The continent of Africa is almost as old as the earth itself. At one time, it was the foundation of a huge super continent called Pangaea. Over millions of years, other continents have shifted and drifted apart due to earthquakes, violent volcanic eruptions and the movement of the oceans. Africa’s location has not changed drastically throughout the centuries.
In Africa today, you can find plants that have existed since the age of the dinosaurs. Our human predecessors roamed the grasslands and rain forests of ancient Africa. The ability to stand, walk, and adapt to changing circumstances was learned by the these first human beings.
Originating in Africa, people spread throughout the world and populated all its continents. Initially, people moved across the land from Africa to Asia. Generation by generation, people slowly changed and adapted to each new land that they encountered. This migrant wandering led to the settlement of Asia, Europe, and eventually the Americas.
Of all the continents Africa was probably the first to be home to humankind. In his book The Descent Of Man (1871), the famous naturalist, Charles Darwin, called Africa “the cradle of humankind.” Darwin made this comment to support his theory of evolution in Origin of the Species, which he published in 1859. Since then research in eastern and southern Africa shows our ancient ancestors lived as far back as 5 to 10 million years ago.
Around Africa’s Chad, Victoria and Turkana lakes, ape-like creatures developed into two different groups. One group continued to live in the tropical forests. The other group moved out into the grasslands. In the grasslands they needed to stand up on two legs so they could spot lions or leopards that might attack them, which left their hands free to pick up sticks. Learning to use their hands to carry things took many centuries.
The Stone Age existed 2 million to 10,000 years ago. Some of these creatures could not survive, but the ones that did got stronger and smarter. Their families evolved over millions of years. In the last half million years things began to happen. They began sharpening their rocks and shaping them into more useful tools such as axes.
About 10,000 years ago, these African humanoids began living around the present day Sahara and the southern and eastern coasts of the Indian Ocean. They began to travel with the seasons and the food. They learned to gather and hunt for their family units and larger groups called clans or tribes. They began to gather the different grains that grew. Soon, they were farming, hunting, and fishing. They also learned to control the collections of animals, such as sheep, goats and cattle.
One person could now grow the crops for many. One family could herd the goats for a tribe. A man could build tools. A woman could lead a ceremony. We call this emergence of roles social organization.
Dating from 4500 years ago, ancient Egypt is the oldest and most dynamic of all early kingdoms known to have flourished on the continent of Africa. Egypt’s early strength was the Nile River, the longest river in the whole world. It runs from two little rivers–the White Nile, which runs from Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile in the Nubian Mountains. These two rivers flowed all the way to the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.
The Nile, like many rivers, has seasons of flooding. During the floods the water overflows its riverbanks and soaks the surrounding land with rich fertile nutrients. The result is a fabulous region for growing food.This ability to grow food allowed the early pharaohs of Egypt to trade all over the world. Egypt created a civilization that stood from 2700 BC, for 30 dynasties, until they were overtaken by the Greeks and Romans around 300 BC.
They built huge cities and great structures that would be hard to create with all our modern cranes and motors today. The Egyptians built pyramids in which to bury their Pharaohs. They studied the stars and seasons to predict weather, dug great canals, and built big ships to trade with other civilizations on the Mediterranean Sea.
Trade routes developed across Africa in several places. Early African people lived in small family groups. Parents, children and grandparents formed clans with other families. Larger clans became tribes.
Sometimes the tribe was nomadic and traveled with their animals to the best places to graze and drink. Other tribes settled villages, towns and sometimes cities. Between these towns, trade routes developed. Some routes were over land; others were traveled by river or sea.
People traveled on routes across North Africa when the great Sahara desert was still a wet region. When the land dried and no longer produced crops, overland trading became very difficult. Although people had pack animals, such as cattle horse, and oxen, travel was not easy. These animals could not journey the great distance between each oasis.
In about 300 AD, the Arabian camel was brought to Africa and became the “ship of the desert.” The camel stores fat in its hump and water in its stomach, which allows it to travel up to ten days without fresh water—twice the distance of an ox or a horse. All of a sudden trade was much more dependable.
They traded crops, such as salt, spices, rice, wheat, barley, millet, olives, yams, and sorghum. Goats, fish, cattle, and fowl were some of the livestock bought and sold. People also traded copper, bronze, iron and gold. The metals were useful for making tools, coins, decorations, and weapons.
Each tribe had its wise elders and priests. Many were women but most were men. They would lead the tribe, and if they grew very powerful they were considered kings or queens. People considered them related to the gods. They often organized the building of religious temples and dams and assembled armies to defend their families. Their subjects often paid taxes to pay for these things.
Although some of these kingdoms did not last long and were replaced by others, a few lasted thousands of years. The rule of one king’s family for several generations is called a dynasty. There have been a few African kingdoms that have extended for several dynasties. As other cultures began to grow strong all over the Mediterranean other kingdoms began to push their way into Africa. Small tribes grouped together to fight off the invaders, such as the Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans.
Major African Kingdoms:
West: Ghana, Benin, Bornu, Songhay and Takrur (clickable feature)
North: Mauritania, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, Egypt, and Cush
East: Ethiopia, Bunyoro, Aksum, Buganda, Rwanda, Bemba and Loba
South: Lesotho, Zulu; Tswana, Swazi, Shona and Mbundu
African peoples could be as different from each other as they were to people far away in Greece, India, or Arabic countries in Asia, just across the Red Sea. Their religious gods, temples, beliefs and cultures were unique. Sometimes they traded peacefully. Other times they fought for territory in wars.
For thousands of years, armies at war have taken prisoners. A prisoner might have been a soldier, farmer or artisan who lived in the conquered kingdoms. They were usually made to work for the winning army as slaves. Slaves were used in many kingdoms, such as Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, for labor. Sometimes the kings and other wealthy people in the community had slaves work for them in their homes.
Between 800 and 1500 AD, countries of Europe began to do a great deal of trading with the nations of Africa. Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Dutch traders were using their boats to sail all around Africa and trading what they bought to people in Europe and Asia.
At first the Europeans went to Africa to trade for gold, other metals, feathers, and ivory tusks. Soon it was discovered that many of the African Rulers would also sell their slaves who were taken to distant places and traded for other supplies. When colonies were settled in the Americas across the Atlantic Ocean they established trade routes with them as well. In 1532 AD, the first slave was taken directly from Africa to the Americas.
The Europeans brought the kings rifles, ammunition, and other goods. Then the African slaves were packed into big sailing ships. The ships took them to the Colonies of America and to the island nations of the Caribbean. They were traded for tobacco, cotton, sugar, and molasses. Then these items were taken to Europe and traded for the guns.
Through this system, called the Triangle Trade Route, perhaps 10–12 million people were sold into slavery. It lasted for three hundred years until many countries made it illegal to sell people. In the United States the country had to fight the Civil War (1860–1865 AD) for the slave trade to finally stop.To this day, because of the slave trade, you find millions of men and women of African decent all over North and South America.
Wars are part of every civilization. Both small tribes and mighty nations in Africa have been involved in war since people first carved knives out of stone. The development of metals, such as copper, bronze and iron, meant the weapons of war became much more powerful.
The continent itself was rich with natural resources. Heavy farming in North Africa, however, caused the land to become dry and barren. Soon the desert land of the Sahara became the dominant feature. Food became hard to grow which meant some tribes had to fight to get access to food.
Sometimes people fought to protect a river shore for safe fishing. At other times they had to defend against kingdoms from across the sea. Traders came from Europe and Asia to bargain and sometimes to steal supplies and resources.
People also came to force their culture or religion on the inhabitants of Africa in religious crusades. Over the centuries, wars have been fought nearly everywhere on the continent. Even today, African countries are embroiled in brutal conflicts over borders, religion, tribal disputes, or resources.