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A Short History of Africa
From the Origins of the Human Race to the Arab Spring
By Gordon Kerr
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2011 Gordon Kerr
All rights reserved.
In 1924, in a limestone cave near Taung, in South Africa's Cape Province, anthropologist Raymond Dart discovered the skull of a six-year-old creature which he named Australopithecus ('southern ape'). Although ape-like, Australopithecus exhibited human characteristics and had walked upright on two legs with a slight stoop. It was small, only about 1.25 metres tall and would have weighed around twenty five kilos. Its teeth, approximating those of a human, had adapted to eating meat as well as vegetables. Critically, however, the brain of Australopithecus would have been substantially larger than that of an ape. Emerging around four million years ago, Australopithecus became extinct two million years later.
The brain capacity of Australopithecus was somewhere between 440 and 500cc but hominid skulls discovered in the Olduvai Gorge and near Lake Turkana in Kenya's Great Rift Valley exhibit brain capacities of between 650 and 800cc. With this creature, known as Homo habilis ('handy' man), who lived 2.3 to 1.4 million years ago at the beginning of the Pleistocene period, were found simple stone tools. Homo habilis was followed by Homo erectus who fashioned the hand axe, a stone implement with more regular and consistent flaking on each face than had been hitherto produced. By around 40,000 BC, the next version of the Homo genus, Homo sapiens, had evolved into Homo sapiens sapiens, modern humans, with a brain capacity of about 1,400cc. Within 30,000 years, this version had spread from its African origins and colonised the world.
It was the manufacture of stone tools that set the Homo line apart from other animals. This took place during the era known as the 'Stone Age', the prehistoric period lasting about two and a half million years immediately preceding the discovery of metals around 6,000 years ago. Stone implements with sharp, pointed or percussive surfaces were manufactured. It was with the arrival of Homo erectus, around one and a half million years ago, that a dramatic technological advance was made. The hand axe, usually known as 'Acheulian', from Saint-Acheul, the location in southern France where it was first discovered, was the first tool to be crafted to a pre-determined shape. These people were also the first to use fire for cooking as well as for warmth.
The Middle Stone Age, dating from about 150,000 years ago, brought the emergence of Homo sapiens. Bone began to be used and stone tools grew ever more sophisticated. During the second phase of the Middle Stone Age, stone pieces began to be fitted onto a length of wood or other material. Around this time, climatic changes affected food supply and it is possible that an increased population led to people seeking better ways to exploit their environment. This led in turn to regional specialisation. The peoples of the more sparsely wooded areas of the savannah hunted game with spears whilst the inhabitants of the wetter and more thickly forested regions lived by collecting fruit and vegetables as well as by fishing.
The Later Stone Age brought Homo sapiens sapiens who evolved from around 40,000 years ago. He started to carve the microlith – small stone flakes shaped into blades and arrow- and spear-heads, making hunting more efficient. People lived in camps in open country beside lakes or streams. Rock shelters or caves, often decorated with paintings of animals and hunting scenes, were also commonly used.
Around 10,000 years ago there was another immense step forward when humans began to domesticate animals and cultivate crops, such as wheat, barley, sorghum and millet. This encouraged them to settle longer in one place, leading to more permanent shelters, constructed from mud or bricks. Stability led to a rapid increase in population, necessitating a greater degree of organisation and cooperation in the planning of agricultural activities.
Farming was long thought to have first developed in Mesopotamia (modern Lebanon, Syria, south-eastern Turkey, Iraq and western Iran), the area known as the 'Fertile Crescent', but it is now believed to have actually developed in a number of different parts of the world around the same time. In Africa, it probably did not develop in isolation. There was a great deal of communication between the different regions as well as with Asia from where, in exchange for a number of domesticated plant species such as sorghum, Africa received other cereals – wheat and barley, for instance. Bananas, the greater yam and the taro came from southern Arabia via the east African coast.
Tropical cereal farming became widespread in the savannah grasslands on the southern edges of what is now the Sahara desert where, between 8,000 and 4,000 BC, the climate was wetter than today. Fishing communities had established themselves around rivers and lakes from the upper Niger Delta in the west to Lake Chad, the Upper Nile, Lake Turkana and the Great Rift Valley in the east. As the climate became drier in these areas, however, and the Sahara encroached on their lands, they were forced to resort to domesticating a number of tropical African cereals. During the next three millennia, the cultivation of sorghum and millet spread from Senegambia in the west to the Upper Nile in the east and Neolithic farming practices continued to spread through the tropical forest zones.
In the Ethiopian highlands, people developed their own distinctive crops, including tef, a cereal that remains a staple in the area to this day. Pastoralism was predominant in Uganda and northern Kenya, although some cereals were also being cultivated. Meanwhile, the peoples south of the equator remained hunter-gatherers until the start of the Iron Age, two thousand years ago.
The keeping of cattle, sheep and goats dates back in northern Africa as far as 7,000 BC and, in the savannah grasslands of the central and northern Sahara, pastoralism appears to have been more important than crop cultivation. A significant factor in its spread was the presence or absence of the blood-sucking tsetse fly which carries in its saliva the parasite that causes 'sleeping sickness' in both humans and cattle. Immunity would eventually develop in humans who moved into a tsetse-infected area, but, on the whole, such areas were to be avoided by pastoralists. As tsetse were most common in damper, low-lying valleys and wooded areas, pastoralism thrived on the drier and more open savannah grasslands of the southern plateaux. Domesticated cattle bones found in the Great Rift Valley and Serengeti plains of East Africa date to around 5,000 BC and pastoralism was well established by 2,000 BC while, in southern Africa, it seems to have spread as far as the extreme south west by the last couple of centuries BC.
Agriculture – as well as warfare – was transformed by another vital discovery – iron-smelting. There is evidence that it developed independently in East and West Africa but the technology was almost certainly imported from southwest Asia. The first type of furnace used for melting iron ore in sub-Saharan Africa was a primitive trench or bowl, but this was later replaced by beehive-shaped kilns or more efficient cylindrical structures in which the temperature could be raised with bellows to more than 2,000 degrees. These distinctive furnaces were different to anything seen in North Africa, Mesopotamia or the Maghreb, casting doubt on the theory that the technology arrived in sub-Saharan Africa by way of the Mediterranean and the desert.
Its rapid spread across the continent gave Africans the tools with which to advance their societies. They now had the hoe to clear land for settlement and cultivation, rendering the thick forest less impenetrable. They also had the weapons to make hunting more efficient. Farming became more intensive and productive, allowing people to move from subsistence farming to the production of surpluses. This meant that communities could trade with neighbours with a different speciality. Critically, however, it also enabled them to support classes of people not specifically involved in food production – specialist craftsmen, religious officials, administrators and rulers. Thus did the gap between rich and poor in society begin, non-producers becoming wealthy and the actual producers of the food on which everyone lived remaining poor.
It was the beginning of civilisation as we know it.CHAPTER 2
Ancient Civilisations and Medieval States
Ancient Egypt, 3,100–332 BC
The Nile valley is uniquely positioned, not only for access to the African regions bordering it, but also to distant centres of ancient civilisation such as those of the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. It also provided unique challenges and opportunities for the people living there. The River Nile is fed by the White Nile, the Blue Nile and the Atbara. The White Nile enables a regular flow of water in the lower Nile but, following the summer rains in the Highlands of Ethiopia where they originate, the Blue Nile and the Atbara are transformed into raging torrents that carry the dark, fertile soils of the highlands down into the Nile's lower valley. Every August, the river burst its banks and flooded the narrow valley located on either bank, depositing rich soil in which seeds could be planted and harvested. Around 5,000 to 4,000 BC, permanent settlements established themselves along the banks of the river, adapting their agricultural techniques to its annual flood.
Homo sapiens had already been living in the area of the Nile as early as the Palaeolithic Era, the population fluctuating with environmental and climatic changes. It is impossible to determine to which race these people belonged, just as it has long been a matter of debate whether Ancient Egyptians were black- or white-skinned. Indeed, it may be safest to conclude that they were not a people of one pure race, but a mixture of peoples on the move not only from Africa but the Middle East and even Europe.
As the Neolithic Age came to an end, sometime between 3,300 and 2,400 BC, the climate of the Sahara grew drier, forcing people to move themselves and their livestock eastwards to the Nile valley. Sacral – semi-divine – chiefdoms emerged which became increasingly powerful as the increase in population led to competition for farmland, creating a need for regulation. Bureaucracies began to form amongst the chiefdoms. By late in the fourth millennium BC, the long strip of arable land beside the Nile was supporting around 1.8 million people, heralding the beginning of one of the world's greatest and longest-lasting civilisations.
Egypt became a unified state when the chiefdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were united under the rule of the first Pharaoh, Narmer (also known as Menes), who represented the first of thirty ruling dynasties that remained in power until 332 BC, a span of 2,768 years. This great civilisation would leave behind a legacy of extraordinary temples and tombs and would make huge advances in scientific pursuits such as navigation, astronomy and medicine. Amongst their greatest achievements was the development of hieroglyphics, one of the world's earliest forms of writing. Mainly inscribed on papyrus – an ancient type of paper made from the pith of the papyrus plant – or on stone, it consisted of a series of images each of which represented a sound or had a meaning.
The majority of Egyptian people were poor peasant farmers living in mud houses built above the flood plain. They grew wheat, barley and flax as well as a range of vegetables and fruit and they reared goats and cattle. They ate little meat as most of it went in taxes to be enjoyed by the wealthy ruling classes. The surplus they produced from their fields also went to the tax collector, leaving them just enough to survive until the next harvest. Government control was stringent, exploitative and inescapable. The Pharaoh sat at the top of a rigid hierarchy, below him the priests, scribes and large numbers of civil servants responsible for assessing and collecting taxes. At the bottom were the peasants who worked the land but were regularly conscripted to work on communal projects such as irrigation and marsh-draining, as well as the construction of temples and royal tombs such as the Great Pyramid at Giza.
The Pharaohs were seen as gods on earth, at the head of a religious system that involved the worship of a number of deities amongst whom were Osiris, king of the dead and the sun god, Ra, from whom the Pharaohs claimed descent. Burial rites were of huge importance, particularly as Egyptians believed in life after death and reincarnation. The bodies of the rich and powerful dead were, therefore, embalmed and mummified in order to preserve them. Food was buried with them as well as offerings that might prove useful in the afterlife. During the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2,620–2,494 BC), the Egyptians began long-distance trading, importing, amongst other things, timber from the Levant and gold and skins from Nubia.
Until they were conquered in 332 BC by Alexander the Great of Macedonia, Egyptians experienced a remarkable three millennia of relative stability, made possible by their own conservatism and by the deserts on either side of the Nile that were a deterrent to potential invaders.
Nubia and the Kingdoms of Kush and Meroe; 806 BC–350 AD
Situated in the area of modern southern Egypt and northern Sudan, Nubia enjoyed a complex relationship with its powerful northern neighbour. When Egypt was stable and strong, it plundered Nubia for gold and slaves; when it was weak from internal strife or invasions, it traded amicably with the Nubians. During the New Kingdom (c. 1,550–1,070 BC), Nubia was annexed by Egypt for five centuries during which period the Nubians were deeply influenced by Egyptian culture and society. Nubians served as mercenaries in the Egyptian army where they were particularly renowned for their prowess as archers. When the New Kingdom slipped into decline, there was chaos in Egypt. Nubia, free of Egyptian domination, began to restore its own political, economic, cultural and social systems.
The Kingdom of Kush first came to notice in 760 BC when Kashta (ruled c. 760–752 BC) invaded Egypt and became the first Nubian Pharaoh, launching the Twenty fifth Dynasty and moving the capital to Thebes. The conquest of Upper Egypt was completed in the reign of the following two Pharaohs, Piye (ruled c. 752–721 BC) and Shabaka (ruled c. 721–707 BC) who ruled a kingdom that stretched more than 2,000 miles along the Nile, from the fourth cataract to the Mediterranean.
In the following century, a new Asiatic threat emerged. The Assyrians, under King Esarhaddon (ruled 681–669 BC), defeated Pharaoh Taharqa (ruled 690–664 BC), and a few years later, the last Nubian Pharaoh, Tantamani (ruled 664–656 BC), fled back to Napata in Kush. His successors ruled over the Kingdom of Kush, as its inhabitants called it, for the next thousand years, initially from their capital at Napata but then, after an Egyptian attack around 500 BC, from Meroe. The move symbolically situated the Kushite kingdom closer to black Africa and African influence was evident in its society. The Kingdom of Meroe then developed independently of Egypt.
Kushite rulers were supported by a powerful army and an effective civil service. Like the Egyptian rulers, they depended upon the agricultural labours of their subjects. Egyptian gods were worshipped, but the Kushites gradually developed their own religion, architecture and culture. They grew their tropical cereals away from the banks of the Nile and their farms were spread over a wide area. They lived in villages governed by chiefs or heads of families and were not as rigidly ruled as their northern brethren. The country grew wealthy on its gold deposits and on its control of trade routes. An iron industry flourished with fuel for smelting the iron ore coming from the forests of the Butana plain. The official language of the kingdom was Meroitic, a Nilo-Saharan language, while Egyptian was Afro-Asiatic.
By 350 AD, however, Meroe was in serious decline. Environmental damage caused by over-exploitation of the land led to a fall in agricultural production. The making of huge quantities of charcoal for iron-smelting resulted in the exhaustion of forest resources. Furthermore, the decline in the fortunes of Rome led too a fall in demand for luxury goods from Meroe and the emergent kingdom of Axum stole a great deal of Meroe's trade via the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Eventually, the Christian Ethiopian King Ezana of Axum (ruled c. 325–c. 360 AD) destroyed Meroe around 350 AD, bringing to an end twenty centuries of Nubia and the Kingdoms of Kush and Meroe.
Excerpted from A Short History of Africa by Gordon Kerr. Copyright © 2011 Gordon Kerr. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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