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Four pyramids against a blue sky

Early African history: Pyramids at Giza, Egypt

The first modern humans

About three and a half million years ago, primates like chimpanzees in Africa started to come down out of the trees and evolve into modern people, walking upright and maybe swimming.

More about chimpanzees
Early primates/humans
When did people learn to swim?
All our Africa articles

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.

More about the Tertiary period
And the Quaternary

Stone tools, fire, and cooking

San men around a campfire

San men around a campfire

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.

History of fire
What is flint?
And what’s obsidian?

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.

Drawing of a Neanderthal stone awl

A Neanderthal stone awl

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.

History of East Africa

Fishing and shellfish – the first beads

a gray concave rock with red lines across it

The oldest drawing in the world, from Blombos Cave in South Africa, about 73,000 BC

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.

Stone Age 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.

South African history
Early African art

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.

The Arabian Peninsula from Eretria, across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait of the Red Sea 

Early African history: The Arabian Peninsula from Eretria, across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait of the Red Sea

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.

Egyptian painting of donkeys

Donkeys in Old Kingdom Egypt (ca. 2500 BC)

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.

History of millet
What is sorghum?
Where do donkeys come from?

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.

More about palm oil
History of figs
And Egyptian bee-keeping

A boy in a millet field in Burkina Faso (West Africa)

A boy in a millet field in Burkina Faso (West 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).

Old Kingdom Egypt
More about the Pyramids
Early 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.

North African history
Who were the Phoenicians?

When the Persians conquered the Phoenicians in 539 BC, Carthage became an independent kingdom that ruled most of the Western Mediterranean.

Palace at Kerma (Sudan, 1750 BC)

Early African history: Palace at Kerma (Sudan, 1750 BC)

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.

More about the Bantu
Roman North Africa
Cleopatra and Roman Egypt

The Bantu went mainly southeast, through the rain forest to the grasslands on the other side. Some of them stopped in Central Africa and started farming and making iron and copper tools there.

Central African history

ruins of a white stone temple

Temple of Zeus at Cyrene (modern Libya), ca. 475 BC

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.

More about the Neanderthals and very early humans

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Learn by doing: Eat some figs
Medieval African history

Bibliography and further reading about African history

Medieval African History home