Early African History
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Early African History

Reconstruction of what "Lucy"
might have looked like

Africa is the place where people first originated, so African history goes back further than in any other place on earth. At first, about two million years ago, there may have been only about 2000 people in all of Africa (or anywhere in the world), and they lived by gathering wild plants and by scavenging meat that other, stronger animals had killed. About 1.9 million years ago, they began 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. These first modern people probably started out in south-east Africa.

Around 100,000 years ago, 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.

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

Genetic evidence shows that until about this time - sometime after 100,000 years ago - Africa was the only place on earth where modern people lived. Then some people spread out along the coasts. Probably they 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. They went around the Arabian Peninsula and India and all the way to Australia. Still most people lived in Africa. But at the end of an Ice Age (not the most recent Ice Age but the one before that), people began to drift into West Asia, following the herds of animals.

Starting around 8500 BC, the Sahara Desert got to be wetter, and people moved into it. Groups of people were fighting and killing each other in what's now Kenya by 8000 BC, maybe because people were beginning to settle down and own land.

Around 6000 BC, the climate in Africa (and other places) got gradually hotter and drier. The Sahara Desert was forming again. It was harder to find enough food. Some people in Africa began farming to get more food. People in Sudan domesticated millet, and soon people were farming millet all over Africa. In West Africa, people started to press palm oil, and soon the practice spread to other places. In Egypt, and soon in the rest of Africa, people began to keep bees for honey. As farming and trade expanded, people in Africa got a lot of domesticated seeds for wheat and barley, figs and dates, chickpeas and lentils, from West Asia.

With farming the population expanded quickly. 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, the kingdom of Kush (modern Sudan) developed too. Kush and Egypt traded with the Babylonians in West Asia and the Harappans and Aryans in India.

Around 1550 BC, with the establishment of the New Kingdom in Egypt, the Egyptians conquered Kush, and they ruled Kush for the next four hundred and fifty years, until the collapse of the New Kingdom in Egypt around 1100 BC. Then Kush became independent again, and by 715 BC Kush's King Piankhy was able to conquer Egypt.

But soon after this, West Asian people showed North Africans how to use iron to make weapons, and the people who knew how to use iron soon conquered the people who didn't. About 700 BC, the Phoenicians conquered part of North Africa and founded the city of Carthage. In 664 BC, the Assyrians conquered Egypt. The Kushites learned how to make iron from the Assyrians, and they used their iron to become even more powerful than they were before. When the Persians conquered the Phoenicians in 539 BC, Carthage became an independent kingdom that ruled most of the Western Mediterranean.

In the more fertile parts of Africa, the population kept on growing. By 300 BC, the Bantu people, who lived along the Niger river in West Africa, began to get too crowded where they lived. West Africa (now Nigeria and Cameroon) had fertile land in the zone between the Sahara desert and the rain forest, but it was small. Gradually the Bantu began to spread out from their home to other parts of Africa, mainly to the south and east, through the rain forest to the grasslands on the other side. Europe, too, was getting more crowded at this time, and soon North Africa had its second major invasion when the Romans attacked in the 200s BC. The Carthaginian general, Hannibal, terrified the Romans. But in the end, Carthage and the rest of North Africa, including Egypt, had to submit to Roman rule.

During the next several hundred years, southern Africa also saw a lot of political changes. The old kingdom of Kush lost power to a new kingdom to their south called Aksum (modern Ethiopia), who also traded with the Parthians, the Indians, and the Romans. When Roman North Africa converted to Christianity, many Axumites converted too. Some cattle and sheep herders from Central Africa gradually moved south to the grasslands of South Africa, taking their cattle and sheep with them. At the same time, the Bantu kept expanding, and started farming and forging iron weapons. 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: trace the travels of the Bantu people on a map of Africa
More Medieval African history

Bibliography and further reading about African history

More 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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