Early African Literature - From Anansi stories to Ibn Battuta
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An Anansi story

The people who spoke these languages all made up stories and told them to their children, like the Anansi stories that some Bantu speakers told.

Beginning about 3000 BC, some African people also began to use writing to record their stories. In Egypt, people began to use hieroglyphs. They wrote stories, official inscriptions, and prayers. South of Egypt, in Aksum, people also began to write using their own kind of hieroglyphs.

Meroe hieroglyphs
Queen Amanitore of Sudan (1-25 AD)
with both Egyptian and Meroitic hieroglyphs.

In the rest of North Africa, people began to write about 800 BC, when Phoenician invaders brought the alphabet with them. We don't have any long stories from ancient Carthage, but we do have inscriptions and tombstones. In Meroe and Aksum, as well, people began using a variation of the West Asian alphabet known as the Ge'ez script around the 400s BC.

When the Romans conquered North Africa in the 100s BC, people there slowly began to write in Greek and Latin instead of in Phoenician. Some famous African writers from this time are Tertullian, Perpetua, Cyprian, and Augustine (who were all Christians).

After 700 AD, when the Arabs conquered North Africa, people continued to write, but now in the Arabic alphabet. Arabic writing slowly spread south, so that soon many people south of the Sahara Desert were also writing books using Arabic writing - in Timbuktu and in Djenne in West Africa, and all along the coast of East Africa as well. This is the time when the first singers might have begun to sing the Epic of Sundiata. The most famous writer of this period is Ibn Battuta, who came from Morocco and wrote a history of his travels in Africa and all over the world in the 1300s AD. In the 1400s, Ibn Khaldun, from Tunis, also wrote an important history of North Africa. In Ethiopia, however, people continued to practice Christianity and to use their own Ge'ez script.

African Language
Learn by Doing - African Language

Bibliography and further reading:

Xhosa
!Kung
Yoruba
Swahili
African languages
Ancient Africa
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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