Are Eritreans of mixed origins?
Top four biggest myths in the Horn of Africa
Since time immemorial, myths have held an important role in societies. Long before science and writing were invented, myths were passed down from generation to generation to help make sense of the unknown or to advance social standings among competing groups. Although most myths are now dismissed as fictional tales, some myths, however, continue to shape perceptions, identities and produce conflicts in the region.
In this post, we'll briefly highlight four of the biggest myths in the Horn of Africa.
Myth #1: Eritreans, Somalis and Ethiopians are of mixed origins
For various reasons, many people; usually foreigners, claim the region's inhabitants are of African and South Arabian descent. They base this on the fact that many of the people in the Horn, particularly in Eritrea and Ethiopia, speak Semitic languages and use a writing script that derived from Ancient Yemeni kingdoms. They also point out that some of the ancient people of the Horn adopted South Arabian deities and customs, too.
But is that enough to claim the people of this region are mixed?
Not quite. Aside from a few Sabaean inscriptions and isolated religious artifacts worshiping South Arabian deities, there isn't much evidence to suggest a dominant Sabaean presence in the Horn region.
According to Peter Ridgway Schmidt, a leading archaeologist of the region, civilization in the Horn is independent of any foreign influences and is endogenous to the region.
In short, outside of a few "ceremonial sites" with religious artifacts and inscribed stone pillars, there is no convincing evidence for daily life and vital communities. Rather, isolated religious artifacts and other evidence seem to point to another phenomenon, perhaps a sphere of influence wherein the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea were within the religious and economic orbit of greater Saba and local people took up various aspects of material culture to signify their membership in this broader community (Curtis 2004). As historical archaeologists have begun to question the historical accuracy of a dominant Sabaean presence in the Horn, archaeology has contributed evidence that suggests that the origins of urbanism is likely independent of any foreign influence and is in fact endogenous development (Shmidt and Curtis 2001; Schmidt 2002).
How did some people of the region adopt Semitic languages?
Due to proximity, trade and sharing the same deities, Epigraphic South Arabian (an earlier substratum of the Ge'ez alphabet) started to appear in a few isolated religious sites within Southern Eritrea some 2,500 years ago. By the 3rd century CE, this lead to the gradual evolution and creation of the modern Ge'ez script and language. After the extinction of Ge'ez language in the 9th century CE*, it was (over the course of a few centuries) replaced by its descendant languages of Tigrinya and Tigre which are collectively spoken by 85% of Eritreans today.
Keep in mind, people adopt different languages for a number of reasons; usually for economic and religious reasons. At one point in history, some of the elites in the ancient Eritean city of Adulis were fluent in Greek. In fact, nearly all the inscriptions until the 4th century CE were made in Greek. This doesn't mean they mixed with the Greeks; it just means the Greeks were influential in the region and their language was the lingua franca of commerce in much of the same way English is today.
Why do Horners look the way they do?
The phenotype the people of this region possess is likely a result of genetic adaptations to the mountainous topography; their diet and climate. People of the Horn would still look the way they do even of they had no Euroasian contact whatsoever. We can say this with certainty because there are a number of ethnic groups in the region that historically had little to no contact with Euroasian populations and still look similar to their neighbors who did. Chief among them are the Oromo people, who migrated to the Ethiopian interior from Northern Kenya in the 16th century CE. Despite recently migrating into the country, they look identical with their cousins of the Amhara. In fact, most Amharas who are from Shewa and Wollo regions (both Oromo names), are assimilated Amharic-speaking Oromos.
Similarly, Southern African groups like the Khoisan were once thought to be people of mixed African and Eurasian ancestry by white South Africans because they possessed unusual fair skin for people who lived in one of the hottest places on Earth. However, archaeological and genetic studies revealed they are one of the most ancient African groups that have had the least contact with not only Eurasian populations but African groups, too. Thus, it is important to remind ourselves of Africa's great genetic diversity and for the need to continue challenging outdated colonial period myths of what an African is supposed to look like.
*Ge'ez is still spoken in liturgical services by Orthodox priests.
Myth #2: The Queen of Sheba
Very few queens have captured the imaginations of people the way the mythical Queen of Sheba (Makeda) has. Her legacy transcended continents, nation-states, and religious affiliation. Despite spawning hundreds of films, books, documentaries, and appearing frequent in oral traditions among several Arabian and African groups, there hasn't been any tangible evidence she existed.
So when did the Sheba myth enter the Horn region?
According to archaeologist Peter Schmidt, It was not until the 13th century that some Christian inhabitants of the Horn region first adopted the Sheba fable from Yemen. Ambitious political elites, led by Yekuno Amlak, took it even a step further and created the Solomonic dynasty myth.
"In the 13th century, the Christian highlanders even borrowed from Arabia and adapted the fable of the Queen of Sheba with which to further their own conquests and political tale. They developed what was to become known as the Solomonic myth."
The Solomon dynasty myth, which was written in a 13th century book called Kebra Nagast (the glory of the kings), asserts that Ethiopian civilization began with the Queen of Sheba some 3,000 years ago (10th century BCE). According to the book, after Sheba traveled to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon, she fell in love with him and gave birth to their son, Menelik-I, whom Yekuno Amlak (the founder of this myth) and all Ethiopian kings after him, trace their linage to.
But why did Yekuno Amlak, who was a 13th century warlord who inspired to be king, need to make this elaborate story up? According to the historian Harold Marcus, he was seeking to legitimize his rule over his rivals and needed the backing of the priests to do so. So he took Arabian fables of Sheba and added his self-serving twist to it.
"As a usurper, the new monarch [Yekuno Amlak] encountered considerable resistance, and, in order to win over Tigray with its many Axumite traditions, he and his supporters began to circulate a fable about his descent from King Solomon and Makeda, Queen of Shaba, and their son Emperor Menelik-I, a genealogy that, of course, gave him traditional legitimacy and provided him the continuity so honored in Ethiopian's subsequent national history."
Myth #3: The Ark of the Covenant is in Ethiopia
Christian Ethiopians claim the Ark of the Covenant is in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia. According to the Kebra Nagast, Menelik-I (Queen of Sheba's alleged son), went to visit his father King Solomon in Jerusalem. Upon his return, he stole the Ark from Solomon's temple and brought it to modern day Ethiopia.
If the story sounds fishy, it should. In order to begin to claim the Sheba story and its subsequent Ark myth, Ethiopia would have to have archaeological evidence unequivocally showing a settled-civilization taking place in their region around the time Sheba was supposedly to have existed. Unfortunately for Christian Ethiopians, the oldest settled civilization in the region was found in the outskirts of the Eritrean capital, Asmara. Dating back to 2,800 years ago (based on carbon dating), the Ancient ONA site of Asmara would still be 200 years after Sheba was alleged to have existed.
Despite the Queen of Sheba and Menlik-I undoubtedly being fictional entities, this hasn't stopped many ambitious Christian authors, historians and sadly, a few professionals from making claims of finding evidence to support this fable. In 2008, a German research team from the University of Hamburg claimed to have found Sheba's 3,000-year-old tomb in Northern Ethiopia. Not surprisingly, the leading archaeologists of the region were skeptical and quick to dismiss their claims. Five years later, the research team has yet to publish their findings, which I guess is their silent way of admitting an error, sorta.
Similarly, in 1992, a British researcher by the name of Grahm Hancok authored The Sign and the Seal, a book that claims the Ark is in Ethiopia. Curious to see if its claims were legitimate, the Los Angeles Times contacted Professor Edward Ullendroff, an authority on Ethiopian history, about the book's credibility. After declaring the book "a sad joke", Ullendroff stated he had personally seen the object in Axum: "They have a wooden Box, but it's empty....Middle to late medieval construction, when these were fabricated ad hoc." Ullendorff went on to explain that religious leaders and government officials perpetuate an aura of mystery around the object "mostly to maintain the idea that it's a venerated object."
The "middle to late medieval construction" date Professor Ullendroff gives for the Ark in Ethiopia is the same time period when Yekuno Amlak borrowed the Queen of Sheba fable from Arabia for his own political ambitions. Yekuno probably didn't know it but his Sheba, Solomonic Dynasty and the Ark myths would have a profound impact on the region. His myth has spawned the Rastafarian religion; several expansionist wars by Ethiopia on its neighbors; and even has made Jewish Ethiopians (Falashas) believe they are not Ethiopians.
Myth #4: The Falashas (Beta Israel) are descendants of Israeli tribes
The Falashas (outsiders), who are also known as Beta Israel (House of Israel), are people who once predominantly lived in North and North-Western Ethiopia.After Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, decreed in 1973 that the Falashas are descendants of ancient Israeli tribes, tens of thousands of Ethiopians of the Jewish faith were flown into Israel as citizens in the subsequent decades. Today, these Ethiopian Jews make up 2.15% (130,000) of Israel's population and have adopted the Israeli identity.
But are the Falashas the descendants of Isreali tribes?
There is no archaeological evidence to support any Israeli tribes migrating into Ethiopia. Although the Falashas claim they were the descendants of Israelis who accompanied Sheba on her journey from Jerusalem, the reality of events, however, seem to indicate the Falashas adopted the Jewish faith from being in frequent contact with Jewish merchants from Yemen. Recent DNA testing shows they are endogenous inhabitants of Ethiopia who simply converted to Judaism in much of the same way Christians and Muslims did in the region.
"DNA samples from Beta Israel/Falasha Jews and Ethiopians were studied with the Y-Chromosome-specific DNA probe p49a to screen for TapI restriction polymorphism and haplotypes. Two haplotypes (V and XI) are the most widespread in Beta Israel and Ethiopians, representing about 70% of the total number of haplotypes in Ethiopia. Because the Jewish Haplotypes VII and VIII are not represented in the Falasha population, we conclude that these people descended from ancient inhabitants of Ethiopia who converted to Judaism."
Historical Archaeology in Africa, by Peter R. Schmidt, Pg. 260.
 Eritrea: A pawn in World Politics, by Okbazghi Yohannes, p. 24
 Ethiopia and Eritrea, by Jean-bernard Carillet, Stuart Butler, Dean Starnes, p. 37
 The History of South Africa, by Rodger B. Beck, P. 11
 New discoveries in Africa change face of history, by Professor Peter Ridgway Schmidt
 A History of Ethiopia, by Harold Marcus, P. 16
 Searching for the Ark of the Covenant, by Randall Price, P. 177
 Israeli Government Census, 2011
 Dna & Tradition: the genetic link to the ancient Hebrews, by Yaakov Kleiman, p.83
Are Eritreans of mixed origins? Reviewed by Admin on 6:58 AM Rating: