Omotics Advance Farming Practices in Horn of Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Omotic peoples cultivated the ensete plant and yams and later interacted with Cushitic cattle and grain farmers to create an elaborate agricultural system that used irrigation, plowing, fertilizing, and stone-terraced mountainsides.

Summary of Event

Omotic populations descend from ancient southern Afrasans of northeast Africa who inhabited the southwestern region of what is now known as Ethiopia. Omotic culture began to emerge as a distinct ethnic group around 6500 b.c.e. The proto-Omotic peoples were at the forefront of a major cultural development in southern Ethiopia’s highlands, where they pioneered the cultivation of the ensete plant and Ethiopian yams. By the early third millennium b.c.e., Omotic populations had initiated another set of agricultural innovations in collaboration with their Cushitic and Nilo-Saharan neighbors. Cross-cultural interactions in the southern regions of the Ethiopian highlands on the Rift Valley borders resulted in the spreading across Ethiopia’s highlands of irrigation and plowing, which came into practice by 2500 b.c.e.

Historically, the Ethiopian highlands were well positioned for agricultural invention and innovation. Surrounded by the Afrasan and Nilo-Saharan populations as well as the peoples of the Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula, the populations of the Ethiopian highlands have been able to draw from a variety of traditions in conceiving and crafting new forms of subsistence production. This central part of the Horn of Africa has provided an unusual environment for populations, which have had to endure the climate changes that have occurred over the millennia. As climate and rainfall patterns have shifted and affected economic choices throughout the Horn of Africa, the people of the Ethiopian highlands also faced challenges but were able to maintain a varied agricultural system because of the region’s high altitude, which ranges from 3,300 to 13,100 feet (1,000 to 4,000 meters), and environmental diversity.

The southern Afrasan, proto-Omotic populations first began to use uncultivated ensete (Ensete ventricosum) and to protect the plant in its natural habitat around 6000 b.c.e. True cultivation of ensete emerged among proto-Omotic populations between 6000 and 5000 b.c.e. because of climatic changes and increased rainfall that turned grasslands into forest in the Ethiopian highlands. Because the grains and sedges that Afrasan populations had collected for consumption became less plentiful as rainfall increased, the proto-Omotic people of the southern highlands increasingly shifted to tending the wild and abundant ensete by clearing land and cutting back forest to shelter the plant. Ensete, which thrives in high-rainfall regions, resembles the banana plant, with a fleshy stalk containing soft, pulpy tissue, but is fruitless. The pulp of the ensete trunk was dried, pounded, and used to make flour for porridge. This starchy staple was eaten with stews, vegetables, and sauces.

The Omotic populations of the sixth millennium b.c.e. inhabited the highlands bordered by Cushitic-speaking agropastoralists in the lowlands on the east, northeast, and southeast. In the west, Omotic communities shared borders with Sudanic pastoralists, particularly the East Sahelians and Nilotes of the lowlands. Between 5500 and 3500 b.c.e., Cushitic populations absorbed large segments of the Omotic population as they settled on Omotic land. The synthesis between Omotic ensete cultivation and the Cushitic farming practices of grain cultivation and livestock domestication (cattle, sheep, and goats) enhanced the economic options of lowland and highland populations.

Omotic peoples spoke languages of the Afrasan language family (also referred to as the Afroasiatic family), but lived in close proximity to Saharo-Sahelians, speakers of languages from the Nilo-Saharan language family. In this multicultural and multilingual context, there was a mixing of agricultural traditions as Nilo-Saharan farmers domesticated gourds, watermelons, and castor beans, which spread northward to Egypt and east into the Rift Valley region by 3500 b.c.e. Gourds and beans added nutritional complexity to the diet.

Between 3500 and 1000 b.c.e., Cushitic populations were involved in a series of expansions into lands inhabited by Omotics. The Agaw Cushites became established in the north and north-central highlands at some point during this period. The Agaw carried finger millet, t’eff, wheat, and barley cultivation into the southern frontier of their settlements and absorbed the existing Omotic populations. The Agaw who moved into the northern highlands dominated because grain was better suited to cultivation in the northern highlands than ensete after the climate shifted back to being arid around 2000 b.c.e.

In the far south, the Eastern Cushites moved into the eastern highlands following the path of the dry Rift Valley lands and raising livestock such as cattle and goats. The Eastern Cushites also cultivated finger millet while the Omotic populations in the bordering highlands continued to grow ensete. The Highlands Eastern Cushites emerged as a subculture of Eastern Cushites by the second millennium b.c.e. They moved into the western edges of the rift onto Omotic lands, which created more of a cultural synthesis than did the Agaw movements. The major crop in the regions settled by the Highlands Eastern Cushites continued to be ensete, and finger millet served as an important secondary staple. Not later than the second millennium b.c.e., the Highlands Eastern Cushites developed an irrigation system on the slopes of the Rift Valley that employed natural streams and gravity to create furrows to move water to cultivated lands. The creation of this system corresponds to the drying out of the climate around 2000 b.c.e. The synthesis of Omotic and Highlands Eastern Cushites peoples resulted in some communities speaking Ometo and others speaking Highlands Eastern Cushitic, but all cultivated the two primary staple crops and raised cattle. Although the cultures divided linguistically, their cultures and economies blended. The Ometo speakers were in many areas absorbed by Cushites but not completely, as after 500 b.c.e., there was a resurgence and spread of Omotic populations and culture.


Life in northeastern Africa before 6000 b.c.e. was predominantly dependent on food collection. This lifestyle of searching for and gathering wild game and foodstuffs became increasingly sedentary and agrarian in nature between 6000 and 4000 b.c.e. The invention of ensete agriculture among the southernmost Afrasans located in the Ethiopian highlands was one of three independent inventions of agriculture that had occurred in Africa by 5000 b.c.e. and was the second invention that had occurred in the Horn of Africa. Although ensete cultivation began in the southern highlands with proto-Omotic cultivators, it spread into the northern and central highlands.

By 2500 b.c.e., agriculture had become increasingly intensive in nature. The Highlands Eastern Cushite agropastoralists developed a system of irrigation at about the same time that three other important agricultural techniques—terracing, fertilizing, and plowing—began to be used in the area. These techniques, used in combination, facilitated agricultural intensification, allowed for longer continuous cultivation of a plot of land without leaving it fallow, and increased yields. Stone and mud-wall terracing, which created new land on steep slopes, began to be employed in the highlands between the third and second millenniums b.c.e. Terracing also helped farmers minimize soil erosion. The plow, which had spread from the Middle East via Egypt into the highlands, was used in the regions of Ethiopia in which volcanic topsoil provided a buffer (this type of land is not typical of most other regions of Africa). The presence of the plow and of wheat and barley demonstrate the ways in which culture and economy moved across large world regions even in ancient times.

With these varied agricultural practices, the Highland Eastern Cushites were able to prepare more of the increasingly dry Rift Valley lands for cultivation. The Highland Eastern Cushites expanded their settlements the length of the valley along the highlands and carried these innovations to new regions. Neighboring populations adopted combinations of fertilizing with manure, plowing, terracing, and irrigation. By the mid-second millennium b.c.e., Omotic and Eastern Cushitic populations in both the highlands and lowlands of southern Ethiopia had incorporated these practices to varying degrees. In the lowlands, populations such as the Eastern Cushites, Proto-Oromo, and Omo of the Tana River region continued to grow grain crops and raise livestock using the new techniques of intensification. They traded their lowland products for crops and products that could not be produced in the dry lowlands, even with irrigation. Meanwhile, in the southern highlands, unlike in the north, rainfall remained at levels conducive to the cultivation of ensete.

The interactions among the populations of Omotics, lowland and highland Cushites, Nilotes, and Sudanians in northeastern Africa demonstrate how diverse and complex this region was culturally and economically in ancient times. The Ethiopian highlands was a region in which new agricultural ideas were being invented or adapted and put into practice as early as the seventh millennium b.c.e., and at the same time, it was a region from which ideas and products were diffusing to other parts of the world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bender, Lionel M. The Nilo-Saharan Languages: A Comparative Essay. Munich, Germany: Lincom Europa, 1997. An in-depth analysis of the Nilo-Saharan language family, geared toward specialists in linguistics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002. A textbook survey of Africa before, during, and after the agricultural revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehret, Christopher. A Historical-Comparative Reconstruction of Nilo-Saharan. Cologne, Germany: R. Köppe Verlag, 2001. An analysis of Nilo-Saharan languages in historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pankhurst, Richard. The Ethiopians: A History. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers, 2001. Covers the ancient history of Ethiopia from the era before the interactions of Abyssinia and the pharaohs of Egypt up to the modern period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillipson, David W. “The Antiquity of Cultivation and Herding in Ethiopia.” In Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals, and Towns, edited by Thurstan Shaw et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. The book covers a number of historical topics that influenced ancient African history, from climate and geography to Iron Age tools and economies. Draws heavily from archaeological data. Phillipson’s article discusses the antiquity of cultivation and herding in Ethiopia and contains maps, images, and a description of the various crops.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ruskin, F. R., ed. Lost Crops of Africa: Grains. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1996. This excellent source on grain origins gives a detailed list and description of the crops indigenous to Africa such as t’eff, millet, and sorghum and gives a historical account of grain domestication.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sato, Shun, and Eisei Kurimoto. “Essays in Northeast African Studies.” In Senri Ethnological Studies. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 1996. This study covers riverbank cultivation in the Lower Omo Valley and the intensive farming system in southwestern Ethiopia. Includes a section on cultivation strategies and historical change in the Horn of Africa.

Categories: History