The ancestors of the Tigrinya people

The ancestors of the Tigrinya people

Eritrean woman wearing traditional Tigrinya gold head jewelry and dress - Photo Credit: Helena Yohannes

The Tigrinya people, who are also known as the Kebessa people, are the largest ethnic group in Eritrea. They speak Tigrinya, a Semetic language derived from Ge'ez, and largely inhabit the plateau of the country. Because of their language and script (Fidel), many colonial-era scholars assumed Tigrinya people were of a mixed Yemeni (Sabaean) and Eritrean origin. Despite lacking evidence for this claim, this narrative still persists today, albeit waning.

According to Professor Peter R. Schmidt, the ancestors of the Tigrinya people, and other groups within the Horn of Africa, adopted South Arabian derived languages, not because they were mixed with Sabaeans or colonized by them, but because they were "within the orbit of Sabaean economic and religious spheres of influence, and local African elites likely used symbolic materials to signal 'Sabaean' identity for reasons of social differentiation, but the seeds of urbanism and local industry were planted locally long before."[1]

Schmidt also adds:

"Pre-Aksumite" incorporation of such elements may have taken place over many generations rather than being the products of a limited number of South Arabian colonization or migration events, nor do they signify a dominant vs. subordinate or core vs. periphery relationship between polities. Elites of peer polities or co-evolving polities of relative parity in sociopolitical development and economy may actively appropriate symbols and objects from one another for use in internal legitimization. This is a view of active engagement and critical selection from a diverse repertoire of elements in the southern Red Sea cultural milieu, not a passive incorporation from colonizing populations; it is a perspective that promotes "Pre-Aksumite" agency and creates a more dynamic picture of cultural transformation in the 1st millennium BCE.[2]

To give a related example, king  Zoscales of Adulis, who ruled in the 1st century CE, was known to speak and write in Greek.[3] In fact, Hellenic influences on the region were so strong that nearly all inscriptions until the early 4th century CE were made in Greek.[4] The elite inhabitants of the region adopted Greek for the same reasons they adopted Sabaean material culture: because they were within the economic and cultural influences of these polities. Additionally, by connecting themselves with foreign kingdoms and empires, the elites were seeking to legitimize their rule domestically.

So who are the ancestors of the Tigrinya people?

Although our knowledge of ancient Eritrea is still in its infancy, the archaeological remains found in the plateaus around Asmara indicate a pastoralist society (with some limited agriculture capacity) was inhabiting the region in the 2nd millennium BCE.[5] These early groups of people produced Black Ware pottery, which have historically been associated with the Beja people.[6]

Around 2,000 B.C. pastoral people from the deserts of southern Egypt and northern Sudan entered the Barka Valley and northern highlands, pushing the first wave southwards. These people were the forerunners of the Beja tribes, who for many hundreds of years seem to have been the only independent pastoralists in Africa.[7]

By the early 1st Millenium BCE, these pastoralist people gradually shifted to settled farming communities in the greater Asmara Plateau. As a result, from 800 to 400 BCE, the oldest settled civilization in the Horn of Africa developed in what archaeologists regard as the Ancient Ona cultures of Asmara (Ona means ruins in Tigrinya).

The settlement's inhabitants lived in stone houses, ate cows and goats, drank beer, farmed fertile land and wore animal skins.

Tools for tanning and softening hides have been discovered, along with needles, stone implements for punching leather, and bronze buttons.

To conserve heat on the cool highland plateau, houses did not have any doors, they were entered through openings in the roof.[8]

The migration and assimilation of the Balaw people

During the second wave of the Beja migrations into Eritrea, the Balaw (Belew) people, a then predominantly Christian group of mixed Beja and Bedouin ancestry, entered the country and established the Balaw kingdoms between the 12th and 16th centuries CE. Despite being politically dominate in Eritrea for several centuries, they assimilated with the Tigrinya, Tigre, and Bilen ethnic groups and adopted their languages and cultures. They are even still remembered in oral traditions among several Eritrean ethnic groups.

"...between the 12th and 16th centuries CE peoples of mixed Beja and Arab ancestry known as the Balaw (Belew) seem to have been politically dominant in much of Eritrea (Conti Rossini 1928; Munzinger 1 864; Zaborski 1 976). The Beja were known to be in the Asmara area (see Conti Rossini 1928) and are remembered in the oral traditions of people residing in the Hamasien region that includes the Asmara Plateau.[9] 

What does Tigrinya name mean and where does this name come from?

Tigrinya means "Tigre language". The "inya" in Tigr-inya is the suffix that denotes "language", while Tigr[e] is the speaker. Even more confusing for some is that there is another ethnic group in Eritrea that are Tigre speakers, too. However, the Tigre people speak Tigre, a related but different language. The similarities of their ethnic names and languages is likely due to both these groups sharing a common ancestor called the Tigretes.

In 523 CE, a Greek-speaking Egyptian monk, later given the pseudonym Cosmas Indicopleustes or Indian voyager, wrote an interesting description detailing territorial claims of two monarchs from earlier inscriptions left in Adulis. The now-vanished inscriptions mentioned the people living near Adulis were called the Tigerets.[10] These Tigrerets must have been culturally and politically influential because today we have three separate ethnic groups that begin with the word Tigr: Tigre, Tigrinya and Tigray people.

Tigrinya language

Tigrinya language is a direct descendant of Ge'ez. The oldest reference to written Tigrinya was found in Logosarda, Eritrea in the 13th century CE.[11] Tigrinya has two distinct dialects called the Asmara and Tigray dialects.[12] The Asmara dialect is spoken in Eritrea, while the Tigray dialect is spoken in northern Ethiopia by the Tigray ethnic group. Interestingly enough, the Asmara dialect, over their own Tigray dialect, has become the de facto Tigrinya “standard” for Tigrayans living in northern Ethiopia:

"The Asmara variation with its recent development both in the spoken and written aspect has incontestably become on its own right the de facto "standard" in the Tigrigna speaking areas of North Ethiopia.[13] 

Part of the reason why the Asmara dialect of Tigrinya is the dominate dialect  is due to the Tigray peoples' close proximity with the Amharas. For centuries, Tigrayans spoke and wrote in Amharic script, leaving their dialect to decay. Even 19th century CE European observers to the region made note of this, such as Walter Chichele Plowden, a contemporary British observer, who wrote:

"Teegray is now almost universally acquainted with the Amharic language, and their customs, food and dress have become so assimilated to those of the Amharas, as not to require separate description, though their hatred of that people is undiminished."[14]

Side note: Video below is an example of the Tigray Dialect being spoken by a Ethiopian woman from the Wajirat district of Tigray. For those who are not familiar with Tigrinya, without exaggeration, her dialect is very difficult to comprehend for a person speaking the Asmara dialect of Tigrinya (it almost sounds like a different language). To give a comparable level of difficulty for English speakers would be trying to understand Jamaican patois language without any translation.