Did people fight wars in ancient Africa?
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African Warfare


Nubian archers in the Middle Kingdom
(from the Nubian museum in Aswan, Egypt)

May 2016 - Early African soldiers, like the soldiers of Europe and West Asia and India, were generally men. These African soldiers also generally fought with the same weapons as in Asia and Europe - spears, leather shields, and bows and arrows. Nubian archers were so good at killing people that Egyptian pharaohs hired them as mercenaries beginning in the Middle Kingdom, about 2000 BC.

stone balls and dark metal arrowheads
Carthaginian weapons (from the Byrsa
museum in Carthage, Tunisia)

In North Africa, about 200 BC, Carthaginian soldiers killed people with iron spears and knives, but also stone balls shot from catapults. One famous Carthaginian general was Hannibal, who fought the Punic Wars against the Romans.


Djenne archer (Mali, ca. 1400 AD)

By 1000 AD (and maybe earlier), soldiers in West Africa were also fighting wars with spears and bows and arrows. This is an archer from Djenne (modern Mali), from around 1400 AD. Do you see the quiver on his back to hold his arrows?

But when men came from Portugal and attacked the people of Ghana and Mali in the late 1400s AD, these Portuguese people had new weapons - cannons. Cannon (metal tubes that used exploding gunpowder to shoot big stone balls) had just been invented in Europe and China in the 1300s, and West African generals hadn't heard about them yet. So the African armies were at a big disadvantage.

Learn by Doing - Bows and Arrows

Bibliography and further reading about early African warfare:

The Punic Wars
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, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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