History 1301 // History 1302 // Mexico // American Indians
African Peoples and Civilizations
To Lecture Notes
Africa on YouTube
European Distortion of Africa
This is Africa
African History without Europeans
Zambezi Express Dance
Traditional African Dance - Zimbabwe
Music from "Blood Diamond"
African Healing Dance
Issues in African History
African History on the Internet
African Voices - Smithsonian
The Story of Africa
Ancient Africa's Black Kingdoms
Africa South of the Sahara: Selected Internet Resources People & Cultures of West Africa - course outline with links
Mysteries of Ancient History and Archaeology Berbers
Peoples of Africa
Race & Slavery in the Middle East
FOCUS - Tunisia
African Studies Resources at UCLA
Useful Swahili Words
Living Swahili Dictionary
Noun Classification in Swahili
Due to location the contact between Africans and Europeans has a long history. But, until the 1440s, almost all European contact with Africa was with North Africa and Ethiopia. That included Egypt. Egyptian culture dates back to 5000 BCE. By 3000 BCE, Egypt was one of the most powerful civilizations as well as one of the oldest. By 2600 BCE, Egypt's influence had spread through Africa with maritime expeditions to the West, South, and Red Sea. There is a problem with the wealth Egyptians accumulated, though. Wealth attracts invaders. In addition, Egyptians had to survive with a heavy-handed government and high taxes that bred discontent and rebellion within the civilization.
Adding to Egypt's problems was unwanted immigration from the Sahara region that created further tensions. The Sahara Desert was once green and fertile (5500-2500 BCE). The first large scale agriculture in Africa began there. Then, the climate changed and the desert grew. Saharans began to leave, going in all directions. As they dispersed, however, they unified African culture. This explains the cultural similarities that appear throughout Africa among peoples living far apart and in apparent isolation from one another.
Some Saharans went north merging with the natives of today's Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The became known as the Berbers who were famous for their skill with horses. The city of Carthage became an important trade center by 900 BCE with gold and ivory being their major trade goods. Other Saharans went east where stock-raisin developed on the Ethiopian plateau. Others went to Egypt where they did not receive a warm welcome. War erupted and the decline of Egypt began.
In 950 BCE, Berbers took control of Upper Egypt. Now this is confusing. Upper Egypt is the southern portion of Egypt. Lower Egypt is the northern region where the Nile River begins. Two hundred years later (730 BCE) Kushites or Nubians invaded Upper Egypt. In 671 BCE, Assyrians conquered Egypt. In 525 BCE, Persians invaded and took control. The Greeks took over in 332 BCE and in 30 BCE Egypt became part of the Roman Empire. The next conqueror had the biggest impact, though. In 650 CE, the Arab Muslims came. Egypt became a Muslim territory although Coptic Christians and Jews were tolerated. Arabic became the daily language and nomadic Beduins spread Islam throughout Northern Africa.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia went its own way. They welcomed innovation and outside influences. They also had a unique religion in that region as Ethiopia became the first Christian empire while the rest of Africa became Muslim. At the same time, most of Africa remained isolated except for an occasional caravan or ship from the north. For our purposes, that is the most important region of Africa, Sub-Sahara Africa mean south of or below the Sahara desert. Most of the New World slaves came from that region.
Like American Indians, Africans were diverse. They had different cultures, lifestyles, physical appearances, and over 800 languages. One of the earliest [peoples of Sub-Sahara Africa included the Pygmies of the Congo forests. They are known for their size averaging about 4'9" tall. They also had a unique drum language to communicate in the forests. They were nomadic but excellent weavers and carvers.
Eventually, the Bushmen (or San, Khoi, and other groups) dominated the Sub-Sahara by 10000 BCE. They were also a small people at about 5' tall. They were nomadic and known for cave paintings. At some point, however, the Bushmen were pushed aside and now reside in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana and Namibia. (This is a personal issue for me since I'm Buddhist and had a previous life in Namibia. My DNA originated in Kenya so I'm pretty sure I'm related to the President...well, pretty sure.)
The new conquerors are sometimes referred to as the Hamitic peoples but include the Zulu, Watusi, Masai, Dinka, and other groups. They are tall and slender. They became herdsmen with sheep and goats but today cattle. Herds determined a man's wealth. Artifacts reveal a sophisticated culture equal to Europeans. This created a problem for Europeans when they arrived. Europeans believed they were superior so how could they explain this apparent equality? That takes us the Hamitic Hypothesis that has had a huge affect on history.
This is a warning too. Be careful when you read about Africa. Older books still have this theory. I have a World Atlas from 1954 that reflects the Hamitic Hypothesis.
The Hamitic Hypothesis was the European explanation of apparent equality. They decided that these Africans were not really Africans. They were the descendants of Biblical Ham, the son of Noah. Ham saw his father naked and lingered a bit too long because Noah caught him staring at him. As a result Noah cursed Ham saying he would be the servant to men forever. Blackness was a sign of this curse. So in my Atlas, Eastern Africans are identified as Caucasoid or European. Well, that explains that doesn't it? Oh dear...At any rate this hypothesis will be utilized to rationalize slavery. It was a Biblical curse. It wan't the fault of the Europeans. Noah wanted it that way.
Eventually, these groups of people (who are African I assure you) were pushed to the east where they still live. The new conquerors are referred to as the Sudanic peoples because it was believe they originated in the Sudan. Actually, they are the Ibo, Ashanti, Mandingo, Yoruba, and many other groups. They were skilled herdsmen, farmers, fishermen, traders, craftsmen, and hunters. Uh oh! What do people want slaves to do? The Sudanic peoples will make great slaves. By 500 BCE, they occupied almost all of Sub-Sahara Africa and became known for their great kingdoms. (See map above.)
While most Africans lived in small villages, the kingdoms unified different groups. (Some say "tribes" but that's really not accurate so I use groups or people[s].) One of the earliest and most famous kingdoms was the Ghana or Ashanti Kingdom. It was a wealthy 11th century West African Empire known for it architecture, art and powerful army. Ghana also had a complex political system. Wealth came from trade as Ghana was located at the crossroads of the salt trade from the oasis peoples of the Sahara and the gold and ivory producers of the south. (Note the importance of trade in the West African Kingdoms. This is significant when the Europeans arrive similar to American Indians. Africans loved trade.) By 1067 CE Ghana controlled the region from the Sahara to the Niger River to the Atlantic Ocean. But, what have we already learned about the problems of wealth? Wealth attracted invader so in 1052 CE the Muslim Berbers attacked and devastation followed. Ghana declined.
Another empires was ready to kill the void. The Mali (or Mandingo, Mandinka, Melle) Kingdom emerged in the 13th and 14th centuries. Mali had been part of the Ghana Kingdom so when Ghana fell, the people of Mali grasped the power and an new empire emerged. Mali, like Ghana, grew wealthy through trade while also developing advanced agriculture. One of the most famous leaders of Mali was Mansa Musa who ruled in the early 1300s. He had a fascinating story that he sent an expedition of ships to the west but only one survived to return. The survivors reported finding a new land. So, some historians conclude that Africans made it to the New World before Columbus. No evidence or artifacts have been found at this time to prove that theory but it is an interesting possibility.
Mali was also known for its major city, Timbuktu. (I just like saying "Timbuktu." Cool name.) Timbuktu at that time was known for its advanced educational system including famous universities, more advanced than Europe. Even as Mali declined, Timbuktu grew and prospered. It became part of the Songhai Kingdom in 1468 CE. Not until 1591 CE did Timbuktu begin its decline as the result of being captured by Morocco and then in the 19th century, it was occupied by France.
Another important kingdom was Benin, a 15th century kingdom that the Europeans visited and described. Europeans compared it to Europe because of its cities, streets, suburbs, and spacious homes. Each of these and other kingdoms were unique but shared cultural similarities.
All kingdoms had a "divine king." He served as a symbol of the strength of the kingdoms and was chosen by the gods. At the same time, the divine king had limited power. If he grew old and weak, the symbolism lost its meaning so he was usually taken out of office one way of the other. Also, the village chiefs had power when they worked together. They could vote to run a king out of office also.
All the kingdoms had complicated bureaucracies, too. They had officials to oversee almost every aspect of life in the kingdoms. This included complex legal and political systems as well.
Another common characteristic of the kingdoms was relative equality of men and women in work and religion. In general, women had legal rights and economic independence. Men and women usually shared agricultural work. But, the status of African women will be a major source of misunderstanding between Europeans and Africans. Europeans frowned on the dominance of polygyny as a family structure. Men generally had multiple wives in traditional West Africa. It is still an issue there today. Why would Africans choose polygyny as their dominant family structure?
The answer is that Africans emphasized the size of families. Men gained status for having multiple wives showing they could afford to support large families. A man's status and wealth were judged by the size of his family.
Polygyny did have its advantages for women in that no one woman had to have many children. They had a long period of nursing and natural spacing of the children. "Co-wives" usually had separate houses as did the husband. Often co-wives provided comaraderie and support. It was important they got along with one another. The most common reason for divorce was conflict between wives. Some women stayed with a difficult husband because they loved their co-wives especially the "senior wife." There could be trouble though especially if the husband showed favoritism to a younger wife. But, African women did have a say-so as to whom they married but less freewill than American Indian women in general. Ideally, African women married someone according to the parents' wishes but women were rarely forced to marry someone they did not love. Most West African groups were patrilineal but a few groups such as the Ibo (Igbo) were matrilineal.
The importance of family or kinship was common to traditional African cultures and difficult for Eruopeans to understand. Europeans saw polygyny as abusive to women. Of course, at the same time, adultery was rampant in European cultures although they were monogamous in terms of marriage. Another thing that confused Europeans was the taboo on marrying within the family. In Europe, marrying a cousin was considered a good thing so you could keep all the property in the family. Africans rejected this dramatically. It did not matter how far down the line the relative was, even 18th cousin or so on, it was taboo. Historians like to debate what influence Africans had on U.S. culture. I've never heard one mention this. Laws and restrictions on marry first or other cousins was African. It did not exist in European culture. This has been a huge influence in U.S. culture.
Kinship has it good and not so good aspects. Kinship defined ties to the land, status, position in society, and immortality. It offered security. Wherever they went, there was a relative to assist. On the other hand, Africans gave up individualism for security. How much individualism would you give up for more security? Why Africans made this decision, we don't really know. But, it was a major part of their culture and is today.
Another trait of West African kingdoms was the emphasis on religion. Traditional African religions generally had a Supreme God and man lesser gods, spirits and divinities. Prayer and sacrifice were universal. The "diviner" was also important. They were the spiritual leaders and healers in traditional African religions similar to the shaman. Their role was to figure out why things went wrong an identify a person's weaknesses. They also oversaw elaborate funerals to keep the memory of ancestors alive. Diviners could be either men or women. But, by the time the Europeans arrived in Sub-Sahara Africa, traditional religions were being replaced by Islam although traditional influences remained.
Another characteristic of African kingdoms was the emphasis on the arts. Artistic skill brought status and unlike American Indians, Africans had specialized artists who came to the cities to serve the kings. Artwork included sculptures, carvings, and bronze work. Of course, their most famous art and the first to be introduced to the rest of the world were their carved masks.
Art permeated African life especially music and dance. African music to this day is distinctive because it is polyrhythmic. That is complex music consisting of different beats played concurrently. Check out some of the links at the top of the page. Since music was complex, dance was and is complex. Check out some of those links too and try to keep up yourself. It scared Europeans.
Englishman's Description of Ibo Dancing
"The dancers range themselves and begin slow rhythmic movements, unconsciously swaying their heads in time with the music. As the dance proceeds they appear intoxicated with the motion and the music, the speed increases, and the movements become more and more intricate and bewildering...The twistings, turnings, contortions and springing movements executed in perfect time, are wonderful to behold...For these set dances...the physical strength required is tremendous. The body movements are extremely difficult and would probably kill a European."
from The Slave Community, John W. Blassingame
As mentioned before, trade was another important characteristic of the kingdoms. They existed for trade including salt, gold, and ivory. It's interesting that salt was as valuable as gold then. Salt was required for survival to preserve foods. We take it for granted in today's cultures. Markets were throughout West Africa and most of the marketing was done by women. You can still observe this characteristic in countries like Jamaica where women still dominate trade but men are making their move much to the dismay of Jamaican women. Markets were like carnivals, but it will be the African love of trade that will bring disaster to many West African peoples. West Africans will welcome the Europeans in the 1440s because of trade. Europeans will come to see West Africa as a reservoir of slaves arguing Africans were slaveowners, too.
This was true. There was a system of slavery in Africa as in most countries and civilizations in the Old World. But, Old World slavery was quite different than New World slavery. In Africa, it was seen as a "wageless" economic system in which people paid debts through labor. Some Africans went to village leaders and requested being slaves if they had no family and wanted to be part of the kinship system. Usually, slavery was not seen as a punishment although was used in some cases such as adultery. The word "slave" comes from the word "slavik" meaning conquered people. At the same time, slavery was not inherited or permanent. It was not an issue of race either. It was an issue of power and wealth. It could be an issue of religion as in the case of Jews.
Many people saw slavery as necessary. Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle said "some" people needed slavery to be controlled. The Old World elite saw slavery as just another economic class. There was a degree of flexibility. They could work themselves free. Once free they were treated as equals. An Ashanti proverb was "A slave who knows how to serve, succeeds to his master's property." Slaves were not "chattel." Chattel means property. In the New World, chattel slavery will develop and will have enormous consequences. People owned people.
Even in the Old World it seems most people did not want to be slaves. Spartacus's rebellion in Rome (73-71 BCE) was a slave rebellion and set the precedent for dealing with rebellions when 6,000 were crucified and Spartacus killed. Certainly, Jews in the time of Moses did not like slavery either. But in the 1440s, slavery in the Old World was on the decline and of little economic importance. That will change when the Europeans stumble upon the New World. To understand what happened, let's move to our next topic, Renaissance Europe and the era of exploration.