A glimpse at the prehistory of Eritrea

by Tsegai Medin

The prehistory of Eritrea is noticeably attention-grabbing and this could be owing to its Geo-strategic location, heterogeneous landscape and favorable habitat in the Horn of Africa.

With its more than 1200 kilometer long coastal territory in the Red Sea, the country’s topography is represented by the lowlands’ arid and semi-arid areas and highland escarpments with a fertile land and favorable environment. This part of the horn has been a magnet to life millions of years ago. For example, the land of the present day Eritrea attracted large mammals from the Arabian land about 27 million years ago. This time frame represents part of the African mammal evolutionary history, which is substantially unknown to science.

Being part of the extended African Rift valley — the Eritrean Danakil Depression was home to ancient humans, which is vital in understanding the cradle of humanity. It has a remarkable importance in understanding the evolution of our ancestors during the Plio-Pleistocene times (5 million — 11,000 years ago). The oldest and most conceivable evidence of human origin (based on stone tools) is known from the Eritrean Danakil Depression of the Engel Ela – Ramud Basin, a place which is about 30 km south of Buia and less than 500 km far from where Professor Donald Johanson found almost a complete fossil evidence of Australopithecus afarensis (known as “Lucy”) from Ethiopia 40 years ago.

The evidence of anatomically modern humans from the Eritrean Danakil Depression is coming from the site of Buia in the Northern Red Sea Region which is 31 km far from the Gulf of Zula. The stunning sedimentary deposits from this Basin preserve fossil evidence of anatomically modern humans and large mammalian fauna, which are dated back about 1.0 million years. Amongst the most prominent localities include Maebele, Dioli, Aalad, Aalad-Amo and Mulhuli-Amo. The discovery of the complete human skull (~1.0 million years old) from Aalad (also known as Homo-site) was a scientific breakthrough. To date, evidence of a complete skull of Homo between 1.4 million years to 650,000 years is scarce in Africa. This unique fossil finding from Buia filled the gap between Homo erectus (1.4 million) and Homo heidelbergensis (650,000 years). Later on, modern humans adapted to the coastal and maritime environment of the Red Sea about 125, 000 years ago. This shows our direct ancestors lived in the region millions of years back, thanks to the vivid and well documented evidence from the continental and coastal landscapes of the extended Eritrean Danakil Depression.

The later historic period is roughly represented by the evidence of rock art. Rock art is human-made markings placed on the natural stone and show humanity’s cultural, cognitive, and artistic beginnings. It further shows the emergence of human’s symbolic behavior before the advent of writing. Evidence of rock art is well documented across the country and the most prominent sites among these include Adi-Älewti, Iyago, Karibosa, Saro, Mai-äini and Quarura. The Eritrean rocks are represented by different color pigments and figures of animals, human and geometric styles and symbolize the evidence of society’s socio-economic and cultural way of life.

The ancient history of Eritrea is characterized by different dynamics of historic events. Amongst these include the emergence of complex agro-pastoral societies and the urban civilizations on the highlands and lowlands of Eritrea. Furthermore, Eritrea is the birthplace of ancient and socioculturally highly diversified civilizations in the region. The Medieval Period is among the most intricate slice of our historic records. This period encompasses the introduction and foundation of the leading religions in our region, Christianity around 4th and Islam 7th century AD.

The recent history of Eritrea is primarily linked to the unprecedented struggle for liberation, preceded by desolate and successive colonial times. This represents the dark and centuries-long clutches of colonialism and their colossal impacts. The gallant Eritrean people opposed the dominance and successive colonial oppression. This part of our history is labeled as Recent History, which is a history bounded by hardship, resistance, and solidarity throughout time.

Eritrea has experienced a rich and diverse history overwrought with intense periods of difficulty. Present-day Eritrea, with its diverse culture, is not by any means an overnight creation. In this regard, the process of the historical evolution of our society started over millions of years from the cradle of humanity shown by the fossil legacy of our ancestors.