return of Emperor Haile Selassie. He ruled Ethiopia for over 30 years.

But with little economic progress or reform to the feudal-based society, popular unrest led to the Emperor’s toppling from power.

A communist group called the Derg took control in 1974. This regime killed many thousands. Property was confiscated and military spending spiralled. Agricultural harvests also fell. In 1985, Ethiopia hit the world headlines with its worst famine and drought in living memory. One million Ethiopians died, mostly in the north-east.

Eritrea splits off

Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia in 1993. Border disputes led to war in the late 1990s and tension remains.

Ethiopia's communist regime was overthrown in 1991. Political conditions have stabilised since and the country is enjoying economic growth.

The current Prime Minister is Hailemariam Desalegn, who took over in 2012, after the death in office of Meles Zenawi.