Understanding Africa and the events that shaped its destiny begins with the evolution of humans and traces Africa’s history through ages and empires, to modern times.

Understanding Africa


CHAPTER 1  Prehistory

From the formation of the African continent, beginning as far back as 270 million years ago, to the evolution of homo sapiens, the coming of the Stone Age and the dawn of civilisation.

CHAPTER 2:   Early Civilisations

The growth and development of Africa’s first civilisations - Ancient Egypt, Nubia, Mero? Nepata and Carthage - plus the continent’s “cradles of agriculture" and the coming of the Iron Age.

CHAPTER 3: The First Millennium AD

Rome’s North African legacy. The rise and fall of two great empires: Aksum and Ancient Ghana. Christianity and Islam sweep across the continent, while a new trading society emerges on the east African coast: the Swahili.

CHAPTER 4: The Great Divide

As the second millennium unfolds new African empires rise and fall: Somalia, Sudan, Mali, Songhai, Kanem-Bornu, Oyo, Benin, Abomey and Asante. Meanwhile, the Islamic world is beset by internal strife. In Europe a re-birth of learning prompts Portugal’s ‘Voyages of Discovery?and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

CHAPTER 5: Terra Incognito

From myth, legend and prejudice to map-making and discovery; from the first tentative European settlements, to armies and occupation, and from coastal markets to a continental trading network.

CHAPTER 6: The Colonial Period

From indifference to imperialism; from explorers to expropriators. In the second half of the 19th century Europe turns its attention to the African continent and the Scramble for Africa begins. Europe’s most powerful nations redraw the map of Africa sharing out the spoils amongst themselves.

CHAPTER 7: Modern Africa Emerges

From 1920 to the present day; from the post-war period to the Cold War; from boom to bust; from independence and optimism to pessimism and decline and from Africa’s ‘Big Men?to globalisation, Aids and the African Renaissance.


Understanding Africa aims to give a readable and accurate account of the events that created the Africa we know today. It is not an academic treatise on the history of Africa over the last eight million years, but an overview of the forces that shaped Africa’s destiny through the ages and it is intended to appeal to anyone who has an interest in this vast and amazing continent.

  It must be remembered, however, that there is no one ‘Africa? North Africa, West Africa, East Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, are quite different both geographically and culturally. The histories of these diverse regions, though sometimes intertwined, are different too.

  For many people the word ‘Africa?conjures up images of starvation and poverty, of failed states and civil war, and there is no doubt that, taken as a whole, the continent has been grossly mismanaged over the last fifty years ?and continues to be so. Some responsibility for this unfortunate state of affairs must be placed at the feet of the colonial powers who abandoned the continent with such unseemly haste during the latter half of the 20th century, but Africa’s leaders, both past and present, also have much for which to answer.

  In the midst of so much Afro-pessimism it is easy to forget that the continent has a rich and compelling history filled with impressive civilisations, great leaders and powerful kingdoms.

Rob Marsh

October 2013


  Africa is the second largest continent after Asia and covers about one-fifth of the Earth’s surface. In ancient times, the northern coastal belt and hinterland that bordered on the Mediterranean Sea was called Libya by the Greeks. It was the Romans who first called the continent Africa, the name being derived either from the Latin aprica, which means ‘sunny?or on the Greek aphrike, which means ‘without cold? During the Roman occupation of North Africa, the Romans also allegedly referred to the settlements inland of the coast as ‘the land of Afrigs? the Afrigs being the name they gave to a Berber community that lived to the south of Carthage.

  The modern history of Africa is well documented, but many of the pre-colonial societies, particularly those found to the south of the Sahara Desert, were not literate until fairly recent times and this creates a number of problems for anyone wishing to reconstruct the history of the continent. When considering the very ancient past, the challenges are even greater because the anthropological record is sketchy, which means that some of the inferences and conclusions that scientists draw are little more than informed guesswork. It is generally accepted, for example, that modern humans evolved in Africa and there is a considerable body of research to support this assumption, but it must be remembered that the study of evolution is not a perfect science and the physical evidence is limited to say the least.

  Modern humans ?Homo sapiens ?have probably existed for between 50 000 and 100 000 years and pre-modern humans, our direct ancestors, for about 100 000 years before that. This means that, in comparison to the history of planet Earth, the entire chronicle of humankind is nothing more than the blink of an eye.

  Nevertheless, the African continent has a rich and compelling story to tell; it is a saga that began far back in the dim mists of the ancient past...


  When our story begins there was a supercontinent called Pangea. This supercontinent was formed about 270 million years ago and was a colossal landmass covering about one-third of the Earth’s surface.  It was surrounded by an enormous ocean named Panthalassa. During the Jurassic Period about 200 million years ago, Pangea began to separate into two parts ?Laurasia to the north and Gondwana to the south.

  Over the eons that followed Laurasia and Gondwana also began to break up to form the continents we know of today. Laurasia separated to form North America, Greenland, Europe and most of Asia north of the Himalaya Mountains, and Gondwana split up to form South America, India, Australia, Antarctica and Africa.

  It was about 120 million years ago that the section of Gondwana we now call Africa began its migration southwards away from the ‘mother mass? Moving at a rate of between two and ten millimetres per year it took a further 100 million years for the continent to become fully formed. In other words, the Africa that we know of today has only existed for about 20 million years.

  Although more hominins ?ape men ?have been found in Africa than anywhere else in the world, very few dinosaurs, particularly those from the Cretaceous Period (145 million to 65 million years ago), which is the last period of the dinosaur era, have been found on this continent. As a result, most of what scientists know about dinosaurs comes from evidence unearthed in North America and Asia and up until fairly recently it was thought that it was only on Laurasia and Gondwana that dinosaurs evolved differently. However, discoveries made in the Kem Kem region of the Moroccan Sahara in the 1990s by a team of palaeontologists led by Dr Paul Sereno from the University of Chicago have led to a revision of this theory.

  Sereno and his team made two significant discoveries in 1995 when they unearthed the remains of two dinosaurs which they subsequently named Carcharodontosaurus saharicus, or “shark-toothed reptile from the Sahara?and Deltadromeus agilis, or “agile delta runner? which was first unearthed by Gabrielle Lyon, Sereno’s wife.

  Carcharodontosaurus, which is Africa’s answer to Tyrannosaurus, possessed a massive skull 1.6 metres long containing rows of vicious eight-centimetre long teeth. This creature, which was estimated to be about 14 metres long, was probably the largest and most ferocious predator of its time.

  Deltadromus agilis, by contrast was a fast-moving carnivore with long, delicate limbs. At the time that Carcharodontosaurus and Deltadromus were roaming southern Morocco the area was a vast floodplain criss-crossed by streams and rivers lined with coniferous trees. Crocodiles would have swum in waterways while Carcharodontosaurus and Deltadromus would have hunted along the muddy riverbanks. (We know this because Deltadromus has left behind a number of fossilized three-toed footprints to confirm the fact.)

  The significance of these discoveries is twofold. Firstly, the Carcharodontosaurus skull found by Sereno solved a century-old mystery surrounding some previously unidentified bones and serrated teeth discovered in Egypt in the early 1900s that had been destroyed during World War II, and secondly, and perhaps more significantly, they also provided new evidence to suggest that dinosaurs evolved differently on the African continent when compared to similar species found elsewhere in the world. It is now believed that unique dinosaur forms evolved in Africa, as with every other continent, and not just on Laurasia and Gondwana.

  The most recent geological change that has affected Africa started about eight million years ago when three massive cracks began appearing on the eastern half of the continent. By around three million years ago one of these fissures had split Africa from Arabia creating the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, the second had created the ‘eastern?Rift Valley that runs from the Gulf of Aden south westwards across the Ethiopia-Kenya border into northern Tanzania and the third, the ‘western?Rift Valley, which runs more of less north to south beginning around Lake Albert in northern Uganda, skirting Lake Victoria and ending near the mouth of the Zambezi River, has almost separated a large chunk of East Africa from the rest of the continent.

  What these fissures (and the mountain ranges that lined them) also did was to sharpen the differences between the climates of West and East Africa. Generally speaking, the land to the west of these massive cracks has remained within the sphere of influence of the hotter and wetter Atlantic weather system, while the eastern section gradually became drier. As a result of these conditions the north-eastern section of the continent has developed extensive savannah grasslands with fewer trees ?the kind of vegetation that is more suitable to grazing animals. And if one considers the ‘eastern?and ‘western?Rift Valleys as a kind of north/south continental divide then this split also appears to have impacted on human evolution.

  It has been theorised that another consequence of the formation of the rift valleys beginning about eight million years ago was the development of Homo sapiens. For example, in his book The Penguin Atlas of African History (1995), the late British historian Colin McEvedy (1930-2005) argued that the ape species found to the east and west of these rift valleys evolved differently and that to the west of this rift the apes “pursued the relatively conservative lines that eventually produced the gorillas and chimpanzees of today [while those on the eastern half of the continent] …embarked on a much more revolutionary series of changes.?This geographical separation, McEvedy suggested, marked “…the splitting off of the hominids (the line that leads to man) from the anthropoidea (the great apes)?o:p>

It should be stated that there is no conclusive evidence to support McEvedy’s theory regarding the “revolutionary changes?that he refers to above apart from the fact that the formation of the African rift valleys began occurring around eight million years ago, shortly before there was a divergence in the family tree of chimpanzees and humans. This divergence occurred between five and seven million years ago.(1)

Continental Drift and Plat Tectonics

  The theory that the continents were originally once joined together in a single massive landmass was first postulated at the beginning of the 19th century. However, the first detailed and comprehensive theory of continental drift was put forward by the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener in 1912.

  Wegener, like many other scientists before him, had noted that the shapes of the continents appeared to fit together and that this suggested that they had once formed a single large landmass which he called Pangea, a name he derived from the Greek word pangaia meaning ‘all the earth? What made Wegener’s hypothesis different from those of his predecessors was that he suggested that the continents were slowly moving across the surface of the earth, either separating or clashing together whereas previously scientists had believed that the continents had been formed when sections of the earth’s landmass had either sunk or subsided to form the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Wegener’s theories became known as the Continental Drift hypothesis.

  It was a South African geologist, Alexander L Du Toit, who modified Wegener’s theories by suggesting the existence of two primordial supercontinents, Laurasia and Gondwana in his book The Wandering Continents (1937).

  Du Toit formed the word Laurasia by combining the names of two cratons - Laurentia and Eurasia - and Gondwana means ‘land of the Gonds? (The Gonds were an ancient people who lived in central India in prehistoric times and a craton is a stable, relatively immobile mass on the earth’s crust that is at the heart of a continent.)

  Plate tectonics, which is a variation of the continental drift theory, was formulated in the 1960s. According to this theory the earth’s outer crust which is about 50 to 100 kilometres thick, is broken up into about a dozen large and several smaller pieces called plates. These plates are lighter than the molten mantle below and ‘float?around on the surface of the earth in a constant state of flux. These plates converge, diverge, slide past and even slip under each other causing seismic and volcanic activity.

  According to the theories of continental drift and plate tectonics there have probably been a series of Pangea-like supercontinents during the earth’s long history and there are indications that Africa, Australia and Eurasia will again collide over the next 50 million years to form another supercontinent of Pangean proportions.


The Evolution of Modern Humans

  “Africa gave the world humankind. It is scientifically uncontested that the earliest hominins developed in Africa and that Homo erectus led the first wave of migrations into the rest of the world approximately 1.8 million years ago. Erectus populations soon established themselves in most of the habitable areas in Europe and Asia.?sup>(2)

  Latest evidence suggests that modern humans ?Homo sapiens ?first evolved in Africa and then slowly migrated to the rest of the world. For example, Brett Hilton-Barber and professor Lee Burger state in their book Field Guide to the Cradle of Humankind that, “…African have a greater genetic diversity than any other ethnic grouping, which implies that they are the world’s oldest peoples…This is strong evidence that all modern humans descended from a single population that lived in Africa between 100 000 and 200 000 years ago.?sup>(2) Details of how this evolution occurred and how humans migrated still remain sketchy.

  Homo erectus, so called because of its upright posture, is generally seen as being a direct ancestor of modern humans and there is evidence to suggest that this hominin ?ape man - was a meat eater that engaged in hunting to obtain food, used a limited assortment of tools and probably communicated using some kind of early language.

  The migration out of Africa by Homo erectus one to two million years ago was followed by a second wave of humans, Homo sapiens (‘wise man?or ‘knowing man?, probably about 100 000 to 200 000 years ago. (It is noteworthy that fossil remains discovered at Swanscombe in England and Steinheim in Germany suggest that Homo sapiens may have evolved as far back as 250 000 years ago.)

 How did Homo sapiens evolve?

  There are two schools of thought about how modern humans originated. The first school of thought suggests that our ancient ancestors evolved somewhat spontaneously at different places around the world at more or less the same time. In other words, that Homo sapiens evolved in various regions independently from the Homo erectus populations that were then in existence.

  The second school of thought advances what is called the Out-of-Africa hypothesis suggesting that modern humans first evolved in Africa and then migrated to the rest of the world slowly replacing the Homo erectus populations, which eventually died out.

  The Out-of-Africa hypothesis is supported by modern genetic research which has established that there is a greater genetic diversity amongst Africans than between Africans and other population groups. What this means is that, genetically speaking, Africans have been proved to be ‘older?than other populations and are descended from a single individual usually referred to as ‘African Eve? ‘African Eve?is a hypothetical female who lived somewhere in Africa between 100 000 and 200 000 years ago. She carried a particular type of mitochondrial DNA-genetic material that is passed on only through females. Scientists measuring the range of variation in mitochondrial DNA in different populations today have concluded that we might all descend from one common female ancestor - ‘African Eve?

  It has further been suggested that ‘African Eve?probably evolved somewhere within southern Africa’s coastal belt region. This development may have occurred after some of our distant Homo erectus ancestors became ‘trapped?in southern Africa, their movements northwards and into the interior restricted by the Karoo and the Kalahari Desert. As a consequence of this development our ancient ancestors began to consume a much richer protein-rich sea-food diet which, over time, contributed to the development of the modern human brain.

Homo sapiens evolutionary tree

  Are we all descended from apes? The answer is probably ‘Yes? but no one is quite sure which one. What is known is that in the distant past there were many more species of ape than there are today. This means that the kind of ape from which humans might have evolved may not necessarily be similar to those we know - chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and gibbons. The scientific evidence available suggests that millions of years ago modern humans and apes probably shared a common ancestor, but that our species took a different evolutionary path from apes at some indeterminate point in the far-distant past.

  Scientists have identified various species of hominins (apes that walked upright on two legs, commonly called ‘ape men? and many of them may be closely related to our own species, Homo sapiens, but whether any of the known hominins is our direct ancestor remains uncertain.

  “Lucy? more properly known as Australopithecus afarensis (‘the southern ape from afar?, was discovered in 1973 by Don Johnson in the Hadar region of the Awash valley in Ethiopia. He nicknamed the skeleton he unearthed ‘Lucy?after the 1967 Beatles song Lucy in the sky with diamonds, which was a favourite in the camp from which he worked. She was also given a second Amharic name, Dinkenesh meaning ‘You are beautiful?or ‘You are wonderful? Johnson found about 40% of ‘Lucy’s?skeleton, which has since been dated to about 3.2 million years ago.

  At first ‘Lucy?was thought to be the ancestor of all hominins, but more recent discoveries seem to rule this out and it is not clear how ?or even, if ?‘Lucy?formed part of human evolution.

  Generally speaking, most scientists now accept that between one and four million years ago several species of ape-men called austraopithecines evolved on the African continent.  These creatures probably used tools, possibly walked upright, had human-like teeth, but possessed a brain which was no bigger than that of a modern ape. It has also been suggested that one such hominin, Australopithecus habilis (‘handy man?, evolved into Homo erectus, (erectus; upright), and that Homo erectus is the ancestor of Homo sapiens, or modern man, although this has not yet been reliably proved.

  To make matters even more complicated, Homo neaderthalensis, or more commonly Neanderthal Man, emerged about 250 000 years ago and survived until as recently as about 30 000 years ago. Neanderthals were so-named after the discovery of this species in the Neader Tal valley in Germany in 1856. These creatures were shorter and stockier than Homo sapiens and were adapted for living in cold climates.

  By our standards Neanderthals would have looked brutish - they had overhanging brows, a powerful and pronounced upper jaw and large teeth ?but appearances can be deceptive. There is evidence to indicate that they ritualistically buried their dead, which suggests at the very least that they held simple religious beliefs, and a number of graves have been found in which the dead were buried under stones in a sleeping position. Soil tests conducted on one grave in Shanidar in northern Iraq have also suggested that the body of one individual may have been laid to rest on a bier of pine boughs and wild flowers, though some scientists question this assertion.

  Neanderthals and modern humans co-existed for at least 50 000 years, though whether these two species communicated or inter-bred is not known. Nor is it known why Neanderthals became extinct. One theory is that they could not compete intellectually with modern humans who eventually came to dominate the various food resources. Another suggestion is that Homo sapiens chose to mate with the more attractive Neanderthalers so that the cruder forms of Homo neanderthalensis were bred out of the new, mixed population, and slowly became rarer and rarer until they eventually died out.

  The oldest stone tools were found in the Goma area of Ethiopia and are believed to date back about 3.2 million years, which pre-dates the arrival of Homo sapiens by about three million years. Two-million-year-old stone tools have also been discovered at Sterkfontein, just outside Johannesburg, along with much more modern tools, some dating back to as recently as 20 000 years ago.

  The Swartkrans excavation site near Sterkfontein has been associated with Homo erectus, and has provided animal fossil bones that show the kind of charring associated with camp fires. The heat at a camp fire is much higher than a natural bush fire, which tends to sweep along and does not get so hot. This evidence suggests that Homo erectus was the first hominin to use fire for cooking. However there is no evidence that this species made fire. The first firm evidence of fire-making suggests that this skill was only developed about 15 000 years ago.

  More recent research carried out at the so-called Strandloper Caves at Pinnacle Point outside Mossel Bay has unearthed the oldest fire-treated tools ?stones heated and shaped into sharp cutting instruments. Scientists suggest that this site was maybe home to the earliest known humans who were able to paint, use fire to make tools and almost certainly speak.

  The fire-made tools, which date from between 70 000 to 164 000 years ago, support the not-entirely facetious contention that ‘Modern Man came from Mossel Bay?   

  Unfortunately, the story of evolution is complicated by the fact that there were so many species of hominin or ape men. These include Australopithecus robustus, which lived at the same time as Homo habilis, but was a more specialised, heavily-built creature, and Homo ergaster, (‘man who works?, which is associated with the manufacture of stone tools. There was also another ape-man named Parathropus, which is not directly related to our species but was a specialised side-branch.

  As South African palaeo-anthropologist Dr Ron Clarke explains: “It is important to keep in mind that in the far distant past there were many more species of ape than there are today. This means that the kind of ape from which we evolved may not necessarily be similar to those we know today…We know that Homo sapiens evolved from some kind of ape, but we’re not sure which one. All we have are these intermediate creatures that we call ape men. We use this term because they have some ape-like features, such as a small brain and prominent jaws, but they also have human-like features, such as the cusp pattern of the teeth, smallish canines and an upright posture.?sup>3

  As if to confirm the uncertainty regarding Homo sapiens ancestry, yet another hominin, Australopithecus sediba, was discovered in August 2008 at the Cradle of Humankind just outside Johannesburg by Matthew Berger, the nine-year-old son of Professor Lee Berger of the University of the Witswatersrand.

  ?i style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal">Sediba, which means natural spring, fountain or wellspring in Sotho, one of the 11 official languages of South Africa was deemed an appropriate name for a species that might be the point from which the genus Homo arises,?explained Berger senior. “I believe that it is a good candidate for being the transitional species between the southern ape-man Australopithecus africanus (like the Taung Child and Mrs Ples) and either Homo habilis or even a direct ancestor of Home erectus (like Turkana Boy, Java man or Peking man)?sup>4

  (Homo erectus was first ‘discovered?in 1927 by Davidson Black of the Peking Union Medical College. For this reason Homo erectus is sometimes referred to as ‘Peking Man? It is interesting to note that Eugene Dubois, a Dutch anatomist, found the skull and thigh bone of a man-like creature in Java in 1981, which later proved to belong to Homo erectus. It was not unit 1940, however, that the significance of Dubois?‘Java Man?was fully appreciated and the fact that his findings constituted evidence of a new chapter in human evolution.)

  One of the problems faced by palaeo-anthropologists is that scientists can only theorise about what they find, and they only find where the fossils have been exposed, usually by erosion or human development. The best that can be said at present is that:

  • Both hominins and Homo sapiens evolved in Africa
  • Over the last 30 000 years Homo sapiens, our own species, has been the only human form on earth
  • All hominins have human-like qualities and are our extinct relatives
  • Homo erectus is probably our direct ancestor, and
All the hominins so far discovered are more closely related to us than we are to apes.

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