It is with Charles Darwin's unprecedented work the Descent of man (1871) and later with the 1950's archaeological finding's utilising the Carbon-14 radiocarbon method in the South, East and West of Africa that it has been established that the origins of humankind were born in the world's second largest continent, Africa.
Above the Equator in Africa lies the Sahara desert and Atlas mountain range and below this is the Kalahari Desert. Primarily, in tropical Africa Hominids, early man, existed and later moved to East Africa. Hominids were now walking on two legs and surviving in the open savannah grasslands and woodlands. Their hands were now free to carry food and make tools for survival. In the early Stone Age around two and a half million years ago lived Homo-habilius, this was mankind using his hands to make tools for chopping and cutting, such as those found in the Olduwai Gorge, Kenya. About one and a half million years ago then lived Homo-erectus, upright man, the first Hominid to devise precision and skilled tool making, such as the Acheulian hand axe. Further evidence has suggested cultures of ritual buryings, use of fire for food and warmth and regular camp settlements. In the Middle Stone Age Homo-sapiens with an increased brain capacity made tools of bone and stone as hunting techniques advanced. There was a greater use of fire, social camps were increasingly organised and shelter composed of branches, grass and stone. In the North and South of Africa cooler climates meant people sheltered in caves as well.
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In this early history of Africa the climate changed from a wet phase to a dry phase as deserts contracted and rainforests declined thus suggesting reasons for the spread of humankind to outer regions of the world.
In the East and South Africa savannah woodlands later Homo Sapiens-Sapiens from the late Stone Age, highly developed now in human thought, survived. As humans spread they adapted to their environments and climate. Africa was at a hunter and gatherer stage of development and life was sedentary and people lived near waterways to sustain life. This period saw the development of the bow and arrow made with vegetable poison to hunt wild game. Small hunting bands of men hunted antelope and buffalo in the savannah regions using snares, traps, etc. In dense tropical regions they used traps, snares and axes as the bow and arrow would have been difficult to use here. The Niger-Congo language family in West Africa lived this way and are linked possibly to the Bambutu 'Pymies' in the Congo. They also dug yams during the wet phase, around 9000 to 6000 BC, and fished using hooks and lines. They developed the raffia cloth, domesticated the guinea fowl, collected various foods and spread to parts of Guinea, Liberia and the Côte d'Ivoire. Because the women were the primary planters it has been suggested that this may account for the matrilineal descent of these people. The later Bantu speakers dug out canoes and settled around rivers in South-east Nigeria and Cameroon eventually to the Congo. They fished, hunted and settled in natural clearings by colonising them. The history of the Bantu is traced by oral traditions through ruling lineages back to around 500BC and could be seen at the village of Natal. Slaves and outsiders were assimilated through marriage and integration into lineages and kinship groups thus social stratification was less rigid.
Hunted animals were used for skins for clothing, shelter and slings to carry babies, as well as, for meat consumption and their bones for tool-making. These communities also fished for shell fish and stranded seals with the various tools such as harpoons, etc. This was evident in the Nilo-Saharan language family residing in the Lake Chad, Niger bend and the Lake Tirana regions. Here they also collected and ground grain, sorghum and millet, invented pottery for food storage and porridge, collected cotton and domesticated melons and gourds.
Women mainly gathered plants which grew naturally and three quarters of the communal diet relied on the experienced and seasonal harvesting of fruits, nuts and melons. Thus, gathering was a more reliable food source than hunting, especially amongst the hunting and gathering groups in the Afro-Asiatic language family in places such as Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya, where grinding tools were used to grind flour as well. All the food was shared equally through cooperative labour and there was a communal effort for survival and furthermore there existed a co-dependence of gender divided labour, which was sometimes fair and sometimes exploited.
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The development of Microlith technology, as evidenced by Kafue valley discoveries, meant finer tools as well. Artwork of this era is also evident in eggshell beads, rock paintings and engravings discovered in the Atlas and Drakensburg mountain ranges. In early African societies there was a communal hunter and gatherer level of development in response to environmental conditions. For example, the Hadza and Sandawe are the Tanzanian descendents of the Khoisan people, originally of the Kalahari regions of Botswana. They have stood the test of time surviving through to the present day it has been suggested that their hunting and gathering techniques survived due to their lack of dependence on the development of farming. Their seasonal camps consisted of conical shelters or caves which were also made habitable. The men practiced polygamy and the women would ask for a lobola, a bride price in exchange for marriage.
The social organisation of these communities consisted of loosely organised small family sized groups, especially in the dry regions and bigger groups in the more wet regions, due to the abundance of the food supply there. Individuals could move freely for marriage and other reasons. The spread of language, religious beliefs and culture was due to the assimilation and displacement of social groups. Disputes were settled on a family basis and In West Africa subsistence farming was the dominate way of life.
Due to the adverse effects of the climate and environment communities learnt to survive as groups. Furthermore, they discovered the advantage of crop cultivation and subsequently plants, like wheat 'cereals' were domesticated.
With pastoralism, cattle, sheep's and goats were herded and domesticated for human protection from predators. These animals provided food and milk. Pastoralists were less likely to settle than crop cultivators due to varying seasonal pastures and thus moved easily with their possessions. They avoided regions were the Tsetse fly was widespread to avoid animal and human illness. These were Sahara pastoralists in the Ahaggar Mountains and the Cushites in the Red Sea valley to Eritrea, Kenya and Lake Turkana in Ethiopia. The Cushites also cultivated crops like tef, noog and enset. This farming methodology led to an agriculture revolution developing only wherever the land was fertile for farming, this meant communities settled more and thus procreated larger populations. Now children could help with labour. Settlements meant permanent homes, made from mud, weed, thatching and stone and furthermore there were advances in Neolithic tool technology, such as the ground stone axe, and pottery for storage. There has been evidence of pottery showing skilled craftsmanship in many parts of East, West and South Africa, for example Urewe ware, Kwale ware, the Lyndenburg heads and Banbara pottery are a few types of pottery discovered. There was now also a surplus of food being stored for times of short supply in periods of drought and flood, etc. It was also given to the controllers and organisers of the community, such as craftsmen, ministers and rulers in exchange for luxury goods. A division amongst the rich, the controllers of society, and poor, food producers, developed. Spiritualism grew according to the fertility of the land; seasonal rituals of 'rain-making' took place in places like Mbunda in Angola and by the ruling Mansa in Ancient Ghana.
The change of life that cultivation and pastoralism had on the Stone Age people was greatly impacted on by the discovery of ore and the spread of knowledge of metal-working techniques. The smelted copper, tin, lead and gold was used for tools, weapons and decor and gold, because of its uniqueness and rarity, became a potential source of wealth in places like Sinai in Egypt, linking Africa to western Asia. The later iron smelting meant a more hard and sustainable metal than the previous copper and tin and therefore there was a development of advanced tools and weaponry. Later archaeological discoveries dating from 500BC Nok town, 900BC in Ukwo in South Nigeria, 1000BC Ancient Ghana in West Africa, 1000BC to 6000BC between Lake Chad and the great lakes of East Africa show the existence of metal trading networks. The metal trade depended on the availability of charcoal and thus were both this and ore were in abundance communities prospered to some extent.
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In Ancient Egypt the main crops cultivated where wheat and barley and sheep's and goats from Asia were domesticated, for example in Fayum. When the wet phase came to an end the longest river in the whole world, the Nile was relied upon. This ran through Egypt comprising of the distinguished White and Blue Niles, with the latter lower part annually flooding the banks to fertilise the soil. This river was not only a source of food but of transport. Farmers settled here and eventually formed centralised government authorities. King Narmer in 3100 BC conquered the whole of Egypt and thus set into motion the periods of the thirty residing Dynasties of Ancient Egypt which ruled for around 3000 years. The Egyptians achieved a great deal in terms of increased foreign and internal African Red Sea trade, advanced irrigation technology, digging canals, use of horse-drawn chariots, introducing a large standing army making Egypt a world super power of its time, massive monument and temple building, for instance King Khufu's the Great Pyramid (2600BC), inventing paper, papyrus, and writing, hieroglyphics. The ruling Pharaoh's scribes documented taxation records leading to developments in mathematics and astronomy, such as the Nilometer to control floods and the twelve month calendar to monitor the seasons, as well as art, architecture and religion, as evidenced by the findings of Tutankhamen's tomb in the 1920's.
The overall population was that of peasant farmers and their shelter consisted of small mud houses. Their diet included bread, onions, beer and fish. They also fished and hunted for wild game. The surplus of food was paid as tribute to the wealthy and the tax collectors who controlled all stages of food production in each of the forty districts, under the Pharaoh's authority. Trade took place from the Nile valley to the 'land of Punt' in the Nubian valley with the import of grain, gold, ebony, ivory and ostrich feathers. Furthermore, there was the import of timber, for charcoal, from Babylos, Palestine (modern Lebanon) and spices, incense and precious stones from West Asia. These were traded between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Religion was represented by nature in the form of gods. Possessions were buried in ritual burying's for the belief of the afterlife. Coins were minted by the Fatimid's here and later by the Almoravids in North Africa
Due to communication limitations Africa had an uneven development and thus some social groups did not develop state systems. The state systems that did exist were formed on a 'loose' basis of lineages, for instance as in the Igbo clans. Furthermore, some seemingly acephalous societies developed intricate networks of trade.
There is some historical evidence to suggest state building in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Buganda and Mwene Mutapa. Such 'states' formed such as the Takrur, Kanem and Songhay empires, the Kingdoms of Meroe, Kush, Mali and Aksum flourished in ways similar to that of Egypt later collapsing due to reasons like environmental conditions, over exploitation of the lands and weak rulers. In Nigeria, after 900AD, Hausa merchant states emerged in the cities of Daura, Gobir, Katsina, Kano and Zaria. During the 5th to 13th centuries the Ancient Empire of Ghana was in existence seven hundred kilometres north-west of modern Ghana. This grew on the Trans-Saharan trade with the Soninke people being in an ideal location between the Taghaza salt and Bambuk gold mines and thus rivalling the Muslim Berbers and later controlling Awdaghust, a Berber town. It also had a large army to protect and raid. Ancient Ghana declined due to weak rulers, struggles between the Sosso Solinke and Malinke as well as over exploiting the land.
Further networks of trade were established by the Phoenicians in 1000BC along the North African coast at Carthage and the Berbers in 800BC supplied the Phoenicians with food in exchange for iron. These Phoenicians now Carthaginians settled with the West Saharan Berbers along North Africa. Carthage by 600BC became a major trading power in the western Mediterranean of tropical African products. Salt from the Taghaza salt mines traded to the South and from West Africa copper, ivory and gold went to the North in exchange for cloth, beads and metal goods. These were transported by pack animals like donkeys, horses and mules via various desert oases. Later the Berbers would master and recognise the importance of the Arab camel, thus revolutionising the Trans-Saharan trade with large caravans of up to several hundred camels. However, trade was disrupted by the forces of nature and frequent 'lightning' raids. Captives caught during these raids were sold into slavery. This was the earliest form of slavery. In the drier seasons desert nomads would migrate to the Maghrib in the North and the Sahel to the South.
Later the Roman conquest by Alexander of Macedonia in 332BC of Carthage bought oppression and heavy taxation on the peasants of North Africa, some who then turned to banditry. The Romans also tried to spread Christianity during the 1st century and conflicts arose within the individual Christian sects. Christian rule expanded further under the Zagwe dynasty in Ethiopia during 850 to 1550BC. A further point to note was the spread of Islam bringing unity to North Africa and thus ensuring more harmonious trade. During the 9th and 10th centuries Islamic jihads were justifications for spreading Islam and conquering lands and controlling the gold or other trade found there. Islam also bought literacy and numeracy as well as sciences like chemistry and medicine.
The growth of east Africa's forty or so Swahili coastal towns and the island of Madagascar was dependent on the seasonal monsoon winds of the environment. These towns were later to fall under the piracies of the invading Portuguese who had initially travelled in 1498 around the southern tip of Africa to try and seize control of the Asian trade from the Muslims. To control the trade of gold on the Swahili coast the Portuguese would build Fort Jesus in 1599 on the Swahili coast.
Portuguese wanted to 'civilise' and Christianize the so called atheistic African. However, the ancient empire of Ghana in the eleventh century and Timbuktu University, one of the first three universities in the world, already had civilised societies existing before the arrival of the Portuguese, whose primary focus was to trade.
It is therefore astonishing to recognise that even as the birthplace of man and its subsequent achievements Africa has been described as barbaric and uncivilised by persons of the past. Due to the lack of studies on earlier Africa there lies a great onus on sources of evidence such as archaeological findings, oral traditions and an inference from surviving communal societies, such as the Khoisan. Furthermore, there lies a stark contrast in the writings of revisionists and traditionalist historians. Some traditionalists have highlighted the importance of the roles played by Africans from the past and there subsequent impacts on the world. Others have taken the view that due to Euro-centrism the history of Africa and other parts of the world has been evaded or distorted.
Traditionalist historians like Walter Rodney (1981) and Cheikh Anta Diop (1955, 1959) argue that the level of exploitation and impoverishment in Africa was not equivalent to that experienced in feudal Europe. Joseph B. Danquah (1927), a Ghanaian historian, suggested that Imperial Ethiopia had conquered Egypt and ruled it in the twenty fifth dynasty of the Pharaoh's. Danquah argues that indeed it was the ancestors of the modern black man who were these rulers. Thus Danquah argues in fact, these Ethiopians establish a civilized widespread culture well before the Romans had conquered Europe. This has been further substantiated by Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese historian, in his work called the Nations Negres et Culture (1955) and later works based on archaeological, historical and anthropological findings. Diop has argued against the claim made by some western scholars that ancient Egyptians were white. These claims also contradict the words of Herodotus, a Greek Historian from the 5th century who described the ancient Egyptians having black skin and curly hair. Other Europeans like Brice, Count Volney (1787), Fabre, D'Oliver, Massey (1907), Maspero and Heeren (1833) have defended this statement. Dr Diop proves that ancient Egyptians were in fact black and suggests with this Africa has made a fundamental and significant impact on world culture by reinstating Egypt as a state of Africa. It was with the later development of Western slave trades and colonialism that Egypt was seen academically to be part of Europe because of its achievements recognised by the Greeks and Romans. Rodney has suggested that the colonialists of Africa did not view African history as of valuable content and thus disregarded it in their writings.
However, Herodotus the so called 'father of western history' has made several statements. He suggested that the pyramids were built on the backs of slaves. This is possibly due to the Greeks having behaved as so. However, Kevin Shillington (2005) has argued that with the recent discovery of a village this is not as Herodotus suggested and Shillington states that about 1, 500 skilled stone masons who were well looked after accomplished this great build. Herodotus also refuted the claim by Phoenician navigators that they sailed the Assyrian ships around Africa in three years. He claimed their positioning of the sun was wrong when in fact it was right. Therefore his work the Histories must be carefully scrutinised when trying to establish the truth behind his claims which were also based on just what he was told.
Later writers of African history have to be carefully regarded according to their attitudes and beliefs. Frederick Willem de Klerk ex-President of the apartheid era of South Africa in his autobiography "The Last Trek - A New Beginning," (1999), has described the making of his political history in contrast to that of Nelson Mandela's (1994) "Long Walk to Freedom." Whilst both men were born in South Africa, their respective experiences and writings have been influenced by their backgrounds and thus have shaped their attitudes and beliefs. De Klerk, a white descendant of Huguenot French and later Dutch settlers in Cape town discusses his family's history from a white Dutch settlers perspective and further portrays his families apparent persecution at the hands of the 'barbaric' indigenous Zulu's and British in South Africa. However, Mandela whom is a black descendant of the Thembu tribes of the Xhosa nation, some of the indigenous people of South Africa, tells of his African National Congress political parties uprising against the White South African government on the 16th of December. Mandela talks of Dignane Day on this date that commemorates the Boer and Zulu Battle of Blood River in 1938. In his book he describes the Zulu leader Dignane as 'great.'
If one looks at the history being told of Zimbabwe by Ndabaningi Sithole in his book "African Nationalism," it is in stark contrast to that of Ian Douglas Smith, ex-Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. Sithole was a black minister struggling to gains equality against the white minority oppression and rule. Smith's government did not allow blacks to vote and were against Black Nationalism.
Even when looking at traditionalist writers or oral traditions of African history careful analysis must be applied. For instance, Ibn Battutu a Muslim Berber geographer and scholar wrote (1352) the history of the Mali Empire from a Muslim perspective. The reign of Sonni Ali (1464-92) is told by Songhay oral traditions. In both respective accounts individual bias may exist when recounting events. One cannot say for certain who in fact is highlighting the truth.
It is evident from all this that when trying to analyse Africa's history or in fact any history literally speaking a black and white approach cannot be applied. Furthermore each piece of resource material must be thoroughly scrutinised and judged without prejudice on its own individual merits. However, one can say that by looking at traditionalist history is to be more favourable in exacting truths than when looking at revisionist history thus concluding that the people of a country are more likely to tell its story well than outsiders.
- (2008, October). Retrieved October 24th, 2008, from Encyclopedia Britannica: //www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/546812/Ndabaningi-Sithole
- Clarke, J. H. (1974). Retrieved October 24th, 2008, from www.nbufront.org/html/MastersMuseums/JHClarke/Contemporaries/CheikhAntaDiop
- Harris, J. E. (1998). Africans & their History (2nd ed.). Middlesex: Penguin Group.
- Mandela, N. R. (2005). Long Walk to Freedom. London: Time Warner Book Group UK.
- Rodney, W. (1981). How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Bougle-L'Ouverture Publications & Tanzanian Publishing House.
- Shillington, K. (2005). History of Africa (2nd ed.). Oxford: Macmillon Publishers Limited.
- Smith, I. D. (2001). Bitter Harvest: The Great Betrayal and The Dreadful Aftermath. London: Blake Publishing Limited.