Part Five/Synthesis in the Nile Corridor/Central Ethiopians

George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.

Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Central Ethiopians mind-mapping diagram

Part Five
Synthesis in the Nile Corridor
— 22 —
Central Ethiopians

The Paleolithic hunting and gathering inhabitants ot the Ethiopian plateau belonged to two distinct races. Bushmanoid peoples with cultures of the tillbay complex have left indubitable traces in the southwest, whereas Caucasoids apparently occupied the northeast, but much archeological work remains to be done before the distribution and geographical movements of the two can be more accurately determined. It is clear, however, that the Caucasoid element came ultimately to prevail over the entire area. These people undoubtedly spoke languages of the Cushitic subfamily of the Hamitic stock, for these constitute the linguistic substratum over all the plateau today.
At some time prior to 3000 B.C. the Negroid ancestors of the Prenilotes penetrated the plateau from the west, bringing with them agriculture of the Sudanic type. They displaced or absorbed the indigenous Bushmanoid inhabitants in the western part of the highlands and must also have made certain inroads among the Caucasoid Cushites farther east, for all the peoples of Ethiopia today reveal at least a slight admixture of Negro blood. On the whole, however, the Cushites stood their ground, apparently by adopting agriculture and a sedentary mode of life from the culturally more advanced Negroes.
From this point on, the Cushitic peoples of the highlands begin to differentiate into three very distinct divisions, which must be treated separately. In the southeast, isolated from the rest of the plateau by the great rift valley, developed a cluster of peoples speaking languages of the Eastern branch of the Cushitic subfamily. We shall deal with them and their modern descendants in Chapters 25, 43, and 44. In the southwest evolved a second cluster, the Sidamo peoples, speaking languages of the Western branch of the Cushitic subfamily. They will provide the subject of consideration in the following chapter.
The third cluster of highland Cushites, the Agau peoples, spoke languages of the Central branch of the Cushitic subfamily. They once occupied most of the central and northern part of the Ethiopian plateau but have been displaced or absorbed over most of this region within the historical period by intrusive Semitic peoples coming from southern Arabia. It is with the Central Ethiopians, both Agau and Semites, that this chapter is primarily concerned.
Only a few scattered remnants of the Agau, numbering in all probably not more than 100,000, survive today, and they have apparently become nearly completely acculturated to the dominant Semites. Moreover, they are almost completely unstudied, so that we possess no reliable information on which to reconstruct their cultural past. This is unfortunate since the Ethiopians known to the Pharaonic Egyptians must have been the ancestors of the Agau, and any cultural influences on highland Ethiopia emanating from ancient Egypt must have been mediated by them, and are certainly not recoverable from the latecoming Semites.
The lack of information is doubly regrettable since all indications point to the Agau as one of the culturally most creative peoples on the entire continent. Not content with adopting udanic agriculture from the Prenilotes, they improved the crops which they borrowed and produced important new varieties, notably the durra variety of sorghum. They also experimented with wild plants in the search for new cultigens, a a result of which central highland Ethiopia ranks with China and India as one of the world’s important minor center of origination of cultivated plants. Their principal contributions, which we may term collectively the Ethiopian complex, are listed below.

Cereal Grains

Eleusine, or finger millet, or ragi
Eieusine coracana). This cultigen spread early to India, as well as widely in East and outh Africa.
Eragrostis abyssinica). This cereal has spread to a very limited extent into the eastern Sudan.

Root Crops

Ensete, or the Abyssinian banana
Emete edulis, formerly Afusa ensete). This plant, used for its edible roots rather than its fruit, was first domesticated in southwestern Ethiopia, where it is still the staple crop.

Leaf and Stalk Vegetables

Cress, or garden cress
Lepidum sativum). This plant is also used for the oil expressed from its seeds.

Condiments and Indulgents

Coffea arabica).
Trigonella foenumgraecum).
Kat, or Arab tea
Catha edulis
Vegetable mustard
Brassica carinata

Oil and Dye Plants

Ricinus connmmis). This oil plant spread to Egypt early in the Dynastic period.
Remtil, or nug
Guizotia abyssinica). An important oil plant.
Carthamus tinctorius). This plant, used both as a dye and for oil, spread to Egypt about 1500 B.C.

The Agau obtained cattle, sheep, and goats from ancient Egypt, presumably via the Nubians and Prenilotes and probably around the beginning of the third millennium B.C., but it is unlikely that they acquired the milking complex at that time. They themselves apparently dome ticated the donkey, or ass, and later learned to cross it with the horse to produce mules. They maintained intermittent contacts with Pharaonic Egypt, which during period of expansion, notably under the XVIII dynasty of the New Empire, even conquered and temporarily incorporated portions of their territory. This must certainly have stimulated cultural borrowing, possibly of political forms as on the middle Nile. ome of the crops of the Egyptian complex, which hold a prominent place in the economy of Ethiopia today, may also have diffused to the highlands at this time. In view of the fact, however, that they spread to intervening Nubia to such a very limited extent, it seems more reasonable to a ume that they were mainly introduced from Arabia by the Semites at a somewhat later date.
During the first millennium B.C. a highly complex agricultural civilization flourished among the Sabaean Semites of southern Arabia, whose prosperity appears to have been founded in part on the development of a profitable sea-borne trade with India. Around 700 B.C., during a period of expansion, a wave of Sabaeans crossed the Red Sea from Yemen and seized from the Agau a portion of their territory in the northeastern section of modern Ethiopia and adjacent Eritrea. Later they established a powerful state with its capital at Axum, where archeological research has revealed a complex civilization of southern Arabian type. This seems to have had its economic basis, not only in trade, but in the cultivation of wheat, barley, and other Southwest Asian crops, which, as previously suggested, the Sabaeans presumably brought with them from Arabia. It was doubtless also the latter who first introduced the milking complex to Ethiopia.
The Axumites accepted Christianity early in the fourth century and thereafter maintained close commercial and diplomatic relations not only with the Christian states of Alwa and Dongola in Nubia but also with the nations of the eastern Mediterranean. Such was their strength that they twice invaded and conquered Yemen, once in the founh and once in the sixth century, on both occasions holding that country for a period and gaining control over its rich trade with India. With the rise and spread of Islam in the seventh century, the Ethiopian Semites were isolated from their Mediterranean co-religionists by loslem encirclement, and Axum disappears from history.
During the Axumite period a second and smaller band of Semitic immigrants invaded southeastern Ethiopia, leaving as their modern descendants the Gurage and Harari peoples. Jews formed a third Semitic increment. During the Diaspora many of them fled to Ethiopia, settled among the Agau, and converted some of the latter to Judaism. The most famous of their descendants are the Falasha, or “Black Jews,” who today constitute a section of the Cushitic-speaking Kemant tribe.
After the fall of Axum its place in northern Ethiopia was taken by other dynasties, sometimes Semitic, sometimes Agau. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Islam, which had been established on the coasts of southern Eritrea and adjacent Somaliland, penetrated into the southeastern and eastern highlands. It was checked temporarily after 1270 by the strong Solomonid dynasty, which extended its political control from the Tigrinya to the Amhara country. The bulk of the Agau population was now converted to Christianity and became so strongly acculturated to their Semitic conquerors that today only a few dwindling islands of Central Cushitic speech survive in the midst of the dominant Amhara and Tigrinya nations.
In the early sixteenth century the Moslem Somali repeatedly invaded the territory of the Christian Semites, who ultimately defeated them with Portuguese help in 1543. Weakened by their exhausting wars with the adherents of Islam, the Ethiopians were unable to withstand a new threat from the south. The pastoral Galla began to infiltrate the southern plateau before 1550, and by 1600 had occupied a substantial portion of central Ethiopia as well, displacing speakers of Western Cushitic as well as of Semitic languages. They quickly exchanged their nomadic habits for a sedentary agricultural life and became acculturated to the Amhara in other important respects, though many of them still cling to their pagan religion and their indigenous social institutions. The Ethiopian Semites and the Galla have long since become politically reconciled and have played approximately equal roles in the recent history of the country.
The Central Ethiopians are preponderantly Caucasoid, though containing a subordinate Negroid strain. They all speak languages of the Hamitic stock, either Semitic or Central Cushitic. They subscribe in the main to the Coptic, or Monophysitic, branch of Christianity, though they include a small pagan and a larger Moslem minority. They fall into seven distinguishable ethnic groups, as follows:

  1. Amhara. The dominant group in modern Ethiopia, they probably number at least 3 million. They are Semitic in speech, and most are Christian.
  2. Awiya (Agaumeder, Awawar) , with the kindred Damot. This Agau remnant, speaking a Central Cushitic tongue, is mainly Christian.
  3. Gurage (Gouraghe). This Semitic-speaking group numbers about 350,000, of whom approximately a third are Christian, a third Moslem, and a third pagan.
  4. Harari. This Moslem group, speaking a Semitic language, numbers about 35,000 in and around the city of Harar.
  5. Kamir (Chamir, Hamir, Khamir), with the related Khamta (Hamra). This Agau remnant, Central Cushiric in language, is mainly Christian.
  6. Kemant (Camant, Chemant, Kamanr, Qemant), with the Falasha (Black Jews, Kayla) and Quara (Kwara). These Central Cushitic speakers are pagan except for 10,000 Falasha, who are Jewish in religion. Together with the other Agau remnants, the Awiya and Kamir, they probably number about 100,000.
  7. Tigrinya. These Semitic people are mainly Christians, though they include a few Mloslems. They number about 1,150,000, of whom 430,000 (the Akkele-Guzai, Hamasien, and Serae tribes) live in Eritrea.

The Central Ethiopians subsist primarily by agriculture, in which they employ an ox-drawn plow and occasionally irrigation. In addition to the cultigens of local origin, they grow cotton, cow peas, gourds, millet, sesame, and sorghum from the Sudanic complex; barley, black caraway, broad beans, chick peas, flax, garlic, grapes, lentils, peas, rape, vetch, and wheat from the Egyptian complex; small quantities of oats, peaches, and purslane from the Greco-Roman complex; bananas and sugarcane from outheast Asia; and maize, peanuts, peppers, and tobacco from the New World. Their economy rests largely on the cultivation of cereal grains, with barley, eleusine, sorghum, tetf, and wheat as the staples. Oil plants, particularly castor, flax, and remtil, occupy an unusually prominent position. As compared with North Africa, Ethiopian agriculture differs most strikingly in the near absence of vegetables and fruit trees.
Animal husbandry, though always subsidiary to tillage, assumes great importance. Cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, dogs, cats, chickens, and bees are universal, and, in addition, the Tigrinya keep a few camels. Pigs, however, are unreported. All groups milk their cows, ewes, and goats and make butter, which they use, however, chiefly as a cosmetic. They do practically no hunting, fishing, or gathering, but they engage extensively in trade and maintain a system of regular markets. In the division of labor by sex, the men do most of the herding, the women most of the milking (except among the Tigrinya), and both sexes participate in agricultural work, with the larger share falling to the men.
Most groups live in compact permanent villages, but neighborhoods of dispersed homesteads are reported for the Gurage. Cities are rare, the largest being Addis Ababa with a population of approximately 150,000. The prevailing type of dwelling is a round hut with cylindrical walls of wattle and daub and a conical thatched roof, but wealthy town dwellers among the Amhara, Harari, and Tigrinya occupy flat-roofed rectangular houses with interior courtyards and stone walls plastered with mud.
The Agau peoples and the Amhara apparently require no material consideration in connection with a marriage, though gifts are given. A dowry. however, is customary among the Tigrinya and a bride-price among the Gurage. All groups, even those who adhere to Islam, forbid unions with a first cousin. Polygyny prevails among pagans and Moslems, but Christians cleave officially to monogamy, though informally tolerating concubinage. The Falasha and Tigrinya proscribe the levirate, which in other groups is always permissible and often preferential. Residence regularly follows the patrilocal principle, but extended forms of the family do not occur. Descent, though apparently bilateral among the Amhara, is definitely patrilineal among the Gurage and Tigrinya. The Semitic peoples employ cousin terminology of the descriptive pattern.
The Central Ethiopians differentiate a landed aristocracy from commoners and until recently had a class of hereditary slaves. Smiths and hunters commonly form segregated and endogamous castes. Inheritance invariably follows the patrilineal principle, with males alone participating and with sons taking precedence over brothers. The Amhara adhere to primogeniture, but among the Tigrinya all sons share alike. Boys are subjected to circumcision and girls to clitoridectomy, and sometimes also to infibulation, in infancy. Both the Agau and the Semites have been habituated to monarchical forms of government from time immemorial. The present Ethiopian state is headed by an emperor (Negus), who is advised by a council of ministers and rules his country through provincial governors (ras) and an administrative hierarchy filled mainly by nobles. Since the end of the nineteenth century, except during an interim of Italian rule, the state has exercised effective sovereignty over the peoples of southeastern and southwestern as well as of central and northern Ethiopia.

Selected Bibliography


Bienvenue dans mon monde d'exploration et de découverte ! Je suis Ingrid Allain, une voyageuse passionnée avec une curiosité insatiable pour la riche tapisserie de la culture africaine. Pour moi, l'Afrique n'est pas juste une destination ; c'est une fascination de toute une vie et une source d'inspiration. Des rythmes vibrants des cercles de tambours d'Afrique de l'Ouest à la perlerie complexe des artisans Maasaï, chaque coin de ce continent détient un trésor de traditions à découvrir. À travers mes écrits, je vise à partager la beauté, la diversité et la résilience des cultures africaines avec le monde. E-mail: [email protected] / Linkedin
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