Ethiopia is the biggest country of the Horn of Africa, a very diverse country which has traditionally been a melting pot of cultures, religions and ethnicities, acting as a crossroads between the Nile valley region, the Red Sea and East Africa. Most rock art is located in the southern part of the country, although smaller concentrations have been documented near the borders with Eritrea, Sudan and Kenya. Ethiopian rock art shows strong similarities with other countries in the Horn of Africa as well as Sudan and mostly consists of cow depictions dated from the 3rd millennium onwards, although other animals, anthropomorphic figures and geometric symbols are also fairly common.View featured rock art site
Mostly 3,000 BC onwards
Harar region, Sidamo province
Engravings, brush paintings, bas-relief
Cattle, anthropomorphs, geometric symbols
Ethiopia is the biggest country of the Horn of Africa, a very diverse country which has traditionally been a melting pot of cultures, religions and ethnicities, acting as a crossroads between the Nile valley region, the Red Sea and East Africa. Most rock art is located in the southern part of the country, although smaller concentrations have been documented near the borders with Eritrea, Sudan and Kenya. Ethiopian rock art shows strong similarities with other countries in the Horn of Africa as well as Sudan and mostly consists of cow depictions dated from the 3rd millennium onwards, although other animals, anthropomorphic figures and geometric symbols are also fairly common.
Geography and rock art distribution
The geography of Ethiopia is varied and ranges from high plateaus to savannahs and deserts. The eastern part mostly consists of a range of plateaus and high mountains, which in some cases reach more than 4000m above sea level. To the north of these mountains is Lake Tana, the biggest lake in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile, one of the two tributaries of the Nile. The mountains are divided in two by the Great Rift Valley, which runs north-east to south-west, - and is one of the most important areas for the study of human evolution. The highlands are surrounded by tropical savannah and grassland regions to the west and south-west, while to the east lays the Danakil desert, one of the most inhospitable regions on earth. The south-eastern corner of Ethiopia, which borders Somalia, is a semi-desert plateau ranging from 300-1500 m above sea level.
Ethiopian rock art is located around two main areas: around the city of Harar to the east and the Sidamo region to the south-west. The first group comprises mainly painted depictions, while the second one is characterized by a bas-relief technique specific only to this area. However, rock art has also been discovered in other areas, such as the border with Eritrea, the area near Kenya and the Benishangul-Gumuz region, a lowland area along the border with Sudan. As research increases, it is likely that more rock art sites will be discovered throughout the country. In addition to these engravings and paintings, Ethiopia is also known for its decorated stelae, tall stone obelisks that are usually engraved with culturally and religiously important symbols. One of these places is Tiya, a burial place declared a World Heritage Site which has 32 richly decorated stelae. Although not strictly rock art in the traditional sense, they nevertheless represent one of the most interesting group of archaeological remains in the south of Ethiopia and demonstrate similar techniques to some of the engraved depictions.
Ethiopian rock art has played a key role in the Horn of Africa research, and the studies undertaken in this country have structured the chronologies, styles and interpretations of the whole region. Research started as early as the mid-1930s when the Abbé Henri Breuil proposed a classification of Ethiopian rock art through the study of the Porc-Epic and Genda-Biftou sites. This proposal stated a progressive evolution in eight steps from naturalism to schematism, and set the interpretative framework for succeeding decades. Breuil’s ideas were generally followed by John Desmond Clark in his synthesis of the rock art in the Horn of Africa in 1954, and they also appear in the work of Paolo Graziosi (1964). During the 1960s, research was carried out by Francis Anfray in the Sidamo area and by Gerard Bailloud near Harar, where a report made for the Ethiopian government informed about the existence of around ten rock art sites in the same area.
Rock art research in Ethiopia has traditionally included the term Ethiopian-Arabian style, coined in 1971 by Červiček to show the similarities between the depictions found in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The existence of this style is currently the paradigm used in most rock art interpretations of the region, although some concerns have been raised due to its too generic characteristics, which can be found in many other parts of Africa. The 1990s and 2000s have seen a remarkable increase of rock art research in the country, with the renewal of studies in the main areas and the beginning of research in the regions of Tigray and Benishangul-Gumuz.
Cattle and cattle-related depictions are the main subject of Ethiopian rock art, regardless of their relative chronology. The oldest depictions (based on Červiček’s works) are of humpless cows, while in the late stages of rock art humped cows and camels appear. Goats, sheep and dogs are very occasionally depicted, and unlike the Saharan rock art, wild animals such as giraffes and antelopes are scarce. Figures of cattle appear alone or in herds, and the depictions of cows with calves are a fairly common motif not only in Ethiopia but in the whole Horn of Africa.
The other main group of depictions is of anthropomorphs, which are usually schematic and often distributed in rows. In some cases, the tendency to schematism is so pronounced that human figures are reduced to an H-like shape. Sometimes, human figures are represented as warriors, carrying weapons and on occasion fighting against other humans or big felines. Along with these figurative themes, geometric signs are very common in Ethiopian rock art, including groups of dots and other motifs that have been interpreted as symbols associated with groups that historically lived in the region.
Not all themes are distributed in every area. In Sidamo, almost all figures depict humpless cows, while subjects in the Harar region show a far bigger variability. Again, differences in techniques are also evident: while depictions in the Harar region are mainly paintings, in Sidamo many figures are engraved in a very singular way, lowering the area around the figures to achieve a bas-relief effect. The clear differences between the Sidamo engravings (known as the Chabbé-Galma group) and those of the Harar (the Laga Oda-Sourré group) have led to criticisms about the perceived uniformity of the Ethiopian-Arabian style.
As is the case with most African rock art, absolute dates for depictions based on radiocarbon techniques are scarce, and therefore most of the chronological framework of Ethiopian rock art has to rely on the analysis of figures, superimpositions, parallels with depictions of better known areas and other indirect dating methods. In Ethiopian rock art it is generally assumed that the oldest depictions could be dated to the mid-third millennium BC, according to parallels with other Saharan rock art. As aforementioned, the so-called Ethiopian-Arabian style shows an evolution from naturalism to schematism, with an older group (Sourré-Hanakiya) showing strong similarities with rock art in Egypt, Sudan and Libya. A second, progressively schematic group (Dahtami) would last until the end of the first millennium BC. This date is supported by the appearance of camels and humped cows (zebus), which were introduced in the region at the end of the second half of the 1st millennium BC. The last stages of Ethiopian rock art relating to camel, warriors and geometric depictions can be considered to belong to the historical period, in some cases reaching very near to the present day.