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Early Societies in Africa & the Americas

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

When many people think of ancient civilizations, they often think of Rome, Greece, Babylon or China. However, numerous ancient societies existed in places such as Africa or the Americas. In this lesson, we examine these cultures and their world.

Ancient Africa and the Americas

Ancient Africa and the Americas were homes to several civilizations in the Ancient World. These civilizations largely arose in fertile river valleys that made it easier for people to practice agriculture, or, the growing of crops, rather than relying on hunting and gathering. Agriculture allowed for the population to grow and also lead to more complex societies with distinctive social classes. These societies were then able to influence their neighbors and leave a lasting mark upon the region and history. In this lesson we will examine two ancient civilizations from both Africa (The Egyptians and Kush) and the Americans (The Olmec and the Andean People). We will look at how each society was structured and their similarities and differences.

The Egyptians

Of all of the civilizations of Africa, perhaps the most famous is Ancient Egypt, known for its great pyramids and hieroglyphics. Egypt was formed along the banks of the Nile River. Although much of Egypt was inhospitable desert, the annual flooding of the Nile river meant that the soil on its banks was very fertile and many crops could be grown. Numerous cities developed throughout Egypt, such as the capital of Memphis. The land was ruled by a god-king known as the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh was considered to be a god, and it was his job to maintain order throughout the land. In theory, the Pharaoh was an absolute monarch that held total power, but in reality, there was a complex bureaucracy in place to help him rule Egypt, as well as powerful groups of priests who were responsible for maintaining the good will of the gods.

The Egyptian people put a great deal of importance on the concept of the afterlife; those who had lived good lives would live again in the next world, while those who were evil would have their souls devoured at death. Because of this, they worked to preserve the bodies of the dead by drying them out so they would not decay. These preserved bodies are called mummies. They also built spectacular tombs for the dead pharaohs. The pyramids are only one example of these tombs, as others were built deep underground to avoid grave robbers. The Egyptians are also remembered for hieroglyphics, a pictorial writing system that was one of the oldest in the world.

The Kingdom of Kush

Much like the Egyptians, the Kingdom of Kush developed along the Nile River. Whereas the Egyptians lived along the Lower Nile (in the north), the people of Kush lived on the Upper Nile (in the south), in what is now Ethiopia. In that era, this region was also called Nubia, and so the Kushites are still sometimes called the Nubians. Unlike the Egyptians, the Kushites did not develop their own source of writing, so much of what we know of them comes from Egyptian sources. Through the Egyptians, for instance, we know that the center of the Kingdom of Kush was the capital of Napata. The Kushites were ruled by a series of powerful kings, who were tasked with maintaining order in the land and also maintaining the temples and shrines for the gods. When a king would die, he was buried in a mass-grave along with his courtiers so that they could continue to serve him in the afterlife. Egypt continued to exert cultural pressures on the Kushites for much of their history, to the point that they even worshiped a number of the same gods, and also built pyramids. The land of Kush was also very rich, due to gold mining and processing. In the 8th century BCE, the Kushites became so powerful that their king, Piye, invaded Egypt and conquered it. His descendants would rule as the 25th Dynasty for nearly 200 years.

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