Geography & Early Civilizations of Africa

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore some of the important geographical features of ancient Africa and discover how they affected Africa's early civilizations like Egypt.

Early Civilizations and Geography of Africa

Ever notice how so many of our major cities are on rivers, lakes, and coasts? New York City? The Atlantic Ocean. Chicago? Lake Michigan. New Orleans? The Gulf of Mexico. We could keep going, but you get the picture. Geography plays an enormous role in how societies form - for example, a lot of our cities are on a source of water because they functioned as ports in their early days, and many still do.

Africa is no different. In this lesson, we will explore the earliest days of African civilization and show how geography sculpted these settlements.

Early Beginnings

Like with any early history, a lot of guesswork is involved in setting precise dates for anything. Nonetheless, many historians and anthropologists believe that agriculture was first developed in the Middle East before coming to Africa across the Red Sea. After all, the earliest specimens of crops we have are of sorghum, millet, and other crops native to the Middle East. Exactly when this occurred is a matter of profound debate, with some placing its development as early as 10,000 B.C. By 7,500 B.C., sedentary agriculture led to the development of permanent settlements, and by about 5,000 B.C. there begins to be what we can term civilization, where a small town or city ruled by a monarchy lorded over the surrounding area. These dates, as noted above, are only rough estimates.

Where these civilizations developed was impacted dramatically by one single geographic event which still dominates Africa: the desertification of the Sahara. Prior to approximately 6,000 B.C., the Sahara got considerably more rainfall that it does today. But at about 6,000 B.C., rainfall tapered and temperatures across the region skyrocketed. It drove the inhabitants of the Sahara, many of whom were practicing sedentary agriculture, north to the Mediterranean and south into Sub-Saharan Africa. By around 3,000 B.C., the Sahara looked as it does today, and it presented a major obstacle to cultural exchange between Northern and Southern Africa.


The first and arguably the greatest civilization of ancient Africa developed in Egypt. Geography played its role in the development of Egyptian civilization as well. The Nile River, the longest river in the world, flows from the Central Lakes region of Africa in modern day Tanzania all the way to the Mediterranean. Prior to its damming in modern times, the river flooded seasonally and deposited rich silt and soil along wide swaths of its coast. The river water and the sediment it deposited made it a prime spot for agriculture.

Geography also protected the growth of these cultures. Not only did the river make these civilizations possible, but these floodplains were bordered by desert to both the east and west and protected Egypt from outside forces or civilizations. Egypt and its sister kingdom on the Southern Nile, Nubia, could develop their own practices relatively unfettered.

Both developed complex civilizations ruled by monarchies where the king (or pharaoh) was considered to be a god on Earth. In Egypt, mathematics developed to help organize society and keep track of the harvests and storage of agricultural goods. Fortuitously for historians, they also developed a written language (in the form of hieroglyphics), which Egyptians used to tell their history, myths, and to document royal proclamations. In 3,100 B.C., the two were connected by one Egyptian pharaoh, Menes. The two cultures would continue to interact with each other throughout ancient history, with occasional incursions from cultures from across the Mediterranean.

Sub-Saharan Africa

In Sub-Saharan Africa, an entirely different civilization developed due to both geography and migration. Animal husbandry became a major lifestyle in the arid region just south of the Sahara Desert after livestock were introduced early in the second millennium B.C.

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