The rifting of continents and evolution of ocean basins is a fundamental component of plate tectonics, yet the process of continental break-up remains controversial. Plate driving forces have been estimated to be as much as an order of magnitude smaller than those required to rupture thick continental lithosphere. However, Buck has proposed that lithospheric heating by mantle upwelling and related magma production could promote lithospheric rupture at much lower stresses. Such models of mechanical versus magma-assisted extension can be tested, because they predict different temporal and spatial patterns of crustal and upper-mantle structure. Changes in plate deformation produce strain-enhanced crystal alignment and increased melt production within the upper mantle, both of which can cause seismic anisotropy. The Northern Ethiopian Rift is an ideal place to test break-up models because it formed in cratonic lithosphere with minor far-field plate stresses. Here we present evidence of seismic anisotropy in the upper mantle of this rift zone using observations of shear-wave splitting. Our observations, together with recent geological data, indicate a strong component of melt-induced anisotropy with only minor crustal stretching, supporting the magma-assisted rifting model in this area of initially cold, thick continental lithosphere.