ETHNONYMS: Adal, Danakil

The Afar occupy a 143,000-square-kilometer area of Djibouti and northeastern Ethiopia, sometimes called the Afar Triangle. The eastern point of the triangle lies at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Their neighbors include the Esa Somali, Ittu, and Enia Galla to the south; the Wallo, Yaju, and Raya Galla to the west; and the Saho to the northwest. There is a long history of hostility between the Afar and the surrounding groups, and, as a result, the Afar are often considered fierce and warlike.

The Afar claim descent from Arabs, and the name "Danakil" first appeared in the writings of thirteenth-century Arab geographers. The name may be derived from the Ankala tribe, which is centered on the Buri Peninsula. They speak an eastern Cushitic language, and remnants of Cushitic animistic cults persist in contemporary Afar culture. They numbered about 143,000 in Djibouti in 1988 and 400,000 in Ethiopia in 1987 (Grimes 1988).

The land inhabited by the Afar is extremely arid and barren, consisting of stone and sand desert interspersed with salt lakes and lava streams. The Danakil Depression, which lies within this area, is 91 meters below sea level and may be the hottest place on earth. There is only one fertile area, which is along the Awash River, where some cultivation is possible. Conditions are also less harsh in the Mabra Mountains, the Horma highlands, and around Mount Biru.

Nomadic pastoralism is the traditional form of subsistence for the Afar, although some coastal Afar are fishers. Livestock consists of goats, sheep, and camels where the terrain is suitable, and some cattle in a few places. The Afar subsist mostly on meat, both domestic and wild, and dairy products, along with agricultural products that are sometimes stolen and sometimes obtained in trade with villagers in the Rift Valley or in the highlands. Until about 1930, the Afar were involved in the trans-Red Sea slave trade, which may have added substantially to their subsistence base. More recently, the Afar have engaged in trade with Christian farmers on the Abyssinian plateau to the west, exchanging butter, hides, livestock, and rope for agricultural goods.

The pastoralism of the Afar is actually closer to transhumance than to full nomadism. Transhumance is a patterned movement of people among several regularly visited locations, at least one of which is permanently occupied by a part of the population, or is improved by some structure, such as a house, corral, or storage bin. The encampments established during the seasonal migrations often consist of no more than grass lean-tos. The migrating unit has a more permanent homestead somewhere else, with larger dwelling structures surrounded by thorn-and-brush fences. Often, it is only the younger members of the group who go on the seasonal migrations; they take the more highly valued camels and cattle to higher pastures, leaving the sheep and goats in the care of the older folk at the more permanent location.

Traditionally, the Afar were divided into two classes, the Asaimara ("the red ones") or nobles, and the Adoimara ("the white ones") or commoners. Sometimes Asaimara and Adoimara clans existed as separate territorial groups, but for the most part tribal groups contained a mixture of both, and the Asaimara/Adoimara distinction cut across the whole of Afar society. Adoimara groups living among Asaimara formerly paid tribute, but there were also independent Adoimara tribes and Adoimara tribes that later obtained independent status. In the mixed Asaimara/Adoimara groups, the chiefs and heads of kin groups in whom territorial rights were vested were Asaimara, whereas the client Adoimara had their own herds of livestock with grazing rights on their patrons' land. Today the two classes are territorially intermingled and do not seem to have any distinguishing behavioral characteristics.

The Afar territorial, political, and fighting unit is called a mela, which is usually translated as "tribe." Historically, there has been a great deal of hostility between different tribes. Feuds are common both within and between tribes. Within tribal units, feuds were caused by the death of one or more parties in a dispute, and could be settled with the payment of blood compensation. Disputes between tribes usually resulted in warfare. Today the Ethiopian government takes a more involved role in the resolution of disputes.

Tribes are divided into clans, which have an agnatic lineage structure. Tribal endogamy is the general rule, and there is a preference for cross-cousin marriage. Girls are eligible for marriage after their tenth year, whereas a man is traditionally not supposed to marry until after he has killed someone in battle. Like most Muslim groups, the Afar are patriarchal; leadership roles are assigned to men. Residence can be either matrilocal or patrilocal but is predominantly patrilocal. Women are assigned the tasks of building the nomadic hut, collecting wood and water, milking, preparing food, and weaving mats. Some Afar tribes have age sets in which men of similar age are grouped under a common chief and are initiated together.

The Afar were formerly divided into four paramount sultanates, each of which was divided into smaller confederate territories. Today the Afar are increasingly under the control of national governments. Even so, most Afar are still on the fringes of state control and retain a relatively high degree of political, social, and economic independence.

Islam is the predominant religion of the Afar, who follow the practices of the Sufi sect. The practice of Islam is rather unorthodox, particularly among pastoral Afar, in comparison to other groups (e.g., the Somali). There are still traces of the Cushitic religion, which can be seen in shrines erected on mountain tops to offer sacrifices to the sky/god Zar/Wak. Zar/Wak, the father of the universe, perhaps provided an easy transition to Allah and Islam. Jenile, or oracle dancing, is also connected to the Cushitic religion, and aspects of the dance may have been incorporated into Sufi Islamic ceremonies.


Englebert, Victor (1970). "The Danakil: Nomads of Ethiopia's Wasteland." National Geographic Magazine 147(2): 186-212.

Grimes, Barbara F., ed. (1988). Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Lewis, Ioan Myrddin, ed. (1955). Peoples of the Horn: Somali, Afar, and Saho. London: International African Institute.

Pastner, Stephen (1984). "Afar." In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, edited by Richard V. Weekes, 10-14. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Pastner, Stephen (1979). "Lords of the Desert Border: Frontier Feudalism in Southern Baluchistan and Eastern Ethiopia." International Journal of Middle East Studies 10:93-106.

Weissleder, Wolfgang. "The Promotion of Suzerainty between Sedentary and Nomadic Populations in East Ethiopia." In Nomadic Alternative, edited by Wolfgang Weissleder. World Anthropology Series. The Hague: Mouton.

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User Contributions:

I want to know more about the Afar people. How is the Afar people culture at weeding?
Raoul A. I-Deen
i have apicture of two Afar wman in wedding dress garb. They extremely beautiful. Wonerfully intoxicating.
Hassan Mohamed
tell please how many main tribes and sub-tribes and even sub-sub-clans Afar people consist of?

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