Chapter 8 Early African Civilizations: 1800 B.C.-1235 A.D.
Developments in Sub-Saharan Africa
Developments in Sub-Saharan Africa
Africa south of the Sahara, society progressed from hunter-gatherers to
cultivators, from the use of stones to iron. Many linguistic groups developed,
and population expanded. The people
relied on a variety of minerals (copper, salt, gold, and iron) and engaged in
trade. Trade and religion were two
important factors to explain the rise of kingdoms in East and West Africa.
In East Africa, the Indian
Ocean trade influenced peoples’ lives while
in Ethiopia, Christianity played a major role in society. The trans-Saharan
trade brought wealth to West Africa. In both regions, iron-using populations
were able to build states of remarkable endurance.
the first century A.D., Greek and Roman traders already knew the East African
coast, which they named “Azania”. A Greek handbook, The
Periplus of the Erythrean Sea,
describes the region. It mentions a number of market towns along the Azanian
coast that supplied ivory, rhinoceros horn, coconut oil and tortoise shell in
exchange for iron tools, weapons, cotton cloth and some wheat. Azanians were
great fishermen, with the skill to use small boats made of wood knotted together
with coconut fiber. The Azanians
had chiefs to govern the market towns. They allowed the Arabs to settle among
them, and conducted trade with their neighbors.
The Arabs called the main central region of the East African coast the
‘Land of Zenj’ (or Zanj). The lifeline of the trade was the Indian Ocean.
The monsoon winds influenced the patterns of trade. Between November and March
the winds blow towards East Africa; from April to October they blow towards
India and the Persian Gulf. Arab sailing ships, known as dhows,
relied on these winds and seasonally traveled in whichever direction they were
blowing. They visited such ports as Mogadishu, Barawa, and Lamu to trade.
The African trading towns imported manufactured items and luxuries like
Indian silk and cotton, glassware and Oriental pottery in exchange for their own
raw materials—notably ivory, in high demand in China and India, ambergris (a
resin for making scent), mangrove poles to build houses in the Persian Gulf,
slaves for the salt-mines in Basra and the Persian Gulf, small quantities of
gold, cotton cloth, and shell beads.
Al-Masudi, an Arabic-speaking visitor to Zenj in 916 A.D. has left us
with a first-hand report of the place:
land of Zanj produces wild leopard skins. The
people wear them as clothes, or export them. . . . The Zanj have an elegant
language and men who preach in it. . . . These people have no religious law:
their kings rule by custom and by political expediency. The Zanj eat bananas,
which are as common among them as they are in India; but their staple food is
millet and a plant called kalari,
which is pulled out of the earth like truffles. They also eat honey and meat.
They have many islands where the coconut grows: its nuts are used as fruits by
all the Zanj peoples.”
the towns of east Africa grew on the Indian Ocean trade, further north the
Ethiopian kingdom emerged in the highlands of northeast Africa. In about 1000
A.D, Ethiopia began to export gold and some ivory to Egypt, and female slaves,
myrrh, and frankincense to the Arab world. This revival has been credited to the
Zagwe dynasty (1150-1270 A.D.)
The Zagwe kings took over power from the old Aksumite rulers, built a
large army, expanded Ethiopia, and established a new capital at Adefa in the
central highlands. Christian military leaders and members of the royal house
took charge of the provinces where they collected tax, ensured security,
protected traders, and organized the military in defense of the state.
Zagwe kings regarded themselves as the defenders of Christianity, and
Ethiopia was counted within the ancient archdiocese of Alexandria. Christian
missionaries spread, setting up a number of monasteries, which became centers of
Christian culture and education. Christianity developed some local
peculiarities. Ethiopians saw
themselves as a “chosen tribe of God.” They developed their rituals and
beliefs from the Old Testament, and most Christians thought that they were
descendants of ancient Israel.
The Zagwe developed connections with Jerusalem, promoting measures that
allowed Ethiopians to make pilgrimages to this holy land. During the reign of
King Lalibela in the first half of the 1200s, Christian monks built many
churches in the region of Adefa, named after holy sites in Jerusalem. Hewn out
of solid rocks, the churches still stand as monuments marking the strength and
devotion of the Ethiopian church.
as iron transformed civilization in northern Africa, as it spread south into the
interior it also had dramatic effects on many African peoples. Iron-age
civilizations in West Africa date to a period before 1000 B.C. The best-known
iron culture is Nok, a site in central Nigeria.
Figurines of terra-cotta, representing human heads and animals, are part
of the Nok artifacts. Evidence indicates that people had been living here for
centuries before 200 A.D.
As iron technology spread in West Africa, it contributed to population
growth, urbanization, and the emergence of large political units. With iron came
a rise in trade and the development of market towns that soon grew into
kingdoms. Perhaps the best known of these early large-scale states was the
kingdom of Ghana.
Located northwest of modern Ghana, which took its name from the ancient
kingdom, early Ghana’s principal people were the Soninke, a
sub-group of the Mande. The Soninke used iron tools to farm and acquire more
land for farming and grazing. Iron weapons enabled them to conquer their
neighbors and group together for better defense. Kings emerged as war leaders
and to negotiate with foreign merchants.
The Soninke lived in the western sahel, mid-way between the
salt-producing region in the desert and the goldfields to the south in the upper
Senegal valley. Thus, the Soninke could play the role of “middlemen” between
North and West Africa, exchanging gold for salt. Al-Fazari, an 8th century Arab
geographer, described Ghana as “the land of gold”. The trade in gold
expanded in the 9th and 10th centuries. The wealth from trade enriched Ghana’s
ruling classes. Ghanaian kings were strong, wealthy, and able to build armies
for conquest and the consolidation of the kingdom.
The administration of Ghana
was divided into two parts. At the capital, a large city of more than 10,000
people, the king and his principal title-holders exercised direct control. In
the provinces local hereditary chiefs held power—so long as they recognized
the authority of the king by sending regular tribute. The kingdom’s army was
summoned when needed from among the able-bodied men. Its size depended on the
purpose for which it was required. Revenues
to run the empire came mainly from tributes and taxation. Trade was taxed: for
example, the king collected one dinar
for a load of imported Saharan salt and two dinars on a load of exported salt.
A famous king was Tunka Manin of the 11th century. Manin ruled over a
strong, secure and prosperous empire. Manin himself was well respected. An Arab
geographer from Spain, Al-Bakri, described him as “the master of a large
empire and of a formidable power”. He could mobilize an army of 200,000
warriors, well equipped with bows, arrows, and iron-pointed spears. Al-Bakri
also left us with a description of the majesty of Manin:
the king gives audience to his people, to listen to their complaints and to set
them to rights, he sits in a pavilion around which stand ten pages holding
shields and gold-mounted swords. On
his right hand are the sons of the princes of his empire, splendidly clad and
with gold plaited in their hair.
The governor of the city is seated on the ground in front of the king,
and all around him are his counsellors in the same position. . . . The beginning
of a royal meeting is announced by the beating of a kind of drum they call deba.
This drum is made of a long piece of hollowed wood.
The people gather when they hear its sound.”
The kingdom of Ghana declined in the 1100s and 1200s. As it lost control
of the salt trade to its neighbors, the people around Kumbi-Saleh dispersed to
the south and east in search of better farming lands. Finally, in 1235 Ghana was
attacked by the Malinke who established the new kingdom of Mali.
and Southern Africa
of the evidence relating to the early history of Africa is derived from central
and southern Africa.
More than 150,000 years ago, a Stone Age culture had evolved in this
region. With simple stone tools, the people created a living by gathering and
scavenging. About 8,000 years ago, the knowledge of raising animals and growing
food was widespread, a revolution that created the Neolithic age when people
could settle down and build permanent villages. Populations expanded and new
Khoisan. Among the
survivals of this early period are the San and the Khoi-Khoi, known collectively
as the Khoisan. The San and related peoples lived over a wide area in central
and southern Africa as hunters and gatherers. They hunted animals with poisoned
arrows and bows. The San were
organized in small hunting bands, not larger than a few hundred.
Male elders made political decisions, without a chief of any substantial
power. A group controlled a
territory and others had to obtain the group’s permission before passing
through it. The San had artistic gifts: they used different natural dyes and
colors to decorate their caves and shelters.
When they entered the Late Stone Age (about 2,000 years ago) they engaged
in small trade, and probably kept sheep and goats to supplement resources from
gathering and hunting.
The Khoi-Khoi, for example, adopted a herding life. Cattle became a basis
of individual status and an important part of living. A wealthy person was one
with many cattle. The animals supplied meat, milk, clothing, and were also
useful for transportation and warfare. The Khoi-Khoi were gatherers and hunters.
They lived in simple mobile shelters made of twigs, grass and tree
The Khoi-Khoi village was larger than that of the San, but generally no
bigger than two thousand people. A village consisted of different clans.
The head of the most senior clan was the chief. A clan comprised members
with a common ancestor. The chief in consultation with all clan heads made
political decisions. The chief could not enforce his decisions without the
cooperation of other clan heads. When a clan or village became too big, it could
break-up, with people moving away to establish new chiefdoms.
By the 400s A.D. agriculture and the use of iron had become established
in many parts of Central and Southern Africa as new peoples moved into the
region from the west and north. Some of the Khoisan population adopted new
technologies and inter-married with others, and new languages, much influenced
by borrowing from Khoisan tongues, also emerged. Others, however, found
themselves pushed out of their normal hunting areas and into the regions of the
great Kalahari Desert.
migrations. The spread
of iron has been attributed to small farming populations who spoke branches of
the Bantu family of languages.
How the process came about is still not clear. Linguists have identified a Bantu
family of languages (about 450 of them) that can be traced to a common origin.
The development of various branches of this common language are linked to
the movement of people away from a single homeland. Proto-Bantu, that is, the
‘parent’ of all the Bantu languages, evolved in a region in modern-day
Cameroon and Nigeria from where it spread eastwards and southwards.
society. By the 10th C.
A.D. the Bantu had established complex institutions to organize themselves.
They practiced a mixed economy. Agriculture provided their diets, mainly
millet and sorghum. Maize was added after the 15th century. The cereals were
used as ingredients for alcohol and to feed cattle. They lived a settled life in
big houses. Among the Nguni of southern Africa, for example, a dwelling was a
dome-shaped hut made of grass. With the nearby Sotho-Tswana peoples, it was a
thatched round hut of mud.
Nothing was more important than cattle. It was used for food and ritual
sacrifices. Men spent their time caring for them, leaving many aspects of
agriculture to women. Cattle enclosures were as important as dwelling houses,
and they were used as places to discuss important matters.
Bantu stories and proverbs are full of references to the cattle.
As a major form of wealth, cattle enabled capital to be acquired and
increased. It legitimated marriage. Among the southern Bantu-speaking peoples
with a patrileneal family structure, marriage was a transfer of a woman and her
offspring from her father’s household to that of the husband. To obtain such a
transfer, cattle was used as the lobola,
that is, bridewealth, from a prospective husband to the woman’s own family.
Thus, a man with many cattle could marry many wives, and had children that would
expand his household and provide labor to create more wealth.
The social relevance of cattle was very high because of its importance in
raising a family. Cattle were equally useful in obtaining allegiance and
services of other men. The man with cattle could loan them to a poor person who
was allowed access to milk and some of the offspring. In return, the poor served
the rich in different ways.
initiation was important. When youths attained manhood, they performed
circumcision rites. They were secluded from the community for a while to learn
about adult behavior and the rules and customs of the chiefdoms. This was an
effective socialization system that spelled out rights and obligations. At the
end of it, the initiates were members of a common butho,
a permanent age-regiment. Members of the same butho
did a number of things in common, and performed military and corporate duties
whenever called upon to do so. Only after the initiation could a man marry and
begin to exercise authority over younger people.
structures. The Bantu
lived in chiefdoms, comprising many clans. A chiefdom had a royal family who
provided the chiefs to govern. Officers known as indunas
were appointed to run errands, serve as envoys, lead military expeditions, and
deputize for the chief. The authority of the chief was supreme in law and
administration. A wise chief would rule by consensus, to avoid the displeasure
of other members of the royal family and protest from those who could withdraw
from the chiefdom. A careful chief consulted influential members of the royal
family and his indunas before taking
The chief was also the religious leader, the link between the ancestors
and the living. There were many priests and ritual specialists, but they often
had to exercise their duties under a chief’s authority. Often, magic and
witchcraft were associated with those who knew the secrets of iron working.
Beliefs in witchcraft were widespread—as were those who claimed to be witches
For revenues, the chief
relied on tributes and also collected a variety of payments from his subjects.
For example, a man who wanted to join the chiefdom had to offer cattle.
Those condemned for witchcraft lost their cattle to the chief. A chief had a
large household that could take care of a big herd and garden.
Thus the Bantu chief was wealthy and powerful.