Urban Precursors in the Horn: Early 1st-Millennium BC Communities in Eritrea. (Special Section)

Article excerpt

Eritrea fought a war of liberation for three decades between the early 1960s and 1991. While professional research stagnated because of the war, amateur archaeologists provided the sole source of information for ancient material culture in the country during this era. With the coming of independence in 1993, awareness of the potential value of Eritrea's heritage resources began to grow, leading to an initiative in 1997 to teach archaeology and heritage management at the University of Asmara.

Out of the combined training and research programmes conducted by the University of Asmara have come several major discoveries that change the way that the rise of urbanism is seen in the Horn of Africa. We highlight research showing that between 800 BC and 400 BC the greater Asmara area of Eritrea supported the earliest settled agropastoralist communities known in the highlands of the Horn. These communities pre-date and are contemporaneous with Pre-Aksumite settlements in the highlands of southern Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. (1)

The agropastoralist settlements around Asmara were vital precursors to later 1st-millennium BC and early 1st-millennium AD urban developments in the southern highlands of Eritrea at Keskese, Matara and Qohaito. Matara, 90 km to the south of Asmara, was an urban centre of between 20 and 40 ha, possibly even larger. It was likely an Aksumite administrative centre that also had a significant Pre-Axumite settlement that has been dated to approximately 500 BC by the French archaeologist Francis Anfray (1967; 1974), suggesting that the communities around today's Asmara were the first in the region to show an organic growth toward demographic complexity. Another urban center, Qohaito, located approximately 70 km south of Asmara, was an ancient garden city (Schmidt & Wright 1995) surrounded by hundreds of satellite towns, villages and homesteads located on the 13x3 km Qohaito plateau (Wenig 1997) and connected to a larger urban hinterland (Curtis & Libsekal 1999). Qohaito remains unexcavated, but survey evidence indicates that its urban character derives from a tradition that goes back to Matara and the communities of the Greater Asmara area.

We also discuss evidence that suggests the possible presence of humped cattle (Bos indicus) in the greater Asmara area about 500 BC, revising previous ideas about the arrival of this species in the Horn and assessing what importance it has for the development of a settled agropastoral way of life.

Setting and background

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, is located at 2350 m a.s.l on a portion of the Eritrean highlands called the Asmara Plateau, a peneplain that ranges from approximately 2200 to 2500 m (Abul-Haggag 1961) (FIGURE 1). In comparison to other parts of the highlands, the greater Asmara area is blessed with relatively fertile soils, a more moderate climate, a relatively flat plain for agriculture and a reliable supply of water.


Only Italian amateur archaeologists, V. Franchini and G. Tringali, focused on this region; their most significant identifications centred on what are called `Ona' sites. (2) The basic characteristics of the `Ona' sites and their material culture, particularly ceramics and ground and chipped stone figurines called `Bulls' heads', were described by Tringali in a number of Italian-language publications (Tringali 1965; 1967; 1969; 1973-77; 1980-81; 1987). These sites were mentioned and identified as Pre-Aksumite by Anfray (1970). The potential importance of the Ona finds went mostly unnoticed in the archaeological world until Rodolfo Fattovich drew attention to their significance for understanding early complex societies in the Horn. Calling these sites both the `Ona Culture' and `Ona Group-A', he argues that the Ona ceramics bear affinities to the black-topped ware of the Sudanese Nile Valley dating to approximately 1500 BC (Fattovich 1978; 1980; 1988; 1990). …