A glimpse at the prehistory of Eritrea

About Eritrea - History & Culture

The prehistory of Eritrea certainly grabs one’s attention. This could be due to number of different factors, such as its geostrategic location, diverse and breathtaking landscape, and favorable habitat. Eritrea has a coastline of over 1200 kilometers, which is one of the longest in all of Africa, and unique topography, including the lowlands, arid and semi-arid areas, and highland escarpments, with rich, fertile lands and favorable environment.

This part of the Horn of Africa has served as a magnet to life for millions of years. For example, the area representing present day Eritrea attracted large mammals from nearby Arabian land about 27 million years ago. This period is a key part of the region’s mammal evolutionary history, which still remains largely unknown.

A part of the extended African Rift valley region, the Eritrean Danakil Depression was home to archaic humans. Undeniably, it holds many secrets which can be vital to understanding early humanity. For instance, it can broaden our understanding of the evolution of our ancestors during the Plio-Pleistocene period (which was between 5,000,000 and 11,000 years ago). The oldest and most conceivable evidence of human origins (based on stone tools) is believed to be from the Eritrean Danakil Depression, particularly in the Engel Ela - Ramud Basin. This area is located approximately 30 kilometers south of Buia and less than 500 kilometers from where the paleoanthropologist Professor Donald

Johnson discovered fossil evidence of Australopithecus afarensis – better known as “Lucy” – in Ethiopia about 40 years ago.

The evidence of anatomically modern humans in the Eritrean Danakil Depression was found in Buia in the Northern Red Sea Region, which is located approximately 31 kilometers from the Gulf of Zula. The stunning sedimentary deposits from this basin include fossil evidence of anatomically modern humans and large mammalian fauna. Remarkably, these date to about 1,000,000 years ago. Amongst the most prominent localities include Maebele, Dioli, Aalad, Aalad- Amo, and Mulhuli-Amo. The discovery of a complete human skull (approximately 1,000,000 years old) from Aalad, which is also known as the Homo-site, was an important scientific breakthrough. To date, locating the remains of a complete Homo skull dating to 1,400,000 to 650,000 years ago is rare in Africa. This unique fossil finding from Buia helped fill the gap between Homo erectus (1,400,000 years) and Homo heidelbergensis (650,000 years). Later on, about 125,000 ago, modern humans adapted to the coastal and maritime environment of the Red Sea. We are able to understand how our direct ancestors lived in the region millions of years ago thanks to the rich evidence available in the continental and coastal areas of the extended Eritrean Danakil Depression.

Evidence of the later historic period is found in rock art. Rock art refers to human-made markings placed on natural stone. It shows humanity’s cultural, cognitive, and artistic beginnings. It further illustrates the emergence of humans’ symbolic behavior prior to the advent of writing. There are many locations across the country featuring old rock art. Some of the most prominent sites include Adi-Älewti, Iyago, Karibosa, Saro, Mai-äini, and Quarura. Old rock art in Eritrea features different color pigments, various figures of animals and humans, and unique shapes and geometric styles. In many ways, the rock art reflects past societies’ socio-economic and cultural ways of life.

Ancient Eritrea experienced a number of historic events and processes. These include the emergence of complex agro-pastoral societies and growth of urban civilizations on the highland and lowland parts of Eritrea. Furthermore, Eritrea is the birthplace of ancient and highly diverse civilizations. The Medieval Period is among the most unique parts of our history. This period encompasses the introduction and foundation of the leading religions in our region - that are, Christianity around the 4th century AD and Islam in the 7th century AD.

The recent history of Eritrea is primarily linked to the long struggle for liberation. Of course, the struggle was preceded by colonization. Following a long period of colonial oppression, the Eritrean people rose to fight for independence and sovereignty. This part of our history is known as “recent history.” Our recent history is characterized by hardship, resistance, and solidarity.

Eritrea’s history has been eventful, to say the least. Present-day Eritrea, with its rich culture, unique tradition, and diverse peoples, is not an overnight creation! Rather, the process of historical evolution of our society and our people began millions of years ago, as suggested by the fossils of our ancestors.