Chapter 8 Early African Civilizations: 1800 B.C.-1235 A.D.

Section 1 Patterns of African History

For many years Africa was presented by western scholars as having little or no history before the arrival of Europeans. With new historical tools and perspectives, however, we are now able to reconstruct the rich and incredibly diverse nature of African history. Throughout the continent hundreds of different African peoples speaking thousands of languages, and living in extremely diverse geographical regions, have adapted to their environments in their own unique ways.

Geography And Peoples

Africa is a vast continent, comprising 11.7 million square miles—the second largest landmass on the planet. It is almost four times bigger than the United States.  The equator cuts Africa in the middle, and two-thirds of the continent lie between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The regularity of the coastline, with few peninsulas and bays, has limited Africa’s contacts with the outside world.

            The major feature of the interior is a vast plateau that straddles the equator. In the east and south, the average height of the plateau is over 1000 meters but elsewhere it is only 500 meters. Running the length of the continent, from its origins in Syria, is the Great Rift Valley, a structural crack, or fault zone, which runs just inside the plateau’s extreme eastern edge with high, steep sides. Along much of its length lie numerous long, narrow, lakes.

            In the east, isolated mountain peaks, notably Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro, punctuate the plateau. In the northwest, the Atlas Mountains rise over 10,000 feet, separating the coastal plains of Morocco from the Sahara Desert. In the southeast, the jagged Drakensberg Mountains separate Natal from the inland plateau. Active volcanoes are found in some regions, such as present-day Gabon. Rain falls irregularly and temperatures are usually high and do not fluctuate much.[1][1]

Geographical zones. From north to south, the traveler in Africa crosses numerous types of climate and geographical zones. The northern coastal regions are Mediterranean in climate, with sufficient rainfall to support agriculture. Below this region lies the vast expanse of the Sahara Desert, which covers perhaps a quarter of the continent’s surface. Although the Sahara region was once much wetter than it is now, for thousands of years it has been gradually getting drier and drier, expanding southward.

            Below the Sahara is a region known as the sahel, a huge belt of dry grasslands into which the desert yearly encroaches. Further south, particularly in west and central Africa, the traveller comes to forested regions, which in places give way to dense tropical rainforests. Despite the popular myth, there are few real jungles, in Africa—places where the sunlight is able to penetrate the great canopy of the rainforest and allow a thick, dense vegetation to grow up on the forest floor. Further south, the savannas resume, broken in the extreme south by the great Kalahari Desert, and then once again giving way to the coastal plain.

Rivers. African rivers fall into two types: small ones that flow off the plateau and coastal plain to the sea; and the large ones—the Nile, Niger, Congo, and Zambezi river systems, which, with their various tributaries, drain great portions of the interior before finding their way off the plateau to the coast. The rivers are generally bad waterways, because of rapids and waterfalls, but they have contributed to agriculture by depositing silt along their banks. They have also allowed communication over shorter distances.

Peoples. African peoples are as diverse as the landscape—today numbering over 600 million people who speak over a thousand languages. Physical characteristics vary considerably among African peoples. Scholars often classify the people either by ethnic affiliations, or by the languages they speak. Most scholars prefer to classify African peoples according to the four major language groups: Niger-Kordofanian; Khoisan; Afro-asiatic; and Nilo-Saharan.

            Each of these major groups has many different subgroupings of languages. Perhaps the best-known African languages are the Niger-Kordofanian subgroup known as Bantu languages, which are spoken over most of the southern third of the continent; and the Khoisan, which includes the language spoken by the so-called Bushmen of southern Africa. Afro-asiatic languages are also sometimes called Hamito-Semitic, and include the Semitic family of languages like Hebrew and Arabic.

Patterns of Life

Africans have developed a wide variety of adaptations to their environments. In West Africa, for example, most peoples adapted to the availability of domesticable food crops by becoming farmers. Settling in small villages, many West African peoples began to develop larger and larger towns and eventually cities, all supported by the development of surplus agriculture. As trade developed, states too emerged, usually along major trade routes or around market towns.

            Many of these states developed as kingdoms, with hereditary or elective rulers supported by important nobles, or advisers. While some kingdoms were patrilineal, tracing descent in the male line, others were matrilineal, tracing descent in the female line. In matrilineal societies the mother of a ruler could have enormous influence and power, and kings were succeeded not by their own sons but by those of their sisters.

            Elsewhere in Africa the climate was more suited to grazing for herds and people developed pastoral ways of life. This was particularly true in the dry grasslands of the sahel and the savanna lands of eastern and southern Africa. Once again, family ties were important, as people identified themselves as part of a larger kinship group. Among pastoralists, however, patrilineal traditions tended to be strongest.

            As nomadic herding peoples came into contact with sedentary farming peoples, the herders often established states with themselves as the ruling elite. More skilled in warfare because of their style of life, the herdsmen demanded tribute from their new subjects. This pattern was particularly common in eastern and southern Africa, where the land was capable of sustaining both herding and farming styles of adaptation.

Rediscovering the African Past--the Sources

Scholars use various methods to reconstruct and understand early African history. Because the greater part of Africa was preliterate, oral traditions have been one principal source of information.

            Oral traditions include stories, songs, poems, and proverbs passed by words of mouth from one generation to another. King lists and recitation of genealogies provide useful information, though dating is difficult to pin down. Some societies had oral historians, like the griots of West Africa, who memorize and recite events. The Mandingo griot Djeli Mamadou Kouyate, for example, began his recitation of Mandingo history thus:

“I am a griot. It is I, Djeli Mamadou Kouyate, son of Bintou Kouyate and Djeli Kediane Kouyate, master in the art of eloquence. . . . Listen to my word, you who want to know; by my mouth you will learn the history of Mali. . . . Listen then, sons of Mali, children of the black people, listen to my word, for I am goping to tell you of Sundiata, the father of the Bright Country, of the savanna land, the ancestor of those who draw the bow, the master of a hundred vanished kings.”

Like all sources, oral history has its problems: traditions can be embellished and precise dating is difficult. However, scholars have devised techniques to compensate for the potential distortions posed by such problems.[1][2]

            Some disciplines like archaeology, linguistics, anthropology, botany, and genetics also provide “tools” to piece together accounts on the formative years of African civilizations. Archaeological studies yield evidence on material culture, early technology, and general dates derived from radiocarbon dating method. Linguists provide evidence on sound changes, vocabulary, and grammatical forms that increase out understanding of the evolution of cultures and migration patterns. The classification of African languages also helps to explain the origins of people and the spread of ideas and culture—helping to trace, for example, the spread of Bantu languages from their region of origin to the rest of Africa.[1][3]

            A third source for African history is the written record. A few societies like Egypt and Kush had a literate tradition. Other languages expressed in writing were Ge’ez by ancient Aksum, and a variety of others introduced from outside Africa, including Greek, Latin, and Arabic. The growing presence of Europeans after the 1400s brought many new written languages such as Portuguese, French, English, and German.