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Northeast African Studies 7.3 (2000) 21-33

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On Being "First":

Making History by Two's in Southern Ethiopia

University of California, Davis

Southern Ethiopia is a structuralist's delight. Here are dozens of cultural groups, many small, in historical interaction for millennia, all different in one way or another, but all resembling one another as well. Had his personal history been different, Lévi-Strauss might well have made Ethiopia his laboratory, and most of his structuralist points would have emerged as clearly as in South America.

Structuralist insights are important, but here I would like to argue for an ultimately different approach that attempts to look at cultural variation in the context of regional historical processes. If one takes the example of dual organization, Lévi-Strauss seized upon it because dualism epitomized for him the logically simplest and most sociologically elegant way of institutionalizing the principle of reciprocity: all of society is divided into As and Bs, and the continuance of social life depends upon the give-and-take between these two. In this way, Lévi-Strauss soared from the details of obscure South American ethnography to the most fundamental assumptions about sociality and "the structure of the human mind."

My own bent is to stay closer to the ground and to attempt to base comparison in the contours of regional histories. The immediate difficulty that one faces is, of course, that we know so little, in fact, about the long-term history of southern Ethiopia. What we do know is that the Ethiopian highlands were a center of proliferation of extremely ancient languages and cultures. The family of Afro-Asiatic languages includes Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic, Berber, Chadic, and Ancient Egyptian. Of [End Page 21] these six, three occur in present-day Ethiopia, making it a plausible point of origin and dispersal for all of the Afro-Asiatic languages.

Over the past two millennia, one of the most consequential processes in northeast African history has been the creation and expansion of northern, mostly Semitic-speaking empires into the south. Donald Levine has analyzed this process in Greater Ethiopia (2000), and a collection of essays edited by Wendy James and myself, The Southern Marches of Imperial Ethiopia (Donham and James 2002), took up the particularities of the period from the late nineteenth century to 1974. Looked at overall, this history of the expansion of the power of Semitic-speakers and the eventual assimilation of many Cushitic- and Omotic-speaking groups to Semitic language and culture is understood now, at least in outline. Only one of the residues of this complicated history is the presence of words in Amharic for spiritual beings other than God that have been borrowed from both Cushitic and Omotic languages. As Levine has argued, northern Ethiopians' possession of the book, and as others have suggested, their dependence upon the plow, made the dynamics of the expansion somewhat different from that typically found in the rest of Africa.

But any similar understanding of the outlines of the long-term cultural history of Omotic- and Cushitic-speakers is less developed. Some work has been done on the Oromo expansion, but a large-scale regional synthesis remains to be done. Part of the problem is, of course, a lack of historical data on an area without written indigenous languages. Another difficulty is understanding Cushitic- and Omotic-speaking cultures in their own terms—not just as they contribute to a supposed Ethiopian synthesis.

This paper is a preliminary attempt to analyze a recurrent theme in southern Ethiopian history. It is speculative to a degree, and because it proceeds largely from one small group—the Maale—rather than covering the vast array of southern peoples and cultures, it will inevitably be biased.

How does one do a comparison in a historically sensitive way in a context in which we in fact know very little history—at least history of the conventional sort? Here, I take my lead from Igor Kopytoff's stimulating essay (1987) on the frontier in African history...


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