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

Section 4 Iron-Age Developments in Sub-Saharan Africa

In 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.

East Africa

By 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,[25] 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: 


“The 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.”[26]


While 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.

West Africa

Just 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.[27]

            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[28] 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:


“When 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.

Central and Southern Africa

Much of the evidence relating to the early history of Africa is derived from central and southern Africa.[29]  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 occupations developed.

The 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 branches.

            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.

Bantu migrations. The spread of iron has been attributed to small farming populations who spoke branches of the Bantu family of languages.[30] 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.

Bantu 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.

             Manhood 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.

Political 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 major decisions.

            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 and sorcerers.

            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.