African History: Ancient Times
Africa is a very diverse continent with a rich history. It has been connected to
the rest of the globe both through trade and other forms of interaction for millennia.
Many agricultural products, minerals and cultural ideas have been brought to us
from Africa either through trade, slavery, or during the period of colonization.
Africans have traded with Europe, Asia and the Arab world for centuries and continue
to trade globally today. Additionally, with the vast number of Africans living abroad,
African culture and influence continues to influence other regions of the world.
Although most know of the extremely interesting history of the Egyptian Empires,
very few are aware that Africa has had many other empires and civilizations as well.
Over 20 major empires or kingdoms managed to spread their influence over large territories
and develop very complex systems of governance and culture. From the Kingdoms of
Mali and Ghana in the west to the Zulu Kingdom in the south, Africa has certainly
had its share of different systems of government. Africans in pre-colonial times
lived under every political system from the most de-centralized to kingdoms where
the king had absolute power over all decisions.
Man's ancestors have been traced to Africa where remains of a type of hominid, one
of the ancestors of present-day man, lived around 5 million years ago. This early
ancestor evolved to use tools. Eventually we find Homo sapiens in Africa about 200,000
years ago. Early man in Africa was nomadic and formed small groups. One of the earliest
known groups known to us is the San people who we know lived as long as 10,000 B.C.
on the African continent. They migrated throughout Africa and were skilled herdsmen
and cultivators. They were then pushed to live in the more hostile regions of Africa
by the Bantu. The Bantu were one of the more dominant groups who began migrating
in approximately 900 A.D. Bantus lived primarily by subsistence farming.
In the north, one finds the first known major African civilization in the Nile Valley
in about 5000 B.C. Due to the fertile soil surrounding the Nile River, which flows
northward from current day Ethiopia to Egypt, settlements arose. This civilization
was one which evolved into very complex religious and political systems. The Kingdom
of Egypt prospered and had a great influence on civilizations it had contacts with
in Africa as well as Europe for centuries to come.
From Egypt’s empire, Arabs had a great influence elsewhere in Africa. They invaded
the Berber peoples and converted them to Islam; they also influenced culture, religion
and political structures everywhere they traded. Since trade was common across the
Sahara and along the Nile, Islam had an early influence as far away as Ethiopia,
Eritrea, Morocco and Ghana as early as 900 A.D.
One can look back into the history of Africa and find smaller less organized chiefdoms
as well as large empires. The large empires were: Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Egypt, Buganda,
Zulu, Great Zimbabwe and Ashanti among others. Some of these kingdoms were absorbed
into another due to war (such as the case of the empire of Ghana being conquered
by the kingdom of Mali) and others simply faded because of bad leadership.
We must not forget though that many Africans instead had either chiefs or councils
which set the rules for the society. Some societies had chiefs which were elected
by the village elders. (Age, and the seniority it brings is and has always been
very important in African cultures.) Thus, in the majority of cases, the chief was
an older and well-trusted member who was often selected by a council. There were
also other groups found in African societies some of which were based on religion
and others of which were secret societies intended to serve as fraternal organizations.
Africa, long before colonialism, was diverse and quite evolved in trade, agriculture,
metallurgy and animal domestication. Centuries before the Europeans arrived to colonize
Africa; there were kingdoms, city-states and less centralized villages and societies
which were ruled democratically. In the Mwene Matuba Empire, southern Africans had
constructed a vast empire thanks to their mastery and trade of gold. In western
Africa the Yoruba were living in their city-states and perfecting their expertise
of cotton and fabrics; while right next door the Ibo peoples were living under a
more democratic structure and flourishing thanks to their mastery of agriculture
Africa is an immense continent with an incredibly rich and fascinating history.
Be sure to keep an eye out for more information about specific ethnic groups and
countries mentioned in this article.