Economic Botany

, Volume 62, Issue 4, pp 547–566 | Cite as

T’ef (Eragrostis tef) in Ancient Agricultural Systems of Highland Ethiopia

  • A. C. D’AndreaEmail author


T’ef ( Eragrostis tef ) in Ancient Agricultural Systems of Highland Ethiopia. T’ef (Eragrostis tef) has been cultivated in the Horn of Africa for at least 2,000 years. The earliest known agricultural systems in this region date to the Pre-Aksumite period (800–400 b.c.) and appear to have focused on Near Eastern crops, with indigenous African species increasing in importance during Aksumite times (400 b.c.a.d. 700). While palaeoethnobotanical data are available from Pre-Aksumite and late Aksumite periods, macroscopic botanical remains from the site of Ona Nagast, northern Ethiopia, provide a first glimpse of agricultural systems dating to Proto-Aksumite (400–50 b.c.), Early to Classic (50 b.c.a.d. 340), and Post-Aksumite (a.d. 700–900) times. Archaeological t’ef remains from Ona Nagast are examined in detail. Guidelines are developed for the identification of t’ef grains preserved on archaeological sites, with a focus on how to differentiate them from seeds of wild Eragrostis species. Charring experiments reveal that in some cases t’ef may not survive high temperatures tolerated by larger cereal grains, such as wheat and barley. The domestication history of t’ef appears to be different from some other cereals, a factor which may explain the preponderance of indeterminate Eragrostis seeds in archaeological samples. Selection of large seed size and intensified tillage were not key factors in t’ef domestication. Early cultivators were likely selecting for increased branching and higher percentage seed set under conditions of minimal tillage.

Key Words

Ethiopia Eritrea ancient subsistence domestication t’ef 



I am grateful to Professors Rodolfo Fattovich (University of Naples, “L’Orientale”) and Kathryn Bard (Boston University) for providing the opportunity to work with the joint IUO/BU expedition to Aksum in 1996–1998. I especially wish to thank Prof. Fattovich for his advice and encouragement provided during my first visit to Ethiopia in 1996. The residents of Bieta Giyorgis kindly shared information about their farming activities. I would like to express my gratitude to Mr. Jara Hailemariam and Dr. Jonas Beyene of the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Addis Ababa, as well as the Aksum Bureau of Tourism and Culture. The palaeoethnobotanical component of the Bieta Giyorgis field work was financially supported by the IUO/BU Project and a Simon Fraser University Internal Research Grant. A special thanks to Dr. Michael DiBlasi (Boston University), Dr. Andrea Manzo, and Prof. Yaqob Beyene (both of University of Naples, “L’Orientale”) for providing advice during fieldwork. Flotation would not have been possible without the assistance of Mr. Aklilu Berhane and various members of the Africa Hotel staff. Prof. Julie Hansen (Boston University) designed the water sieve and completed the first season of archaeobotanical sampling at Ona Nagast. Jennifer Ramsay (Simon Fraser University) oversaw the charring experiments and tabulated the data, assisted by Amanda Logan (University of Michigan). This work was supported by the Simon Fraser University Work Study program. Dr. Luisa Sernicola (University of Naples, “L’Orientale”) generously provided access to IKONOS satellite imagery and completed Fig. 3. I thank Hannes Dempewolf (University of British Columbia) and Dr. Laurence Pavlish (University of Toronto), who kindly provided insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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© The New York Botanical Garden 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologySimon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada

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