Humanlike fossils have been found in the Denakil depression dating back 3.5 million years; in 1981, the 4-million-year-old fossil bones of a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens were discovered in the Awash River Valley. Evidence of cereal agriculture dates back to about 5000 BC . Homer refers to the Ethiopians as a "blameless race," and Herodotus claims that they were known in his time as the "most just men"; to the Greeks, however, Ethiopia was a vague and semimythical area that did not exactly correspond to the modern country. Ethiopia first appears in written history as the Aksumite (or Axumite) Empire, which was probably established around the beginning of the Christian era, although national tradition attributes the foundation of the empire to Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Christianity was introduced in the 4th century by Frumentius of Tyre, who was appointed bishop of the Ethiopian diocese by Patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria. The rise of Islam in the 7th century and the subsequent conquest of Egypt created a crisis for the Coptic Christian communities of northeast Africa. Ethiopia alone met the challenge, surviving until the 1970s as a Christian island in a Muslim sea.
The Aksumite dynasty suffered a slow decline. In 1137, the ruler of Lasta (now Lalibela), Tékla Haimanot, overthrew the Aksumite emperor, Del-Naad, and established the Zagwe dynasty. In 1270, the throne was again restored to the Solomonic dynasty, with the accession of Yekuno Amlak in the province of Shewa. Subsequently, Emperor Amda-Seyon 1 (r.1314–44) reestablished the Ethiopian suzerainty over the Muslim principalities along the Horn of Africa. The Muslim penetration of the highland regions resumed in the early 16th century and, from 1527 to 1543, the Muslims threatened to overrun the entire empire. In 1541, Ethiopia enlisted the assistance of several hundred Portuguese musketmen against a jihad led by Imam Ahmad (known as Gragn, or "the left-handed"). With these superior weapons, Ahmad was defeated and killed in battle in 1543.
The 18th and 19th centuries formed a period of political decentralization and incessant civil war; this period is called the Zamana Masafint ("Era of the Princes"). A young general named Lij Kassa Haylu established a powerful army, which defeated the forces of his rivals. He was crowned Emperor Tewodros (Theodore II) in 1855 and succeeded in reunifying the empire, but he was defeated and killed by a British expeditionary force under Gen. Robert Napier in 1868. Italy occupied the Eritrean ports of Aseb (1869) and Mits'iwa (1885) and annexed Eritrea in 1890. The Italian advance was stopped by the defeat and total rout of a large Italian army by the Emperor Menelik II at Adwa in 1896, an Ethiopian victory that is still commemorated as a national holiday. Italy, however, maintained control of Eritrea and also occupied the coastal region of Banadir (Italian Somaliland) in 1900. Meanwhile, France and the UK had obtained Somali coastal enclaves through purchase and a series of protectorate treaties concluded in the past with local tribal chieftains.
Menelik died in 1913. Three years later, his grandson and successor, Lij Yasu, was deposed in favor of his aunt, Empress Zauditu (Judith). Ras Tafari Mekonnen of Shewa was selected as heir apparent and head of government. On 2 November 1930, he was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie I. Italy invaded and conquered Ethiopia in 1935–36. Forced to flee the country, the emperor returned in 1941 with the aid of British forces. By a UN decision, Eritrea, which had been under British administration since 1941, was federated to Ethiopia in 1952 and was incorporated into the empire 10 years later. By this time, an Eritrean secessionist movement was already stirring.
After an abortive coup in 1960, the emperor's political power began to lessen as political opposition increased. Guerrilla activity in Eritrea increased noticeably between 1970 and 1973; student and labor unrest also grew. After an official cover-up of catastrophic drought and famine conditions in Welo and Tigray provinces was uncovered in 1974, the armed forces overthrew the government. From 28 June to 12 September 1974, the emperor was systematically isolated and finally deposed. The monarchy was officially abolished in March 1975. Haile Selassie was killed while in the custody of security forces on 27 August 1975.
The new Provisional Military Administrative Council, also called the Dergue, came under the leadership of Maj. (later Lt. Col.) Mengistu Haile Mariam. The economy was extensively nationalized in 1975. Mengistu declared himself a Marxist-Leninist in 1976 and established close relations with Moscow. Perhaps 10,000 Ethiopians were killed in 1976–78, as the Dergue suppressed a revolt by civilian leftists that involved urban terrorism.
The war with Eritrean secessionists continued inconclusively until 1991. In mid-1977, Somalia invaded the Ogaden area to support the claims of ethnic Somalis there for self-determination. The assault was repulsed with the assistance of Soviet arms and Cuban soldiers in early 1978, when a 20-year treaty with the USSR was signed. Close links with Libya and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen were established in 1981. In 1982, Ethiopian troops attempted without success to topple the Somali government by mounting an invasion of some 10,000 Ethiopian troops in support of the insurgent Somali Salvation Democratic Front. Hostilities with Somalia later eased and diplomatic relations were reestablished in 1988. But relations with the Sudan soured, as each country supported insurgent movements in the other.
A devastating drought and famine struck northern Ethiopia during 1982–84, taking an unknown toll in lives. Between November 1984 and October 1985 an international relief effort distributed 900,000 tons of food to nearly eight million people. Food aid continued on a reduced scale, while the government launched massive resettlement programs that critics said were really intended to hamper the operations of armed insurgents and to collectivize agriculture.
The Worker's Party of Ethiopia (WPE) was established as the sole legal political party in 1984. Two years later, a constitutional document was unveiled for discussion; after minor changes it was approved by 81% of the voters in a referendum held on 1 February 1987. Later that year, another devastating drought struck northern Ethiopia, continuing into 1988.
Despite mobilizing one million troops and receiving massive Soviet bloc military aid, the government was not able to defeat the Eritrean and Tigrayan insurgencies. Led by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigre People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which is part of a larger coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) triumphed.
On 21 May 1991, Mengistu was forced to resign as president and fled to Zimbabwe. His vice president surrendered to EPRDF forces on May 27. The next day, Meles Zenawi, leader of the EPRDF, established an interim government. In July, delegates from the three victorious guerrilla groups agreed on a structure of an interim coalition government and to grant Eritrea the right to hold an internationally supervised referendum on independence.
In 1992, the multiparty government split sharply. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the second largest partner, withdrew from the coalition on 23 June. It claimed that the regional elections held on 21 June had been rigged by the EPRDF. The OLF and five other political groups had boycotted the elections. Some OLF forces took up arms against the government.
Amid the turbulence, the transitional government pledged to oversee the establishment of Ethiopia's first multiparty democracy. During 1993, a new constitution was drafted. For the transitional government, a 65-member Council of Representatives was created by the four constituent parties of the EPRDF, which was dominated by the TPLF, a Tigrayan ethnic party.
In June 1994, elections were held for the newly established Constituent Assembly. The EPRDF won 484 of 547 seats in a contest judged free and fair by observers. However, the majority of opposition candidates boycotted the elections under the banner of the Coalition of Alternative Forces for Peace and Democracy in Ethiopia (CAFPDE). The OLF also boycotted the election. The Assembly's first order of business was to draft a new constitution. When completed, the document called for the establishment of a bicameral legislature, a directly elected president, regional autonomy, including the right to secession, and the division of the country into nine states. Elections were held in 1995 for the Federal Parliamentary Assembly, consisting of the directly elected Council of People's Representatives and the Council of the Federation. Opposition parties again boycotted the elections resulting in a commanding majority for the EPRDF— 483 of 548 seats.
The political opposition's refusal to participate in elections has been a major problem for Ethiopia's fledgling democracy. Western governments and representatives of the OAU engaged the parties in talks prior to the 1995 balloting in the hopes of expanding participation, but opposition leaders insisted the government was impeding their efforts to fairly participate in the electoral process.
The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), the armed wing of the OLF, has continued armed struggle against the Ethiopian government. Fighting intensified with a series of battles between May and August 1999. Both sides claimed victory, giving conflicting figures for the dead and injured. Over 2,000 OLA and government soldiers may have died in the fighting. Military forces also intensified operations against the Somali-based Al'Itthad terrorist organization, rebel elements of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, and Tokuchuma (another terrorist group operating in eastern Ethiopia), both in the country and southern Somalia and in Northern Kenya. Ethiopia accused Eritrea and Somalia of financially supporting and training the OLF and Al'Ittihad.
Simmering tensions over border alignment with Eritrea came to a boil in 1998. Between 2 and 6 May 1998, Eritrean soldiers invaded and occupied Badme, in northeastern Ethiopia. Other areas were subsequently occupied in Tigray State. Ethiopia later recaptured Badme, but fighting continued, interspersed with periods of inactivity. A US- and Rwanda-sponsored peace plan proposed in early June 1998 failed; so did arbitration efforts by the then OAU. Each side claimed to accept an OAU framework agreement while accusing the other of making impossible preconditions to its implementation. The two and a half year war ended with a peace treaty on 12 December 2000, but some 4,200 UN soldiers remained on the border in July 2003 to monitor security in the buffer zone as experts from the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) physically demarcated the internationally recognized boundary established in April 2002.
Ethiopia's second multiparty elections occurred on 14 May 2000, but were marred by irregularities and violence at a number of polling stations requiring the rescheduling of voting in certain constituencies. Voting was postponed in Somali regional state because of severe drought. The results gave parties the following number of seats: OPDO 177, ANDM 134, TPLF 38, WGGPDO 27, EPRDF 19, SPDO 18, GNDM 15, KSPDO 10, ANDP 8, GPRDF 7, SOPDM 7, BGPDUF 6, BMPDO 5, KAT 4, other regional political A two and a half year border war with Eritrea ended with a peace treaty on 12 December 2000. groupings 22, independents 8. Forty-three seats were unconfirmed. On 8 October 2001, the House of People's Representatives elected Woldegiorgis Girma president. Girma received 100% of the vote for a six-year term.
By July 2003, Ethiopia was facing the prospect of yet another drought and food shortfalls for 2003-04. Over the past 30 years, rainfall levels have gradually fallen by as much as 23 millimeters a year, leaving some 12.6 million in need of food aid in 2003, or one in five of the population—at a cost of around US $800 million.