What was it like to live in ancient Africa?
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African People

Madonna and Child
Mary and Jesus, from Ethiopia (ca. 1500 AD)
(Now in the J. Paul Getty Museum)

January 2017 - Ancient African society did not involve the huge differences between rich and poor people that plagued Europe and Asia. North Africa, being part of the Mediterranean community, was an exception, but south of the Sahara even kings and queens were not so much richer than their subjects. But there were kings and queens, and even if they weren't very rich they did have power over the other people in their area. Traders often got to be very powerful as well.

Nok head of a woman
Head of a woman. Nok culture,
Nigeria, ca. 500 BC-200 AD
(National Museum, Lagos)

Family was very important to African social networks. Many trades were done through networks of cousins and second cousins and even more distant relatives. In famines, too, people counted on distant relatives living in other regions to help them out. Women often had more power in African families than they did in other parts of the world, as you can see for instance in the Epic of Sundiata, where the prince's mother and his rival's mother, and a woman adviser, are all important positive characters in the story. In East Africa, a series of queens ruled MeroŽ all through the first century AD.

Friendship, on the other hand, is not emphasized in African stories, or mainly to show how it is not as strong as families.

All over Islamic Africa - North Africa, West Africa, and East Africa - many boys went to school in the mosques, where they learned to recite the Quran. Bantu girls, both Muslim and traditional believers, had specialized training before they were able to marry. The boys participated in elaborate lessons to teach them how to be warriors and responsible men. More formal training of girls and boys was expected in Africa than among peasants in Europe or Asia.

Africans had slaves from the earliest times among themselves, who mainly acted as personal servants. But, damaging as this practice was, it was far outdistanced by the practice of capturing people and selling them into slavery abroad. Even before the 1400s AD, when Europeans started sailing directly to Africa, the slave trade was already capturing thousands of West Africans every year and selling them away from their families and their homes. Most of the captured people were probably Bantu, but some came from Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique or Kenya. Some of these people were forced to walk across the Sahara Desert to be slaves in North Africa, and especially to work in the salt mines of the Sahara. Others were shipped from the east coast of Africa to India and the Persian Gulf, to work in salt mines there. Other enslaved people worked in India, Egypt, West Asia, Cyprus, or the Canary Islands, picking cotton and cutting sugar cane for sugar. A total of about ten thousand people a year were probably sold as slaves to the Islamic Empire, India, and Europe in the years before 1500.

Learn by Doing - Memorizing
More about Ancient Africa
More about slavery

Bibliography and further reading about early African people:

Egyptian People
Islamic People
Indian People
Slavery in the United States
Africa home
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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, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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