Africa, The Spread Of Civilization In Africa

Various Authors

Edited By: R. A. Guisepi

Date:        2001

 
Africa is a continent of great size, almost 12 million square miles or
about three times the size of the United States. Most of it lies in the
tropics and, although we often think of Africa in terms of its rain forests,
less than ten percent of the continent is covered by tropical forests, and
those are mostly in West Africa. Much of the African surface is covered by
savannas, or open grasslands, and by arid plains and deserts. In geological
terms, the continent is really formed by a series of high plateaus broken in
the east by the Great Rift valley and the mountains that surround it. Large
rivers - the Congo, the Nile, the Zambezi, and the Niger - begin in the
interior of the continent and flow to the sea over great falls and cataracts
that mark the passage from the plateau to the coast. These falls have
historically made movement from the coast to the interior difficult, but the
great river systems have also provided the interior of Africa with routes of
communication.

We have already noted the origins of humankind in East Africa where some
of the earliest fossil remains of protohominids have been found. Even before
the appearance about 300,000 years ago of Homo sapiens, the ancestors of
modern human beings, other hominid species, such as Homo erectus, had moved
outward from Africa to Asia and Europe. Africa, therefore, holds a special
place in the development of the human species. It was the scene of human
origins. Moreover, in cultural terms, Africa participated in the early
development of civilization.

Despite the false image of Africa as the "dark" and isolated continent,
it was, in fact, often in contact with other areas of the world. It received
from them technology, crops, ideas, and material goods that in turn stimulated
social and cultural innovations. Moreover, the contacts were not always in the
same direction, and there is now considerable evidence that not only early
humans but also certain languages, crops, political, and cultural influences
spread outward from Africa.

It is useful to begin this discussion by noting the climatic change that
altered the appearance of the African continent and seems to have set a whole
series of historical processes in motion. That change centers on the area of
the Sahara, which during the Late Stone Age appears to have been far better
watered than it is today, receiving between 10 and 50 times as much rain as at
present. Archeological evidence indicates that a number of peoples, such as
the ancestors of the modern-day Berbers and Tuaregs of North Africa, who speak
languages related to ancient Egyptian, and the ancestors of the Negro peoples
of sub-Saharan Africa, some of whom also spoke these Afro-Asiatic languages
and others who did not, inhabited the area of the Sahara during this period.
Around 9000 years ago this situation began to change as temperatures rose and
rainfall became erratic. By about 3000 B.C., much of the area was desert. The
droughts that have recently affected Africa indicate that the desiccation, or
drying up, of the Sahara is continuing and the desert is growing.

As the Sahara became less habitable, the populations moved north toward
the Mediterranean coast and south into the area of the dry sahel, or fringe,
and, especially, onto the grassy savannas suitable for agriculture and
grazing. Savannas stretch across Africa from the mouth of the Senegal River on
the west coast to Lake Chad and the Upper Nile valley. This broad region, the
Sudan, became a center of cultural development. The movement of peoples into
the Sudan and toward the Nile valley and the Mediterranean set the stage for
major developments in the subsequent history of Africa.

Agriculture, Iron, And The Bantu Peoples

Agriculture may have developed independently in Africa, but many scholars
believe that the spread of agriculture and iron throughout Africa linked that
continent to the major centers of civilization in the Near East and
Mediterranean world. The drying up of the Sahara had pushed many peoples to
the south into sub-Saharan Africa. These were the ancestors of the Negro
peoples. They settled at first in scattered hunting-and-gathering bands,
although in some places near lakes and rivers people who fished, with a more
secure food supply, lived in larger population concentrations. Agriculture
seems to have reached these people from the Near East, since the first
domesticated crops were millets and sorghums whose origins are not African but
West Asian. The route of agricultural distribution may have gone through Egypt
or Ethiopia, which long had contacts across the Red Sea with the Arabian
peninsula. There is evidence of agriculture prior to 3000 B.C.

Once the idea of planting diffused, Africans began to develop their own
crops, such as certain varieties of rice, and they demonstrated a continued
receptiveness to new imports. The proposed areas of the domestication of
African crops lie in a band that extends from Ethiopia across the southern
Sudan to West Africa. Subsequently, other crops, such as bananas, were
introduced from Southeast Asia, and in the 16th century A.D. American crops,
such as maize and manioc, spread widely throughout Africa.

Livestock also came from outside Africa. Cattle were introduced from
Asia, as probably were domestic sheep and goats. Horses were apparently
introduced to Africa from West Asia by the Hyksos invaders of Egypt (1780-1560
B.C.) and then spread across the Sudan to West Africa. Rock paintings in the
Sahara indicate that horses and chariots were used to traverse the desert and
that by 300-200 B.C. there were trade routes across the Sahara. Horses were
adopted by peoples of the West African savanna, and later their powerful
cavalry forces allowed a number of them to carve out large empires. Finally,
the camel was introduced from Asia around the first century A.D. This was an
important innovation, because the camel's ability to thrive in harsh desert
conditions and to carry large loads cheaply made it an effective and efficient
means of transportation. The camel transformed the desert from a barrier into
a still difficult, but more accessible, route of trade and communication.

Livestock provided a living to peoples in the arid portions of the
savanna belt and the Sahara, and permitted a nomadic or seasonally moving, or
transhumant, way of life to flourish in certain inhospitable regions. In some
areas, it appears that livestock and agriculture arrived about the same time.
The spread of cattle was seriously limited in some places by the tsetse fly,
which carries a disease (sleeping sickness) dangerous to humans and especially
cattle. The tsetse flourished in wet lowlands below 3500 feet, and it severely
limited pastoralism and also the use of animals for farming and transport as a
way of life in large areas of West and central Africa.

Iron also came from West Asia, although its routes of diffusion were
somewhat different than those of agriculture. Most of Africa presents a
curious case in which societies moved directly from a technology of stone to
iron without passing through the intermediate stage of copper or bronze
metallurgy, although some early copper-working sites have been found in West
Africa. Iron had been worked in the Near East and Anatolia for at least a
thousand years before it began to penetrate into sub-Saharan Africa. The
Phoenicians carried the knowledge of iron smelting to their colonies, such as
Carthage in North Africa, and from there to their trading ports along the
coast of Morocco. By sea down the coast or by land across the Sahara, this
knowledge penetrated into the forests and savannas of West Africa during the
thousand years before Christ, or at roughly the same time that iron making was
reaching western Europe. Evidence of iron making has been found in Nigeria,
Ghana, and Mali, and iron implements seem to have slowly replaced stone ones
at a number of sites.

This technological shift could cause profound changes in the complexity
of African societies. Iron represented power. In West Africa the blacksmith
who made tools and weapons had an important place in society, often with
special religious powers and functions. Iron hoes, which made the land more
productive, and iron weapons, which made the warrior more powerful, had
symbolic meaning in a number of West African societies. Those who knew the
secrets of iron making gained ritual and sometimes political power.

Iron entered Africa by other routes as well. Iron making seems to have
traveled from the Red Sea into Ethiopia and East Africa and down the Nile from
Egypt into the Sudan where, as we have seen, large African states, such as
Meroe, were in close contact with dynastic Egypt. Meroe's contact with peoples
to the south led to the further diffusion of iron technology. By the first
century A.D., iron was known in sub-Saharan Africa, and within about a
thousand years it had reached the southern end of the continent. Iron tools
and weapons increased efficiencies in agriculture and war. In the later stages
of this story, the adoption of agriculture and the use of iron tools and
weapons were roughly simultaneous processes.

Unlike in the Americas, where metallurgy was a very late and limited
development, Africans had iron from a relatively early date, developing
ingenious furnaces to produce the high heat (1100 f) needed for production and
to control the amount of air that reached the carbon and iron ore necessary
for making iron. Except for those regions directly influenced by the great
Bronze Age civilization of Pharonic Egypt, much of Africa skipped right into
the Iron Age, taking the basic technology and adapting it to local conditions
and resources. The working of bronze was also known to Africans and by A.D.
1000 remarkably lifelike bronze sculptures of great technical virtuosity were
cast at the city-state of Ife in Nigeria by the Yoruba people.

The Bantu Dispersal

The diffusion of agriculture and later of iron was accompanied by a great
movement of people who may have carried these innovations. These people
probably originated in eastern Nigeria in West Africa. Their migration may
have been set in motion by an increase in population caused by a movement into
their homelands of peoples fleeing the desiccation of the Sahara. They spoke a
language, proto-Bantu (bantu means "the people"), which is the parent tongue
of a large number of related Bantu languages still spoken throughout
sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, about 90 percent of the languages south of a line
from the Bight of Benin on the west coast to Somalia on the east coast are
part of the Bantu family.

Why and how these people spread out into central and southern Africa
remains a mystery, but archeologists believe that at some stages their iron
weapons allowed them to conquer their hunting-and-gathering opponents, who
still used stone implements. Still, the process is uncertain, and peaceful
migration - or simply rapid demographic growth - may have also caused the
Bantu expansion.

The migrations moved first to the central Sudan and then into the forests
of West and central Africa. The rivers, and especially the Congo basin,
provided the means of movement; the migration was a long, gradual, and
intermittent process. Moving outward from central Africa, Bantu peoples
arrived at the east coast, where they contacted cattle-raising peoples of a
different linguistic tradition. By the 12th century, the Bantu speakers, the
ancestors of the Shona and Nguni peoples, pushed south of the Zambezi River
into modern Zimbabwe and eventually into South Africa.

From the study of the related Bantu languages, it is possible to learn
something about the original culture of the proto-Bantu speakers. The early
Bantu depended on agriculture and fishing. They raised goats and perhaps
cattle. They were village dwellers who organized their societies around
kinship ties. Leadership of the villages was probably in the hands of a
council of elders. The spirits of the natural world played a large role in the
lives of these people. They looked to their ancestors to help deal with those
spirits, and depended on village religious specialists to deal with calamity
and to combat witchcraft, which they greatly feared.

In about a thousand years the Bantu-speaking peoples expanded over much
of the continent, spreading their languages and cultures among the existing
populations, absorbing those original peoples and being absorbed by them. By
the 13th century A.D., cattle-raising, iron-using Bantu peoples had reached
the southern end of the continent. By that time, Black Africa's major features
were in place. A few pure hunting peoples remained, such as the Pygmies of
central Africa, but their way of life was not that of most Africans.
Agricultural and herding societies with knowledge of iron metallurgy could be
found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. While pockets of peoples still speaking
non-Bantu languages existed, such as the Khoi-Khoi and Bushmen of southern
Africa, and in East Africa the influence of Ethiopian culture was still
strong, Bantu languages predominated all over southern and central Africa and
marked the trail of one of the world's great migrations.

 

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