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Africa lies south of Europe and southwest of Asia. Geographically it is about three times the size of the United States, excluding Alaska and Hawaii. At its northeast corner is Egypt, which is connected to the Sinai Peninsula—and hence to the Asian continent by a very narrow strip of land. This is the only spot where Africa touches another continent; otherwise, it is surrounded by water. The Mediterranean Sea separates it from Europe in the north; the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden lie between it and the Arabian Peninsula to the east. Two vast bodies of water—the Indian Ocean on the eastern side, and the even larger Atlantic on the west—surround the remainder of Africa.

One of the greatest civilizations of all time, Egypt, was in Africa. Perhaps the only ancient civilizations that can be compared with it are those of Greece and Rome, which were influenced by it. Egypt, of course, has had its own chapter in this series; and Carthage, in North Africa, is also covered elsewhere. The focus of this chapter is entirely on Africa south of the Sahara Desert—that is, sub-Saharan Africa—as well as on the desert itself. That desert would have an impact on African history right up to the modern day; so, too, would the African civilizations of ancient times. There was the kingdom of Kush, which developed its own form of writing and briefly ruled Egypt; the kingdom of Aksum, an important trading center; and the Bantu peoples, who developed ironworking and spread it, along with their languages, throughout the southern part of the African continent.

The Origins of Humankind

Though there is much dispute regarding how humankind began, paleoanthropologists generally agree that humanity originated in Africa millions of years ago. The Paleolithic Age, or Old Stone Age, probably began there about 2 million years ago. Eventually human ancestors moved out of Africa to other continents.

About 10,000 B.C., as the last ice age was ending, the world entered the New Stone Age, or Neolithic Age. This was a period of dramatic progress in agriculture, toolmaking, and other areas that created the framework for the development of civilization in about 4000 B.C.

The Ancient Saharan Cultures

African History EssayThough the Sahara today is virtually uninhabitable, 8,000 years ago, it was a lush region of rivers and valleys. For thousands of years, it was home to many cultures, some of them quite advanced, to judge from their artwork. Who these peoples were—it appears there were many groups—remains a mystery, though they left behind an extraordinary record in the form of their rock-art paintings and carvings.

The rock art, which varies greatly in its representation of human and animal figures, is divided into four historical groups. First is the Hunter period, from about 6000 to about 4000 B.C., depicting a Paleolithic people who survived by hunting the many wild animals then available in the region.

Next was the Herder period, from about 4000 to 1500 B.C. As their name suggests, these people maintained herds of animals and also practiced basic agriculture. Much more civilized than the Hunter people, they produced the most sophisticated Saharan rock art, much of it portraying their herds. In fact, their ability to portray perspective and the movement of the human form was much greater than that of the Egyptians.

As the Sahara began to become drier and drier, however, there were no more herds. Egyptians began bringing in domesticated horses to cross the desert: hence the name of the Horse period (c. 1500–c. 600 B.C.) By about 600 B.C., however, not even horses could survive in the forbidding climate. There was only one creature that could: the hardy, seemingly inexhaustible camel. Thus began the Camel era, which continues to the present day.


In the southern part of Egypt, and the northern section of the modern nation of Sudan, is the region of Nubia. Much of it is covered by the Nubian Desert, but as with Egypt, the Nile River provided a fertile strip of land on which a civilization developed. This was the kingdom of Kush, which existed in various forms for nearly 2,400 years.

The Kushites’ language was related to the Semitic tongues of southwest Asia. Yet, from Egyptian tomb paintings, it is clear that they were what modern Americans would call “black”—or, to use a more accurate term, sub-Saharan African. It appears that Semitic peoples migrated across the narrow Red Sea to the “Horn of Africa” and intermarried with the peoples living there. Thus even today, the peoples of the Horn, particularly in modern Ethiopia and Somalia, have physical features which distinguish them from the peoples living further south.

Regarding the name “Ethiopia,” it should be noted that as with Armenia and Macedonia, it refers both to a modern nation and to an ancient region, yet these are not exactly the same. The term Ethiopian is derived from a Greek expression meaning “burned skin”—suggesting a dark complexion. In ancient times, the entire region south of Egypt was often described as “Ethiopia;” indeed, that name was often used to describe all of Africa below Egypt.

Later, the Greek historian Herodotus, describing the multinational force with which the Persians invaded Greek in 480 B.C., noted the presence of both straight-haired “eastern Ethiopians,” and curly-haired “western Ethiopians”—the latter dressed in lion skins—among the Persian army. These terms must have referred to Aksumites and Kushites respectively: though neither nation had been conquered by the Persian Empire, it is possible the Persians recruited “Ethiopian” warriors for their forces.

The Kushite civilization reached its peak in the four centuries from 250 B.C. to A.D. 150. By then it had become more and more separate from Egypt, which was conquered in turn by the Greeks and the Romans. Kush began to decline after A.D. 150, however, in part due to the rise of a new Red Sea trading kingdom at Aksum.


To a much greater extent than the Kushites, the people of Aksum (sometimes spelled “Axum”) were both racially and culturally related to the Semitic peoples who came from the Arabian Peninsula on the other side of the Red Sea. According to tradition, they were associated with the biblical Queen of Sheba, who probably came from southwest Arabia. Whether or not this is true, it is clear that Aksum had a strong Arabian influence.

The center of Aksum’s cultures was in the Red Sea port of Adulis, through which it came in contact with, and was influenced by, the Greek culture of Ptolemaic Egypt after the 300s B.C. By the first century A.D., Aksum was on the rise and became an important center for trade with places as far away as China, from which it imported silk, and India. The latter was a source of spices, a particularly important part of life in the time before refrigerators because they slowed down the spoiling of meat.

Aksum also had a line of strong kings, who also served a religious function. In fact, the kings were considered sacred to the point that the queen mother (i.e., the king’s mother) often took over the day-to-day administrative duties. The queen mother went by the title of Candace, which is often mistaken for a proper name. It was more like the equivalent of the Roman Caesar.

A particularly notable Aksumite monarch was Ezana. In A.D. 325, he went to war against Kush and destroyed its fading capital at Meroe. But around the same time, he came in contact with two young Syrians shipwrecked at Adulis. Through their influence, he converted to Christianity, which became the religion of Ethiopia from then on. Before Ezana, the Aksumites had worshiped a variety of deities not unlike those of the Egyptians. They built obelisks— tall, freestanding columns of stone—in honor of gods associated with the Moon, warfare, and other aspects of life.

Aksum’s power and wealth grew in succeeding centuries, till much of the region came under the control of its empire. During the A.D. 500s, its authority extended across the Red Sea, to control the so-called “incense states” of western Arabia. These were lush areas on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula—quite different from the desert interior—known for growing spices such as frankincense and myrrh.

The Bantu Peoples

Around the area of modern-day Nigeria, the Bantu peoples had their origins. In some regards, the Bantu do not qualify as a full-fledged civilization the way the Kushites do. They had no written language, nor did they build cities or even stay in one spot. Theirs was a history characterized by migration, as they moved out of their homeland in about 1200 B.C. to spread throughout southern Africa.

In fact, the Bantu were not even a nation or a unified group of people in the way that the Egyptians, Kushites, or Aksumites were. They were simply a group of more or less related peoples, all sub-Saharan African (i.e., “black”) in origin. However, as in many other instances, the important distinction is one of language, not race. It was language that gave the Bantu peoples their distinctive character, which has influenced the culture of southern Africa up to the present day. Though they spoke a variety of tongues, they all used the same word for “people”: bantu.

Whether or not they qualified as a true civilization, the Bantu had a strongly developed culture based on family ties. Families became grouped into clans, and clans into tribes. Loyalty to the extended family—including one’s ancestors—was the most important bond in Bantu society. As in China, the ancestors played an important role in Bantu religion, which also deified the forces of nature. Though they had a variety of gods, the Bantu also believed in a supreme being above all.

The world of the Bantu peoples was a tightly knit one, in which everyone had a place and everyone belonged. In modernday southern Africa, where the Bantu peoples settled, this is symbolized by the carefully organized layout of family compounds, or enclosed areas with a number of buildings. In the compound, there are specific areas for each family member, as well as areas for the animals and for cooking and other facets of daily life.

No one, it seems, lacked a place in Bantu society. To further strengthen the bonds among people, the Bantu were organized by age and gender groups, for instance, older men often belonged to secret societies. This is not unlike the idea of the Masonic lodge in modern America. For the Bantu, however, the strength of the ties between people meant much more than such ties do to Americans. Whereas Americans are defined partly by their independence, interdependence was and is a defining characteristic of Bantu society.

Each society has a certain way that it transmits its values: that is, the things that are important to it. In modern America, values are transmitted primarily through the media: TV, movies, radio, magazines, and newspapers. The Bantu, lacking a written language, had a strong oral tradition. In other words, they transmitted their values, and indeed much of their cultural heritage, primarily through stories committed to memory by elders. Music was also an important part of the Bantu oral tradition. At musical performances, everyone present participated.

Participation was easy, because every member of the tribe knew the songs—which concerned aspects of daily life as well as the stories of legendary heroes—from early childhood. Greek culture in Homer’s time was likewise centered around oral traditions, stories memorized by wandering poets who sang them to listeners, often over a period of days.

Another notable quality of the Bantu was their technological advancement in the area of ironworking, a remarkable achievement for a people who had no written language. The Olmec of Mesoamerica, by contrast, did have a written language, yet they never progressed beyond the Bronze Age— and then only in about A.D. 1200. Since the Sahara Desert provided a virtually impenetrable barrier between the Bantu peoples and the Egyptians, it is apparent that they developed their iron-smelting technology entirely on their own.

The same is true of Bantu agriculture: studies by archaeologists and linguists suggest that domestication of plants occurred more or less simultaneously—and independently—in several parts of Africa before the Sahara became a desert. By about 1600 B.C., the Bantu peoples had a set of staple crops that included rice, yams, and various grains.

As for iron-working, it flourished as early as 1000 B.C. among the Nok people, a Bantu group in what is now Nigeria. The Nok also excelled in textile-weaving, sculpture, and jewelry-making. Based on the large number of high-quality figurines, or small sculptures, found at Nok archaeological sites, they must have been wealthy. As with the ancient Saharan culture at its high point, only people well past the point of mere survival could afford to spend so much energy on creating beauty.

Africa to the End of the Middle Ages

Historians know about several other important ancient African cultures because of their contact with the Phoenicians or the Egyptians. Among the Africans with whom the Phoenicians traded were people living in what is probably now the nation of Senegal in West Africa.

The western portion of the continent would become the site for a number of important African kingdoms during the period of the Middle Ages in Europe. Among these were Ghana, Mali, and the Songhai kingdom. Deep in the Sahara arose the kingdom of Kanem-Bornu, which lasted for a thousand years from about A.D. 800 to about A.D. 1800. Notable civilizations in Bantu-speaking lands included the one that developed around the southern African fortress of Zimbabwe, which flourished from about 1000 to about 1400 A.D.

As with the Americas, African civilization truly came into its own at a time when European civilizations were at a low point. The same was true of the Arab world; in the 600s, Arab armies conquered much of northern Africa, including the area where the Kushite civilization had once been located, in what became the nation of Sudan. In the 1400s, when European civilization experienced a resurgence and Europeans began exploring the rest of the world, the Africans and Native Americans would suffer as a result.


Like the Native Americans, the Africans were not united, and this helped make slavery possible. Members of rival tribes would capture and sell their “enemies” to the Europeans, a move that was as foolish as it was greedy. The Europeans did not care about the tribal differences: they would just as soon enslave one African as another. Often those who had sold others into slavery would later be captured and sold themselves.

The slave trade prevailed between the late 1400s and the early 1800s, when Europeans finally woke up to the great crime of slavery. In 1807, England became the first European nation to outlaw the slave trade, and soon afterward it abolished slavery itself. In the southern United States, however, slavery lasted longer because of the agricultural economy of the South. The dependence on agriculture made the American South much less economically advanced than the industrial North, as proved by the victory of the Union in the Civil War (1861–1865).


In the 1800s, just as they were protesting the evils of American slavery, the nations of Europe began dividing the continent of Africa into various colonies. By the turn of the century, the only independent nations in Africa were Liberia in the west, founded by freed American slaves; and Ethiopia, site of Aksum and other great civilizations of later times. In 1890, Italy colonized Eritrea, the coastal region where Aksum had been located, though the Ethiopians reclaimed it after defeating the Italians in an 1896 battle.

Colonies changed hands in World War I (1914–1918), but still much of Africa remained under European control. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) attempted to reconquer Ethiopia and add it to Italian possessions in eastern Africa. The Italians waged a cruel war against the Ethiopians in the 1930s, sending modern fighter planes against soldiers armed with nineteenth-century flintlock rifles. Again, it was a case of superior technology winning over less advanced versions, but the moral high ground belonged to the Ethiopians. King Haile Selassie (1892–1975) made a compelling speech before the League of Nations, an organization formed after World War I in order to prevent future wars. Its failure to help Ethiopia provided clear evidence of the League’s weaknesses and paved the way for World War II (1939–1945).


After the war, African nations rapidly became independent. Ethiopia was recognized as a leader among nations and became a founding member of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Ironically, what brought down Haile Selassie was not the Italian invasion but enemies from within: he was deposed and executed by Communist rebels who took over the country in the 1970s.

Ethiopia’s problems were just one example of the turmoil that rocked the continent in the decades following independence. There were literally hundreds of civil wars throughout Africa, and the continent was subjected to numerous dictatorships. One of the worst was in the nation of Uganda: settled by the Bantu in ancient times and later colonized by Britain, Uganda in the 1970s was ruled by Idi Amin, a military officer with the heart of a serial killer.

Much of the planet remained largely ignorant of these problems. As far as most white Europeans and Americans were concerned, Africa’s importance had ended as soon as whites left. Though black Africans were still being sold as slaves by the Arab rulers of the Sudan in the 1990s, this excited little moral outrage in the West; in fact, the only African problems that attracted much attention, in fact, were “blackwhite” conflicts, most notably the controversy over apartheid in South Africa.

Under apartheid, a system of dividing people by race, nonwhite South Africans became a permanent underclass. Not only were they forced into lower economic positions than whites, but they could not move around the country freely or use any of the same facilities—for instance, bathrooms—as whites. It was worse than segregation, which prevailed in the American South prior to the 1960s. It compared with aspects of the Indian caste system. Ironically, many Indians in South Africa became victims of apartheid as well. Lowest of all were black South Africans, the descendants of the Bantu people who had once claimed the land from the original inhabitants.

Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, apartheid was overthrown and the black majority gained control of the country in the early 1990s. Other positive events happened around the same time: with the downfall of the Soviet Union, Communism came to an end in Ethiopia and other African nations as well. Ethnic tension, however, remained high. Unlike the black-white problems in South Africa, these were not conflicts that outsiders could readily understand. Few could tell the difference between the Hutu and Tutsi, two Bantu-speaking groups in Rwanda; but this did not stop the Hutu from massacring half a million Tutsi in 1994.

The Hutu-Tutsi conflict resembled the ethnic problems in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s; the United States, however, took considerably more interest in the Yugoslav conflict. Sadly, once Africa was no longer a valuable chess piece in the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, it had little political value. With the wreck that dictatorships had made of African economies, there was little business interest in the continent either. But Mandela’s leadership as the first president of the “new” South Africa offered hope for the future. On the ruins of one of the worst European political systems in Africa, many hoped, Mandela and those who followed him might create a model for black Africa in the twenty-first century.


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  2. Davidson, Basil and the Editors of Time-Life Books. African Kingdoms. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1978.
  3. Dijkstra, Henk. History of the Ancient & Medieval World, Volume 3: Ancient Cultures. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996, pp. 403-14.
  4. Dijkstra, Henk, ed. History of the Ancient & Medieval World, Volume 11: Empires of the Ancient World. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996, pp. 1543-54.
  5. Due, Andrea, ed. The Atlas of Human History: Cradles of Civilization: Ancient Egypt and Early Middle Eastern Civilizations. Text by Renzo Rossi. New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1996, pp. 56-59.
  6. Due, Andrea, ed. The Atlas of Human History: Civilizations of Asia: India, China and the Peoples of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Text by Renzo Rossi and Martina Veutro. New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1996, pp. 52-55.
  7. Haskins, James and Kathleen Benson. African Beginnings. Paintings by Floyd Cooper. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1998.
  8. Martell, Hazel Mary. The Kingfisher Book of the Ancient World. New York: Kingfisher, 1995, pp. 114-23.
  9. Motley, Mary Penick. Africa: Its Empires, Nations and People. With illustrations by Arthur Roland, Jr. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1969.
  10. Vlahos, Olivia. African Beginnings. Illustrated by George Ford. New York: Viking Press, 1967.

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