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School in a Book: History of Africa

We know that homo sapiens and earlier hominids evolved in the great continent of Africa. However, after the species spread to other areas of the globe, the history of the place of our origins becomes less distinct. Partly, this is due to a lack of cultural appreciation (or even avoidance of the topic), and partly, it is due to a lack of written records. In medieval Africa, though, the continent was home to as many as 10,000 different nations, tribes and kingdoms, each with their own distinct languages, customs and governmental structures. With advances in seagoing technology, trade with the Middle East and India grew rapidly. Interestingly, though civil wars were frequent, tribal success was based more on trade than on conquest during this time.

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 most of their efforts on resource extraction, including the extraction of natives for slavery, rather than settlement. 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. Settlers suffered from African diseases such as yellow fever, sleeping sickness, yaws, leprosy and malaria.


Ancient Times (3000 BCE to 500 CE)

Ancient Egypt: The first civilization in Africa, which is considered one of the greatest civilizations in history. It included multiple cities, all hugging the Nile River. It is known for its advanced medicine, astronomy and engineering; its unique polytheistic religion; its pyramids; its hieroglyphics; its papyrus paper; its use of cattle for transportation; its wheat and barley crops, which were used for beer and bread making; and its flax crops, which were used for linen and more. Egypt was briefly conquered by both Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire in turn. It thrived partly due to the predictable flood cycles of the Nile River. It had a pyramid-shaped social hierarchy, which included 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.

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.

Narmer: The ancient Egyptian king who, around 3000 BCE, united Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt and 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 of 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 of Egyptian history during which, after a time of decline, Mentuhotep restored Egypt’s greatness and fine arts and literature flourished. Though during this time Egypt invaded Nubia for gold, it remained mostly isolated. 

Egypt’s New Kingdom: The period of Egyptian history during which, after another brief decline, Egypt’s golden age took place. It is known for its aggressive policies; for its wars with the Hittites and Arameans; for its taking of Nubian slaves; for its conquering of Palestine for a time; and for its 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 and took 70 days to complete. Mummies of pharaohs were often buried in pyramids.

Pyramid: A special type of massive tomb built for the Egyptian pharaohs and the huge variety of treasures, sacred writings and food meant to accompany them into the afterlife

The Great Pyramid at Giza: The greatest of the Egyptian pyramids and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It 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 who was 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 in the early 1900s

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 collection of small city-states that arose in modern-day Sudan around 2400 BCE and that were loosely united under the rule of the pharaohs of Egypt. It is known for its iron and gold resources and its flourishing trade with Egypt and beyond.

Kingdom of Kush: The civilization that arose out of Nubia around 800 BCE and lasted till the 300s CE. It is known for gaining control of Nubia, then expanding its kingdom to parts of Ethiopia and Egypt.

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 is known for its great cities; its large monoliths; and its widespread acceptance of 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 during ancient times; for their exploitation and enslavement by Carthage; and for their camel-riding.

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; and for their rich cultural heritage, including music, dance, storytelling, and spiritual beliefs.

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. They are known for their pottery and their iron tools.

Jenne-jeno: One of the oldest known cities in subsaharan Africa, located in present-day Mali and founded around 300 CE. It is 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)

The Arab invasion: The 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 Africa, which was located near modern-day Ghana and beyond and which lasted from about the 500s CE to about the 1200s CE. It is 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; its rural class, which lived in villages; its adoption of Islam; and its taxing of trade through the area as their main source of wealth rather than production.

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

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 is 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 is 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 there, and its name comes from the word meaning “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 is known for its extensive forests; its capital, Benin City, that had wide streets, large wooden houses and walls encompassing it; its cloth, ivory, metal, palm oil, and pepper; its bronze carvings; its brass masks and carvings; its rich palace; and its ruler Oba Eware the Great.

Oba Eware the Great: One of the leaders of the Kingdom of Benin, who is known for modernizing the kingdom and for refusing to enslave prisoners or engage in the 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 is known for its peacefulness and lack of military expansion; its diplomacy with Europe; and its adoption of Western cultural traditions, including Orthodox Christianity and naming its leader “emperor” instead of “king”. It is also known for building eleven cross-shaped churches carved out of solid rock as well as the church of St. George.

The Kingdom of Mapungubwe: The kingdom considered to be the first state in southern Africa, which lasted from about 1100 CE to the 1200s CE and whose capital was Mapungubwe. It is known for its well-organized central government; its economic power; and its ivory, copper and gold resources.

The Mali Empire: The West African empire that began in the 1200s CE and absorbed the remains of the Ghana Empire. It is 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 its 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. He gave away so much gold during this trip that gold was 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 southern 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 is known for its slave trade; its large cavalry; its adoption of Islam; and its people’s frequent pilgrimages to Mecca.

The Bornu Empire: The southern 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 is known for the advantageous 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 Zulus: An ethnic group of southern Africa whose exact origins are unknown that make up one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. They might have formed as a distinct group in the early 1500s. They are known for their advanced militaristic tactics and organization and for their frequent fighting with other tribes, especially during colonial times.

The African slave trade: The enslaving and selling of approximately 13 million African natives to foreign countries, which occurred 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.

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, it controlled 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 lasted from the 1400s CE to the 1600s CE and that became the largest empire in the history of Africa. It is known for overtaking Mali and dominating the west; for its strong central government; for incorporating some Islamic religious traditions; for making Timbuktu a center of Islamic learning; 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 southern African empire that was founded around the 1600s CE and that is known for its strict class system that included the elite class called the Tutsi and the farming class called the Hutu

The Kingdom of Kongo: The central African empire that was located in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the lower Congo River and beyond that lasted from the late 1300s to the late 1800s. It is 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 then 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. They are known for fighting against the British for control of South Africa; for intimidating African tribes, including the Zulu, with guns and horses; for creating farming settlements; and for 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.

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 the phrase, “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 CE to the Present)

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

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.

African National Congress (ANC): A political party in South Africa founded in the early 1900s whose goal was and is to bring about a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society and government in the area

Desmond Tutu: A South African activist who fought apartheid, advocating for human rights and equality. An Anglican cleric and theologian, he served as the Archbishop of Cape Town in the 1980s and 90s and was the first black South African to hold the position. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nelson Mandela: A South African activist who in the 1990s became the first Black president of South Africa and whose presidency helped end apartheid. From the 1940s on, he led protests and campaigns against inequality with the African National Congress. He was imprisoned for 27 years for his political activities before being released in 1990. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.