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Journal Article

Rise and Fall of Axum, Ethiopia: A Geo-Archaeological Interpretation

Karl W. Butzer
American Antiquity
Vol. 46, No. 3 (Jul., 1981), pp. 471-495
DOI: 10.2307/280596
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/280596
Page Count: 25
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Rise and Fall of Axum, Ethiopia: A Geo-Archaeological Interpretation
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Abstract

Civilizations represent human ecosystems amenable to systematic geo-archaeological analysis. The civilization of Axum, spanning the first millennium A.D., had its settlement core on the now-denuded, subhumid plateau of northern Ethiopia. Axum, a new city, began A.D. 100 as a ceremonial center, growing to over 10,000 people, as a prosperous emporium for international trade. Intensified land use led to mass movements in slope soils before A.D. 300, but a range of clayey stream deposits also implicates strong periodic floods and seasonally abundant moisture. The paleoclimatic ensemble suggests that stronger and more reliable spring rains allowed two crops yearly without irrigation, compared to only one with modern summer rains. Trade declined after 600 and Axum was essentially landlocked by 715. Intense land pressure and more erratic rainfall favored soil destruction and ecological degradation during the seventh and eighth centuries. Largely abandoned by 800 and pillaged by border tribes. Axum retained only symbolic significance as power shifted to the more fertile lands of humid central Ethiopia. Axum shows how the spatial and temporal variability of resources, and the interactions between a society and its resource base, can be fundamental in the analysis of historical process.

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