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date: 17 January 2019


Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Jesse Benjamin


Africa is the second-largest continent on earth and home to the longest continuous human occupations. It is the site of both hominid and human origins and the location of perhaps the earliest known Neolithic civilizational social complexes as well. Although most modern historical accounts have downplayed Africa and Africans, a wide range of research and evidence from across the social and physical sciences has overturned such omissions and begun to restore Africa to its proper place in the annals of human history. Many longentrenched theories have been called into question or become the subject of vociferous debate as the result of new evidence.

Origins of the Name Africa

The use of the word Africa to describe the whole of the continent needs some clarification. Applied to any time from the earliest human origins until the rise of the Roman Empire, the word is an anachronism, a modern designation transplanted to eras when other terminology was in use. The conventional usage will be followed here, however, largely because the other, older names originating both inside and outside the continent have changed too many times to fully recount in such a short space and would prove confusing to most readers.

There is robust debate about the etymological origins of the term Africa, but it is widely accepted that at one early stage it referred to the North African coast in the region that in the modern era includes Tunisia and some of neighboring Libya. The Romans referred to this area as Africa terra, “land of the Afri” (plural of “Afer”) and, after much rivalry with the polity there, centered in the great capital of Carthage, eventually annexed it as the Roman province of Africa.

Some believe that the name Africa derived from the Greek word aphrike, meaning “land without cold or horror,” but linguistic evidence about the shift in Greek usage of ph for f has cast doubt on this explanation. Other possible origins include the Phoenician afar, or “dust”; the Latin aprica, or “sunny”; and, perhaps most convincingly, the names of Afridi or Berber tribes of the region, for whom plausible etymological connections can be maintained.

Hominid and Human Origins

Scientific discoveries in several fields provide strong evidence that not only the first hominids but also the first human beings lived in Africa and that all people alive are descended from a relatively small group of ancestors living on the African continent. It has long been thought that Africa witnessed the earliest steps in human evolution, but excavations at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first pushed the dates back almost twice as far as was thought possible only a few years earlier. New techniques, new finds, and especially digs in areas insufficiently or never before explored revolutionized the field—though they perhaps sparked more new debates rather than fully solving previously unanswered mysteries.

For decades hominid development was thought to have diverged from that of other African primates with the emergence of Australopithecus, a bipedal human precursor with enlarged apelike brain casings that were still only one-third of modern human averages, roughly 4 million years ago (mya). Genetics, comparative morphological analyses, and related disciplines then converged on the hypothesis that hominids probably diverged from African apes about 6 to 7 mya. The intervening years, nearly half of the time hominids have existed, were largely shrouded in mystery until a series of exciting discoveries in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Chad shed light on this period. In the Awash region of Ethiopia, Ardipithecus ramidus was uncovered, dating to 4.5 to 5.5 mya. Then, Orrorin tugenensis was discovered in Kenya, dating to 6 mya (although debate exists as to whether this was a terrestrial biped or simply another species of arboreal ape). Most spectacularly, in 2001 and 2002 fossils later designated Sahelanthropus tchadensis were uncovered in northern Chad, dating to 6 to 7 mya and bearing mixed ape-human characteristics of clear hominid style. Another possible predecessor, Samburupithecus, was dated to more than 8 mya, although specialists debate whether it represents a direct human ancestor or a separate line of parallel evolutionary development and whether it was a hominid as opposed to an ape. Indeed, similar questions apply, to a greater or lesser extent, to all these new discoveries. However, there are strong reasons, such as skull morphological characteristics, to believe that Ardipithecus and Sahelanthropus were both hominids, potentially extending the human line back in time almost twice as far as Australopithecus.

Starting about 2.4 mya, the human genus Homo emerges in the African fossil record with Homo habilis, marked by a pronounced increase in brain size. H. habilis lived in Africa for about 1 million years. Homo erectus, ranging from 1.8 to 0.3 mya, exhibited an almost modern brain size and migrated across the world, from Africa to Asia, Europe, and the Indonesian archipelago. Hominids continued to become more gracile, with larger average brain capacities, until Homo sapiens emerged in the last 500,000 years. Fully modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, arose in Africa and then parts of Asia about 150,000 years ago and probably less than 50,000 years ago in Europe.

As with the origins of hominids, ideas about human origins underwent important revision in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Until 2003 the oldest specimens, from Africa and Israel, dated to 100,000 years ago, but in that year Tim White unearthed several skulls in Ethiopia that dated to between 154,000 and 160,000 years ago. Many scientists regarded this historic find as strong evidence for the “out of Africa” hypothesis, which postulates that modern humans migrated from Africa across the world and displaced existing archaic human species between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. White himself went on to designate his find as an intermediate species, H. sapiens idaltu, and research in coming years is sure to expand this debate. At any rate, this second great African diaspora (the first being that of H. erectus) would indicate that human populations diverged only recently into distinct regions and into the semidistinct phenotypes associated in modernity with the social construction of “race.”

A different hypothesis, however, generally referred to as “multiregionalism,” suggests that H. sapiens might have evolved over a period of more than 2 million years, with some interbreeding between populations on the three Old World continents. New forms of evidence collection, such as mitochondrial DNA testing, has shown Neanderthals—long known to European archaeology and often postulated as human precursors, fixing human origins in Europe rather than Africa—to be unrelated to modern humans. This finding has bolstered the “out of Africa” theory, but advocates of multiregional theory continue to pose important questions. The debate is far from resolved, even or perhaps particularly in the explosive new area of genetics.

Modern Humans and the Rise of Agriculture in Africa

From at least 90,000 years before the present (ybp), Homo sapiens sapiens began to produce art—cave and rock paintings, beadwork, and other decorative material remains. By 30,000 ybp humans were extensively using carved bone tools, living in wood and fossilized-bone frame houses, hunting many medium-size and a few large animal species, fishing extensively with spears and eventually basket traps, using carrying bags, and creating jewelry. People had definitively shifted from being the hunted to becoming the hunters. Art increased in prevalence and included small carved animal statues and items that were probably calendars.

The Sahara, also referred to in part or in whole as the Sudan or Sahel, is the world's largest desert and was a well-watered region from 12,000 to 7,500 years ago, with the full complement of African flora and fauna seen today primarily south of the equator. Exploiting its rich fertility and numerous rivers and lakes, a highly advanced and specialized fishing culture developed throughout this region as early as 20,000 years ago and often traded with peoples living in adjacent but differentiated climatic regions, such as the Ethiopian highlands. It was in this society, and in its burgeoning trade and social contacts, that some of the first steps anywhere in the world were taken toward the development of the Neolithic cultural complexes known generally as civilization: domesticated agriculture and animals, substantial settled centers, social hierarchies, specialized religious leaders, technological advances, and the development of writing and record keeping.

Much debate remains, but the widely held notion that civilization began in the Mesopotamian river valleys of Southwest Asia and spread out from there has come into question. Some of this debate turns on what is recognized as civilization and what counts as domestication, but many scholars believe that either the world was witness to simultaneous and parallel development of these forms of advanced social organization or the Sudan-Ethiopia nexus was indeed the earliest in the world.

Excavations in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries increasingly supported the latter view, and a new perspective emerged that might explain the apparently sudden and decisive development of civilizational culture in the Mesopotamian region that eventually became Iraq. It was suggested that these cultural forms and technologies arrived as a package in the Persian Gulf from East African settlers traveling by boat. This hypothesis would take the old notion of a Fertile Crescent—stretching along the biblical route supposedly taken by Abraham from southern Iraq through the Kurdish highlands and finally down into the fertile Levant of modern Lebanon and Palestine-Israel—and turn it into more of a Fertile Circle, starting near the sources of the Nile River, spreading to the Persian Gulf, then along the Fertile Crescent route, and finally down into Egypt and the other end of the Nile. Excavations and adjunct research in formerly archaeologically unexplored regions of Africa promise to further the understanding of these processes and their chronological order.

Knowledge of this earliest civilizational period comes largely through a combination of linguistics and burgeoning archaeological excavation. Afro-Asiatic speakers, including the Cushitic speakers from whom Middle Eastern populations descended, developed what is termed the Erythraean agripastoral tradition in the Red Sea hills of eastern Africa. It included domestication of the earliest cattle in the world and grain-seed collection to produce flour. This cultural complex spread north toward Egypt and west across much of northern Africa. Nilo-Saharan speakers along the middle Nile developed the Sudanese agripastoral tradition, hunting large antelope, fishing in lakes and rivers, and copying the seed collection of their neighbors, leading to the collection (by 10,000 bce) and the early domestication (by 8000 bce) of sorghum. Sophisticated pottery and the domestication of cattle had equally early dates here, and finger millet, beans, gourds, black-eyed peas, groundnuts, cotton, and melons soon followed. Goats and sheep, domesticated in Southeast Asia, were also added, attesting to early interregional contacts.

In West Africa, dates of domestication have also moved back in time, and it now appears that Niger-Kongo speakers domesticated yams by 8000 bce and thereafter added peas, groundnuts, guinea fowls, oil palms, raffia, and kola nuts. Later Bantu migrations, starting at least 2,500 ybp, spread these technologies, together with ironworking, throughout most of the southern continent. Khoisan speakers of southern and eastern Africa preceded the Bantu expansion; their sophisticated stone tool technologies for hunting were so successful that agriculture was simply not needed. Eventually, these people were absorbed as specialists into expanding Bantu societies and remain in isolation only in southwestern Africa, where desert conditions precluded agriculture.

Egypt, Nubia, and Early African Kingdoms

About 5,500 ybp a drying regional climate, coupled with increasing cultural complexity, led to the concentration of agricultural communities along the Nile floodplains and the development of large and highly sophisticated social entities, perhaps the first state and empire systems in the world. Earlier Nubian social systems moved north toward the central and upper Nile regions, and a long, illustrious succession of Egyptian dynasties took shape. About 3100 bce, King Narmer united Egypt into what is known as the dynasties of Ancient Egypt. From ca. 2575 to 2134 bce the Old Kingdom dynasties ruled over Egypt, during which period the Great Pyramid of Giza was built as a tomb for the ruler Khufu. It is the only one of the so-called Seven Wonders of the ancient world that still exists. Scholars assumed it was built using slave labor until postcolonial Egyptian archaeologists began their own excavations in the area and learned that the opposite was in fact true: the pyramids probably were built by free people who contributed their labor out of a sense of civic duty to the state and their pharaoh king. Agricultural complexity, based on irrigation, increased greatly during these early dynasties, as did animal husbandry. Government tax collectors and scribes developed hieroglyphics, probably the first written language in the world.

The rise of the Middle Kingdom, from ca. 2040 to 1640 bce, reunited Egypt after a period of famine and decentralization. Trade was now in the hands of merchants rather than the state, reaching the Red Sea coasts of the fabled land called Punt, as well as the interior of Central Africa, beyond Nubia. South Asian Hyksos invasions then briefly disrupted Egyptian rule, until Ahmose I reunited Egypt, founding the first in a series of dynasties known as the New Kingdom, which lasted from 1550 to 1070 bce Giant statues and temples, such as the massive Temple of Luxor and the many structures found in the Valley of the Kings, marked this era, even more so than the pyramids of earlier eras. Centralized standing armies came into fashion, and the empire expanded to the south and the northeast. Eventually, Palestine and Nubia asserted their independence, and the period of great dynasties terminated.

Nubian societies along the upper Nile had preceded and persisted throughout the Egyptian dynasties. They now flourished around a vibrant global trade and intensive agricultural production, first in the state of Kush, with Napata as its capital. In the last centuries bce, Meroe became the Nubian capital, centered on massive industrial iron production and exports. This iron technology had entered North Africa with the Southwest Asian invasions of the Hyksos, but farther south, in East and Central Africa, independent iron technology emerged at the same time as that of the Middle East, if not earlier. Once again, notions of technological diffusions into Africa from neighboring peoples have been overturned by scientific discoveries, as in the work of the Kenyan archaeologist Chapurukha Kusimba on the origins of iron technology in Africa.

The yam-planting traditions of West Africa, meanwhile, continued to develop in complexity, adding specialized rice production (later transported to the Carolinas by slaves in the modern era), cotton, and dried fish to their culture, as well as sophisticated woodworking and ironworking. In the middle of the last millennium bce, the ironworking culture known as Nok was producing its famed terracotta clay heads. By at least 4,000 ybp the Bantu migrations into the forests of Central Africa had begun; the Bantu probably traveled the many rivers and lakes by dugout canoe, spreading the unique complex of West African traditions throughout the continent before the turn of the first millennium ce. Fusions were achieved with Cushitic, Sudanic, and Khoisan speakers whom the Bantu encountered as they went, and the ancestors of modern African Bantu-speaking societies came to occupy their modern-era locations mostly by the middle of the first millennium ce.

African Global Trade and Classical Civilizations

In the Ethiopian highlands and at the coast of the Red Sea, a complex civilization flourished from before 500 bce to the dawn of the second millennium, with a capital eventually located in the city of Aksum. The region developed its own language and continued to perfect its unique agricultural complex, including coffee, which originated here, competing with and then eclipsing Meroe as the central trade hub of much of Africa, southern Asia, and the Indian Ocean. The trans-Saharan trade routes had more regularly linked successive West African kingdoms with North Africa and Iberia, and also West Africa with the Nile and East Africa. Trade was also well established by this time throughout the Mediterranean, with the Phoenicians, among Egypt, Nubia, and the Red Sea coasts, and along the length of the East African coast and the Indian Ocean and its islands.

Greece conquered Egypt in 332 bce, and debate continues about the degree to which Egypt was drawn into the Mediterranean or Greece was drawn into Africa, though both are certainly true. Alexandria thrived as a great trade and cultural center, and Greece instituted the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled until the Roman conquest three hundred years later. North Africa then became a series of Roman provinces providing grain and other produce. The ancient city of Carthage, founded before 800 bce, had rivaled Rome in significance for centuries but finally fell to it in 146 bce. In the first centuries ce, Christianity spread to Egypt, Nubia, the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum, and Berber North Africa before being officially adopted by Rome. Like Judaism several millennia earlier and Islam six centuries later, this monotheistic religion was, from its inception, rooted in African as much as in Eurasian culture and geography.

In The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, written in the first century ce, Greek travelers recorded the existence of highly developed trade at the East African port city of Rhapta, the location of which is in dispute. The region was already the site of iron production, trade with other regions of Africa and the Indian Ocean, and settlements diffusing in from the Indonesian archipelago with boat technology, modern chickens, and the xylophone, which became the African thumb piano. A vast Swahili civilization flourished in a series of towns and cities from Mogadishu and Lamu in the north to latter-day South Africa, Mozambique, and Madagascar in the south. Towns traded with one another and funneled East African products, such as the gold of Zimbabwe, to Mediterranean and Asian outlets, receiving porcelain and other goods in return. It is believed that the early cities, which developed complex multistoried stone architecture before the eighth century, brought together in various combinations Bantu-speaking farmers, Cushitic- and Nilotic-speaking pastoralists, Indonesian immigrants in the south, and sporadic Asian and North African traders and visitors. The impressive stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe reflect an example of an interior cattle-keeping African people oriented in part toward this coastal society and its trade, focused in this case on gold and, to a lesser extent, animal products, such as ivory and skins. The Bantu-based language of Swahili, still one of Africa's widest-used vernaculars into the twenty-first century, fused Arabic and other loan words in a culture often oriented around intensive dhow-based fishing, export trade, and other boat-centered activities.

AntiquityClick to view larger

Lucius Septimius Severus

was born in Africa in AD 146 and reigned as emperor from 193 to 211. He is shown here in a Roman bust in the Capitoline Museum. The triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus, which still stands in the Roman forum, was built during his lifetime to commemorate his military victories. Nimatallah/Art Resource, N.Y.

The spread of sorghum to India by 2000 bce attests to the validity of the apprehension held by W. E. B. Du Bois and other Pan-African scholars that ancient contacts and influences from Africa to Asia were ubiquitous. Further, Pan-Africanist scholars spoke of ancient articulations of West and East Ethiopia, referring to Ethiopia or Africa generally on the one hand, and the Middle East and South Asia on the other. It is only in the modern era that strict boundaries for the African continent have been drawn, attempting to exclude Greece, Rome, Palestine, Israel, the Levant, the Iberian Peninsula, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Baghdad, the Persian Gulf, and even India, Indonesia, and beyond from consideration as part of the African world or its cultural diasporas. Exciting new discoveries, reflecting the emerging perspectives of postcolonial African scholars and their colleagues, are largely vindicating the views of the early Pan-Africanists.

See also Africa, Idea of; African Diaspora; Language; and Race, Theories of.


Brain, C. K. The Hunters or the Hunted? An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. Classic archaeological text, with copious illustrations, that debunked the “man the hunter” theory and showed early humans to have actually been the hunted.Find this resource:

Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: Precolonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa, an Archaeological Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. An important synthesis, in readable but detailed format.Find this resource:

Diop, Cheikh Anta. Precolonial Black Africa: A Comparative Study of the Political and Social Systems of Europe and Black Africa, from Antiquity to the Formation of Modern States. Translated by Harold J. Salemson. Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1987. One of Diop's many important works that challenge colonial dismissals of Africa by analyzing the continent as a whole and through a variety of early periods.Find this resource:

Du Bois, W. E. B. The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History. Enl. ed., with new writings on Africa, 1955–1961. New York: International, 1965. A great general text, written during the colonial era, collecting global African history into a synthesis that remains accurate and provocative.Find this resource:

Ehret, Christopher. An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 b.c. to a.d. 400. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988. Major fusion, the first of its kind for the African continent, combining linguistic and archaeological evidence.Find this resource:

Gillon, Werner. A Short History of African Art. London: Penguin, 1984. Good overview from earliest cave and rock art to the modern era, with maps and copious illustrations.Find this resource:

Harris, Joseph E., ed. Africa and Africans As Seen by Classical Writers. William Leo Hansberry African History Notebook Series, vol. 2. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1977. Presents Hansberry's prescient perspectives on Ethiopia and “sub-Saharan” history generally. Hansberry was one of the first scholars of Africa to move beyond ancient Egypt as a focus.Find this resource:

Iliffe, John. Africans: The History of a Continent. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Acclaimed synthesis of African history from earliest origins to the South African elections of 1994.Find this resource:

Keita, Maghan. Race and the Writing of History: Riddling the Sphinx. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Reviews the epistemological and racial basis of the construction of knowledge about Africa and some of the great African American scholars who transformed modern approaches to this history.Find this resource:

Kusimba, Chapurukha M. The Rise and Fall of Swahili States. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1999. A detailed account of East African coastal history, with important explanations of irontechnology, urban origins, and coast-interior relations.Find this resource:

Kusimba, Sibel Barut. African Foragers: Environment, Technology, Interactions. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2003. Groundbreaking synthesis and reappraisal of African gatherer-hunters from ancient to modern times.Find this resource:

Shaw, Thurstan, et al., eds. The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals, and Towns. New York: Routledge, 1993. One of the largest and most important collections of essays by leading scholars in the archaeology of African history.Find this resource:

Jesse Benjamin