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[History of Africa][Internet Lesson][Reasons for Art][Images of African Art][Test Your Knowledge][What is Art?][Art of Africa][Artists of Africa][Art of Mali][Bibliography]

People of Africa History of Africa - 2 Climate and Regions

Resource: Martin and O’Meara(1995). Africa. Third Edition. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Aspects of Early History and Prehistoric Africa

Most of Africa did not have a written tradition of recorded history, however there are regions where a literate tradition a great antiquity exists. One of the earliest forms of writing was developed by the Egyptians- the hieroglyphic style -- around 3000 B.C. The ancient accounts give a vivid picture of what the Egyptian (African) civilization was like over its nearly 3000 years. The Kushite civilization -- focused in the city of Meroe -- had its own system of writing five centuries (or more) before the birth of Christ. In Ethiopia, the classic language of the ancient Axum was expressed in written form by the fourth century A.D. Outsiders brought other literate traditions to Africa -- Greek, Latin, and Arabic were introduced in Mediterranean Africa. Literacy in Arabic penetrated into the Western Sudan region through learning centers in Djenne and Timbuktu in Mali during the fifteenth century -- and likewise in the Swahili city-states of the East African coast. Upon the arrival of the Europeans in the fifteenth century, came written historical accounts in Portuguese, Dutch, English, French and others. Arabic and European written sources have enable historians to reconstruct the past in some parts of Africa since the eighth century. Arabic accounts were primarily related to religion and criticized "Pagan" societies, while European sources generally depended on informants and were not always reliable. European accounts generally were written with an air of superiority and arrogance. Many parts remained without written accounts until the colonial period. In these areas, oral traditions were used. 

Oral traditions were often not reliable and had to be decoded and studied within the wider cultural context. Different societies had different traditions. Those with centralized power and hereditary dynasties had selected individual entrusted with the memorization of history -- the griots (known as Jelis among the Manding groups). These traditions were known as fixed texts. In other societies, oral traditions tended to be "free" texts. There was not a professional class in other societies -- any member of the society could render oral history. Oral traditions can be analyzed on different levels. Fixed texts often represent the official version. With most societies, it is possible to discern three periods of oral history. The first is when the world was created and a particular society was formed. This is followed by a middle period in which the society interacted with other communities and experienced migration, conflicts, of famines. The most recent period extends back two or three generations -- just before the time of the oldest surviving members. One problem dealing with oral traditions is to establish a chronology of events described. Time tends to be telescoped -- events happening over a considerable span of time are expressed as taking place all at once. Often, when historians research neighboring societies, they find the same events described in oral history. If the event corresponds to natural phenomena or a recorded written source, it becomes possible to establish dates. Oral traditions try to corroborate information against evidence in archaeology or linguistics studies With the exception of the Sundiata epic, most oral traditions has a depth of only a couple of centuries.

Archaeology has proven a valuable tool in recapturing Africa’s history before 1700. The nature of an early society’s economy, technology, and artistic devilment can be understood through archaeological studies. Radiocarbon dating is able to produce with some accuracy the possible date of artifacts as old as 60.000 years. The antiquity of human habitation, use of iron and agriculture is known as a result of archaeology. Links are not always possible between older civilizations and those coming later. Linguistics is another discipline that has been able to help gather the history of Africa. Linguists analyze the vocabulary, grammatical forms and sound changes in a given language to achieve understanding of its evolution. Historians have also used anthropology. Anthropology becomes a vital tool in understanding the values, institutions and ideas of a society --helping historians' analysis of oral traditions. Botany and genetic can also be useful tools in historical reconstruction.

Every ethnic group has legend on the beginning of history -- how ancestors arrived in their present area. (See examples of the Dogon). Others simply say that their present day location is the original homeland. Traditions of migration are most common and useful in understanding a great deal of African history -- particularly the emergence of dynasties and interactions between different groups. The movement of people contributed to the spread of new ideas and technology. There is a degree of similarity between widely separated societies. Common in the element of traditions in the formation of state is the role of the environment.

Pre-Historic Africa

"Of all the earth’s continents, Africa provides the longest, deepest record of human past. Several million years ago, a group of primates diverged from the rest of apes and set forth on a distinctive evolutionary pathway involving ...upright walking.... Humans represent the only living descendants of this primate line...." The first several million years of development of this line also appears to have been in Africa, before they gradually migrated out of Africa, spreading throughout the rest of the world. It may well have been in Africa where modern forms of humans first emerged. Africa is referred to as the "cradle for all humankind." Archaeological records document the development of different regional groups of people--with their own technologies and local cultural styles. The long and complex prehistoric record extends far beyond the reach of written historical records or oral traditions shaping the ethnic identity of modern African people.

After more than 60 million years of primate evolution, there is evidence in East Africa, dating more than 4 million years ago, of upright -walking ancestors who split away from the rest of the apes. By approximately 2.5 million years ago, ancestors show interesting new behavior patterns-- making and using stone tools, ushering the Stone Age.

Changes in the Stone Age are slow during the Early Stone Age. In the Middle and Later Stone Age, more rapid changes in diversification of tools, behavior patterns and cultural styles occurred-- beginning approximately 100,000 to 150,000 thousand years ago. Proto-human and then human populations during the Stone Age subsisted on wild foods by gathering, hunting, and probably scavenging. By the later Stone Age, all regions of Africa were occupied by a large number of societies of people who looked like modern humans. Their behavior also appears to be modern in terms of complexity and ingenuity as well as development of aesthetic and symbolic behavior.

Beginning approximately 5000 to 6000 B.C., food production in the form of agriculture and herding was introduced in Africa. This involved the introduction of domesticated species from the Near East as well as domestication of indigenous species -- particularly various plants. There was a step by step spread from one part of Africa to another. Some societies developed large populations in sedentary villages.

Iron technology was introduced into Africa within the first millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean of Indian Ocean region near where it was first discovered. The Africans soon developed their own techniques. It gradually spread from northern Africa to the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa. Iron working was wide spread in West Africa by the first century A.D. Ironworking centers developed large populations organized as chiefdoms or kingdoms with hierarchical social stratification, complex division of labor, craft specialization, well-developed artistic traditions, long-distance trade, and campaigns of conquest. Food production and iron working spread to central and southern Africa within the last 2000 years, during the expansion of the Bantu-speaking people. Iron-using food producers replaced stone using hunter-gatherers, except in regions not suited for agriculture.

Stone Age: Between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago, diverse Later Stone Age populations in Africa exploited specific plants and animals available to them in their specific regions. Hunting focused on a few species and wild plant gathering on a particular plant type. Sickle blades used to cut grasses and grinding stones used to process grains have been found in northeast Africa dating back at least 10,000 years. There is no evidence of this domestication of wild plant species in the Nile Valley during this time. Domestication involves the breeding of a species until its characteristics become altered from the wild state-- bringing them more in line with human needs. A number of populations during the Later Stone Age appear to have adopted domesticates while also domesticating locally available plants. Indigenous plants include African yams, African rice, bulrush millet, finger millet, sorghum and oil palm. Wheat and barley were imported from western Asia. Bananas and coconuts were introduced from South Asia within the past several hundred years. African domesticates spread to Asia as early as 1000 B.C. The domesticated animals in Africa have been imported from Asia including sheep, goats, cattle and important in arid areas -- the camel. Wild ancestors of these animals have not been found in Africa (ancestral cattle not in sub-Saharan Africa). There is some evidence of experiments in domesticating wild cattle in parts of northern Africa. The donkey and cat were domesticated in Egypt.

An important region of food production in pre-historic Africa appears to have been the Sahara Desert Region. After the last glaciation there was a period of higher rainfall and lower evaporation in the region that lasted from about 10,000 to 6,000 years ago. The Sahara supported good-sized populations around lakes, ponds, and rivers throughout plains. With a Mediterranean climate and better water supply, it was better suited for production than it is today. Peoples around 6500 and 8500 B.C. developed pottery.

In the Egyptian Western Desert, by 7000 B.C., people with microlithic tools and living in settlements around ponds were using domesticated barley and domesticated local cattle long before food production in the Nile Valley. Domesticated Asian imports -- sheep -- or goats appear in the region about the same time. By 4000 B.C. to 5000 B.C. these practices appear further west in the Sahara. This time is referred to as the "Sahara Neolithic." Many of the rock paintings in the Sahara are believed to date to this period showing domesticated animals as well as tethered giraffes. By 2000 B.C. newly imported horses and camels and milking of cows appear in paintings.

In the Nile Valley, use of tubers and wild grasses continued for thousands of years along with fishing, hunting and management of wild herds. Large-scale village farming does not appear until about 5000 B.C. Pre-Dynastic Valley Cultures starting about 4000 B.C. developed into the Egyptian Dynastic Cultures starting about 3100 B.C.

To the south of Sudan along the Nile, hunters and fishers with microlithic tools began to use quantities of local plants such as sorghum and finger millet beginning around 5000 B.C. These people developed large settlements, used pottery, built substantial house structures, and kept domesticated cattle, sheep and goats. Egyptian influence was greater in northern Sudan, introducing wheat, barley and Egyptian trade goods. Domestic sheep and goats and pottery also seem to have rapidly spread across coastal North Africa -- herding replacing hunting by 6000 to 5000 B.C. The human type found in these regions might be ancestors to modern Berbers. Domesticated cattle spread south of the Sahara to the Sahel by 3000 to 4000 B.C. Since wheat and barley were not suited to the Sahel zone, the people domesticated plants such as sorghum and bulrush millet. Other West African plants included the African yam and African rice. Pottery and ground stone axes were found in West Africa starting between 5000 and 4000 B.C. -- indicating forest clearance, woodworking and digging. In Congo and Zaire, pottery and ground stone tools and palm oil nuts appear thousands of years later -- within a few hundred years B.C. Finger millet was domesticated in Ethiopia or in Uganda. Ethiopia imported species of wheat, barley, cattle, goats, and sheet within the last few millennia B.C. Microlithic cultures spread into Kenya between 3000 and 2500 B.C. Herding was established in southern Kenya between 2000 and 1000 B.C. Linguistic studies indicate that the early herders may have spoken Southern Cushitic languages rather than the Bantu and Nilotic languages present in the region today. Further herding spread south beyond Tanzania much later due to the successful hunter-gatherer adaptation of the Khoisan-speaking people occupying much of southern Africa. Once people with iron tools and weapons spread into southern Africa and brought herding and farming with them, those practices dominated the region. The food producers supported complex centralized societies that rose during the Iron Age.

During the last few millennia B.C. many societies based on agriculture in Africa and Eurasia rapidly developed. Specialized arts and crafts flourished, thriving trade emerged, power was consolidated and populations grew. Great complex societies included the ancient kingdoms of the Egyptian Nile in northeast Africa, Meroe in Nubia, and Axum in the Ethiopian horn; in West Africa there were the kingdoms and states of Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Asante, Ife, and Benin; and in southern Africa the large commercial center responsible for the Great Zimbabwe and other stone-built trading centers. Developments in one region are often affected by other societies and elsewhere in technologies, foods, religions and trade. Many local developments became incorporated into written documents of the literate world.

TechnologyThe technology of making tools out of copper and bronze developed in western Asia before 3000 B.C. but never took hold in Africa except in some northern regions. After the fall of the Hittites about 1200 B.C., the complex iron smelting technology spread rapidly throughout the Near East, around the Mediterranean, through Europe and on into Africa. The superior strength and widespread distribution of iron ore favored to the spread. Iron technology appears to have entered North Africa with Phoenician colonists and traders by the eighth century B.C. and spread to the Nok people of Nigeria by the fourth century B.C. In the following centuries, there is more evidence of using and working with iron throughout West Africa. Large trade networks developed during this period. (See Chronology of African Art)

Before iron technology reached Egypt, the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt around 3100 B.C. began a long series of dynasties. By 2000 B.C. control by Egypt extended southward into Nubia (northern Sudan) -- a land they called Kush. Control changed hands several times until in the ninth century B.C. when Kush reestablished itself as an independent kingdom. In the next century, Kush conquered Upper Egypt then went on to conquer Lower Egypt. The Kushites lost to iron welding Assyrians by 671 B.C. The following century the Egyptians destroyed the Kushite capital city, forcing the Kushites to establish a new capital upstream in a more wooded area of the Nile at Meroe. Meroe developed a large ironworking industry and traded with other people of the Sudan and Red Sea ports. Most iron produced was traded away.

Semitic-speaking people emigrated from southern Arabia into the Ethiopian highlands during the first millennium B.C. slowly incorporating local Cushitic-speaking agriculturists. They introduced iron technology and urban living into Tigre and Eritrea and by the first century A.D. had established an extensive state reaching across much of Ethiopia and Sudan. This Axumite kingdom controlled trade through the Red Sea from its port capital at Aidulis. They produced monumental architecture. Around the fourth century A.D. they conquered Meroe. The Axumite kingdom declined when Arabs took over the Red Sea trade in the seventh century.

Egypt came under influence of the Greeks in the centuries following the Assyrian invasion and then the control of the Macedonian empire and then by Roman conquest by 30 B.C. Christianity moved into northern African during the Roman Empire, spreading by the fourth century into Ethiopia and Nubia. Christian villages flourished even after the expansion of Muslim Arabs into northern Africa cut them off from more northern centers of Christianity. The Arab invasion in the seventh century A.D. brought in Islam that rapidly took hold in much of North Africa -- especially to the west of Egypt. Through the Arabs, looking to control trade with their camel caravans to the south, Islam spread to much of sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in West Africa. Once the Arab caravans reached West Africa, developing networks began to involve many local Iron Age societies, creating large urban centers with centralized political power that regulated and controlled this trade. The networks' first involved the people of the savanna regions to the south of the Sahara. By mid eighth century there was a powerful state of Ghana. Ghana regulated trade between the gold-producing area of Guinea and the camel caravans. The state of Mali took over the control in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries extending control over a substantial area of West Africa. By the sixteenth the century, the Muslim state of the Songhai Empire, was in control.

Coastal people also asserted power and gained control in the West African trade. In Nigeria, the kingdom of Benin started to emerge in the twelfth century. It had developed into a powerful city by the time it was first visited by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. The kingdom of Benin flourished and developed the well-known tradition of lost-wax casting in bronze and brass -- as well as fine ivory sculpture. Ife, the center of the powerful Yoruba in southwestern Nigeria, also showed the development of fine artistic traditions in terra cotta and lost wax castings in a bronze-like copper alloy.

During the first millennium A.D. there was a rapid migration of Bantu-speakers of the Niger-Congo language into Central and Eastern Africa and throughout much of southern Africa. In Zimbabwe an important trading center emerged by at least the tenth century A.D. -- at the site known as the Great Zimbabwe. The Great Zimbabwe was active in the gold trade to the coast and the import of goods such as glass and pottery from China and Asia. It was a central site among a number of stone-built centers in southern Africa. It flourished until 1450, when the opening of mines further north shifted trade routes. Over time hunter-gatherer populations diminished until by the time of European contact, they were restricted to more arid regions of southern (and part of eastern) Africa. The relationship between iron-using food producers and stone-tool-using hunter-gatherers is of interest to archaeologists today.  READ ON - History part 2

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People of Africa History of Africa - 2 Climate and Regions

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