School in a Book: History of Africa


Ancient History (3000 BCE to 500 CE)

Overview of Africa during ancient times: Ancient Africa was home to various important civilizations and kingdoms, including ancient Egypt, Nubia, Aksum, Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. These civilizations traded with each other and with other regions, such as the Mediterranean and Asia, exchanging goods such as gold, salt, and spices. Ancient Africa was also home to the development of writing systems, advanced agricultural techniques, and complex political systems. The Sahara Desert hindered communication between the northern and southern parts of the continent. Also, due to a lack of mountains, the rainfall was extremely unpredictable in most of Africa. Therefore, most tribes were nomadic and did not have the opportunity for settled towns and civilizations. Still, civilizations eventually began to arise in the coastal areas of Africa. These included advanced architecture, unique pyramids, and a strong trading market with routes to Asia and across Africa.

Ancient Egypt: The first civilization in Africa and one of the greatest civilizations in history. It included: multiple cities, all hugging the Nile River; farming of wheat and barley for beer and bread, flax for linen and more; advanced medicine, astronomy and engineering; a polytheistic religion; pyramids; hieroglyphics and papyrus paper; cattle for transportation; and more. Egypt was briefly conquered by Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire in turn during ancient times.

Egypt’s Upper and Lower Kingdoms: The two Egyptian kingdoms that existed before unification. The Upper Kingdom was located along the southern part of the Nile closer to the mountains, while the Lower Kingdom was located downhill at the northern part of the Nile called the Nile Delta.

Pharaoh: The ruler or king of ancient Egypt after Egyptian unification. The pharaoh eventually became thought of as a living god.

King Narmer/Menes: The ancient Egyptian king who, around 3000 BCE, united Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Narmer was the first Egyptian pharaoh. With his reign, Egypt began moving through three stages: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom.

Egypt’s Old Kingdom: The period in Egyptian history during which Narmer reigned; pyramids including the Great Pyramid at Giza were built; and the tradition of mummification began.

Egypt’s Middle Kingdom: The period in Egyptian history during which, after a time of decline, Mentuhotep restored Egypt’s greatness and fIne art and literature flourished. Though during this time Egypt invaded Nubia for gold, it remained mostly isolated. 

Egypt’s New Kingdom: The period in Egyptian history during which, after another brief decline, Egypt’s golden age took place. With a more aggressive leadership in power, Egypt took Nubian slaves; engaged in wars with the Hittites and Arameans; became known abroad; conquered Palestine; had a caste system with a wealthy noble class, a scribe/priest class, a merchant class and a peasant farmer class; had legal equality of men and women. 

Amenhotep III: The most well-known New Kingdom pharaoh, who led Egypt at its height of wealth and influence.

Mummification: The process of preserving dead bodies into very long-lasting mummies. It involved a great deal of salt and cloth wrapping. Mummies of pharaohs were often buried in pyramids. Took 70 days.

Pyramids: A special type of massive tomb built for bodies of Egyptian pharaohs as well as a variety of treasures, sacred writings and food meant to accompany them. Pyramids seem symbolic of Egyptian culture as a whole, as their culture was a strict hierarchy with the pharaoh and nobles at the top, the middle class, merchants and soldiers in the middle and the peasants and farmers making up the largest class at the bottom. They also reflected the stability of Egyptian culture, which was based on the predictable flood cycles of the Nile River.

The Great Pyramid at Giza: The greatest of the Egyptian pyramids and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Great Pyramid at Giza was made up of six million tons of stone, which may have been brought to the location on bamboo sleds.

The Valley of the Kings: A large, once-secret burial site in ancient Egypt that included many buried pyramids that once housed bodies of New Kingdom pharaohs. King Tut’s body was found there in the 1900s in a pyramid stuffed with treasure.

Mentuhotep: The first pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom who reunited Egypt after a time of political instability

Akhenaten: The Egyptian pharaoh most known for trying to change Egypt’s religious system from polytheism to monotheism. After Akhenaten died, his name was removed from monuments and records, his new capital city was abandoned, and the priests of the old gods reintroduced polytheism.

Aten: The god that Akhenaten worshiped

Cleopatra: The last pharaoh of Egypt, most known for her seductive beauty; her relationships with Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony; her influence on Roman politics; and her death by suicide

Ra: The ancient Egyptian god of the sun

Osiris: The ancient Egyptian god of the underworld

Isis: The ancient Egyptian god of fertility

King Tutenkahamen/King Tut: A New Kingdom pharaoh whose tomb, mummified remains and accompanying treasure stash were rediscovered in modern times by British archaeologist Howard Carter

The Book of the Dead: A collection of manuscripts and spells from ancient Egypt

The Rosetta Stone: An ancient stone tablet dating from around 200 BCE that features text in hieroglyphics and two other languages and which therefore played a key role in the deciphering of hieroglyphics by modern-day scholars

Nubia: The civilization that was at its peak from about [date] to [date] in the Nile River Valley in northern Africa. It is known for its iron and gold resources; its flourishing trade, especially with Egypt and beyond

Kingdom of Kush: The civilization that grew out of Nubia and was at its peak from about [date] to [date] and that was, like Nubia, known for its iron and gold

Carthage: The powerful city-state in North Africa on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea that, due to its trade with the rest of Africa, threatened both ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Carthage fought the Punic Wars against Greece and fell to Rome for a time. During Roman control, Christianity and other Western ideas spread to Africa.

Phoenicians: The people of Carthage, who were known for their excellent seamanship

Hannibal: The leader of Carthage during ancient Greek and Roman times who is known for fighting the Second Punic War against Greece and crossing the Alps instead of taking the water route to mount a surprise attack on Italy

The Aksum Empire: A wealthy empire located in the Horn of Africa that ruled from about 100 CE to about 1000 CE. It featured great cities; large monoliths; and widespread Christianity. 

The Berbers: The name given to the native people of North Africa (Morocco, Algeria and beyond) by foreigners. They are known for their trade with Carthage; their exploitation (including being taken as slaves) by Carthaginians; and for their camel-riding for purposes of trade

The Pygmies: An indigenous people who have lived in the forests of central Africa for tens of thousands of years and are known for their small physical size; their bartering culture; their forest-based spiritual beliefs; and their simple hunter-gatherer way of life

The Bantu: An indigenous people who have lived in southern and central Africa, particularly the Great Lakes region, from around 2000 BCE to the present and are known for developing powerful states like the Kingdom of Kongo and the Kingdom of Zimbabwe; for trading with the Greeks and Romans during ancient times; for their rich cultural heritage, including music, dance, storytelling, and spiritual beliefs; and more.

The Swahili: An ethnic community who has lived in coastal eastern Africa (Kenya, Uganda and beyond) from around 1000 CE to the present and are known for their mixed Arab, Persian and Bantu ethnicities due to extensive trade with these peoples; their Islamic traditions; their unique language, Swahili, a mix of Bantu and foreign languages; their exports of ivory, slaves and gold; their partial takeover by the Portugese around 1500; and more

The Zulus: A group of native southern Africans and one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. They are known for their advanced militaristic tactics and organization and for frequent fighting with other tribes, especially during colonial times

The Nok: One of the earliest known cultures of Western Africa, which thrived on the Niger River in modern-day Nigeria and beyond from about 500 BCE to about 200 CE. The Nok were known for their pottery and iron tools.

Jenne-jeno: One of the oldest known cities in subsaharan Africa, located in present-day Mali and founded around 300 CE. It was known for linking West Africa to the Mediterranean and the Sahara and for serving as an important archaeological site in modern times to further our understanding of African history

The Middle Ages (500 CE to 1500 CE)

Overview of Africa during the Middle Ages: As during ancient times, during the Middle Ages Africa was made up of as many as 10,000 different nations, tribes and kingdoms with distinct languages and customs and various government structures, including councils, chief-led rule and more. Trade with the Middle East and India, particularly in gold, salt, ivory and slaves, grew rapidly with advances in seagoing technology. Though civil wars were frequent, tribal success was based more on trade than on conquest.

The Arab invasion: An invasion of Egypt by Muslim Arabs in the mid-600s that resulted in Arab control of all of the North African coasts and the spread of Islam in this area

The Kingdom of Ghana: One of the first great empires of western African empire, which was located near modern-day Ghana and beyond and which lasted from about the 500s CE to about the 1200s CE. It was known for serving as the center of the African gold trade due to its advantageous location on the Saharan trade route; its Muslim ruling class, which lived in a town connected to the king’s residence; its divine king, which they called Ghana; and its rural class, which lived in villages; its adoption of Islam; and their taxing of trade through the area as their main source of wealth rather than production.

Kanem-Bornu: The northwestern African state that was located near Lake Chad and that lasted from about the 800s CE to about the 1800s CE. It was known for being one of the largest and longest-lasting states in African history; for its wealth and power; for its control over the trans-Saharan trade routes that linked West Africa to North Africa and the Mediterranean; and for its sophisticated political, administrative, and cultural practices and systems.

Great Zimbabwe: The southern African empire located on the Zimbabwe Plateau that lasted from the 900s CE to the 1400s. It was known for replacing Mapungubwe; for its stone structures built entirely without mortar, including the wall of the Great Enclosure; for its gold; for its luxurious royal court; and for its trade with its contemporary, Kilwa. About 1430 impressive stone buildings were erected at Great Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe means stone building.

The Kingdom of Benin: The western African empire that was located in present-day Nigeria and beyond and that lasted from the 1000s to the 1400s, then became the Benin Empire and lasted till almost 1900 CE. It was known for its extensive forests; its capital, Benin City, that had wide streets, large wooden houses and walls encompassing it; its bronze carvings; its cloth, ivory, metal, palm oil, pepper, brass masks and carvings and pottery; its rich palace; its ruler Oba Eware the Great, who modernized and didn’t enslave prisoners or engage in slave trade, which protected it from European colonization for a time.

The Ethiopian Empire: The eastern African empire located in modern-day Ethiopia and beyond that lasted from the 1100s CE to the 1500s CE. It was known for its adoption of Orthodox Christianity; its emperor; its eleven cross-shaped churches carved out of solid rock; its lack of military expansions; its diplomacy with Europe; and its church of St. George.

The Kingdom of Mapungubwe: The first state in Southern Africa, which lasted from about 1100 CE to about [date] and whose capital was Mapungubwe. It was known for its ivory, copper and gold.

The Mali Empire: The West African empire that began in the 1200s CE; absorbed the remains of the Ghana Empire. It was known for its salt and gold trade; its thriving agriculture including sorghum, millet and rice; its animal husbandry; its gradual conversion to Islam; its governmental system wherein the farma (leaders of villages) paid tribute to the mansa (the ruler); its book trade and culture of learning and literacy.

Mansa Musa: The Mali ruler during the 1300s CE who is known for his pilgrimage to Mecca with 500 slaves, each holding a bar of gold. Mansa Musa gave away so much gold during this trip that gold devalued in Egypt for over a decade. His expedition increased trade in Africa and influenced thinking about Africa across the Middle East and Europe. He was one of the richest people in history.

Timbuktu: A busy trading city in Mali where salt, horses, gold, and slaves were sold

The Kanem Empire: The South African empire that was located in the Chad Basin and beyond, at times including parts of Nigeria and South Sudan and that lasted from the 800s CE to the 1300s CE. It was known for its slave trade; its large cavalry; its adoption of Islam; its frequent pilgimages to Mecca

The Bornu Empire: The South African empire that was located in the Chad Basin and beyond; that lasted from about the 1300s CE to about 1900 CE; and that replaced the Kanem Empire. It was known for the advantagous location of its capital, Bornu; for its modernized military; for its friendly relations with the Ottoman Empire; and for being the first empire south of the Sahara to import firearms.

Early Modern Times (1500 CE to 1900 CE)

The African slave trade: The enslaving and selling of African natives to foreign countries, which occurred in large numbers from the 1500s to the 1800s. Some Africans were captured in raids from their homelands, while others were sold by their own people. Britain and some U.S. states banned the slave trade in the early 1800s, while other U.S. states continued using slaves through the late 1800s.

Colonization: The forceful takeover of a nation by a foreign power. The Portugese began their colonization of Africa in the 1500s, and was quickly followed by several other Western powers (particularly Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands) until, by the early 1900s, most of Africa had been claimed. Colonizers focused their efforts on resource extraction, including the extraction of natives for slavery. Settlers suffered from African diseases such as yellow fever, sleeping sickness, yaws, leprosy and malaria.

The Middle Passage: The route taken by slave ships through the Atlantic Ocean between Europe, Africa and the Americas

Dutch East India Company: A Netherlands-based trading company that effectively governed colonized lands and managed trade there. For a time, they inhabited the Gold Coast (particularly Ghana) of Africa in order to trade for gold. It founded Cape Town in southern Africa.

The Kingdom of Songhai: The western African empire that that replaced Mali in the 1500s CE; that lasted from the 1400s CE to the 1600s CE; that was built by the Songhai people, who first established a capital in the 800s CE; and that became the largest empire in the history of Africa. It was also known for its Islamic religious traditions; for making Timbuktu a center of Islamic learning; for its strong central government; and for the descriptions of it by Roman historian Leo Africanus

Sunni Ali: The Songhai ruler that, in the 1400s CE, expanded the Kingdom to become the largest in Africa’s history. He captured Timbuktu and took control of the Saharan trade route for gold and salt. He was disliked by some for not being a Muslim.

The Kingdom of Rwanda: The South African empire that was founded around the 1600s CE that was known for its class system including the elite class of Tutsi and its farming class called the Hutu as well as its strict laws and social norms around interaction between these classes.

The Kingdom of Kongo: The African empire that was located in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the lower Congo River and beyond and that lasted from the late 1300s to the late 1800s. It was known for its fertile soil; its good military organization; its artworks, including metalwork, pottery, weaving and musical instruments; its adoption of maize and cassava from the Portugese, which spread across Africa; its strong centralized rule; and its early adoption of Christianity.

The Boers: Dutch settlers of southern Africa, particularly South Africa, during colonial times. The Boers were known for fighting against the British for control of South Africa, retreating further inland in order to retain their settlements there; intimidating African tribes, including the Zulu, with guns and horses; farming; and playing a key role in the establishment and maintenance of Apartheid.

Scramble for Africa: The colonization and partitioning of most of Africa by seven Western European powers in negotiations that took place from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Negotiations did not include African governmental leaders. Tribal and national boundaries were redrawn arbitrarily, resulting in the breakup of many ethnic groups in Africa. European motives included prestige and natural resources. Areas that were settled by a significant number of Westerners included Algeria (by the French), South Africa (by several nations), Kenya (by the British) and more.

Dr. David Livingstone: A popular British missionary, anti-slavery activist and explorer of the interior of Africa who sought the source of the Nile. He was in turn sought after by by journalist Henry Stanley, who is said to have greeted him when they met in central Africa with “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

The Boer Wars: The wars fought between the British, the Zulus and the Boers in the late 1800s for control of Cape Colony in South Africa

Cecil Rhodes: The British Prime Minister of Cape Colony of South Africa who sought to unite all of Africa under British rule

The Suez Canal: A man-made waterway in Egypt created in the late 1800s that connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, allowing ships to bypass the lengthy and dangerous trip around the African continent and providing a greatly shortened route from the West to India and the Far East. In the late 1800s, Britain took advantage of a financial crisis involving its previous owners (France and Egypt) and bought 50 percent of the shares.

The Modern Era (1900 to the Present)

Overview of Africa in the modern era:

Africa in the 20th century was marked by colonization, independence movements, civil wars, and attempts at economic and political development. At the start of the century, almost all of Africa was under European colonial rule. The continent was divided and controlled by various European powers, with little regard for African cultural and political borders. Throughout the mid-20th century, African countries began to fight for independence from colonial rule. This was a time of intense political struggle, with many leaders, such as Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, leading the way towards independence. Despite independence, many African countries faced internal conflict and civil wars in the latter part of the 20th century, often due to ethnic or political divisions. This included countries such as Sudan, Somalia, and Rwanda. In the latter part of the 20th century, Africa faced numerous challenges in its attempts to achieve economic and political stability. Issues such as poverty, disease, and corruption have continued to hinder progress, but there have also been notable successes, such as the establishment of democratic systems of government in some countries. The 20th century also saw the growth of Pan-Africanism, a movement aimed at unifying African countries and promoting the interests of African people on a global stage. This has resulted in the establishment of organizations such as the African Union, which aims to promote cooperation and development across the continent.

Africa’s role during World War I: Africa played a significant role in World War I, both as a theater of conflict and as a source of troops and resources for the European powers involved in the war. German colonies in Africa, such as present-day Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi, were occupied by Allied forces during the war. African troops from French and British colonies fought in various theaters of the war, including on the Western Front in Europe and in the Middle East. Africa was also a source of valuable resources, including minerals, rubber, and agricultural products, which were exploited by the European powers to support their war efforts. The war had far-reaching impacts on Africa, including the redrawing of borders and the imposition of harsh economic policies by the European colonial powers, which contributed to further exploitation of the continent.

Africa’s role during World War II: Africa played a crucial role in World War II, both as a theater of conflict and as a source of troops and resources for the Allied powers. Several key battles were fought in North Africa, including the Battle of El Alamein, which was a turning point in the war in the region. Africa was a major source of troops for both the Allied and Axis powers, with hundreds of thousands of African soldiers and laborers serving in various capacities, including in combat. Africa was also a source of valuable resources, including minerals and agricultural products, which were exploited to support the war effort. The war had a profound impact on Africa, including increased anti-colonial sentiment, the emergence of new leaders and political movements, and the acceleration of decolonization.

The decolonization of Africa: The gradual process of African nations regaining independence from colonial powers, which took place primarily during the middle part of the 1900s

African National Congress (ANC): A political party in South Africa founded in the early 1900s whose goal is to bring about a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society and government in that area. As the current ruling party in South Africa, it focuses on issues of social and economic equality, reducing corruption and improving education and healthcare.

Desmond Tutu: A South African Anglican cleric and theologian; an activist against apartheid; and a strong advocate for human rights and equality. He served as the Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996 and was the first black South African to hold the position. Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his role in the anti-apartheid movement. He has continued to speak out on issues of social justice and human rights around the world and remains a respected and influential figure in South Africa and beyond.

Apartheid: Apartheid was a system of racial segregation and discrimination that was implemented in South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990s. Under apartheid, the white minority government of South Africa enforced a series of laws that created separate living areas, schools, and public facilities for black, white, and other racial groups. The laws also restricted the movement and rights of black South Africans, including limiting their political participation. The apartheid system was widely condemned as a violation of human rights and faced widespread opposition, both within South Africa and internationally. The anti-apartheid movement, led by Nelson Mandela and others, eventually succeeded in ending the apartheid system and establishing a multi-racial democracy in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela: Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as the country’s first black president from 1994 to 1999. He was born in 1918 and became involved in the African National Congress (ANC) in the 1940s, leading protests and campaigns against the apartheid regime. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for his political activities before being released in 1990. He continued to lead the ANC in negotiations with the government, which resulted in the end of apartheid and the establishment of a multi-racial democracy in South Africa. Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.


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