Prehistory to Empires


There is always something new out of Africa

-Pliny the Elder, Roman Naturalist & Author (AD 23 –  AD 79)

Scholars often present African history as a period that begins with ‘European contact’, an era characterized by the massive enslavement of African people and the colonization of African territories. Yet Africa has a rich and deep history that begins with the origin of the human species and includes the development of technology, the formation of early civilizations, and the rise of massive empires that engaged in extensive trade networks connected to Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the South Pacific. African history is human history, and African humanities must therefore begin with an exploration of the relationship between humans and the African continent.

Cradle of (Hu)mankind 

Recent research shows that modern humans developed in Africa. The oldest human remains are located in Ethiopia, and evolutionary scientists have produced DNA evidence that connects all modern human beings to a common ancestor that lived on the African continent. This is what makes African history human history.

The term Hominidae refers to humans and our fossil ancestors. Modern humans are considered primates, and evolutionary evidence suggests that the human hominidae group split from non-human primate groups approximately 4-8 million years ago in East Africa. As you can see from the diagram to the right, Australopithecus afarensis is considered one of the earliest human ancestors in the hominidae group.

Homo habilis is believed to be the first tool-maker dating to approximately 2 million years ago  (‘Habilis’ refers to ‘tools’) in the area that is now known as Tanzania.  Tool-making is significant because tool-use marks the earliest evidence of  human technology. The earliest stone tools were found in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, and the style is referred to as Oldowan. The oldest stone tools, known as the Oldowan toolkit, consist of hammer stones,  stone cores, and sharp stone flakes used as cutting edges. The Acheulean style is characterized by large bifaces, this means that the tool maker worked two sides of the stone. This style spread throughout Africa & Eurasia. The Middle Stone Age is characterized by tools styles used by modern humans (Homo sapiens). The Later Stone Age  is characterized by major behavior changes, particularly food production. These stone tools include sophisticated tool-making techniques to producing grinding stones, scythes, and other complex tools used in agricultural production. Stone tools are one way to identify different cultural groups among early humans. As humans migrated and formed different groups, they made use of different materials and developed different techniques for tool-making. Tool material can also help archaeologists identify trade networks among early humans by tracking the distribution of different stones (such as granite, marble, limestone, chert, and fossilized coral) into locations where that material is not available. Archaeologists can then deduce that the human group was able to acquire that material through long distance trade. for more information on stone tools in Africa, visit the Early Stone Age Tools website by the Smithsonian Institute.

Approximately one million years after Homo habilus developed, Homo erectus was the first hominid to walk upright on the African continent. ‘Erectus’ refers to the ability to walk upright, and this is significant because the ability to walk on two feet rather than four (also known as bipedalism) enhanced survival because it allowed Homo erectus to carry objects and detect predators from a distance. Bipedalism, coupled with the use of tools, helped the homo species acquire food and this advanced cognitive (brain) development. Advanced brain development is evidenced by enlarged craniums (skulls).

Approximately 200,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, developed larger brains which allowed for the mental capacity to reason, use language, engage in problem-solving, and develop culture.  Enhanced mental capacity combined with bipedalism enabled Homo sapiens to manipulate objects, make greater use of tools, build fires to keep warm and cook food, create clothes, and engage in art. To learn more about the significance of Africa to human evolution, visit the Smithsonian Institute’s Human Family Tree.

Out of Africa

For several thousand years, Homo sapiens continued to develop culture and technology throughout Africa.  Approximately 50,000 years ago, a group of Homo sapiens left the African continent. The reasons for the migration are still unclear, yet scientists are certain that all modern humans descended from this single migratory group. Genetic similarities and differences among modern populations reveals a common ‘root’ ancestral population for all modern human groups. This ancestor is referred to as ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ because the DNA connection exists in the mitochondria, a genome that is passed from the mother to child. For more information about Mitochondrial Eve, watch the documentary The Real Eve by the Discovery Channel.

As Homo sapiens spread throughout the world, they encountered different environments which necessitated adaptation. Humans in cold and dark environments developed lighter skin to better capture and make use of solar UV rays. Humans in high altitudes developed larger chests to make better use of oxygen in low-oxygen environments. As the human species colonized the globe, biological and cultural diversity flourished.

Humans & the Environment

Until 10,000 years ago, all human groups engaged in foraging. Foragers extract wild game and uncultivated vegetable resources from the natural environment. Most foraging societies are organized into a group of bands that consist of fewer than 100 people. Foraging groups are generally mobile according to seasonal variations in the availability of game and vegetable resources. A number of foraging groups exist in the present, particularly in biodiverse areas that continue to support foraging modes of production or in areas that are unfavorable to food production (Lee and Daly 1999). Yet, most contemporary foragers are at least partially connected to food production or external assistance (Kottak 2012).


The pastoral mode of production relies on the domestication of animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, camels, yak, and reindeer. The domestication of animals is believed to have originated in Egypt with the management of animals such as gazelles, oryxes, and hyenas as well as in West Asia with the domestication of herding animals such as sheep, goats, and cattle. Pastoralists engage in a symbiotic relationship with animals; the pastoralists provides protection and resources to the herd, and the animals provide milk, meat and hides to the pastoralists. Most pastoralists supplement their diet by hunting, gathering, fishing, cultivating, or trading with their neighbors. Like foragers, pastoralism demands mobility according to seasonal variations in water and pasture for animals.


Nomadism refers to the mobility pattern when the entire group moves with the animals throughout the year, and transhumance refers to the mobility pattern when only part of group moves with the herds and most people stay in the home village.Many communities in Africa and throughout the world continue to rely on pastoralism for survival, yet pastoral livelihoods demand a vast expanse of open space to support the grazing habits of herding animals. In many cases throughout the world, pastoral groups have become trapped between national borders, protected areas, urban development, and other barriers that prevent seasonal migrations and mobility. As a result, increased competition over scarce land and water resources has generated violent conflicts, called pastoral wars, between different groups. Recent research has shown that pastoralists engaged in pastoral wars are experiencing Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is comparable to the PTSD experienced by American troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Watch: When the Water Ends: Africa’s Climate Conflicts

Cultivation / Agriculture

Cultivation is the intentional manipulation of the vegetative environment in order to maximize food productivity. Horticulture is cultivation that does not make intensive use of land, labor, capital, or machinery. Horticulturalists use simple tools, slash-and-burn techniques, and crop rotation to allow plots to lay fallow and recover from land-use. Archaeological evidence, such as sickle blades and grinding stones, suggests that agriculture, which is intensified food production associated with large sedentary societies, originated in the Middle East and North Africa approximately 10,000 years ago. Cereal production became a staple food crop in agricultural areas where biodiversity was not sufficient to support large groups of people. Agriculture demands intensive use of land and technological inputs such as irrigation, terracing, fertilizer, transport, and additional labor energy harnessed from animals, exploited humans and fossil fuels. As a result, agriculture led to more sedentary settlement patterns and greater time spent in one location not only led to the development of pottery, art, and architecture, it also produced larger and more complex (hierarchical societies).

Agriculture to Civilization

Agriculture is the keystone to the development of large civilizations, or chiefdoms, because sedentary settlements allowed for increased population density and social stratification, building constructions, the emergence of arts and crafts, and the need to develop laws and political systems to organize and regulate a large and diverse society. Approximately 5000 years ago, the first 8th century trading networksstates began to form in Mesopotamia, followed by Egypt, the Indus Valley, northern China, southern Africa, Meso-America, the central Andes and the feudal system in Europe.

By the 15th century, large empires and civilizations in Asia, Europe and Africa were interconnected by a vast network of maritime and land transportation systems. While many civilizations collapsed as a result of widespread diseases and epidemics, environmental degradation and war, others continued to develop into states, ‘an autonomous political unit encompassing many communities within its territory, having a centralized government and the power to collect taxes, draft men for work or war, and decree and enforce laws’ (Carneiro 1970:733). States are characterized by highly defined social hierarchies that are organized according to created categories such as class, caste, ethnicity, gender, etc. (Weber 1922). As population pressures and competition among states increase the demand for additional resources, state political units must expand  their territory and acquire more resources to support a growing civilization (Bodley 2007). Expanding states are called empires because they encroach and consume the territories and resources of other political groups. We will explore states and empires further during the next module on Colonialism. For now, however, it is important to note that massive kingdoms developed in Africa and existed well into the colonial era. These kingdoms were integrated into a vast global trading network that connected African kingdoms and empires to Asia, India and Europe.


Throughout history nearly 100 kingdoms existed in Africa. Each kingdom engaged in trade, and sometimes war, with nearby kingdoms. Although the kingdoms were connected through trade and transportation networks (waterways, caravans, etc), historians group the kingdoms into four categories based on their locations: The Nile Valley Kingdoms centered on the Nile River in the North Eastern area of Africa. The West African Kingdoms clustered around the Niger river and the Niger river Basin. The Central African Kingdoms dominated the interior area of the continent. The South African Kingdoms occupied the Southern portion of Africa, including the Kalahari Desert. although African Kingdoms have been largely left out of late European history, archaeological evidence as well as historical documents produced by ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman authors provide evidence that African kingdoms played a central role in the development of world civilization and the circulation of key resources used by European Kingdoms and the Dynasties of Asia.

Nile Valley Kingdoms

The Nile Valley Kingdoms were located along the Nile River and North East Africa. They include ancient Egypt as well as the Akxomite Empire which was a major marine power and trading partner with the Roman Empire, and the Kushite Kingdom (400BC-1000AD) which has been mentioned in Biblical texts. The Kingdom of Nubia covered an ever-widening area of the Middle Nile Valley and surrounding deserts that extend approximately from Aswan in Egypt south to modern Khartoum, Sudan, and beyond. It was a highly advanced society governed by dark-skinned people that rivaled Egypt in wealth, power and cultural development. Egypt was occupied by Nubian kings who governed Egypt as pharaohs for more than 100 years between 1970 and 1520 B.B.  The kingdom developed a new form of writing as well as an advanced iron industry. Yet, the kingdom was invade by Akxom in around 300 A.D. Today, a vast amount of Nubian land lies underwater beneath massive reservoirs created by colonial dams. Yet, nearly one million Nubian people remain in the southern region of Egypt and the northern region of Sudan.

Another ancient kingdom, which the Egyptians called ‘Kush’ and the Greeks and Romans called ‘Ethiopians’ and/or ‘Burnt-Faced Ones’, rose to prominence in the third millennium B.C. The Kushite kingdom was a well-established urban, literate kingdom that existed at the same time as the Egyptian kingdom. The Kush kingdom engaged in trade and communication with Egypt, Greece and Rome while remaining linguistically and ethnically diverse. In addition, the oldest Christian Church, the Ethiopian Church, was established in the Nile Valley region during the 4th century BC.

For more information about Nile Valley Kingdoms, watch the following documentaries:

Egypt’s Golden Empire: Over 3,500 years ago, Rome was no more than a soggy marsh and the Acropolis was just an empty rock, but Egypt was on the brink of its greatest age – the New Kingdom. Watch online

Hannibal: the Fall of Carthage: This documentary delves into the rise of the small trading city-state of Carthage that became one of the richest and most powerful seafaring nations in the Mediterranean. Following the battles of the great Carthage general, Hannibal, the defeat of Rome seemed almost inevitable, yet Rome prevailed. Watch online

Nubia: The Forgotten Kingdom: Once a powerful, sprawling presence in Northern Africa, the ancient kingdom of Nubia now lies buried beneath mounds of red brick rubble in the Sudan. Forgotten by history and largely neglected by archaeology, its cities have lain buried for centuries, harboring priceless secrets of a civilization that once rivaled Egypt. Watch online

Central African Kingdoms

The Central African Kingdoms were located in the southern region on the African continent. The fertile region of central Africa gave rise to several powerful civilizations with sophisticated cultures and technologies. In the east, between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers, a grassland allowed cattle to prosper and gold deposits generated immense wealth. By the 13th century, Great Zimbabwe (1100-1450 AD) dominated the region and the ruins of a spectacular fortified palace remains today. By the 15th century, Mutapa rulers invaded Zimbabwe at a time that coincided with the arrival of Portugese traders. As the Portugese made there way across, what is now Angola in the West to Mozambique in the East, they encountered several powerful kingdoms such as Kongo (in modern northern Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo), Lunda, the Lundu Kingdom and others.  As the documentaries below describe, Great Zimbabwe included massive architectural structures and it was initially attributed to ‘non-Africans’by a colonial German geologist. Today, historians consider Great Zimbabwe as one of the most complex and massive kingdoms on the continent and it was undoubtedly created by African people.

West African Kingdoms

West African Kingdoms were connected by the Niger River. Between the 9th and 16th centuries CE, three specific West African kingdoms came to power: Ghana,  Mali, and Songhay.

The Kingdom of Ghana became a powerful, centralized kingdom between the 9th to 13th centuries.  (Note that the area of the Kingdom of Ghana during this time period is farther north than the present day country of Ghana.) Like many African kingdoms, its success was based on extensive commercial trade with other kingdoms, particularly the trade of gold.  In ancient literature, Ghana was referred to as the ‘land of gold,’ and the people of West Africa  developed a unique technique for mining gold for trade with other African and European kingdoms. At that time, Ghanaian gold was traded for salt from the Sahara region.  During the 11th century, Muslim Almoravid  descended from North Africa to conquer the Kingdom of Ghana and convert people to Islam. This allowed the Kingdom of Mali to gain power, dominate the region, and take control of commercial trade.

The Kingdom of Mali reached its peak between the 13th and 15th centuries. During that time, Mali was the second largest empire on the planet (after the Mongolian empire in Asia). as you can see from the map, the Kingdom of Mali encompassed the entire territory of Ghana, stretching from the Western coast to beyond the Niger river. During this time, the Kingdom of Mali expanded commercial trading in the region and took control of trade in gold and salt, and occupied the caravan routes that penetrated the Sahara desert. This enabled Mali to trade extensively with Egypt and acquire cooper resources from African Kingdoms occupying the Nile region. Islam flourished in Mali, and it became well known for several great Islamic centers such as Timbuktu, Djenne, and Gao.  These centers contributed a wide body of knowledge in the fields of  religion, mathematics, music, law, and literature.

The Kingdom of Songhay  gained control over some parts of Mali, and the civilization peaked during the 14th and 17th centuries CE. Songhay territory extended west from the northernmost peak of the Niger river to the eastern interior of the continent. The Niger river connected the kingdom to the coastal resources and trading ports. The integration of commercial trade networks and Islamic religion helped the Songhay civilization prosper because Islam unified people throughout the region and thereby facilitated the flow of goods and people between Islamic powers. Like Mali, the Songhay civilization developed sophisticated learning centers that encouraged scholarship and learning. By the beginning of the 15th century, the kingdom expanded into a strong, militarized central government with a complex legal structure. The kingdom experienced relative peace until the the 17th century when Moroccan invaders seized power of Songhay.

This is just a brief overview of only a few notable West African kingdoms. To learn more about the significance of the Niger River Valley for the development of West African Kingdoms and their interconnections through trade, watch the brief documentary below.


A wide range of power and sophisticated civilizations and kingdoms developed on the African continent for several thousand years. These kingdoms produced a significant amount of wealth and resources, and many kingdoms traded with each other as well as European and Asian trading partners in a complex world economy. In the next lesson, we will explore the ways that the trading networks that connected African kingdoms to each other and to the rest of the world played a pivotal role in the enslavement of African people with the development of the ”Trade Triangle’. Through a series of historical events, trading relations between European Kingdoms and West African Kingdoms changed and this set the stage for more than four centuries of war and turmoil throughout the African continent. This transformed the African continent and it continues to underlie contemporary experiences in Africa.

Your Score:  

Your Ranking:  

For Discussion: Research and describe the African empire that occupied the territory that is now known as the African nation you selected. What is known about that empire today? In what ways was it connected to other empires throughout the world? What significant contributions developed in that empire? Do not forget to include your citations in your post.

When you complete the discussion, move on to African-European Relations.