Ethiopia’s history as an organized and independent polity dates back to the first millennium BCE. Earlier, Egyptian pharaohs traded with the Land of Punt, probably somewhere along what is now the coast of Eritrea or possibly Somaliland. Around the 8th century BCE a kingdom known as Da*ma*t probably had its capital at Yeha, but the first state about which there is much real information is the kingdom at Axum in the northern Regional State (Killil) of Tigray. Axum emerged at the beginning of the Christian Era and flourished until around 800CE, before suffering prolonged decline over the next few centuries.
Axum’s period of greatest power lasted from the 4th through the 6th centuries CE. Its core area lay in the highlands of what’s today southern Eritrea, in Tigray and in Lasta and Angot, now part of the Amhara Regional State; its major centers were at Axum and the port of Adulis. Earlier centers, such as Yeha, also contributed to its growth. At the kingdom's height, its rulers controlled the Red Sea coast from Sawak in present day Sudan in the North to Berbera in the present-day Somaliland to the south. They were also active as far as the Nile valley in modern Sudan, attacking and destroying the kingdom of Meroe in the 4th century CE. On the Arabian side of the Red sea, Axumite rulers also controlled much of the coast and extensive areas of modern Yemen. The rulers of Axum were converted to Christianity in the mid 4th century CE.
The rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula had a significant impact on Axum kingdom during the seventh and eighth centuries. By the time of the Prophet Mohammed’s death (A.D.632), the Arabian Peninsula, and the entire opposite shore of the Red sea, had come under the influence of the new religion. The steady advance of Islam over the next century resulted in Islamic conquest of all of the former Sassanian empire and much of the Byzantine empire. Relations with Axum were not hostile at first. According to Islamic tradition, members of the Prophet’s family and some of his early converts had taken refuge in Axum during the troubled years preceding the Prophet’s rise to power, and Axum was declared exempt from the Jihad, or Holy war. The Arabs also considered the Axumite state to be one of the great powers of the time alongside the Islamic State, the Byzantine and Sassanian empires and China. Commerce between Axum and at least some ports on the Red sea continued, albeit on an increasingly reduced scale. Once the Axumite state had lost control of South West Arabia and of the Red Sea trade on which much of its wealth and power had been based, it gradually shrank to its core area, with the political center of the state shifting farther and farther southward inside Ethiopia.
Axum was abandoned as a political capital by the end of the seventh or eighth century (CE), becoming no more than a religious center and as a place of coronation for a succession of kings who traced their lineage to Axum. By then, Axumite cultural, political, and religious influence had been established south of Tigray in Agaw districts such as Lasta, Wag, and Angot and eventually, in Amhara areas. The move south continued over the following centuries with Axumite culture, Semitic languages and Christianity providing the driving force. By the tenth century, a post-Axumite Christian Agaw kingdom had emerged, controlling most of the highland areas from southern Eritrea to Shewa and holding much of the coast from Adulis as far south as Zeila in Somaliland, though the Caliphate controlled the trade of the Red Sea.
It is appropriate to start with the fossil evidence as Ethiopia has remains that cover much of human evolution ranging from Chororapithecus Abyssinicus, (12 to 7 million years ago), a possible ape relative of humanity, to Homo Sapiens Idaltu (‘Elder’) the earliest modern human fossil at 160,000 year old found in the Afar Regional State at Horto. Recent discoveries include the 4.4 million year old Ardipithecus Kadaba and Selam, an almost complete skeleton of a three year old female child dating to 3.3 million years ago. The most famous of the discoveries in the Afar region, of course, is that of Lucy (‘Dinkenesh’ – ‘wonderful’), the most complete skeleton of an early hominid yet found and dating back some 3.2 million years.A replica of her skeleton is on display in the National Museum of Ethiopia. Lucy (Australopithecus Afarensis) walked on two legs and stood about 3.5 feet tall.
Australopithecus subsequently evolved towards the genus Homo, with the appearance of Homo Habilis (2.4 - 1.8 million years) and Homo Erectus (1.4 – 1 million years), and then Homo Sapiens, probably about 200,000 years ago. There are several notable fossil sites in Ethiopia including the lower Omo Valley and the Awash Valley, both registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the latter including the Hadar area, Aramis and Melko Kunture, the scenes of numerous paleontological discoveries.