Geology of Ethiopia: A Review and Geomorphological Perspectives

  • Ernesto AbbateEmail author
  • Piero Bruni
  • Mario Sagri
Part of the World Geomorphological Landscapes book series (WGLC)


The Ethiopian region records about one billion years of geological history. The first event was the closure of the Mozambique ocean between West and East Gondwana with the development of the Ethiopian basement ranging in age from 880 to 550 Ma. This folded and tilted Proterozoic basement underwent intense erosion, which lasted one hundred million years, and destroyed any relief of the Precambrian orogen. Ordovician to Silurian fluviatile sediments and Late Carboniferous to Early Permian glacial deposits were laid down above an Early Paleozoic planation surface. The beginning of the breakup of Gondwana gave rise to the Jurassic flooding of the Horn of Africa with a marine transgression from the Paleotethys and the Indian/Madagascar nascent ocean. After this Jurassic transgression and deposition of Cretaceous continental deposits, the Ethiopian region was an exposed land for a period of about seventy million years during which a new important peneplanation surface developed. Concomitant with the first phase of the rifting of the Afro/Arabian plate, a prolific outpouring of the trap flood basalts took place predominantly during the Oligocene over a peneplained land surface of modest elevation. In the northern Ethiopian plateau, huge Miocene shield volcanoes were superimposed on the flood basalts. Following the end of the Oligocene, the volcanism shifted toward the Afar depression, which was experiencing a progressive stretching, and successively moved between the southern Ethiopian plateau and the Somali plateau in correspondence with the formation of the Main Ethiopian Rift (MER). The detachment of the Danakil block and Arabian subcontinent from the Nubian plate resulted in steep marginal escarpments marked by flexure and elongated sedimentary basins. Additional basins developed in the Afar depression and MER in connection with new phases of stretching. Many of these basins have yielded human remains crucial for reconstructing the first stages of human evolution. A full triple junction was achieved in the Early Pliocene when the MER penetrated into the Afar region, where the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea rifts were already moving toward a connection via the volcanic ranges of northern Afar. The present-day morphology of Ethiopia is linked to the formation of the Afar depression, MER, and Ethiopian plateaus. These events are linked to the impingement of one or more mantle plumes under the Afro-Arabian plate. The elevated topography of the Ethiopian plateaus is the result of profuse volcanic accumulation and successive uplift. This new highland structure brought about a reorganization of the East Africa river network and a drastic change in the atmospheric circulation.


Paleogeography of Ethiopia Ethiopian volcanites Planation surfaces Ethiopian highlands Main Ethiopian Rift Afar depression 



Constructive commentaries and careful editorial suggestions by Frances Williams (Adelaide University, Australia) greatly improved the manuscript. The authors have benefited from helpful discussions in the field with Abebe Tsegaye (MASSA Spin off, Pisa, Italy) and Miruts Hagos (Mekele University, Ethiopia) and in the office with Marco Bonini, Giacomo Corti, and Federico Sani (Department of Earth Sciences, Florence University, Italy). Special thanks to World Geomorphological Landscapes Series Editor Piotr Migoń (University of Wrocław, Poland) for his precious editorial assistance. We are grateful to Volume Editor Paolo Billi (Ferrara University, Italy) who prompted our contribution and gave valuable suggestions.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dipartimento di Scienze della TerraUniversità di FirenzeFlorenceItaly

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