The Ethiopian Ethnic Manuscript Library Outreach Pages
Site hosted by Build your free website today!

The Short Profile Notes on Ethnic Groups of Ethiopia

The Afar
The Amhara
The Oromo
The Anuak
The Konso
The Sidamo
The Suri
The Tigrai
The Somalis
The Arabs
The Falasha


Anthropologists recognize three major population groups in East Africa today: the Cushites, the Nilotes, and the Bantu. The Cushites are considered to have been the first food producers in East Africa and to have originated in the Ethiopian highlands. From there the Cushites have spread to other highland regions and lands supportive of agriculture through East Africa. Today Cushitic languages are spoken in Somalia, Ethiopia, and northeast Kenya. Ethiopian Cushitic groups include the Amhara, the Oromo, and the Konso. The Swahili and Somali are also thought to have Cushitic ancestors.

The major ethnic groups of Ethiopia are the Afar, the Amhara, the Somali and the Oromo. The Anuak, , the Konso, the Sidamo, the Suri, and the Tigrai are a few of the other ethnic groups known in Ethiopia. In addition, Arabs and others can be found in the country. The Jewish population was historically large, but the Ethiopian Jews known as the Falasha, have all but emigrated to Israel.

The Afar

The Afar live in the Danakil Desert of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. There are approximately 1,500,000 Afar. Over recent centuries, the Afar have become a nomadic people living in the highlands. Before a thousand years ago, they were sedentary and kept livestock. Today most Afar remain pastoral nomads although some have migrated to cities like Addis Ababa. Their herds are made up of desert-adapted goats, sheep, and cattle. The Danakil is quite dry and barren, and the herds are moved from one water hole to the next. The Afar often gather along the most important river in the region, the Awash. The Awash rises in the mountains and carries down a great deal of water, but the heat is so great, it dries up and ends in Lake Abbe before reaching the Red Sea. For the Afar, the only rainy season occurs in November.

As nomads, the Afar are often on the move. Their shelter, called the ari, is made of many flexible sticks covered with mat and appears half-round when assembled. The Afar sleep inside on other mats resting on piles of sticks. When camp is made, the women build the houses and arrange the beds. They also keep the camp clean, look after the children, and watch the animals.

The Afar get things they can't provide for themselves through trade. They trade animal products and blocks of salt which they can dig out of the desert. In return they receive grain and vegetables.

Although the Afar may seem to have a simple society, they recognize among themselves two social classes: the asaimara (the "reds") who are generally politically dominant and the adoimara (the "whites") who are often the workers and are considered to be the lower class.

Their language, also called Afar, is a Cushitic language. In the tenth century, about the same time the Afar began to adopt nomadism, they came in contact with the Arabs and were converted to Islam. However, today the Afar practice a modified Islam which includes some of their older religious beliefs, particularly a dominant Sky-god.

The Afar were not content with Ethiopian rule and formed the Afar Liberation Front in 1975 to organize their rebellion against the Ethiopian government. Although Eritrea won autonomy for itself in 1993, the Afar still struggle for their own recognition.

The Amhara

The Amhara are about 6 million, and they make up about 15 percent of Ethiopia's population. Most of them live in the hills to the north of Addis Ababa, the capital city, in a region centered on L. Tana and the headwaters of the Blue Nile. These highland lie to the west of the Danakil Desert.

The Amhara have lived in Ethiopia for over two thousand years and belong to the larger ethnic category of Cushite peoples. It is thought that the Cushites were the first food producers (i.e., growers of crops) in Africa. However, the Amhara are probably not purely Cushite. Since this region has been the site of international trade routes for thousands of years and it is known that the Amhara have been influenced by Semitic cultures of Arabia, many suggest the Amhara have some Arab and Greek origin as well.

Today about 90 percent of the Amhara remain rural. In the highlands, the Amhara can usually grow just enough food to sustain themselves. Until the revolution, many of the farmers did not own their own land. The landowners lived elsewhere and kept the farmers tied to their land as a result of accumulated debts. During and after the revolution of the 1970s, various solutions were tried, but none worked. Rural officials continued to maintain strict control. Farmers were forced into villages and controlled farm conglomerates or sent to remote areas where conditions were poor. Severe droughts in recent decades triggered a major famine in the 1980s, and many Amhara and other Ethiopians attempted to migrate.

Grains grown by Amhara farmers include barley, corn, millet, wheat and teff. Teff, another staple food, is rich in protein and iron and is unique to Ethiopia where it is made into injera, a spongy bread. Farmers are also able to grow some vegetables including beans and peppers. In the lower lands, farmers can produce two crops per year, but at higher elevations, only one crop is possible. They use oxen to pull their plows and also keep poultry, sheep, and goats. Donkeys and mules often provide transportation. Coffee is grown and gathered wild. As is common in farming societies, men till the soil and care for the larger animals. Women manage the grinding and baking and other household affairs. Boys and girls begin to learn their respective adult tasks at a young age. Amhara houses usually have a circular base with walls made out of wattle and daub (twigs and packed mud). The roofs are thatched (twigs and grasses).

The Amhara originally were concentrated further south. As the Aksum Empire began to decline around 400 AD, the Amhara moved gradually into the political vacuum. When Aksum's ruler converted to Christianity in the early 4th century, the Amhara also began adopting that religion. With the spread of Islam, beginning in the seventh century, the Amhara eventually became an isolated Christian population until early modern times. Eventually they became associated with the ruling class of Ethiopia. Recent rebellions by other ethnic groups in Ethiopia have been regarded by these groups as rebellions against Amhara domination.

Like the Afar, the Amhara are Cushitic, but the language, Amharic, tacitly Ethiopia's official language, is classified as a Semitic language. Amharic is related to Ge'ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia, which has always been used by the Ethiopian Church. Amharic, or Ge'ez as it appeared in its earlier form, has been a written language for over two thousand years, and its script forms were based in part on ancient Arabian script. Amharic art is also deeply rooted in religious practice.

The Oromo

The Oromo are a large ethnic group dominating southeastern Ethiopia and parts of northern Kenya. Population estimates indicate about 25 million Oromo. Their territory was once an independent country. The Oromo make up approximately 30 percent of the population of Ethiopia and are themselves divided into numerous subgroups.

The Oromo were originally nomadic cattle-herders keeping also sheep, goats, and donkeys. Some groups even have horses and camels. They did no hunting and fishing and lived off a primarily meat and dairy diet. In the highlands, however, they have become sedentary farmers growing grains and coffee as well as keeping poultry and livestock. House and clothing styles vary among the many subgroups.

Before the Oromo were restricted by the national government, they ruled themselves locally through a very interesting system. All men's lives were divided into eleven phases according to age. These phases are called age-grades and can be found in a variety of forms in many societies all over the world. Oromo men who were in grades six through eight could rule the group if chosen. After that, men could be advisers for three grades, and then they would retire but that kind of political service.

Like many other Ethiopians, the Oromo are Cushites, speaking a Cushitic language called Oromo, and have been part of Ethiopia since the sixteenth century when they migrated northward into the country by what was described by a contemporary as a “series of raids.” These raids were gradually followed by a period of permanent settlement. During the sixteenth century, the Oromo developed the sill of riding horses, undoubtedly an advantage for mobility and expansion. In the seventeenth century, the Oromo became more integrated into the empire, and at times Oromo leaders held positions of considerable power. Tewodros II (ruled 1855-1868) suppressed Oromo influence severely.

During the revolutionary years of the twentieth century, the Oromo have been one of the ethnic groups fighting for independence, but they have not yet fared well in the struggle and are currently under military occupation by the government. Although the Oromo were not unified politically, they did have a complex culture including, among other things, their own calendar, which has since been supplanted by the Muslim calendar.

In religion, the Oromo are both Christian and Muslim, and some Oromo still practice their own native religion. Other Oromo choose to practice either Christianity or Islam in addition to the native religion. Some Oromo were probably attracted to the religion of Islam at least in part in order to escape or oppose domination by the Christian Amhara.

The Anuak

The Anuak are a smaller ethnic group that number about 80,000. They live on both sides of the border of southern Sudan and western Ethiopia. A civil war in the Sudan caused many Anuak to cross the border into Ethiopia for safety. Most Anuak today are farmers, but in the past they had concentrated on cattle herding. Their culture and language still retains an emphasis on this cattle-herding past.

The Issa

The Issa are a Somali people found throughout Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea. There are perhaps around 3,000,000 Issa altogether with approximately 1,050,000 in Ethiopia (mostly in the northern part). Historically, Issa and Afar communities lived peacably. As has happened elsewhere in Africa, however, competing European colonial interests, particularly in the nineteenth century, tended to favor one ethnic group over another thus creating tensions where none had existed before. In the case of the Issa, French interests in Somalia stressed divisions and favored the Afar.

The Konso

Konso is a name given to three related ethnic groups in southern Ethiopia: the Garati, the Takadi, and the Turo. These three groups speak similar dialects of the Konso language which is an eastern Cushitic language. Altogether there are probably less than 100,000 Konso in Ethiopia.

The Konso build walled towns of which they have more than thirty. The walls around the towns are intended as defense against surprise attacks and are generally between ten and sixteen feet in height. These walled spaces are often situated on hilltops or other defensible sites. Most of the Konso, however, are farmers and spend their days out on the land where they grow various grains and vegetables.

The Sidamo

The Sidamo are a Cushitic people who live near Lake Abaya in southwestern Ethiopia. Their population numbers around 1.5 million. The majority of the Sidamo practice the native Sidamo religion which involves a special reverence to ancestors. The second most common Sidamo religion is Christianity, followed by Islam. A new religion combining aspects of these three religions has recently been growing among the Sidamo. The Sidamo are closely related to the Oromo and are in many respects similar to them.

The Suri

The Suri are a small group totalling around 50,000 of which the majority live in Ethiopia. Their region lies on the border between southwestern Ethiopia and the Sudan. Their language is not Cushitic but falls into a group that may be Nilotic. The Suri raise cattle for a living. During the conflicts of recent decades, they have found themselves in between warring factions and have taken to protecting their herds on a routine basis with rifles. They have for the present become virtually self-governing in their remote area. Those Suri living in more arid regions were severely affected by the drought and famine which struck much of Ethiopia in the 1980s.

The Tigrai

The Tigrai, or Tigrinya, are centered in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia in the province of Tigrai. It was in this territory that the ancient kingdom of Aksum had its capital. The Tigrai totaling about seven million in both nations combined, form about seven percent of Ethiopia's population and have at times been an important political force in the country. Their language is related to Amharic and ancient Ge'ez but is classed a Semitic. Some Tigrai leaders have reigned as Ethiopian emperors, the last having ruled in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Tigrai have been directly involved in the present division of Ethiopia into ethnic regions, which critics call the Ethiopian Apartheid.

The Somalis

Certainly the majority of Somalis live in Somalia, but sizable groups live also in Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and Djibouti. Of the over Fourteen million Somalis, perhaps Seven million live in eastern Ethiopia. Recent political disturbances in their homeland have driven many Somalis to other countries as refugees.

The Somalis settled a coastal region by the year 1000 AD that had close contacts with Arabs and Persians. By the thirteenth century, the Somalis converted to Islam. Somali society was divided into clans (groups of people who claim a common ancestor but do not maintain a clear genealogy), and several of the influential ones by 1500 claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad himself. At this time, the Somalis began expanding their territory at the expense of Oromo, and the former were well consolidated for some centuries. However, in the nineteenth century, colonial powers Britain, France and Italy, along with Ethiopia, split Somalia up into subject provinces. Although British and Italian Somalilands became united in 1960 into the independent state of Somalia, a dictatorship soon set in that became a focal point in the cold war struggle between the USA and the USSR. After the Ethiopian revolution, Somalia supported Ethiopian Somalis in their push for union with their neighbor, but the Ethiopian government gave the Somalis in that country a level of autonomy in 1994 which effectively ended further efforts to rebellion. Somewhat earlier in 1991, however, rebel forces took the Somali capital of Mogadishu followed by a period of fighting between clan factions. The resulting governmental breakdown and massive famines caused five years of extreme hardship, and the Somali situation remains unstable.

Somalis lead a variety of lifestyles because their climate and terrain are so variable. Some Somalis live as nomads while others grow a variety of crops.

Somali social structure is organized by the principle of clans. There are six major clans and numerous subclans. Marriage is exogamous, meaning that men and women are required to marry outside their own clan. This system creates two kinds of useful alliances which encourage families and communities to assist each other. Not only will clan members feel an obligation to help each other out in times of troubles, but alliances between clans created by marriage can also be called upon to relieve social stress and enforce peaceful behavior. Maintaining marriage alliances between clans was a great advantage during the debilitating famines and serious conflicts of recent decades.

The Somali language has been heavily influenced by Arabic, but in 1972 a decision was made to write it in the Roman script (such as used by European languages among others).

The great majority of Somalis are Muslim due to the strong historic Arabic influence on their culture.


The Arabs of North Africa are today intermarried with the various original populations spread throughout the region. Ethnic Arabs in Africa number over 100 million, more than live today in Saudi Arabia. Arabs have lived in Ethiopia in varying numbers, but although their religion may be dominant in Ethiopia today, Arabic populations themselves do not live there in any significant numbers.

The Falasha

Those that remain of the Falasha, the Ethiopian Jews, in Ethiopia now live in the highlands of the northern part of the country. Most have recently emigrated to Israel giving rise to their collective name of Beta Israel. Perhaps only a few thousand remain in Ethiopia, but some estimates are over ten thousand. Most Falasha speak either Tigrinya or Amharic depending on where they live. They are only beginning to adopt Hebrew as a language. Their origins are obscure, but some scholars connect their presence in Ethiopia with the Jewish exodus from Egypt described in the Old Testament. Others suggest that they arrived later. Greek records mention Jews in Ethiopia as early as 200 BC. Falasha tradition holds that they descend from the son of the Queen of Sheeba and King Solomon and who was thus the founder of the Ethiopian Solomonic dynasty of emperors (of whom Haile Selassie, died 1974, was the last). The Falasha enjoyed considerable influence in Ethiopia during the Zagwe dynasty beginning in 960 AD, but they suffered through persecution during later periods.

Recommended Reading

Burstein, Stanley, ed. (1998) Ancient African civilizations : Kush and Axum. Princeton, NJ: M. Wiener Publishers

Diagram Group. Encyclopedia of African peoples. New York: Facts on File, 2000. 



Ethnic Groups of Ethiopia © Copyright 1954-2003 by CODKA SOMALIAGALBEEDL

Email Codka