Early African History
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Early African History

Map
pyramids of egypt
Pyramids in Egypt

September 2016 - The first people evolved from primates like chimpanzees in Africa, about two million years ago. At this time, there may have been only about 2000 people in all of Africa (or anywhere in the world). They lived by gathering wild plants and by scavenging meat that other, stronger animals had killed.

About 1.9 million years ago, people started using stone tools, and about 800,000 years ago they began to use fire. Cooking their food on the fire to make it easier to digest may be what gave early people the extra energy to grow bigger brains and become modern people. But as people got bigger brains, they couldn't be born with big enough heads, so they had to be born more and more helpless - and then their parents needed bigger and bigger brains to be able to take care of the babies. Some time before 200,000 years ago, people probably started talking. These first modern people probably started out in east Africa.

By about 100,000 years ago, people had spread out all over Africa, from the Mediterranean coast to South Africa, and a first wave of people had left Africa, heading for India. By this time, the Khoisan people in South Africa were isolated from other people. People living in Blombos Cave, on the seaside in South Africa, were gathering shellfish to eat. They may have been making bone fish-hooks to catch fish too. Fishing encouraged people to move along the coasts, following the fish, so people began to spread out all along the coast of Africa and even begin to leave Africa, following the coast. By about 75,000 years ago, people in Blombos Cave were mixing minerals to make paint and carving abstract designs into blocks of red ochre. They made seashells into beads for necklaces.

beach and ocean with hills visible across the water
The Arabian Peninsula from Eretria,
across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait of the Red Sea

Probably the first people to leave - taking their red ochre and seashell necklaces with them - first went through Egypt, around the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula, though some people may have crossed the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula from Eretria, where you can see Arabia across the water. Still most people lived in Africa. Other people went north up the Persian Gulf into West Asia, following the fish.

Starting around 8500 BC, people in Africa began to claim land and start farming. Groups of people were fighting and killing each other in what's now Kenya by 8000 BC. People in Sudan domesticated millet and donkeys. In West Africa, people started to press palm oil. In Egypt, people began to keep bees for honey and grow figs. As these African crops spread to West Asia, West Asian crops like wheat and barley, and dates, chickpeas and lentils also spread to Africa.

Farming forced people to have a lot more kids, and by 3000 BC, there were so many people in Africa that they started to form into kingdoms. The first African kingdom (and probably the first big kingdom anywhere) was in Egypt, where the Pharaohs built the pyramids. South of Egypt, along the upper Nile river, was the kingdom of Kush (modern Sudan).

Slowly, as more places got involved in farming and trade, other parts of Africa also began to form kingdoms. About 700 BC, the Phoenicians conquered part of North Africa and founded the city of Carthage. When the Persians conquered the Phoenicians in 539 BC, Carthage became an independent kingdom that ruled most of the Western Mediterranean.

low ruined walls of a big house
Palace at Kerma (Sudan, 1750 BC)

Less than 200 years later, about 300 BC, the Bantu people, who lived along the Niger river in West Africa, began to form kingdoms too, and then to migrate south, taking over other people's land. The Bantu went mainly southeast, through the rain forest to the grasslands on the other side. About the same time, the Romans conquered North Africa, and then Egypt. When Roman North Africa converted to Christianity in the 300s AD, soon afterwards many Axumites in Sudan and Ethiopia converted too. At the same time, the Bantu kept moving southeast, and they started farming and herding cattle and sheep. By the 400s AD, the Bantu had taken over some of the East Coast of Africa and some of the grasslands in southern Africa.

Learn by doing: Eat some figs
Medieval African history

Bibliography and further reading about African history

Medieval African History
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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