Ancient Civilizations in Africa

Instructor: Jason McCollom

Jason has a PhD.

A variety of civilizations and peoples flourished in ancient Africa. In this lesson, read about Egypt, Nubia, Aksum, Bantu-speakers, and the powerful city of Carthage.

Patterns of Development in Ancient Africa

The market was next week, and the smith needed to make dozens of plows for sale. Wheat farming was spreading across all the villages along the Nile River, and his iron plows were in demand. The smith watched as drafts of wind blew through openings in the furnaces, stoking the fire and increasing the heat, as iron ore melted in long clay tubes. As the iron melted and separated from the ore, he then began to shape it into his farming tool.

This ironsmith was part of the ancient African kingdom of Nubia, along the Lower Nile. Between 600 BCE and 600 CE, Nubia was one of the sub-Saharan African civilizations that exploited trade, irrigated agriculture, and regional connections to grow from chiefdoms to kingdoms. These civilizations built upon older ones, such as the Bantu, while in North Africa the city-state of Carthage reigned until the 2nd century BCE. But before them all was Egypt.

Ancient Egypt

Between 5500 and 3500 BCE, Egypt developed an urban kingdom and became a major power in the Mediterranean. The Nile River made this possible, as predictable floods spread nutrient-rich silt across thousands of acres of farmland, making possible an agricultural surplus of crops like barley and wheat. With plenty of food, and then some, towns developed around markets, where farmers exchanged this surplus for outside goods. Some people accumulated more grain than others, thus creating wealth, and they took control of vast tracts of land beyond their regular family holdings. Over time, they became priests and other high-ranking officials, and built temples as shrines and tombs beginning around 3500 BCE.

Floodplain of the Nile River
nile floodplain__

By the second millennium BCE, these villages and towns became powerful cities. Hierankonpolis was one of the biggest of these early urban areas. Rulers became kings, and kings became pharaohs who unified all the villages and towns along the length of the Nile. This is the period that most people are familiar with (King Tut, anyone?). Ancient Egypt was a powerhouse in the Eastern Mediterranean, and had trade connections with the whole of the Near East. Egypt was the first major ancient African civilization.

Nubia and Aksum

Between 600 BCE and 600 CE, two more major African civilizations emerged: the Kingdom of Nubia and Aksum in the Northeastern part of the sub-Saharan region. Due to the relative isolation of sub-Saharan Africa in the ancient period, most of the region remained a forager society with only small villages. But Nubia and Aksum adopted the agricultural techniques of the Near East (as did Egypt before them) and became the exceptions when they developed kingdoms and an urban society.

Nubia was located on the Middle Nile, and at its height between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE had over 20,000 mostly urban inhabitants. Nubian farmers used irrigation techniques adapted from Egyptian and Near East practices to produce cotton crop, and miners dug for iron ore. With these products, smiths made iron weapons and plows, and weavers used the cotton for cloth. Hunters from Nubia traveled to the savannas south of the city and brought back elephant tusks and ostrich feathers. Mule and camel caravans took these in-demand products down the Nile and traded them for Egyptian olive oil and wine. Boats traded the goods across the Red Sea and brought back frankincense and myrrh.

Nubian pyramids
nubbian

By around 300 CE, the kingdom of Aksum replaced Nubia as the regional powerhouse in Eastern Africa. Aksum was a unique ancient African civilization because king Ezana adopted Christianity in the early 4th century and made it the state religion. As a result, Aksum became one of the world's earliest Christian civilizations. Another market of Aksum's grandeur were the awe-inspiring stelae, some of which still stand. Stelae are monumental stone pillars, carved and ornamented. They were cut from granite quarries near the Aksumite capital, placed on logs and rolled to royal tombs, where wooden towers and ropes raised them up. Some of the stelae tower over 100 feet in the air.

Bantu

As we've seen, the Nile River Valley was a place of thriving cities and civilizations in the ancient period. But what about further south, in sub-Saharan Africa? In the ancient period, this region was active with hunter-gatherers and larger societies. The most important were Bantu speakers.

Bantu-speaking people and groups spearheaded a massive human migration, moving from West-Central Africa south and east beginning in the third millennium BCE and continuing for at least another 2,000 years. Over this long span of time, Bantu groups moved across the West African rainforests, across the equator, and south toward the savannas. They developed thriving agriculture, built tools and weapons, and absorbed various hunter-gather peoples along the way.

Researchers have put together the story of this remarkable migration because they've found that hundreds of current languages spoken in sub-Saharan Africa belong to languages with roots in Bantu. In fact, in most of these languages, the world Bantu means 'many peoples.'

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