Early African Religion

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Standing stones at Nabta Playa (modern Sudan), ca. 6000 BC

Early African religion: Standing stones at Nabta Playa (modern Sudan), ca. 6000 BC

Early African religion – the Stone Age

The earliest evidence we have for religious faith in Africa is from Blombos Cave in South Africa, where people may have been using red ochre for funerals about 100,000 years ago. Around 6000 BC, people put up standing stones in East Africa (modern Sudan), maybe marking the changing seasons.

African religion in the Bronze Age

In Egypt, by 3000 BC people were already worshipping IsisOsiris, Ra, and the Amen. Further south in Sudan, the Kushites seem to have also worshipped these gods, along with their own gods, Apedemak and Sebiumeker. Some Nubian gods, like Bes, seem to have travelled north from Sudan to Egypt too.
In West Africa, however, the Bantu people seem to have been more monotheistic. They thought of there being one god, sometimes a sky god or sun god and sometimes not. By around 1300 BC, we can see the first strains of an interest in monotheism emerging in Egypt with Akhenaten.
A tombstone with a rough image of a woman with her arms raised up and various moon and triangle symbols - Early African religion

Early African religion: the Phoenician goddess Tanit

Phoenician, Greek, and Roman gods come to Africa

Polytheism triumphed when Akhenaten died, though, and survived through the conquest of North Africa by the Phoenicians who introduced their own gods to North Africa, like the goddess Tanit and the god Ba’al. The Greeks, and then the Romans, soon added their gods to the gods worshipped in North Africa.

Christianity and African religion

Around 300 AD there was a second great change in African religious belief when many North and East Africans gradually followed the Roman Emperor’s lead in converting to the monotheistic faith of Christianity. The great Christian theologian St. Augustine was from North Africa. By the 500s AD Christianity won over most of North Africa, including Egypt, and also the kingdom of Axum south of Egypt (modern Sudan, Eretria, and Ethiopia). The Christians of North Africa were split among the Donatists, the Catholics, and then the Vandal Arians.

Mosque in a medieval seaport in East Africa (Masjid al-Qiblatayn, Somalia, 600s AD)

Bantu ghosts and ancestors

In this same time period, the Bantu were gradually expanding across southern Africa, bringing their faith with them. Bantu faith continued to de-emphasize polytheism, while having instead a firm belief in ghosts and their power over living people. Some of these ghosts were your own dead parents or grandparents. Others might be the ghost of a dead king or hero, and these might be remembered for a long time, rather like Christian saints.

The rock-cut church of Lalibella

The rock-cut church of Lalibella

Islam and African religion

In the late 600s AD, another monotheistic faith, Islam, came to Africa, first across the Red Sea to Somalia, then to Egypt. After that, Islam spread rapidly across North Africa. A hundred years later, almost the entire population of North Africa had converted to Islam. Islam quickly spread across the Sahara Desert as well, so that many people who lived in the grasslands south of the Sahara became Muslims too.

Remains of the Great Mosque at Gedi, Kenya

Remains of the Great Mosque at Gedi, Kenya

All the way south to the great rain forests, there were many Muslims or people who followed at least some Muslim beliefs. And, thanks to Arab and Indian traders, the entire east coast of Africa became Muslim, as far south as Mozambique. Sudan also became mostly Muslim. But Ethiopia stayed Christian.

San Rock Art - people doing a sacred dance

San Rock Art – people doing a sacred dance

South of the rain forests, in central and western Africa, Bantu religion remained dominant. And in the Kalahari desert, the San people kept up their own faith. It was very similar to the Bantu faith in its emphasis on ancestor ghosts.

Did you find what you were looking for about early African religion? Do you have more questions? Let us know in the comments!

Learn by doing – A rock art project
More about the goddess Tanit

Bibliography and further reading about African religion:

Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt, by Thomas James (1971)

Children of the Lamp (Akhenaten Adventure), by P. B. Kerr (2004)

Abiyoyo, by Pete Seeger (reprinted 1994)

A Coalition of Lions, by Elizabeth E. Wein (2003) – A novel about Christian Africa in the 500s AD- warning: this book is the second in a series!

African Religion, by Aloysius Muzzanganda Lugira, Paula R. Hartz (2004)

The Atlas of Islam: People, Daily Life and Traditions, by Neil Morris, Manuela Cappon, Gian Paulo Faleschini, Studio Stalio (2003)

More about Tanit
More about the god Bes
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By | 2018-02-08T11:25:21+00:00 May 18th, 2017|Africa, History, Religion|55 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Early African Religion. Quatr.us Study Guides, May 18, 2017. Web. April 26, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
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.


  1. john April 18, 2018 at 9:07 am - Reply

    Good resource and well written. I have a related resource page about african mythology https://www.themystica.com/african-mythology/

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr April 18, 2018 at 9:16 am

      Thanks, John! I hope you’ll soon add some info about who you are and why you started this website, with maybe your sources, so students can know they can trust your information.

  2. Johnny Jarvis April 18, 2018 at 7:26 am - Reply

    Usefullll Lov it

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr April 18, 2018 at 8:44 am


  3. sajeda April 11, 2018 at 1:51 am - Reply

    Indeed, very cool! Karen, i was thinking how to frame my question to you which this article has sparked in me… but somehow unable to.. so i have a disjointed communique… hope you figure out what i have in…
    Between Monotheism and Polytheism, can we figure out which ancient tribes/peoples incline towards which …eism? and whether monotheism was the original religion for all mankind at one moment in time all over the world at the same time and then branched out or vice versa…
    I hope i have not confused you?

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr April 11, 2018 at 9:06 am

      Hi Sajeda,
      I think your question is pretty clear! That’s a good question, too. The earliest people lived in small, scattered groups, so they weren’t all united in doing any one thing. There wasn’t ever one united religion that everyone had, that broke apart later. It’s more the other way around. At first, people worshipped their own local gods. Often these were whatever seemed mysterious and powerful near their homes, like a local volcanic mountain, a big river, the ocean, or a big tree or oddly shaped stone. When people started to form bigger communities, they found out that other people also had a god of the ocean, for example, and often they merged their gods together. Then when the first big empires formed – the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, Zhou Dynasty China – people had one supreme leader on earth (the Emperor) and they started to think of having the same kind of leadership in Heaven too: one god. Most of the monotheistic religions start around the same time as the big empires.

  4. Bob April 10, 2018 at 5:03 pm - Reply

    great website- provided various information including what I needed about the ancient west african religions. I had some research to do and this helped a lot. Thank you Karen

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr April 10, 2018 at 10:09 pm

      You’re welcome! I’m glad you found what you were looking for.

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    This is really usefull and I’m from Canada

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  7. Dennis March 24, 2018 at 6:15 am - Reply

    Thank you Karen Carr,

    My name is Dennis
    All of this is very informative and brings up a good study.
    Can you help me to understand a little about the Apocrypha and what it means to people who are Christian? I have very little understanding on this subject and what it means.

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr March 24, 2018 at 3:51 pm

      That’s a good question, Dennis! Early Christians did a lot of writing, all around the Mediterranean. Some were better writers than others, and some had better ideas than others. When later Christians decided to collect all this writing into the New Testament, they had to decide what to put in and what to leave out. The Apocrypha are some of the things they decided to leave out. Officially, they’re not sacred texts to Christians, but some Christians are interested in them anyway.
      There are also some Christian writings that Catholics consider to be Apocrypha, while Protestants include them. Orthodox Christians leave out even more. So it depends what kind of Christian you are.

  8. Alice March 16, 2018 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    Interested in knowing the God that Africans worship during the time of Religious wars in England, and how Africans or black people came to be Christians? In the total scheme of time and space, are we all really serving the same GOD?

    A Curious Christian

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr March 16, 2018 at 1:54 pm

      Most people in Africa were Muslims at the time of the wars of religion in England, that is, in the 1500s and 1600s AD. Others followed traditional religions. People were only Christians in Ethiopia and as a minority Coptic faith in Egypt, and in places colonized by the Portuguese: Congo, Angola, and Mozambique, where many people had converted to Catholicism. In the late 1800s and 1900s, thousands of Protestant missionaries went from Europe and the United States to Africa and converted many more people to Christianity. Today, Africa is mostly split between Islam and Christianity.

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    • Karen Carr
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      Thank you, Britney! It’s very kind of you to say so!

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      I’m glad you found it helpful!

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      Thank you, Jebidiah!

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      You’re welcome, Annabelle!

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