Africa is the setting for the long dawn of human history. From about four million years ago ape-like creatures walk upright on two feet in this continent. Intermediate between apes and men, they have been named Australopithecus. Later, some two million years ago, the first creatures to be classed as part of the human species evolve in Africa. They develop a technology based on sharp tools of flint, introducing what has become known as the Stone Age.
About a million years ago humans explore northwards out of Africa, beginning the process by which mankind has colonized the planet.
During the later part of the old Stone Age, humans in Afica produce some of the earliest and most significant examples of prehistoric art. Paintings on stone slabs, found in Namibia, date from nearly 30,000 years ago. Rock and cave paintings survive from widely separated areas. They range from those of the San people, in southern Africa, to others dating from about 8000 BC in what is now the Sahara.
The Sahara is also the site of the earliest new Stone Age (or neolithic) culture to have been discovered in Africa.
A damp Sahara: 8000 – 3000 BC
The Sahara at this time supports not only elephant, giraffe and rhinoceros but hippopotamus and even fishes. It is a friendly landscape in which neolithic communities progress from hunting and gathering into a partly settled way of life, with the herding of cattle. Their paintings show that dogs have been domesticated and are sometimes used in the hunt – and that hunting methods include the pursuit of hippopotamus from boats made of reeds.
The paintings also suggest that these people wear woven materials as well as animal skins. The remains from their settlements reveal that they are skilful potters.
Around 3000 BC a climatic change gradually turns the Sahara to a desert (over the millennia it seems to have gone through a succession of humid and dry periods). The change brings to an end the first settled culture of Africa. The Sahara becomes the almost impenetrable barrier which throughout recorded history has separated the Mediterranean coast and north Africa from the rest of the continent.
At much the same time north Africa becomes the site of one of the world’s first great civilizations, Egypt. There may perhaps be a link, in the migration eastwards of the Sahara people, but archaeology has found no evidence of it.
Africa’s first civilizations: from 3000 BC
Egypt’s natural links are in a northeasterly direction, following the Fertile Crescent up into western Asia. Similarly Ethiopia, the other early civilization of northeast Africa, is most influenced by Arabia, just across the Red Sea. So these two regions, Egypt and Ethiopia, flanked by desert to the west and equatorial jungle to the south, evolve at first in isolation from the rest of Africa.
But the development of maritime trade along the Mediterranean coast, pioneered by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, does increasingly bring Egypt into a specifically north African context.
The people of sub-Saharan Africa: 2000 – 500 BC
Much of the southern part of the African continent is occupied by tribes known as Khoisan, characterized by a language with a unique click in its repertoire of sounds. The main divisions of the Khoisan are the San (often referred to until recent times as Bushmen) and the Khoikhoi (similarly known until recently as Hottentots).
The tropical forests of central Africa are occupied largely by the Pygmies (with an average height of about 4’9′, or less than 1.5m). But the Negroes who will eventually dominate most of sub-Saharan Africa are tribes from the north speaking Bantu languages.
The Bantu languages probably derive from the region of modern Nigeria and Cameroon. This western area, bordering the Gulf of Guinea, is also the cradle of other early developments in African history.
Iron smelting is known here, as in other sites in a strip below the Sahara, by the middle of the 1st millennium BC. And the fascinating but still mysterious Nok culture, lasting from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD, provides magnificent pottery figures which stand at the beginning of a recognizably African sculptural tradition.
Probably during the first millennium BC, tribes speaking Bantu languages begin to move south. They gradually push ahead of them the Khoisan, in a process which will eventually make the Bantu masters of nearly all the southern part of the continent.
Meanwhile, in the regions immediately south of the desert, the first great kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa become established during the first millennium AD.
The trading kingdoms of West Africa: 5th – 15th c. AD
A succession of powerful kingdoms in West Africa, spanning a millennium, are unusual in that their great wealth is based on trade rather than conquest. Admittedly much warfare goes on between them, enabling the ruler of the most powerful state to demand the submission of the others. But this is only the background to the main business of controlling the caravans of merchants and camels.
These routes run north and south through the Sahara. And the most precious of the commodities moving north is African gold.
The first kingdom to establish full control over the southern end of the Saharan trade is Ghana – situated not in the modern republic of that name but in the southwest corner of what is now Mali, in the triangle formed between the Senegal river to the west and the Niger to the east.
Ghana is well placed to control the traffic in gold from Bambuk, in the valley of the Senegal. This is the first of the great fields from which the Africans derive their alluvial gold (meaning gold carried downstream in a river and deposited in silt, from which grains and nuggets can be extracted).
Like subsequent great kingdoms in this region, Ghana is at a crossroads of trade routes. The Saharan caravans link the Mediterranean markets to the north with the supply of African raw materials to the south. Meanwhile along the savannah (or open grasslands) south of the Sahara communication is easy on an east-west axis, bringing to any commercial centre the produce of the whole width of the continent.
While gold is the most valuable African commodity, slaves run it a close second. They come mainly from the region around Lake Chad, where the Zaghawa tribes make a habit of raiding their neighbours and sending them up the caravan routes to Arab purchasers in the north.
Other African products in demand around the Mediterranean are ivory, ostrich feathers and the cola nut (containing caffeine and already popular 1000 years ago as the basis for a soft drink).
The most important commodity coming south with the caravans is salt, essential in the diet of African agricultural communities. The salt mines of the Sahara (sometimes controlled by Berber tribes from the north, sometimes by Africans from the south) are as valuable as the gold fields of the African rivers. Traders from the north also bring dates and a wide range of metal goods – weapons, armour, and copper either in its pure form or as brass (the alloy of copper and zinc).
Ghana and its successors: 8th – 16th century AD
Ghana remains the dominant kingdom of West Africa for a very long period, from well before the 8th century to the 13th. The prosperity resulting from its activities is evident in the town of Jenne – by AD 800 already a thriving town on the Niger.
In the 13th century the gold field of Bure, on the upper reaches of the Niger, becomes more important than Bambuk. The shift in economic power is followed by a political change when a warrior by the name of Sundiata conquers Ghana and establishes the even more extensive kingdom of Mali – stretching from the Atlantic coast to beyond the Niger.
In the 15th century the western trade route through the Sahara to Morocco declines in importance, and a central one up to Tunis carries more of the desert trade. This change prompts the decline of the Mali kingdom – to be replaced for a while by another power further to the east, that of the Songhay people. Their capital is the city of Gao, built on both banks of the Niger downstream of the great curve in the river.
At the end of the 16th century Gao too loses its dominant position. By then a new foreign power is establishing a presence on African coasts, with a new religion, Christianity. But the Christians are four centuries behind the Muslims in penetrating these regions.
Islam in east Africa: 8th – 11th century AD
Africa is the first region into which Islam is carried by merchants rather than armies. It spreads down the well-established trade routes of the east coast, in which the coastal towns of the Red Sea (the very heart of Islam) play a major part.
There is archaeological evidence from the 8th century of a tiny wooden mosque, with space enough for about ten worshippers, as far south as modern Kenya – on Shanga, one of the islands offshore from Lamu. Shanga’s international links at the time are further demonstrated by surviving fragments of Persian pottery and Chinese stoneware.
By the 11th century, when Islam makes its greatest advances in Africa, several settlements down the east coast have stone mosques.
At Kilwa, on the coast of modern Tanzania, a full-scale Muslim dynasty is established at this period. Coins from about 1070 give the name of the local ruler as ‘the majestic Sultan Ali bin al-Hasan’. Three centuries later the Muslim traveller Ibn Batuta finds Kilwa an extremely prosperous sultanate, busy with trade in gold and slaves. In the 20th century Muslims remain either a majority or a significant minority in most regions of the east African coast. But the early penetration of Islam is even more effective down the caravan routes of west Africa.
Islam in west Africa: 8th – 11th century AD
From the 8th century Islam spreads gradually south in the oases of the Sahara trade routes. By the 10th century many of the merchants at the southern end of the trade routes are Muslims. In the 11th century the rulers begin to be converted.
The first Muslim ruler in the region is the king of Gao, from about the year 1000. The ruling classes of other communities follow suit. The king of Ghana, the most powerful realm, is one of the last to accept Islam – probably in the 1070s.
The effect of Islam on African communities, with their own strong traditional cultures, is a gradual process. In 1352 Ibn Batuta visits Mali. He is impressed by the people’s regularity in saying their prayers, but he looks with stern disapproval at certain practices which are more evidently African.
He particularly frowns upon performances by masked dancers, and on the tendency of women to walk about in an unseemly shortage of clothing.
Mali is famous throughout the Islamic world at the time of Ibn Batuta’s visit, because only a generation earlier its ruler has astonished Cairo by his wealth.
In 1324 Mansa Musa, the sultan of Mali, decides to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. His richly attired retinue and his heavily laden animals reflect his financial status – for he effectively controls the African gold trade which now supports the currency not only of Islamic states but of European communes and kingdoms. (The most valuable coins of Roman Catholic Europe have until recently been minted in silver, but Genoa, Florence and Venice reintroduce gold in the late 13th century and northern kingdoms soon follow their example.)
Contemporary accounts say that when Mansa Musa passes through Cairo, on his way to Mecca, his caravan numbers 60,000 people and his camels carry 12 tons of gold. He distributes largesse to religious institutions and to fawning courtiers alike.
Indeed he is so generous with the abundant gold of Mali that the value of the metal in Cairo suffers a temporary slump. But the reputation of Africa and its wealth is securely established.