Early African Religion – what was the first 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 – what was the first religion?

The earliest evidence we have for religious faith anywhere in the world is from Blombos Cave in South Africa, where people may have been using red ochre for funerals about 100,000 years ago.

More about Blombos Cave
All our Africa articles

Around 6000 BC, people put up standing stones in East Africa (modern Sudan). These stones may have marked the changing seasons. Maybe the standing stones at Nabta Playa showed people when to hold important religious ceremonies.

More about the standing stones

African religions in the Bronze Age

Ancient Egypt: 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.

More about Egyptian religion
Lots more Egypt articles

a flat area with a large circle of stones on a raised mound, and some people standing near it.

The Bronze Age cemetery at Lake Turkana, in Kenya (3000 BC)

East Africa: South of Sudan, in Kenya, also around 3000 BC, people living around Lake Turkana built a large cemetery with mounds, stone circles, and large standing stones. We don’t know who their gods were, but they thought funerals and cemeteries were important.

West Africa: 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.

More about monotheism

By around 1300 BC, we can see the first strains of an interest in monotheism emerging in Egypt, too, with Akhenaten. Did Akhenaten get the idea to worship only one god from West Africans? Nobody knows.

More about 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 god Baal
More about ancient Carthage
Who were the Phoenicians?

Tanit was a moon goddess – that’s why she has a crescent moon over her head on this carving. In North Africa, she was probably a mixture of the old Phoenician goddess Tanit and a local African moon goddess.

The goddess Tanit
More about the moon

Ba’al was Tanit’s husband: his name just means “Lord”. People sacrificed young sheep and goats, and maybe sometimes even their own children, to the god Ba’al.

The Greeks, and then the Romans, soon added their gods to the gods worshipped in North Africa.

More about Roman religion
North Africa under Roman rule

Christianity and African religion

two african masks with narrow black and white stripes

Need a Halloween costume? Get this African mask from Congo and go as a scary spirit!

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.

More about early 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.

Who was St. Augustine?
More about the Donatists
Who were the Arians?
Axum and Christianity

African religion: 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.

Who were the Bantu?

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

African religion: The rock-cut church of Lalibella from medieval Ethiopia, which stayed Christian

Islam and African religion

In the late 600s AD, another monotheistic faith, Islam, came to Africa, first across the Red Sea to Somalia and Eretria, then to Egypt.

More about Islam

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.

Islamic North Africa
Islamic Timbuktu

Remains of the Great Mosque at Gedi, Kenya

African religion: 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. So most of the people who lived in Africa were Muslims.

History of Sudan
History of Mozambique

But Christian and traditional faiths are still there

Even though many people converted to Islam, many other people didn’t. Ethiopia stayed Christian. People in medieval Ethiopia built big stone churches and wrote long books of Christian prayers and Bibles.

More about Ethiopian Christian churches

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.

More about the San

Did you find what you were looking for about early African religions? 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 |2018-12-26T12:29:33+00:00May 18th, 2017|Africa, History, Religion|93 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Early African Religion – what was the first religion?. Quatr.us Study Guides, May 18, 2017. Web. January 18, 2019.

About the Author:

Dr. 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 Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. 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 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.

  2. Someone From The Far Corner Of The Internet March 9, 2018 at 8:37 am - Reply

    This page keeps on coming up whenever I try to access: http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/medieval/clothing/index.htm


    • Karen Carr March 9, 2018 at 10:48 am

      It’s the same page; we’ve just moved from one domain to another, because we’re not just for kids anymore.

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    • Karen Carr March 8, 2018 at 9:07 pm

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

  4. zimmermanchristopher March 7, 2018 at 12:37 pm - Reply

    this is a helpful websit

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    • Karen Carr March 7, 2018 at 9:14 am

      That’s great! Congratulations!

  7. doodle22 March 1, 2018 at 8:42 am - Reply

    This was so helpful. I will spread this on to my friends and family, I hope you have a awesome day, just keep on doing whatever you are destined to do. i’m 11 years old. bye

    • Karen Carr March 2, 2018 at 12:02 am

      I’m glad you found it helpful!

  8. maddie February 26, 2018 at 10:21 am - Reply

    my teacher loved this article and it helped soo much!

    • Karen Carr February 26, 2018 at 12:08 pm

      Wonderful! I’m happy to hear it! If your teacher would put it on his or her class page that would help us reach more students!

  9. yoyo February 12, 2018 at 4:37 am - Reply

    help me i hate school!!!!1

    • Karen Carr February 12, 2018 at 9:56 pm

      I’m sorry you feel that way. I think mostly when people say they hate school, they mean that they hate this school or this class. Maybe you can find a way to change schools, or change to a different class, where you might get along better?

  10. Jebidiah February 8, 2018 at 10:56 am - Reply

    Thanks, Karen this is a great little article. It helped a lot.

    • Karen Carr February 8, 2018 at 11:21 am

      Thank you, Jebidiah!

    • hi February 9, 2018 at 10:40 am


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