Compendium of African History to 1500 AD

                                          Dr. Susan J. Herlin
                                          Professor Emerita 
                                          Department of History 
                                          University of Louisville

                                          © Revised edition, 2003
                                                           AFRICAN GEOGRAPHY

The Continent now known as Africa (MAP) is a very large landmass located to the south of western Europe and to the southwest of what we now call the ‘Middle East.’  It is bordered in the north by the Mediterranean Sea, in the east by the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and in the west by the Atlantic Ocean.  The Continent has many environments, ranging from the most arid of desert wastes to tropical rain forest, savanna, vast swamps, and even snow-capped mountains.  The diverse flora and fauna of these environments have supported a variety of human communities, which, in turn have developed a correspondingly wide range of economic, social, cultural and political strategies for survival.

Today the Continent is divided politically into fifty independent countries, ranging in population from Nigeria, with about 150 million, to Mauritania, Niger or Namibia whose citizens number fewer than 5 million.  In size the differences are equally as great, with countries ranging in size from tiny, Connecticut-sized Gambia to giant Sudan, whose territory equals that of the entire United States east of the Mississippi River.

Over time the regions of the Continent have acquired commonly applied names, such as Sub-Saharan, North, West, Southern, East, Northeast (or Horn), Central, and Equatorial.  Knowledge of these regional designations, along with the important physical features and modern country boundaries is necessary for understanding materials written about the history, societies, politics or cultures of the Continent.

The geography of the Africa has played an important role not only in the history of the peoples of the Continent, but history of all humans as well.  All of us belong to a species, Homo sapiens sapiens, the remote ancestors of whom lived in the African tropical savannas as early as 3 million years ago.  Although, as is true in the rest of the world, African landform and climate have changed over the last 3 million years, we will first consider the modern geography and climate.

Africa is a very large continent.  Large enough, in fact, to contain the United States, China, India, and Argentina combined.  It is about 5,500 miles across the Continent, both east to west and north to south.  Africa is the most tropical of continents, being practically bisected by the Equator.  While virtually any kind of climate or topographical feature can be found somewhere on the African continent, the majority of land is either desert or savanna (open plains). Substantial rain forest (so-called ‘jungle’) covers the lowlands near the Equator.  However, the majestic snow-capped peaks of Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro are also located near the Equator.  The Continent has four major river systems: the Nile, the Niger, the Congo or Zaire, and the Zambezi.

As is the case in other world regions, human history in Africa is closely linked to the favorable distribution of natural resources–particularly good soils and an adequate water supply.  The savanna regions of eastern Africa are literally home to the human species.  Other well-watered savanna regions of the Continent, especially the Sudannic regions north of the great equatorial forest, have long supported diverse populations of farmers, herders, crafts people and traders.  And, of course, the fertile Nile valley was the cradle of one of the earliest civilizations known, that of the ancient Egyptians.

The Continent can be divided into broad climate zones according to patterns of rainfall and temperature.  In the tropical forest or equatorial zone, which covers the lowlands of central Africa, the climate is similar year round, with warm, humid conditions and nearly daily rainfall.  The dense forests and lush vegetation of this zone has historically made farming very difficult, and thus kept population densities low.  The prevalence of the tse-tse fly prevented the raising of cattle.  Thus, fishing, hunting and gathering, and trade have historically sustained regional economies. Equatorial mountain terrain provides an exception to the rule of tropical rain forest.  Mountain slopes and valleys above 5,000 feet have environments that are more temperate; in the higher elevations, even alpine in character.  The equatorial mountain zone is in the eastern part of the region, in modern day Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Both to the north and south of the equatorial forest zone the tree cover gradually thins out as annual rainfall declines.  In the resulting tropical savannas rain occurs seasonally, alternating with increasingly lengthy dry seasons.  In the open country days are hotter and nights cooler than in the forest year round.  Even though soils are often poor and rainfall erratic, nonetheless this open country is more suitable for farming than either dense forest or desert; and can support livestock such as goats and cattle.  Tropical savanna farming communities are historically the most typical of African settlement patterns.  The indigenous savanna cropsmillets, black-eyed peas, yams, palm oil and fruits are still important to the diets of many rural people.

The further one gets from the Equator the longer the dry season, until one reaches lands where there is no rainy season at all.  In these deserts, which now cover about one-third of the Continent, water comes almost exclusively from underground sources (or from rain that fell elsewhere and comes down the river in the form of annual floods, as in Egypt.  Thus agriculture can only be sustained in river valleys or in oases.  Egyptian civilization was based on the exceptionally fertile alluvial soils of the Nile River, which, for the last 4500 years or so, has flowed through one of the most arid parts of the western Saharan desert.  Deserts are hot during the day and cold during the clear starry nights. Most desert dwellers are nomadic herders, since animals must be regularly moved to take advantage of sparse grass and brush.

As one approaches either the northern or southern-most coasts of the Continent the climate becomes more temperate, with winter and summer seasons and periods of rainfall throughout the year, much the same as is the case in southern parts of the United States.  Here the agriculture follows seasons familiar to us, and the climate supports crops and animals that are similar to other regions around the Mediterranean Sea, such as wheat, olives, grapes; sheep, goats and cattle.

Although there are people living in mountain valleys, along large lakes or seacoast, in swamps or on islands, the majority of African peoples live in the tropical savannas, the Nile Valley or Mediterranean climate zones in either the far north or the far south.  It is the people of these three major environments who have, therefore, been the central characters in the long, interesting and very diverse history of the Continent, taken as a whole.

                                     AFRICAN ROOTS OF HUMAN SOCIETY AND CULTURE

The African continent, and particularly sub-Saharan Africa, has an extremely lengthy period of human prehistory.  Over one hundred years ago Charles Darwin hypothesized, on the basis of the limited evidence available at that time, that Africa would prove to be the homeland of the human species.  In the last fifty years researchers in fields as diverse as archaeology and genetics have convincingly demonstrated the correctness of Darwin’s thesis.

Recent archaeological research indicates that early proto-humans, called hominids, were making and using stone tools in northern and eastern Africa three million or more years ago.  Clear evidence for similar developments outside Africa does not appear until about one million years ago.  Thus it seems likely that the first two million or so years of human development took place on the continent of Africa. Recent genetic research further suggests that all living members of our species, that is, Homo sapiens sapiens, may have had either a common grandmother (or grandfather, depending on the researcher), ten thousand times removed.  This ancestress/ ancestor of us all probably lived in Africa between 60,000 and 200,000 years ago.

All but the last 10,000 or so years of human history belong entirely to the era known broadly as the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age).  The beginning of the Paleolithic is dated from when the hominid populations of Africa started to regularly make rudimentary tools from intentionally shaped stones for use in their daily lives.  The “stone ages”  (Old and New) ended when ancient humans began to use metals, such as copper or iron, as their principal tool making materials.  Metal decorations, tools and weapons began to appear about 8,000 years ago in some places, but were not in general use, even in the ‘civilized world’ of the time, until about 3,000 years ago.  Thus the stone ages, from the standpoint of time, constitute the bulk of human history.

Scientific Evidence for Early Human Ancestors and Their Ways of Life

Although stone tools give their names to eras of human prehistory and provide a major means for tracing its development, it is certain that materials other than stones were used as tools by hominids and early humans in their daily lives.  However, since most of those made of organic materials have decayed beyond trace, they cannot be used as evidence by the archaeologists or other scientists interested in pre-history.  It is very likely that the earliest hominid tools will forever remain unknown, as they were either natural objects (sticks, vines, rocks) or were so little changed from natural objects that they can’t be distinguished in fossil remains.

Archaeologists and paleo-anthropologists, the principal researchers into our stone age past, use fossil remains of humans and other animals, tools, seeds, even pollen, as well other data from the environment, such as soils and rock strata, to reconstruct the ways of life of the peoples who used them. They also use indirect evidence in their research, including fossil remains from other related species, such as chimpanzees, and the data supplied by observing the ways of life of living populations of apes. Some information is gathered as well from contemporary human societies that still follow what are presumed to be the ancient gathering and hunting way of life.  Data derived from comparative anatomy, blood, protein and DNA research are also used in the search for understanding about our remote African ancestors.  [2005 current research: Our Genetic Journey]

Dating of evidence plays a significant role in archaeological research, since it is impossible to trace changes without knowing the relative sequence of fossils and related evidence over time.  Dating methods continue to improve.  However, even the most sophisticated techniques for recovering and dating materials from antiquity do not give us the story of human development.  All the evidence must be analyzed and interpreted using a unifying theoretical framework. The basic interpretive framework in use today is evolutionary theory.  Charles Darwin and his contemporaries in England and other Western countries first developed it more than a hundred years ago.  Evolutionists hypothesize that living species are the product of thousands, even millions of years of incremental genetic changes.  That, in essence, if you take the ancestry of any living thing back far enough it will merge with all other living things.

Prehistory: probable sequences of human development in the Old Stone Age.

The stone ages were not static.  Popular expressions such as ‘living in the stone age’ or ‘stone age man’ are unhelpful when they are based on the false assumption that the ancestral human way of life remained the same throughout the millions of years known collectively as the stone ages.  Changes in technology and lifestyle during all these stone ages from the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) through the Neolithic (New Stone Age) are easily demonstrated.  Stone Age ‘toolkits'[1] differed from period to period as the peoples who made and used them developed both physically and culturally over time.  Specialists subdivide the stone ages into periods, such as ‘early,’ ‘late,’ and ‘new,’ to indicate the significant differences that developed over time.

The longest period in human pre-history encompasses the era known as the early Paleolithic (early Old Stone Age), which lasted from the time of the earliest recognizably proto-human beings to the advent of our species (i.e., from about 3 million BCE[2] until about 200,000 BCE). The first recognizable stone tools appeared in this period.  Most of the fossil remains connected with the early Paleolithic are African.  The first phase of this era (ca. 3 million to 1 million BCE) is named Olduwan–after Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the fossils remains associated with the earliest tools were first discovered.[3] Among the tool makers of Olduvai was the human ancestral species called Homo Habilis, whose members were fairly small in stature, walked upright, had fairly small brains, and lived an average of only 20 years or so.

Olduwan hominids made pebble or chopper tools, which were probably used to fashion wooden digging sticks, to butcher already dead wild animals, and to scrape hides or soften leather. These early hominids began to develop the foraging (gathering and hunting) way of life that came to separate them from their primate cousins, the various species of apes.  Cultural and physical changes occurred very slowly in the early Paleolithic because the total hominid populations were small, living in very small groups scattered across the then vast tropical African savannas.

The second phase of the early Paleolithic (c. 1 million to 200,000 BCE) is called the Acheulian, after its typical industry that is named for a typesite in southern France.  Acheulian industries are distinguished by more sophisticated stone tools which gradually became sharper and more effective.  Tasks which had been accomplished with the older technology could now be done better, plus the new ‘hand axes’ were good for digging.  These industries were the work of Homo erectus (and perhaps other species).  They had larger and differently organized brains than their Homo habilis ancestors.  This enabled them to colonize favorable environments throughout the ‘Old World.'[4]

In the Acheulian period cultural changes began occurring with somewhat greater frequency. This may have been because developing brain and speech capacities gave homo erectus the ability to transmit information more effectively both to group members and to offspring thus making possible the accumulation of knowledge over time. Also, there was probably a significant overall population increase, since improved communication and tools also meant more reliable food supplies.  Of course, not all populations changed at the same pace or in the same way.  This depended upon environmental, cultural and communications factors specific to each.

After 200,000 BCE regional specialization of tools appears for the first time, again in Africa.  Regional specialization describes the move from the production of generic, all-purpose tools, to tose designed for more specific tasks, such as trapping animals specific to a particular environment. These innovations were the work of Homo sapiens and/or Homo sapiens sapiens. Both groups were skilled and versatile enough to begin to move into environmentally more difficult territories, from temperate Europe and Asia to tropical rain forest Africa.  To do this they adapted their existing tool kits–employing new materials and devising distinctive styles, some of which we even recognize as artistic qualities as well as functional ones. The status of Homo sapiens, the species known as ‘Rhodesiensis’ in Africa and ‘Neanderthal’ in Europe, whose members had physical characteristics very close to those of modern humans, is currently under debate.  It is not known how populations of Homo sapiens and Homo sapiens sapiens related to each other, or why Homo sapiens disappeared.  What is known is that all living humans belong to one species, Homo sapiens sapiens.

As had been true from the beginning, change in the later Paleolithic can be linked to climatic factors, specifically to movement of glaciers in northern Europe and changes in rainfall levels in southern Europe and Africa.  Climatic cycles alone, however, do not explain the accelerated pace of change.  In the case of Africa experts have hypothesized that more dense populations, made possible by more abundant food supplies during wet phases, used their greater collective brain power to develop innovative means of coping with the harsher conditions prevalent in the drier times that followed.

Beginning around 200,000 new methods for making stone implements began to appear in some parts of Africa.   The tools produced by Homo sapiens and/or early Homo sapiens sapiens were thinner, sharper, more accurately made.  They display a greater variety of shapes enabling their owners to perform a wider variety of tasks.  In the northern part of Africa large, stemmed projectile points, such as arrowheads, distinguish the regional industry called Mousterian.  In the southern savannas more triangular-shaped points characterized the Fauresmith tool kit. Also, human groups began to tackle the difficult forest environment.  These pioneer forest-dwellers departed from the traditions of their savanna cousins to develop the tools necessary for wood working and digging which weren’t needed on the more open plains.  The earliest specialized African forest industry is called Sangoan.

By about 30,000 BCE Homo sapiens sapiens had become the only human creature on the planet. With the introduction of ‘hafting,’ that is attaching wooden shafts to stone implements, people could make such things as spears and axes.  Techniques for finishing, sharpening and shaping stones continued to improve as well, with communities in each environmental region adapting both tools and styles more and more precisely to the needs of their own locale.

From about 20,000 BCE, there are further refinements in stone technology.  Very specialized tools appeared, including arrowheads, fishhooks, grindstones, and awls.  These most refined of stone implements have the generic name ‘microlithic.’ [5] This era of the late Paleolithic also saw the development of complex composite tools such as bows and arrows.  As well, fishing equipment, including boats, and even pottery appeared in some environmental niches. As tools became more specialized and finely made, local variations, including stylistic ones, became more and more the rule.

By the Late Stone Age virtually the entire now-inhabited world had been occupied by human foraging communities. In various different regions of the world (including different parts of Africa), late Paleolithic people themselves probably were developing some of the distinctive (but superficial from a species perspective) physical characteristics, such as skin color, hair texture and eye-shape, which we associate with modern ‘races.’  On the cultural side, the earliest roots of modern language families can be traced back to communities living this long ago as well.

From the standpoint of African history the most important development of the late Stone Age was the emergence of more settled (‘sedentary’) societies.  These probably developed first along the banks of the Upper Nile in the Cataracts region, in modern day southern Egypt and northern Sudan (ancient Nubia).  Evidence of barley harvesting there dates from as early as 16,000 BCE.  The ability to make greater use of abundant wild grains, probably coupled with greater exploitation of aquatic resources, led to a more settled existence for some people.  These more sedentary peoples were a part of what is now known collectively as the African Aquatic Culture/ Tradition.  This way of life spread from the Upper Nile into a much larger area of Africa during the last great wet phase of African climate history, which began about 9,000 and peaked about 7,000 BCE.  The higher rainfall levels of the period created numerous very large shallow lakes across what are now the arid southern borderlands of the Sahara desert.  Inhabitants of shore communities crafted microlithic tools to exploit a marine environment: fishing and trapping aquatic animals.  This provided abundant food supplies, particularly high in protein and supported the earliest known permanent settlements.  Culturally and linguistically related peoples ancestral to modern Black Africans established settlements throughout this vast, ancient great lakes area.  It is theorized that they spoke the mother Nilo-Saharan[6] tongue.  Sophisticated water-related technologies supported not only the development of settled communities, but also the invention of things like pottery, which were formerly thought to be associated exclusively with the Food Production Revolution[7] of the later New Stone Age, or Neolithic.  While the African aquatic tradition itself lasted only until the beginning of the modern drier period, around 3,000 BCE, its legacy has been felt ever since.

Society, Economy, and Culture in the Stone Ages: Becoming Human

The preceding discussion has emphasized developments in technology and physiology as a way of understanding the changes that constitute our human prehistory.  However, to answer the question, “How did we come to be the distinctive species we now are?” we must go beyond just chronicles of stones and bones.  It is only by asking questions about how our hominid ancestors actually lived that we can understand the roots of later societies and cultures developed by our Homo sapiens sapiens ancestors.  In other words asking such basic questions are critical to our achieving a fuller understanding of ourselves and our species in all its diversity.

As it happens, until fairly recently basic questions about human origins were usually asked by male scientists and scholars.  They tended to interpret the fossils and other evidence in ways that emphasized hunting (a presumed male activity) in explaining the origins of such distinctively human traits as reflective thinking, myth making, tool using and society building.  Hunting was assumed to have been in practice for 99% of human prehistory and thus to have provided the ‘master behavior pattern’ of the human species.

Research by both men and women in the last few decades has raised serious questions about the effectiveness of the ‘hunting model’ as a tool for understanding the socio-cultural evolution of the human species.  These researchers relied on a principal called ‘behavioral continuity.’  This deceptively simple concept asserts that new ways always grow out of and build onto existing ones.  Recent studies also draw from biological research to emphasize the proposition that ‘evolutionary success is reproductive success.'[8] Use of these analytical tools has made it clear that women were at least as central as men to the process of creating our distinctive human species.  And, further, that ‘gathering and not hunting was the initial food-providing behavior that distinguished ape from human.'[9]

Before we go further, it is important to stress that Homo sapiens sapiens is a fundamentally social animal.  No humans are born, grow up, reproduce and survive into old age alone.  It has been said that the proper unit for humanity is not the individual, but the pair (man and woman), because this is the theoretical minimum necessary to carry on the species.  Of course, at a practical level, one pair is not viable all alone, either.  Such a pair had to be raised to adulthood before being able to reproduce and neither of them could possess fertility problems, or get sick and die before at least a male and female offspring were produced.  We are also culture dependent; that is, each of us must be taught how to be human, how to behave, speak, and think like a human.  Last, of course, each person learns to be human in a time and place specific manner, by means of a particular language and all the cultural elements that come with it.  There are, in other words, no generic humans, although there is the human species, which is distinctive from even its nearest genetic relatives among the apes.  Recent research suggests that it was the development of group foraging, specifically gathering of plants and small animals to feed a small group that formed the basis for the rich physical and cultural development of our social species.

Hominid gathering was specifically different from ape feeding practices in that it involved using tools for collecting a quantity of food that was often carried some distance for consumption and sharing.  This was a departure from the apes’ ‘pluck and eat’ technique, in which the weaned young were left to find their own food.  Adult female hominids, however, not only used tools to obtain food for themselves, but also to feed their children, who unlike ape offspring, could not provide adequate food for their own survival until they were near puberty.  Hunting, according to this model, emerged rather late in human evolutionary history as a specialized form of gathering.

In this interpretation of early hominid history, the first tools would have been only slightly modified natural objects, such as a stick for digging edible roots, or a crude container to transport food to a safe place for sharing with children and siblings.  Among the earliest inventions, then, would surely have been a baby sling, to enable mothers to gather and carry food while still carrying their nursing infants.[10]  A child’s survival depended upon its mother’s ability to carry it great distances for several years; her skill in finding and gathering food; and her ability to space infants, to feed weaned offspring and maintain social ties with at least her siblings, and possibly her mate and some of his siblings (for protection, food sharing, and comfort). Children were dependent on adults until they could walk long distances (about puberty)–and had learned the skills to enable them to locate, identify, gather and process available food using handmade tools.

Males also gathered.  After all they too were carried by their mother, fed and taught by her until they could do for themselves. Thus they would have had to learn from her effective techniques of food gathering and food sharing.  Females, it is theorized, probably preferred to mate with friendly males, who were successful at food gathering and were willing to share food.  In fact, both sexes must have been able to care for young, protect themselves from predators, mate, and use tools.  Both men and women needed to move freely about the environment in order to exploit available resources widely distributed through space and time.  It is this range of behaviors–the overall behavioral flexibility of both sexes–that, according to the reproductive success model was the primary ingredient of the early hominids’ successful adaptation to their tropical savanna environment, and which thus ultimately provided the basis for our uniquely human development.

Let us reconsider then, the chronology of evolution in the Stone Ages from a social, economic, and ideological as well as a technological and physiological perspective.  Through the millennia of the early Paleolithic, small hominid populations developed a way of life, which exploited the resources of the tropical savannas of northern and eastern Africa.  They used their slightly larger brain capacity and their ability to walk long distances on two legs to develop techniques for gathering vegetable foods and processing them.  Like their chimpanzee cousins, they probably also ate small animals.  In order to perpetuate themselves they had to rear dependent offspring to adulthood and teach them how to survive. This required knowledge acquired from parents and cooperation with fellow hominids–probably initially those with a close genetic relationship to them, for example siblings who had been raised together, played and gathered together and formed emotional ties to each other.

For the earliest millennia there is no evidence of hominid encampments.  Small groups of adults and children may have simply slept in the nearest available sheltered place.  Change was very slow, but the emerging foraging way of life was sufficient for survival, and permitted periodic innovations, which were widely adopted.  The only innovations that are clear to us from the archaeological record are those of stone tools, but these inventions could only have happened in a context of social and reproductive success within living communities.

By the second phase of the Paleolithic (Acheulian era) significant changes had occurred in both technology and physiology.  Physically, the ancestral stock is getting much closer to the modern one–so much so that it is designated by the genus homo, as in Homo erectus.  Tools are a bit more varied, probably allowing Homo erectus to process a wider variety of vegetables and butcher (but still not kill) large game.  Fire comes into use in this era.  Campsites appear, so Homo erectus must have developed larger communities than those of the preceding era.  This in turn implies the development of more complex rules for getting along.  Because all innovation consists in recombining existing elements with perhaps a new idea or technique, these larger groups must have grown out of the existing ones, perhaps now including mates of related adults, as well as their pre-pubescent children.  Certainly, with more individuals interacting and more effective communication, more complex rules of behavior would have been devised.  Although the experts do not agree on this, it seems likely that Homo erectus had better developed speech capabilities than her predecessors, a very important factor in the growth of distinctively human societies and associated cultures.

With the emergence of Homo sapiens (sapiens), again in Africa, between 200,000 and 60,000 years ago, the social and technological skills of our ancestors began to develop ever more rapidly.  As we have seen, more specialized tools were devised to cope with a new range of environments.  Tools for actual hunting as we know it were produced, perhaps providing the initial spur to a conscious division of labor by gender, with men forming the groups necessary to track and kill large animals, while women defended camps and continued to provide the bulk of the basic diet of plants and small animals.  Shelters were constructed.  Fishing was invented.  Some campsites in particularly well-watered areas were occupied for long periods of time.  Overall population increased. Presumably foraging groups, called bands, by anthropologists,  were approaching the size (about 30-75 people) which is still characteristic of surviving gatherer-hunter societies.  The beginnings of art, found in cave shelters, suggests that people were concerned with beauty and the meaning of things–that is, with what we would now call science and religion.  This in turn suggests that these concerns are fundamental to our survival and development as humans.

The achievements of Homo sapiens sapiens were built on those of its hominid predecessors. They inherited the basic physiology, economic, social and cultural skills necessary to human existence. Child-rearing, pair-bonding, social support for children and adults, the providing of food, tools, shelter, artistic and spiritual or symbolic concerns were all being dealt with in ways which we recognize as ancestral, that is, as fundamentally human.  With the advent of modern human (our species) such things as cosmetics, poison (and herbs for healing), theology (ritual burials), arts (painting, singing, dancing, and storytelling), decoration (jewelry and decoration of living sites) all very quickly appeared.  With the development of the African Aquatic Tradition settled life enters the picture, and such truly modern concerns as property rights, home maintenance, food storage, housekeeping and garbage disposal had to be dealt with.  With the development of larger, long-term settlements, social methods had to be devised to cope with issues of conflict and cooperation in communities whose resident population numbered in the hundreds rather than the tens.  Thus the elaboration of kinship and marriage arrangements surely dates at least from this era.  The advent of settlements may have also contributed to an even more strongly developed sex division of labor.  It is also in this context that the seeds of plant and animal domestication were doubtless sown, since according to some experts, garbage piles may have helped the process of movement towards dependence on food production along.

                                               THE LATE STONE AGE WAY OF LIFE 

By about 20,000 years ago peoples, cultures, and societies clearly ancestral to our own dotted the global landscape.  The following is a summary, using modern analytical categories, of some of the probable features of a typical lifestyle for our ancestors of those times.

ECONOMY:    Gathering and hunting for food and other necessary materials was practiced by all.
                     Plants and plant products were gathered near campsites following seasonal cycles.
                     Hundreds plants were known. Women did most gathering, preparing and sharing food
                         with family and friends.
                     Small animals were trapped or hunted near camp by women and men.  These were also shared.
                     Large animals were hunted periodically by men of the band operating in a group using
                         bows and arrows, spears, poisons. Extensive knowledge of animals and the environment.
                         They shared the kill with the band; used all parts of the animals for clothing, tools, art work.
                     All adults participate in acquiring food for the group.
                     Some division of labor by gender.
                     Few material belongings limited to easily portable items.

SOCIETY:      Organized into bands of not fewer than 30 or more than 100 related individuals.
                     Marriage and kinship practiced.  Descent likely reckoned through the female line.
                     Leadership, decision-making, and conflict resolution handled by adults meeting together.
                     Few specialized jobs.  However, part-time specialists in such areas as healing,
                        story-telling, artistic endeavors are likely.
                     Strong emphasis on cooperation within the group. Emphasis on group activities,
                        reciprocity, friendliness.

SCIENCE      Generally skilled in the practical aspects of botany, biology, zoology, chemistry and meteorology.
                    Relate time to menstrual, lunar and seasonal cycles.
                    Produce a wide range of tools out of materials found in the environment or obtained through
                       gathering and hunting, including stone, wood, leather, plant fibers and bone.
                    Use herbs and other plant materials for medicines, poisons, cosmetics, art supplies,
                       clothing, shelter and containers.

CHILD-REARING:     Practice child-spacing; usually 4-5 years between births using a long period of nursing.
                              All adults in the camp participate in parenting the children of the camp.
                              Education of children very informal.  Children free to play in the camp; learn how to
                              behave and develop necessary technical skill by imitating the adults.

VALUES:      Animist or spiritual world view expressed through community rituals and art.  Religious
                       concerns included death (burials); fertility (female symbolism); success in the hunt
                       (animal art); and a sense of meaning.
                    Widespread use of symbolic representations as well as naturalism in artistic endeavors.
                    Value cooperation, fertility, and the natural world which sustains their lives.
                    Transmit values through art, music, ritual and storytelling–including stories of how the
                        world began and people came into being.

                                         THE FOOD PRODUCTION REVOLUTION IN AFRICA

Food producing economies became typical for African people living north of the equatorial forest between about 6000 and 1000 BCE.  The shift to dependence on food production from gathering and hunting at first occurred very gradually and only in certain favorable locations where developments were stimulated by a combination of local, independent innovations and diffusion of new knowledge from elsewhere.  There are several regions of Africa that can be counted among the early ‘cradles of agriculture’ and cattle domestication.[11]  These include North Africa, Sudannic West Africa, forest West Africa, and the Ethiopian highlands.  In each of these areas certain abundant plants and/or animals native to the region were increasingly selected and cultivated for use by local populations that had previously relied entirely on foraging.

Unfortunately, very little is yet known about how Africans who inhabited the immense lands of the modern Saharan and Sudannic regions in 6000 BCE lived.  We do know that there were still thriving fishing communities on the banks of the numerous lakes and the great rivers.  They, however, were probably not the first to become dependent on agriculture, since they didn’t need to be!  They had plenty to eat from fishing, gathering seasonal fruits, and harvesting abundant wild grains.  In fact, the first signs of both livestock raising and grain cultivation in Africa appear in what is now the middle of the Sahara desert.  Remember, in 6000 BCE, and still as late 3000 BCE, much of this huge area was habitable savanna country, with thick grass and abundant wildlife.  In other words it was an environment that provided suitable animal and plant species for domestication.

Just how the concept and techniques of cattle raising got started in the Sahara is not known.  Probably the process was gradual and independent of other areas.  Possibly the idea came in from the Middle East, and the techniques developed locally.  In either case, cattle domestication seems to have taken place in the Sahara before it did in the Nile valley (which is closer to the Middle Eastern centers of early domestication).  One of the unique aspects of the evidence for dating Saharan food production is the survival of paintings and drawings, which picture the herding of cattle.  When it came to domestication and cultivation of plants, the Sahara and the Nile valley areas also developed crops very similar to those of the Middle East, with which they shared common climatic ( and thus probably cultural) conditions.  The animals and plants originally domesticated in this region include goats, sheep, cattle, wheat, barley, olives, and dates.

The lands south of the Sahara did not have the same native vegetation and thus could not have simply borrowed techniques of domestication from their northern neighbors.  In these lands of ‘summer rains,’ soils and seasons as well as plants were markedly different.  Probably the earliest site of domestication in the lands south of the emerging Sahara and north of the great forest, was highland Ethiopia, where a kind of banana, a species of millet, and the coffee bean formed a ‘cradle of agriculture.’   In the Sudannic belt other species of millet, the black-eyed pea, and okra were among the plants brought under cultivation by people who were increasingly attracted to the better rainfall south of a drying Sahara after 3000 BCE.  This groups of plants is known as the ‘Sudannic cradle of agriculture.’  In the more humid lands near the Atlantic coast an African species of rice was cultivated at an early date.  In modern-day Nigeria, where the forest meets the savanna, crops such as yams, kola and palm kernels were found suitable for the woodland districts before 2000 BCE, and perhaps much earlier. These form the cradle known associated with the Guinea Neolithic.[12]

As was the case elsewhere in the world, the shift from dependence on foraging to dependence on food production (domesticated plants and/or animals) brought with it major changes of life-style.  For farmers a settled (sedentary) existence became mandatory, with all its attendant benefits and problems.  Small villages surrounded by fields came to dominate the landscape, where seasonal foraging camps had been before.  Although it seems likely that endemic diseases, such as malaria and sleeping sickness, kept populations relatively smaller in tropical Africa than in the sub-tropical Middle East and southeastern Europe, even very small permanent agricultural settlements require more formal rules and authority than similar-sized bands of foragers.  Kinship ideas and practices must have provided some basis for developing more complex social structures, such as those associated with the terms lineage and clan.  The dynamics of co-residence in the same household or settlement also must have played a role.  In other words, ways had to be found to get along with the neighbors or a fairly consistent basis.

Typically African practices of managing resources (land and labor) through village, family and clan organization probably originated during this time.  Marriage and child rearing practices in particular must have changed substantially to accommodate the changing economic and social circumstances.   New crafts (pottery), new specialties (clan head) and new gods (in connection with lineage ancestors, land and crops) appeared.  The relations between the sexes probably changed as well, with new emphasis perhaps being given to the female and her connection to gathering, domesticated plants and to life-giving cycles of the earth.

While farmers had to settle down to accommodated the cycle of planting, cultivation and harvest of plants, those who came to depend primarily on cattle or goat raising retained a nomadic way of life.  In herding societies, the animals became central to everyone’s concerns.  Dependence on herds of domestic animals gave rise to a nomadic pastoralist way of life.  Finding suitable pasture, protecting the young animals–owning, admiring, and making use of them–provided social purpose and inspiration for the imagination as well as milk, skins and meat to eat or trade.  Social organization may have been more male-centered, since animal domestication was more continuous with hunting large game, which has been associated with males historically.  Some types of patrilineal and patriarchal social organization, which later came to characterize many pastoral peoples, may have had their roots in these early times.

Last, but not least, new possibilities for both communication and conflict came into being with the food production ‘revolution.’  Commerce, regular exchanges of goods (and ideas and marriage partners) between villages or herding camps grew up as more and more well-trodden paths linked people in search of needed items, such as good pottery, not available in their own locality.  As well, the development of more efficient agriculture, larger settlements, and local competition over resources probably gave rise to early forms of warfare, that is, organized, violent conflict over territory, as walled villages in the Tichitt and Lake Chad areas testify.  Also, a classic theme of human conflict was born when cattle herders and farmers of the northern savannas were faced with diminishing resources as the Saharan lands began to get progressively drier after 3,000 BCE.

By about 2500 BCE basically modern climatic conditions existed in Africa north of the equator.  A massive desert was growing from the banks of the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, and from near the Mediterranean in the north to only a few hundred miles north of the present-day Sahel in the south.  In the desert, agriculture was confined to the oases.  Even goat herding wasn’t feasible in the driest parts.  By 2200 BCE or so the fertile flood plain of the Nile River in Egypt was surrounded on both east and west by desert.  It also meant that a vast, arid, thinly populated land now separated the savannas of the Sudannic region from its neighbors along the Mediterranean coast to the north, and in the Nile valley to the northeast.  While nomadic pastoralists developed indirect links across it, the Sahara Desert was only opened to regular commerce after the introduction of the camel from the Arabian penninsula about 2,000 years ago.


By 5,000 BCE the Nile valley from modern-day Sudan right to its Delta on the Mediterranean seacoast had been home to various peoples for many thousands of years.  As early as 16,000 BCE people living near the shores of lakes formed on the upper Nile, as well as on the upper river itself, lived in small villages, made fishing gear and boats, and produced some of the earliest pottery known.  By the 4th millennium[13] BCE the valley had also attracted cattle keepers from the vast Saharan savannas to the west, and perhaps traders from other Neolithic communities to the northeast, as well.

The Physical and Cultural Environment of the Nile in Ancient Times

The Lower Nile, from the First Cataract (modern-day Aswan) to the Mediterranean Sea, provides two different, but related environments.  Moving north from the First Cataract, the Nile flows through a comparatively narrow valley.  The lands along the banks are characterized by a series of natural basins (called hods), which have been altered by human engineering for the last 7,000 years.  As one nears the Delta in the north, the floodplain widens and the basins become less distinct, until in the Delta itself the land is divided not into basins, but into islands and peninsulas formed by the alluvial deposits of soil over thousands of years.  In very ancient times “Lower Egypt” began south of the Delta itself, including the broader floodplain from Memphis north.

The most important historical-geographic feature of the Lower Nile, of course, is its annual flood, which following the summer rains in Ethiopia, bursts into Egypt in August and typically continues for two months, leaving both destruction and riches in its wake.  The flood, although annual, is not uniform.  When there is drought in the highlands to the south, the flood may be a comparative trickle.  However, in years of abundant rainfall in the watershed, the flood can become a torrent, washing everything before it. It is now thought that early populations, which ventured into the valley of the Nile below the First Cataract, were more concerned to build dikes to protect themselves and their herds against this possibility of a destructive flood than to irrigate crops.

The fact that cattle were important in early Egyptian history brings up another point about the environment in antiquity.  In the earliest days of Egyptian development, there was no Sahara Desert.  The lands that now form the Sahara enjoyed savanna, rather than desert environments.  And as we have already seen, the Saharan peoples had been pioneers of cattle domestication.  Until about 2300 BCE, that is well into Pharaonic times, the Lower Nile flowed through an area of rainfall, which supported thriving cattle herding societies.

Not only cattle raising, but also fishing and agriculture have a long history in the Nile valley.  The upper Nile, in what is now the country of Sudan, was one of the areas that developed fishing settlements during the long era of the African Aquatic Tradition.  Since some of these Late Stone Age communities used grinding stones to process wild grains, which they harvested in the fertile alluvial plains, it seems likely that it was their descendants who became the first full time farmers in this part of Africa.  Between 5000 BCE and 4000 BCE farming and cattle keeping replaced hunting and fishing as the main ways of life along the Nile.  Of course, people continued to both hunt and fish, but they were becoming economically and socially dependent upon cattle raising and farming.

The Development of Irrigation, Writing, Religion and Monarchy

Picture, if you can, what the Nile valley (of modern-day Egypt) must have been like in the 2,000 years between the early Neolithic and the beginning of the unified kingdom under the pharaoh Narmer/Menes in about 3,000 BCE.  Had you traveled the region early in the period, your journey would have taken you along the higher ground of the valley, inland of the river itself, where encampments of cattle herders or small farming settlements would have hosted you.  As you traveled the length of the area, both cultural and linguistic differences would have been apparent, with life centering around local earth spirits as well as goddesses and gods representing the forces of nature (human and environmental).  These coincide with the several distinctive Neolithic cultural traditions that archaeologists have identified with this era.  At that time only a few fields were situated in the flood plain itself.  However, as communities became more numerous and their technology and social organization better adapted to the local environment, they began to use the dry season between the floods to shore up natural basin boundaries. This enabled them to more safely graze their cattle or plant their crops in this fertile land.  As this ability to defend themselves against the destructive power of the flood increased, so did their colonization[14] of the fertile natural basins near the river.  By about 4,000 BCE these riverside pioneers had developed production levels capable of supporting specialized crafts workers in wood, stone, copper and gold, as well as specialists in religion and trading.  As in other parts of the Neolithic world of the time, religious emphases shifted to a focus on agriculture and the fertility of both women and the earth.  In the Nile valley religious thinkers also were absorbed with the cycles of the flood, which they connected to the appearance of the star Sirius in the night sky.  From the viewpoint of people at that time there was an intimate connection between supernatural and natural phenomena.[15]  Socially, greater control of the flood required greater organization of labor and cooperation of people joined together by residence in a particular basin area.  Effective flood management also required planning.  It is in this context that the earliest pictographic writing appeared.

Between about 4,000 and 3200 BCE the pace of change quickened in the Nile valley.  More sophisticated flood-control technology, aided by the development of larger political/religious units headed by an emergent class of priest-scribes, led to colonization of the floodplain basins themselves.  The priest-scribes took the lead in both predicting the floods and organizing the construction of dikes. They also required and organized storage of food for use in hard times.  With greater productivity larger villages, now with houses made of brick, made their appearance.  Burials became more elaborate.  Writing became more stylized and flexible as the full hieroglyphic system developed.  Everyday items now are included in graves.  Differences in burials indicate that social class had made its appearance.  For the first time you could have made your journey along the Nile by boat, indicating an increase in the volume of trade, as well as improvements in communication.  Merchants regularly visited not only points along the Nile, but ports on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, in modern-day Lebanon and Israel.

The idea and practice of monarchy also became established, apparently first among the more pastoralist-oriented peoples of Nubia, where the earliest known Egyptian-style royal burial was recently discovered.  These religious, economic, social and political advances allowed the local flood district-based communities to become more and more effectively organized to exploit the environment for their benefit.  This is the context in which the earliest socio-political formations we could call states[16] apppeared.  By 3500 BCE the autonomous local hod states had joined together into two confederations of allied states, one for Lower Egypt (from about Memphis north) and the other for Upper Egypt (from the Memphis area to Thebes in the south).

Although little specific is known about the relations between the sexes in this era, the presence of both strong goddesses and gods, as well as the predominance of agriculture, suggest that women and men enjoyed roughly equal status.  They probably worked side by side, or in complimentary fashion to accomplish the various tasks necessary to gain a living for their families.[17]

Pharaonic Egypt to Ca. 800 BCE

The rulers of ancient Egypt were known as ‘pharaohs.’  They were believed to be the incarnation of the god, Horus.  As we have seen, the Egyptian practice of divine kingship probably originated in Nubia.  From the time of the legendary Narmer (or Menes), founder of the 1st Dynasty, the local gods and priest-leaders of the north were absorbed into the expanding Egyptian system.

Historians, following the Egyptian historian Manetho (published in 280 BCE), have traditionally grouped the reigns of related pharaohs into dynasties, numbering 30 in all, spread over the period from about 3100 BCE to 332 BCE.  Though there is not always agreement as to the exact dates of specific reigns, the system of grouping rulers claiming descent from the same ancestor into dynasties provides a useful framework for chronicling the immensely long period of ancient Egyptian history.  However, since the time period is so long, and not all dynasties were equally strong, the history of Egyptian antiquity has been further grouped by historians into eras of strong centralized government, called ‘Kingdoms,’ and eras of weak centralized government power, called ‘Intermediate Periods.’  There are three ‘Kingdoms’ during the Pharaonic Era: the Old Kingdom, which includes the rulers of the 3rd through the 6th dynasties; the Middle Kingdom, which encompasses the 11th and 12th dynasties, and the New Kingdom, which lasted from the 18th through the 20th dynasties.  In between the Old and Middle Kingdoms there was a troubled period now known as the First Intermediate Period.  The Middle and New Kingdoms are separated by the foreign infiltration and invasions of the Second Intermediate Period.  The weak kings of the 21st dynasty inaugurating a period variously known as the Third Intermediate or Late period, followed the New Kingdom.  This era lasted until the conquest of the throne by Libyans, which signals the end of the Pharaonic era proper, although not the end of classical Egyptian civilization, by any means.

The basic political structure and cultural bases of classical Egyptian civilization were in their fullest flower during the Old Kingdom (ca. 2900-2200 BCE).  It was during this remarkable era that the Egyptian system of exploiting the agricultural and communications potential of the Nile provided the means for the achievement of great collective wealth.  Control of national resources enabled Egyptian rulers to enjoy luxurious lifestyles and build grand monuments, for both the living and the dead.  Great pyramids were built–as the perfect dwellings for the pharaohs in the land of the dead.  The pharaoh was ideologically and literally the center of the Egyptian system–the god-king who linked the human and spiritual worlds.  From the Old Kingdom onward the ancient Egyptians depended upon their divine ruler to uphold Ma’at, the essence of justice and right order, in the kingdom and in nature itself.  The economic, governmental and religious structures of Pharaonic Egypt were all centered at the court of the pharaoh himself.  It employed thousands and thousands of scribes, artisans, merchants, performers, builders, and every kind of servant.  It was not just those employed directly in palaces, temples or pyramids under royal control, but also the ordinary farmers of the countryside, who formed an integral part of this system, believing that the Pharaoh, the God King was central to their well being and thus supporting him with their taxes of grain, their labor on public works, and their adulation at temples and during festivals.

Although monarchy itself seems to have patriarchal roots, and kings everywhere were typically male, the institution of the pharaoh in Egypt has some very distinctive female elements.  In the first place, inheritance to the throne was in the female line (matriliny).  It was guarded so closely that heirs to the throne were required to marry princesses with the title ‘Daughter of the God,’ and brother-sister marriage was practiced.  The positions of Queen Mother and Queen wife (‘Great Royal Wife’) evolved into royal offices, with their own courts, households and prerogatives.  Royal women also held other positions at court and served as the principal priestesses in the temples of important goddesses, such as Hathor and Isis throughout Pharaonic times.

Ordinary women of the Old Kingdom seem to have continued to enjoy status equal to that of males.  Records indicate they were paid equal wages, and that they were considered fully adult and responsible for their own acts before the law. They could inherit and dispose of property; give testimony in court; and enter into business contracts as free agents.  Certainly they continued to be crucial in the agricultural sector, but the temple paintings of the time also portray women engaged in a wide variety of occupations.

Under he pharaohs of the Old Kingdom dynasties, formerly independent hod states became provinces, called nomes. These were ruled directly by the pharaoh, with their old ruling families now forced to live at court to take up their new jobs as governors and tax collectors for their former terriotories.  Along with their people, the leaders of this era were secure in the belief that their king could ensure the desired annual flood and consequent rich harvests.  The Egyptians thought of themselves as an elect people, indeed as the only true human beings on earth. “Fearing little, they accomplished much.”[18]

The centralized system established by the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom broke down during the First Intermediate Period.  Provincial leaders reasserted their independence, supporting rival pharaohs, and helping to create the disunity and resulting hard times of the period.  The hard times were caused in part by the drying up of the Sahara, which had reached aridity levels close to those of modern times by 2200 BCE.  Cultural disunity accompanied the political disunity and economic stress of this approximately 200-year period.  Rulers of the nomes, called nomarchs in this era, recreated local dynasties and built themselves fine tombs in their own districts, providing employment for artisans with the wealth they no longer sent to the Pharaoh’s court.  However, their wealth could not match that of the Old Kingdom times, especially since much of their revenues had to be invested in quarrels with neighbors and in trying to maintain the infrastructure necessary for the good life.  In ancient Egypt prosperity was greatest during times of strong centralized government.

It was only in about 2000 BCE that the kings of Thebes in the south managed to reunite the country and reestablish strong, centralized Pharaonic power.  Pyramid building resumed.  However, the practice of building fancy tombs for provincial rulers and their wives also continued.  Priests gained strength and influence in this era as allies for Pharaohs who needed their help to control provincial officials with strong local support.  The Pharaonic court and associated temples, with their enormous cultural and educational establishments, built up their resource base in this period.  They profited from the central government’s extension of foreign trade and its conquest of Nubia as far as the 2nd cataract. Also, to increase productivity and revenues, the Pharaoh’s government promoted the development of irrigated agriculture in the Fayum region of the Nile Delta.  It is important to remember that a high productive agricultural sector provided the basis for everything else in ancient Egypt.

The 300-year period known as the Second Intermediate was brought about by the combination of political weakness within Egypt and foreign invasion/infiltration into the country from the northeast by Semitic peoples known as the Hyksos.  These desert-dwellers used their horses and chariots and bronze weapons to take over portions of the Delta, and to become significant players in the conflicted politics of the era.  They also stimulated the Egyptians to adopt the new technologies they introduced.  The adoption of bronze contributed to a rise in agricultural productivity.  While bronze weapons, horse-drawn chariots significantly strengthened the Pharaoh’s military capacities.  These innovations came together under the kings of the 18th dynasty to usher in the imperial era called the New Kingdom.

From the 16th until the 11th centuries BCE Egypt became a strong, conquest-oriented, world power.  At its largest the Egyptian New Kingdom included most of modern Palestine and the lands of the Nile south almost as far as modern city of Khartoum.  The pharaohs now maintained standing armies.  They built ever more magnificent monuments, not only in Egypt proper, but in the lands of Kush (Nubia), which was fully incorporated into Egypt under direct Pharaonic administration.  Great wealth in tribute augmented the revenues from agriculture and trade, providing funds to run the empire and keep the members of the royal family and their courts in lavish splendor.  Foreign wars were practically continuous in this era.  Soldiers rose to the highest levels at court.  Mercenaries from Libya and Kush played important roles in the military.  War captives poured into the country as slaves who were put to work on public works and given to high government, military and religious officials.  Although there was a large middle class of merchants, artisans and officials, social class distinctions generally became more and more marked, with the peasants in particular becoming less able to either improve their lot or move into other professions.  However, despite these widening class distinctions, the position of women in Egypt remained more or less equal to that of men.  Certainly women retained legal equality and access to most professions.  Royal women, in fact, gained in power during the New Kingdom era, consolidating both their independent bases and their ability to achieve the throne alone, as regent, or as co-ruler.

After almost five hundred years, towards the end of the 20th dynasty, things began to fall apart.  Palestine and Nubia regained their independence.  Conflicts arose over succession to the throne.  Military elements played an ever more important role in governing the country, and many of the most powerful military forces were of foreign origin, Libyan and Nubian troops and their leaders.  Finally around 800 BCE a dynasty of Libyan origin seized the throne, inaugurating a long era of foreign rule Egypt.

Nubia and Kush in Pharaonic Times

The region south of the First Cataract of the Nile was through most of antiquity not a part of Egypt proper.  Only in times of Egyptian expansion during the Middle Kingdom, and especially during the New Kingdom, did some of these lands come under direct Egyptian administration.  As we have seen already, although Egypt was historically the more powerful, the kingdoms of Nubia (known both as Nubia and Kush at different times) were not always overshadowed.  The relationship between the Egyptian Nile valley and the Nubian (modern Sudanese) part of the Nile valley has always been a two-way one.

The different histories of the two parts of the Nile valley are largely attributable to geography itself.  North of the First Cataract after 2500 BCE the Nile runs through a desert.  Only the irrigated banks of the River itself support human communities in any numbers.  However, the further south one goes along the Nile the more rainfall there is.  By the region of the Sixth Cataract the land receives summer rains and is cultivable without irrigation.  Cattle, sheep and goats could also be grazed in the south.  The societies and cultures that people developed to exploit these different environments led to quite different historical paths.  For example, large centralized empires were rare in the south.  Also population densities were much less.  More common were smaller settlements that maintained more independence from each other than the nomes of Egypt could sustain.  Egyptians, as we know, developed elaborate religious and government institutions, writing systems and the like.  Southerners preferred a simpler approach, with more local control and fewer bureaucrats (and taxes).  Pastoral nomadism was more common in the south.  This probably strengthened the southerners’ attachment to local autonomy.

Although historically the south seems to have preferred political independence, the Nubian lands were linked to the north not only by the River and by a broadly shared past, but also economically.  Egyptians needed Nubian metals, precious stones, cattle and cattle products, dates and military skills.  Egyptians also relied on Nubian merchants to link them with the lands further south from whom they obtained more exotic products like incense or ebony.  Nubians, on the other hand, wanted Egyptian manufactured goods and perhaps also imported goods that the Egyptians had obtained from the lands to their north.

As is reflected on the chronology of Egypt in Pharaonic Times, the two regions had a long history of conflict between them as well.  It would seem that in very early times the kingdoms of Nubia might have been stronger militarily than their farmer neighbors.  This can be inferred from the fact that the regalia of monarchy itself seem to have come from the south.  However, once Egypt was unified and grew into a powerful country, the less numerous and more divided Nubians were at a political and military disadvantage.  Thus when the strong rulers of the Middle and New Kingdoms decided that they wanted more control over the people and resources of the south, they were able to conquer and administer significant parts of it.  This in turn led some of the southern leadership to withdraw even further south.  It is this kind of strategy that paved the way for the emergence of a strong and independent Kush when the proud New Kingdom fell on hard times after 1085.

Though they built on what was by then a quite Egyptianized society and culture, the rulers of Kush also incorporated some of their own gods and political values.  It was this cosmopolitan state that was able to take over Egypt itself in the 8th century BCE, and which survived the subsequent onslaughts of the Persians, Greeks and Romans who ruled in Egypt after 500 BCE.

Egypt And Its Neighbors.  What Impact Did They Have On Each Other?

Ancient Egyptian history, especially the nature of its origins and legacy, has become the subject of controversy in recent times.  In particular, questions about the racial and cultural links of ancient Egypt with the rest of Africa, and about its influence on subsequent civilizations, both Western and African, have been raised.  Conflicting interpretations and opinions are being offered both in popular and scholarly arenas.  Battles are being fought in the pages of scholarly journals and in the meetings of local school boards.  While the time constraints of this course do not allow for much exploration of these issues, they are certainly relevant to the study of history, both ‘Western’ and ‘African.'[19] Thus, we will examine some of the most important areas of contention, and provide a brief historiography.

In some ways controversies about the nature of ancient Egyptian influence, its relations with its neighbors, and its legacy, are rooted in the history and geography of the Nile valley itself.  The Nile flows north, literally bringing its rich soil from the heart of Africa.  Egypt borders both the Mediterranean and the Middle East, as well as the Red Sea and the Sahara Desert.  Settlement of the Nile valley goes back into extreme antiquity.  Its generally favorable environment attracted people from all directions, a process that has continued throughout historic times as well.  There is no evidence that ancient Egyptians (or their contemporaries) had anything like our modern racial stereotypes and biases.   However, if we choose to view it that way, available evidence (including numerous surviving art works) suggests that the people of ancient Egypt ranged physically from typical modern black Africans to typical modern North African and Middle Easterners.

Although the origin of the complexities and puzzles of ancient Egypt lie in the past, the actual controversies have modern roots, many of them originating outside the country itself, in places as widely dispersed as New York, Paris, and Dakar.  Until as recently as the 1960s, historians of Western (European) civilization have treated ancient Egypt as a part of the general ‘root’ of their own history and not as a part of Africa at all.  Arab historians have also tended toward this view.  These trends led to a situation that fed racially-based negative assessments of the history of sub-Saharan Africa, which was regarded as having nothing to do with the glories of classical Egypt.  It was not until the 20th century that pioneer historians, led by African Americans and Africans, began to question these views, both of Africa and of the relation of ancient Egypt to both history of the rest of the Continent and to European and Middle Eastern history as well.  These investigators were primarily interested in retrieving the history and global contributions of Black People (whom they saw as a unity).  Thus, they tended to focus their attention on both the Continental African character of ancient Egypt and the racial make-up of its people. The leading scholar of this school was the late Cheikh Anta Diop, a distinguished Senegalese scientist.

In the last 50 years or so, partly as a result of these efforts, and partly because of the emergence of modern African countries on the world scene, a whole new field of study of African history has developed, attracting scholars from all over the world.  To the extent that specialists working in this field, (called Africanists) have generally taken a Continental approach, they have contributed to the reintegration of Egypt into the general history of Africa.  There is still a tendency for scholars of modern African affairs to divide the Continent at the Sahara.  This is justified on the grounds that modern North Africa, including Egypt and Sudan, is a part of the great Islamic world, and thus has more in common with the countries of the Middle East than with those of sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the fact that numerous scholars from various parts of the world, especially including Egypt itself, have undertaken the study of the relations of Egypt with its neighbors there is still a shortage of evidence and a surplus of speculation on the topic.  What we do know is that the Egyptians of antiquity produced a very rich civilization, in a quite strategic African location, which lasted a very, very long time. It therefore seems quite logical to expect that, despite the surrounding desert after 2200 BCE, Egypt had a variety of connections with its contemporaries over millennia.  We also know that ancient Egyptians were leaders in the development of many arts, crafts, institutions and sciences, thus it is logical to infer that others borrowed from them through contacts of trade or conquest.  The three most critical areas of possible transmission and exchange are the Sinai and Palestine, the lands around the eastern Mediterranean Sea (especially ancient Asia Minor, Crete and Greece), and the Nubia/Kush corridor.  The first of these is both the best documented (actual Egyptian and Egyptian-style remains are numerous in this region) and the best-studied.  It is also very important because contacts between Palestine and Egypt via the Sinai are of very ancient origin and, of course, have continued to the present day.  Among the areas of importance being investigated are the influence of Egyptian writing on the development of the Phoenician alphabet and the influence of Egyptian boat building on the development of Mediterranean transport.  There is little controversy about the influence of Egyptian craft and artistic techniques, linen and papyrus production, jewelry and fashions on her northeastern neighbors over time. Other Egyptian contributions to early civilizational development include medicine, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and architecture.  Egyptian gods and religious beliefs also spread widely, and continued to do so long after the end of the glorious Pharaonic age.

Of a more controversial nature for the history of Western civilization are questions that have recently been raised about the nature of Egyptian contributions to the civilization of classical Greece.[20]  Although this issue is still being vigorously debated, there is little doubt that the Greeks of classical times drew generally on their predecessors to the east, whether Sumerian, Phoenician, Persian or Egyptian.  Questions and controversies center on when, where, and how these influences occurred, as well as how influential they were.

For the history of relations between classical Egyptians and the rest Africa one must, of course, turn to the south and southwest.  Here, the question has two parts: 1) to what extent was Egyptian civilization a native African one in the first place, and 2) how much did the high civilization of the Pharaonic era influence later civilizations of  Africa outside the Mediterranean region?  The current working consensus of Africanist historians and archaeologists is that ancient Egyptian civilization was principally an outgrowth not only of an African environment, but also of African prehistory.  In particular, they point to the importance of the very ancient settlements of the Upper Nile and the Sahara of the last African wet phase.  Scholarly opinion remains much more divided about the second question.  This is partly because there is very little direct physical evidence of actual connections between Egypt and other parts of Africa outside the Nile valley and Red Sea areas.  There has been virtually no archaeological work that might, for example, uncover evidence of trade routes linking the ancient Nile and Niger valleys, although it does not seem farfetched to imagine their existence.  Unfortunately serious archaeological study of this issue would be a very costly and difficult to undertake, since thousands of square miles in several countries would have to be surveyed at the outset.

In the area of political, religious, and social continuities, it is clear that some later African civilizations share certain features with ancient Egypt and/or Kush.  However, it is not possible, given current data bases, to establish how or whether these similarities resulted from ancient connections, or can be explained by other circumstances. Similar institutions and beliefs between peoples of the Niger and Nile regions could be explained in various ways, for example, common Saharan ancestry, or linkages across the Sahara during Pharaonic times or after, or some common influence such as Islam. Of course, such similarities could be the result of several kinds of connections, or be entirely coincidental.  Where such apparently common features have been identified as having some historical importance, they will be noted and possible connections briefly outlined.

                                                       WEST AFRICA IN ANTIQUITY

The Roots of ‘Sudannic’ (African?) Civilization

As we have already learned, by about 2000 BCE the lands south of the Mediterranean coast and west of the Nile valley had become desert regions, which supported only limited populations of herders and oasis farmers.  Traveling south from the Mediterranean coast there are more than a thousand miles of arid lands to cross before desert gives way first to semi-arid steppes, then open savanna and increasingly moist woodlands, and finally to the dense rain forests of the Atlantic coastal zone. Although nomadic pastoralists did move their herds seasonally from the central Saharan mountains to the Sahel and back, the desert was very difficult to traverse, particularly before the introduction of the camel in Roman times.  Desert routes were not the only possible ones between Egypt and the Niger valley, but the savanna routes would have been much longer and are not known to have been regularly traveled in antiquity.  This means that while there likely were indirect exchanges of goods, people and ideas between the regions surrounding the Sahara, the economic, social, and cultural development of West Africa during classical Egyptian times must have taken place independently of any direct influences coming from either the Mediterranean coast or Egypt.

The most important agents of change affecting ancient West Africa before the advent of the camel were 1) the drying of the Sahara after 3000 BCE, 2) the spread of agriculture in the Sudannic belt in the wake of Saharan desiccation, and 3) the rapid spread of iron technology after about 500 BCE.  There was no separate age of copper or bronze in this part of the world, where iron use came comparatively late, but spread very rapidly.

Archaeological evidence suggests that foraging survived in the lands of the modern Sudannic belt and Guinea forest much longer than they did in the Nile valley.  This is likely because there were few incentives for change before 3000 BCE.  The climate was relatively stable and the gathering and hunting communities under no particular pressures to change their ways.  Farming and cattle keeping almost certainly either spread out of the Sahara (cattle keeping) or were stimulated by the drought conditions that produced the desert (farming).  Both the Sudannic and Guinea Neolithic agricultural cradles developed within the context of desertification.  Probably, over time, the slow movement of communities toward the regions of higher rainfall created pressure on existing foraging economies, forcing them toward the innovations characteristic of the transition to farming, mainly the development of the farming villages that still dominate in rural areas.  Herding, of course, was quite well developed in the Sahara long before this era of dry conditions began.  Herders did not have to change their way of life much to adapt to the new climatic conditions.  However, with the spread of farming, they did find new economic niches, particularly as traders.

Long before iron tools came into use, agricultural techniques (including organizational ones) were being refined and productivity improved in the West Africa region.  This led to population growth, and with it larger settlements, more complex political organization, occupational specialization and the like.  This probably set the stage for the emergence, in the early Iron Age, of the first known Sudannic civilization, which is called Nok from its archaeological type-site in what is now central Nigeria.  In West Africa the formation of states was linked not only to agricultural improvements and population expansion that followed the development of iron tools; but also to the growth of local, regional and finally international trade.  Another element contributing to the growth of strong states was the conflicts that arose along the ecological lines dividing 1) the desert and semi-desert-based pastoralists (ancestors of modern Berber, Taureg, and Fulani peoples) from the farmers of the more fertile savannas.  Several savanna and forest margin areas can be identified as incipient civilizational centers.  Moving from the west to the east, they are 2) the Senegal valley and coast, home to the modern Wolof and Serer.  North and east of there 3) the area around Dar Tichitt (modern southern Mauritania) is ancestral to the northern branch of the Mande; and 4) the area of the upper Niger River is home to the southern branch of the Mande. 5) The lands from the Niger bend south through the Volta River valley, were home to ancestors of the Songhai, Mossi, and Akan peoples. 6) The lower Niger region (where the peoples of Nok lived) is the ancestral area for modern Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo people. 7) The region around Lake Chad, home of the modern Kanuri, was also one where states developed from a comparatively early date. 8) Last, though certainly not least, the grassy borderlands between modern Nigeria and Cameroon are the ancestral home of the Bantu-speaking peoples, who began a process of expansion that eventually covered the southern half of the Continent well before 500 BCE.

It should be noted, before going further, that many West African peoples did not choose the path of state formation (often said to be the path of ‘civilizational development’), but instead created political systems based on elaborate kinship models that coupled local autonomy and wider networks to create viable political orders.  It must be noted that in West Africa, even comparatively small communities could maintain their political independence by taking advantage of forest environments to shelter themselves from attack or takeover by more powerful neighbors.

Little material evidence is available to scholars working to reconstruct this era of West African prehistory, because so little archeological work has been done.  However, what is known about changes in material culture and something of their implications for social change or artistic development can be briefly summarized for those areas where archaeologists have been at work. The principal ethno-linguistic groups whose material cultures are under discussion below.

(1) [Taureg Berbers and related pastoralists.] Work in the desert and semi-arid regions of the modern Sahel indicates that cattle herding pastoralists continued to be the dominant populations.  Excavations to the north of the Niger bend indicate that in addition to herding cattle the people hunted wild animals and gathered plants, even fished where wet season streams permitted.  They lived in camps which permitted the to make seasonal moves with their animals.  Those farmers who remained in the desert oases came to be lorded over by their more mobile neighbors.  This was especially the case after the adoption of the horse by pastoralist populations.  African pastoralists, like their nomadic counterparts in other parts of the world, developed social organizations characterized by deep patrilineages.  (That is, people reckoned their membership in the lineage by reference to a very ancient founding father.)  These patrilineages often constituted over-arching units which may properly be called tribes.  (Remember the Hebrews in their early history, for example.)  Control over cattle, horses, and women typically conferred wealth and prestige.  Cattle raiding may have been one of the earliest forms of offensive war.  The socio-political system was typically patriarchal.

(2) [Wolof and Serer] The Senegal valley area is not one which has had extensive archaeological work.  It was home to agricultural peoples, who made small, geometrical stone tools, and lived in small settlements.  They grew sorghum, millet, and a native rice.

(3) [Northern Mande or Soninke] By contrast the area around Dar Tichitt in southern Mauritania has been the subject of much archaeological attention, revealing successive layers of settlement near what still were small lakes as late as 1200 BCE.  At this time people there built circular compounds, 60-100 feet in diameter, near the beaches of the lakes. (‘Compound’ is the name given to a housing type, still common today, in which several members of related families share space within a wall.)  These compounds were arranged into large villages located about 12 miles from each other.  Inhabitants fished, herded cattle and planted some millet, which they stored in pottery vessels.  This was the last era of reasonable moisture in this part of the Sahara.  By 1000 BCE the villages, still made up of compounds, had been relocated to hilltop positions, and were walled.  Cattle were still herded, more millet was grown, but there were no more lakes for fishing.  From 700-300 BCE the villages decreased in size and farming was reduced at the expense of pastoralism.

Architecturally, the villages of Dar Tichitt resemble those of the modern northern Mande (Soninke), who live in the savanna 300-400 miles to the south.  These ancient villagers were not only farmers, but were engaged in trade connected with the salt and copper mines which developed to the north.  Horse drawn vehicles passed through the Tichitt valley, bringing trading opportunities, ideas, and opening up the inhabitants to raids from their more nomadic northern neighbors.  Development of the social and political organization necessary to handle commerce and defense must have been a factor in the subsequent development of Ghana, the first great Sudannic empire, in this part of West Africa.

(4) [Southern Mande, also known as Mandinka, Mandingo and Bambara] It is not clear whether the southern Mande had settled in the regions of the upper Niger by this period or not.  They probably formed a part of the populations who were gradually infiltrating south from the drying Sahara.  It seems likely that their villages were similar to those of Dar Tichitt.  They were probably also instrumental in the process of extending the copper and salt trade from the desert into the mineral-poor agricultural regions to the south.

(5) [Songhai and related] The peoples living in the area of the Niger Bend at this time are ancestral to the modern Songhai.  They have inhabited this area for a very long time.  The antiquity of their settlement can be inferred from the fact that they speak a language belonging to the Nilo-Saharan family.  This in turn suggests that were descended from the older African aquatic culture populations.  The Songhai and their neighbors exploited the great River itself, and as well cultivated sorghums and millet, and hunted for wild game.

(6) [Akan, Mossi, Yoruba, Igbo among many others] In the forest margins, which stretch from south of the Niger Bend to the mountains of Cameroon, people farmed the more difficult to clear woodlands and planted yams, groundnuts (peanuts), and cowpeas (black-eyed peas).  They also cultivated the kola and various species of palm to obtain a variety of products, including palm wine, palm oil, and palm fibers for cloth.  Their settlements were characteristically large and occupied permanent sites over long periods.  Farmers, as is still the practice, lived in the village or town and farmed land around the outskirts.  The hoe was the principle agricultural implement.  It is a tool which historically has been associated with women.  The social organization of these hoe-users was almost certainly more female-oriented than that of their pastoralist neighbors to the north.  Even today a higher proportion of the forest and forest-margin dwellers are matrilineal, with females occupying a wide range of jobs, including trader, potter, oracle and lineage official.

(7) [Fulani, Hausa, Kanuri] The open country from the Bend of the Niger to Lake Chad is home to three populous modern nations.  The Fulani do not come from this area, but have migrated there from a more northwesterly homeland in comparatively modern times.  They have pastoralist origins, linking them to the Sahara.  However, their language is West African in its roots.  On the other hand the agricultural Hausa have strong cultural links to the ancient farming stocks of the region, but speak a language related to modern Arabic, Berber, and Hebrew.  The Kanuri live in an area, around Lake Chad, which has had extensive archaeological work, particularly an area known as Daima.  Settled life on the successive shorelines of the lake has a very long history, dating back to the African aquatic culture.  North of the Lake, as the drying times set in, was home to semi-nomadic herding populations with trade links to the central Saharan copper mines, and perhaps to Libya, at a comparatively early date.  South of the lake the land supports savanna agriculture.  The lake itself provided fishing, and settlements in the region tended to be large.

(8) [Proto-Bantu speakers] The contemporary communities of speakers of proto-Bantu, living along the modern Nigeria-Cameroonian border, were also farmers, skilled in the use of the hoe.  Even before the advent of iron, they produced sufficient crops to support a steadily growing population.  This meant that in each generation more land was needed for farms.  It is hypothesized that in order to satisfy this need proto-Bantu speaking pioneers began to move south and east into virgin territory between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago.  It is now believed that their expansion took two main paths.  The first led along the northern margins of the forest to the east, and from thence eventually down the eastern side of the Great Rift towards the fertile Zambezi valley in the far south.  The second took other groups, by land and canoe, gradually into and through the great equatorial forest.  They and their descendants not only brought agriculture to the forest, but also eventually arrived on the southern savannas, where more open country proved an invitation to further rapid expansion of the settler frontier.

When iron became available, it spread rapidly along the commercial and kin networks that must have linked the growing number of Bantu-speaking communities.  They used the new metal to produce much more effective hoes with which to grow more yams and peas.  Perhaps even more important was the invention of the iron machete, a crucial tool for the clearing work necessary to bring virgin forestlands under cultivation.  The advent of the iron hoe and machete gave a boost to the expansion of the Bantu-speaking peoples, whose linguistic descendents now inhabit almost the entire Continent south of a line stretching from Cameroon to the southern part of Ethiopia.

                                            CHRONOLOGY OF ANCIENT WEST AFRICA

After 12,000 BCE: Beginning of a wetter phase in Africa north of the equator.  Populations ancestral to most West Africans make up the foragers and hunters of these lands.

By about 8,000 BCE: Great lakes formed in Niger Bend, Lake Chad and Upper Nile regions.  Spread of ‘African aquatic culture’ through this ‘great lakes’ region.  Sedentary fishing communities using pottery and microlithic tools become  established long the shores of lakes and rivers.  Saharan region enjoys savanna-type climate.  Favorable conditions lead to population growth.

9,000 to 6,000 BCE: Saharan region in its wettest phases.

By 6,000 BCE: Evidence of domesticated ‘humpless’ cattle in the Saharan region.  Also seed-cropping (or harvesting) of grains.

6,000-2,500 BCE: Spread of predominantly cattle-raising peoples throughout the Sahara.  Probably ancestral to modern-day Berber groups.

3,000-1,000 BCE: Farming spreads through the former fishing belt of the tropical woodland savannas and forest margins of West Africa.  This Guinea Neolithic era saw the domestication of millets, rice, sorghum, yams, and palm trees among others.

After 2,500 BCE: Saharan region enters a period of rapid desertification, driving people and larger game animals to seek better watered lands to the north and south for habitation.  Neolithic settlements spread along the Saharan borderlands and near rivers and lakes in the West.

1,200-700 BCE: Excavations at Dar Tichitt (modern Mauritania) reveal progression from large, un-walled lakeside villages to smaller walled hilltop villages in response to drier climate and increasing pressure from nomads.

After 2,000 BCE: Favorable climatic conditions and developing technology and socio-cultural systems lead to population growth in the Niger valleys.  Neolithic farming spreading south and east from the area of modern-day Cameroon.  Probably associated with speakers of proto-Bantu languages.

After 500 BCE: Advent of iron-smelting and iron use in West Africa.  Height of the civilization known as Nok, which produced art work ancestral to that of later Yoruba and lgbo peoples.


By 800 BCE:  Neolithic agricultural peoples inhabit the best lands of the savanna and forest margins.  Regional trade networks based on the exchange of salt, fish, pottery, and other regional specialties developing.  Small, clan-based villages typical of agricultural aras.  Nomads dominate in the drier areas.

-800 to -500:  Development of Carthage in the north stimulates exchanges of products across the Sahara Desert, managed by desert Berbers using horses, oxen and chariots. Iron use psreads into the region from the north or east, or both.  Larger scale settlements appearing in southern Mauritania. the middle Niger River basin, and the Jos plateau region.  These areas correspond respectively to the probable ancestral homes of the modern Soninke (northern Mande); Songhai; and Yoruba peoples.

-500 to -200: Iron use spreads rapidly throughout West Africa, stimulating population growth, trade, and urbanization.  Iron-age peoples of Nok (modern Nigeria) produce magnificent terra cotta sculptures stylistically ancestral to later Yoruba and Benin art.  Indirect trade continues across increasingly well-marked Saharan trails, still traversed by horse or ox-drawn vehicles.

-800 to +200: Era of Nok civilization.  Bantu expansion ‘takes off’ to the south and east.  Earliest towns, such as Jenne, growing up along the Niger on its most northerly stretch.

-100 to +100: Camel use reaches the western Sahara via Berbers living in its southern reaches.

c.100 to 400 CE: Camel using Saharan Berber peoples, such as the Taureg and Sanhaja, develop trans-Saharan trade routes, linking the Maghrib and West Africa directly for the first time.  Salt, copper, gold, dates, slaves, agricultural produce, manufactured goods and ivory among the goods exchanged.  Soninke-led Ghana, Songhai-led Gao grow as middlemen for the expanding commerce.  Trade routes also link Nigeria and Lake Chad to North Africa.

400 to 900: Ghana, with its capital at Kumbi Saleh, becomes the first regional “great power.”  With their control over the southern end of the trans-Saharan trade and the northern end of the gold trade, the Ghana of Wagadu can afford the cavalry necessary to enforce his rule throughout the lands between the Niger and the Senegal Rivers.  The trans-Saharan boom stimulates the growth of regional trade in copper, iron and other goods, both agricultural and manufactured.

750 to 1000: Muslim merchants from the North become a major force in trans-Saharan and West African commerce.  Islam spreads to Takrur and Ghana.  Among the Kanuri of Lake Chad, the Sefawa family founds a dynasty who will rule Kanem for a thousand years.  The trans-Saharan trade grows rapidly along with the expansion of the Islamic world.  Artists of Igbo Ukwu in southern Nigeria produce fine works in bronze.

ca.1000: Foundation of Ife, the political and spiritual capital of the Yoruba.

1054 to 1070:  Almoravid Sanhaja establish control over trans-Saharan routes from the borders of Ghana to Morocco, greatly weakening Ghana.

11th & 12th c.:   Several Sudannic kings convert to Islam.  Commerce in the Sudan gradually comes to be dominated by Muslims, both of local and north African origin.

13th c.: Rise of Mali under the great Mande hero, Sundiata Keita.  Ghana incorporated into the new great power.  From its new capital at Niane on the Niger, Mali develops trade with the developing gold fields of the Akan in modern-day Ghana.

14th c.:  Empire of Mali dominates the Western half of West Africa, controlling the gold and salt trade; promoting Islam; and providing peace and prosperity to its region.  Mansa Musa, the best known ruler of Mali, made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

15th c.:  Mali suffers dynastic difficulties and economic challenges as the gold fields move further south and east.  Songhai gains strength.  Portuguese merchants begin trading directly with the Akan along the coast of modern Ghana.

16th c.:  Songhai, with its capital at Gao replaces Mali as the imperial power of  West Africa.  Islamic learning flourishes with government patronage in the university town of Timbuktu.

1591: Moroccan troops armed with guns cross the desert and defeat the army of Songhai, which break apart within a short time afterwards.

       Scientific evidence for early human ancestor and their way of life
       Society, economy, and culture in the Stone ages: Becoming Human
       The Late Stone Age Way of Life


       The Development of Irrigation, Writing, Religion and Monarchy
       Nubia and Kush
       Egypt and Its Neighbors: the Impact of Egyptian Civilization



Davidson, Basil. Africa in History. London: Kegan Paul, 1975.

Niane, D.T., Editor. UNESCO. General History of Africa, Vol. IV, Africa from the 12th to the 16th Centuries.  London: Heinemann, 1991.

Rodney, Walter. “Africa in the Americas and Europe,” Cambridge History of Africa, Vol. IV, 1986, pp. 230-278.
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