Sub-Saharan Africa from Pre-History to 1500 A. C. E




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Sub-Saharan Africa from Pre-History to 1500 A.C.E.





  1. Pre-historic Africa

1. Regions in Africa: Sub-Saharan Africa vs. Northern Africa (inc. Nile Valley)

a. The Sahara is the greatest physical and cultural barrier

b. North settled early by Berbers

c. Sub-Saharan Africa has larger regions with many micro regions

- West Africa Forest, Sahel called Sudan, Central Africa, East Africa, and South Africa

- Each region defined by physical geography and vegetation; many micro cultures
2. North and East Africa saw first “African” civilizations

a. The Nile River: Pharaonic Egypt; Kush-Meroe (often called Nubia)

b. The Ethiopian Highlands: Axum (Aksum) or Ethiopia

c. North Africa: Carthaginian Empire, Roman and Greek civilizations

3. The Sudan

a. Sudanic region was Sahel or plains stretching across Africa south of Sahara

b. 9000 B.C.E. domestication of cattle; cultivation of cotton

c. Became home to most Sub-Saharan civilizations
4. Climatic Change

a. Prior to 5000 BCE Sahara one large inland sea surrounded by plains

b. 5000 B.C.E. development of Sahara Desert as desertification increased

c. Increasing desertification forced mass popular migration to water


d. Nile shifts to east; formation of large lakes in Central Africa that feed Nile

Regions of Africa



II. Sub-Saharan Africa: Nok Culture

A. Flourished 900 B.C.E to 200 A.C.E on Niger-Benue River


1. First Sub-Saharan civilization/culture

2. Seem to have been pastoralist, farmers

3. Could smelt iron

a. Iron tools, weapons; probably also used wood

b. Seemed to have skipped copper, bronze ages

B. Sub-Saharan Writing

1. Lacked alphabet, books

2. Lack due to termites, lack of durable medium

3. Developed oral traditional, tribal memories

a. West African griots. Memorized history by pneumonic devices. Kept all records for tribes, rulers

4. Islam brought first alphabet to Sub-Saharan Africa

III. Bantu Migrations

A. The Bantu peoples

      1. Originated in the region around modern Nigeria/Cameroon

      2. Influenced by Nok iron making, herding, agriculture

      3. Population pressure drove migrations, 2000 BCE – 700 BCE

      4. Two major movements: to south and to east and then south

      5. Languages split into about 500 distinct but related tongues

      6. Bantu agriculture and herding

  1. Early Bantu relied on agriculture – slash-burn, shifting

  2. Pastoralist, semi-nomadic due to agriculture, cattle

      1. Iron metallurgy

a. Iron appeared during the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E.

b. Iron made agriculture more productive

c. Expanded divisions of labor, specialization in Bantu societies

      1. Population Pressures

a. Iron technologies produced population upsurge

b. Large populations forced migration of Bantu


B. The Bantu Migration

1. Population pressure led to migration, c. 2000 B.C.E.

  1. Occupied most of sub-Saharan (except West) Africa by 1000 C.E.

  2. Split into groups as they migrated: Eastern, Central, Southern


2. Bantu spread iron, herding technologies as they moved
3. between 300/500 A.C.E., Malay seafarers reached Africa

  1. Settled in Madagascar, visited East African coast

  2. Brought with them pigs, taro, and banana cultivation. Bananas became well established in Africa by 500 A.C.E. Bantu learned to cultivate bananas from Malagasy. Bananas caused second population spurt, migration surge.

  3. Reached South Africa in 16th century CE


4. Population growth

3.5 million people by 400 B.C.E.

11 million by the beginning of the millennium

17 million by 800 C.E.



22 million by 1000 C.E.




4. Kingdom of Kongo

  1. Small states formed several larger principalities, 1200 C.E.

  2. One of the principalities conquered neighbors, built kingdom of Kongo

  3. Maintained a centralized government with a royal currency system

  4. Provided effective organization until the mid-17th century

  1. African Social Organization



A. Sex and gender relations


    1. Men undertook heavy labor, herding

    2. Women were responsible for child rearing, domestic chores, farming

    3. Men monopolized public authority but women could be leaders

    4. Women enjoyed high honor as the source of life

    5. Many societies were matrilineal; aristocratic women influenced public affairs

    6. Women merchants commonly traded at markets

    7. Sometimes women organized all-female military units

    8. Islam did little to curtail women's opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa


  1. Slavery in Africa

A. Structure of Slavery in Africa

      1. Most slaves were captives of war, debtors, and criminals. Kept for local use or sold in slave markets

      2. Often used as domestic laborers especially agricultural workers

      3. Generally not a social stigma attached

      4. Slaves could receive freedom, become part of family, tribe

      5. Children born to slaves were not slaves


B. Slave trading

    1. Slave trade increased after the 11th century A.C.E.

    2. Primary markets

        1. Across Sahara to North Africa and Egypt and ultimately Arabia

        2. Out of East Africa to Arabia and Middle East

    1. In some years, 10 to 12 thousand slaves shipped out of Africa

  1. Males preferred, could also act as carriers of trade goods

  2. 10 million slaves transported by Islamic trade between 750 A.C.E. and 1500 A.C.E.

    1. Demand for slaves outstripped supply from Eastern Europe

  1. Original slaves preferred in Muslim world were Caucasian Slavs

  2. Word “slave” comes from Slav

    1. Slave raids against smaller states, stateless societies

    2. Muslims could not be used as slaves (Quran) yet often ignored



VI. West African History: Ghana



A. Camels

1. Camels came to Egypt from Arabia, 7th century B.C.E.

2. Romans introduced them to North Africa, patrolled desert

a. After 500 C.E. camels replaced horses, donkeys as transport animals

3. Camels' arrival quickened pace of communication across the Sahara. Islamic merchants crossed the desert to trade in West Africa. Established relations with sub-Saharan West Africa by 8th century


B. The kingdom of Ghana

1. Kings maintained a large army of two hundred thousand warriors

2. Became the most important commercial site in West Africa

  1. Controlled gold mines, exchanged it with nomads for salt

  2. Provided gold, ivory, and slaves

  3. Wanted horses, cloth, manufactured goods






VII. Arrival of Islam in West Africa

A. North Africa

    1. Arab armies conquered region by early 8th Century; pushed up Nile

    2. Mass conversions of local inhabitants due to tax incentives


B. West Africa

    1. Introduced by Trans-Saharan Trade route

    2. Merchants were greatest contact with Islam

    3. Local rulers, elites converted by 10th century

a. Gave elites control of trade, many benefits

    1. Allowed people to observe traditional beliefs


C. North Africa

1. Nomadic Berbers in North Africa

a. Berbers and Arabs were bitter rivals

b. Arabs settled coastlands, cities

c. Berbers lived in deserts, mountains

d. Berbers became puritanical Muslim, Shia

2. Berber fanatics invaded Ghana, Morocco

  1. Ghana weakened, fell 10th century CE

3. Elite religion vs. common practices

a. Most people remained polytheists especially outside of cities, towns

b. Produced syncretic blend such as accommodation of African gender norms. After conversion by elites, old beliefs remained; part of inherited traditions

4. Religion introduced writing, literary traditions

VIII. Kingdom of Mali: West Africa


A. Mandike Peoples

1. Ghana was established by Mandika

  1. Most people were not Muslims but merchants were

2. Sundiata

  1. After Ghana dissolved, political leadership shifted to Mali empire, a Mandika state

  2. The lion prince Sundiata (reigned 1230-55) built the Mali empire

  3. Ruling elites, families converted to Islam after his death

3. The Mali Empire and trade

  1. Controlled gold, salt; taxed almost all trade passing through west Africa

  2. Enormous caravans linked Mali to North Africa

  3. Besides Niani, many prosperous cities on caravan routes

4. Mansa Musa

  1. Sundiata's grand nephew, reigned from 1312 to 1337

  2. Made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324-1325

  3. Gargantuan caravan of thousand soldiers and attendants

  4. Gold devalued 25% in Cairo during his visit

5. Mansa Musa and Islam

  1. Upon return to Mali, built mosques

  2. Sent students to study with Islamic scholars in North Africa

  3. Established Islamic schools in Mali

6. The decline of Mali

  1. Factions crippled the central government

  2. Rise of province of Gao as rival to Mali

  3. Military pressures from neighboring kingdoms, desert nomads


IX. Songhai Empire of West Africa
A. Origins

    1. Sorko fishermen of Niger became

    2. merchants

2. Joined Gao state (part of Malian Empire)

3. Mali could never collect taxes from Gao
B. Rise of the Songhai

1. Sonni Ali the Great build cavalry, war fleet

a. Disputed Mali, conquer Timbuktu

b. Anti-Muslim: saw them as a threat
C. Zenith of the Songhai Empire

1. Askia Muhammad seized power after Sonni’s death

a. Devout Muslim, promoted Islam; launched jihads

b. Visited Cairo, Mecca; promoted Songhai to Muslims

c. Declared Caliph of the Sudan

d. Built centralized state using Muslim jurists as advisors
D. Tradition and Trade

1. Maintained tribal rituals of sacred drum, sacred fire, dress

2. Privileged caste craftsmen; slaves important in agriculture

3. Traded kola nuts, gold, slaves for horses, salt, luxuries, finished goods




E. Fall of the Songhai Empire

1. Civil war erupted in 16th

century A.C.E.

2. Demographic Changes

a. Drought, desertification hurt economy

b. Diseases spread

c. Moroccan Empire invades and destroys state in order to control gold trade


X. Early East African History

A. Early visitors to east Africa


1. Egyptians visited, traded with area

2. Famous expedition of Hatshepshut to Punt

3. Indian, Persian visited after 500 B.C.E.

4. Greeks, Romans called area Azania

5. Malays established colonies on Madagascar
B. Kingdom of Axum (Aksum)

1. Sabeans of Yemen created Axum

a. Arose in highlands of Ethiopia

2. Trading state across Bab el Mandeb straits

  1. Tribute empire on land; trade gold, frankincense, myrrh, food, ivory

  2. Traded with Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Indians, Arabs

3. Built stone structures, issued own coins

4. Eventually became Monophysite Christian

  1. King Ezana converted and court followed in early 4th century

  2. Developed Ge’ez language, writing in association with Christianity

  3. Maintained strong contacts with Egypt

5. By 2nd century: Bantus populated much of East Africa

6. By 7th century: Arab merchants begin to visit

` 7. By 8th century: Muslim armies, merchants push up Nile


XI. The Swahili City-states: East Africa


A. Origins

1. Intermarriage of the Bantu and the Arab produced Swahili

a. An Arabic term, meaning "coasters"

2. Dominated east African coast from Mogadishu to Sofala

3. Swahili is a Bantu language mixed with Arabic
B. The Swahili city-states

1. Chiefs gained power through taxing trade on ports

2. Developed into city-states ruled by kings, 11th-12th centuries
C. Trade

1. Controlled trade from interior: slaves, gold, ivory, spices

a. Exchanged goods for finished goods, cloths, dyes, luxuries

b. Craftsmen, artisans, clerks were Muslims

D. Slavery

    1. Slaves used for domestic, agriculture

    2. Zanzibar clove plantations needed slaves



E. Kilwa

1. One of the busiest city-states

a. Multistory stone buildings, mosques, schools

2. Issued copper coins from the 13th century

a. By 15th century, exported ton of gold

per year

3. Merchants from India, China, Arabia visited
F. Islam in East Africa

1. Ruling elite and wealthy merchants

converted to Islamic faith

2. Conversion promoted close

cooperation with Muslim merchants.

Conversion also opened door to

political alliances with Muslim rulers

XII. Kingdom of Zimbabwe
A. South Central Africa

1. Wooded and grass savannahs

2. Rich in minerals especially copper, gold

3. Bantu herders, ironsmiths found it wonderful
B. Kingdom of Zimbabwe

    1. A powerful kingdom of Central Africa arose in 13th century

    2. From 5th centuries C.E. built wooden residences known as zimbabwe

    3. By the 9th century began to build stone zimbabwe

C. Great Zimbabwe

    1. Magnificent stone complex known as Great Zimbabwe, the 12th century

    2. 18,000 people lived in Great Zimbabwe in the late 15th century


D. Kings and wealth

1. Organized flow of gold, ivory

2. Trade include slaves

3. Counted wealth in cattle, too

4. Traded with Swahili city-states














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