The first modern humans
The first modern people evolved 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). These people lived by gathering wild plants, shellfish and eggs, and by scavenging meat that other, stronger animals had killed.
Stone tools, fire, and cooking
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. These first people probably started out in east Africa. There were different kinds: Neanderthals, Denisovans, and humans, related like horses are to donkeys and zebras, but even closer. All of these people were dark-skinned – black. Some time before 200,000 years ago, all of these people probably started talking.
Around that same time, some of the Neanderthals and some of the humans left Africa and spread out over Europe and Asia. Some of them had kids with each other; some of those kids eventually moved back to Africa and had kids with people there. Like people today, they moved around a lot. Some of the Neanderthals, living in the north, evolved to have lighter skin – the first white people.
Fishing and shellfish – the first beads
By about 100,000 years ago, Neanderthals, Denisovans, and humans had spread out all over Africa, from the Mediterranean coast to South Africa. A second wave of humans 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 modern 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.
People leave Africa
Probably this second wave of modern people to leave Africa – taking their red ochre and seashell necklaces with them – first went through Egypt, around the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula.
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.
Early farming in Africa – millet and donkeys
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 sorghum and donkeys. About this time, the first people in West Asia evolved to have lighter skin, and some of them married Africans, so Africans living nearer to West Asia, in Egypt and Ethiopia and Libya, came to have lighter skin than other Africans.
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.
The first kingdoms in Egypt and Sudan
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).
Phoenicians and Carthage in North Africa
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.
Bantu migration from West Africa
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 or just joining them on their land.
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.
Did you find out what you wanted to know about early African history? Let us know in the comments!