Historical Development of African Art

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, explore the dawn of civilization in the African continent. Learn about the human expansion that led to the development of the early civilizations. Also, discover some of the oldest examples of art found in Africa.

Africa: The Cradle of Art

Over the millennia, Africa has been home to important civilizations like the Mali Empire and Pharaonic Egypt, one of the most advanced civilizations in the ancient world. Once disregarded by many westerners, the cultural heritage and art history of this continent is outstanding and there is evidence to believe that Africa is actually the birthplace of art.

The exact place where mankind emerged continues to be a topic of debate among scientists and scholars. However, evidence from different discoveries suggests that Homo sapiens (modern humans) originated in Africa, somewhere near modern-day Ethiopia.

These archaeological findings might indicate that the earliest forms of art originated in Africa as well. Our early ancestors seem to have developed a creative curiosity that motivated not only the invention of tools and technologies, but also the development of an aesthetic curiosity that led to the production of objects meant to be both functional and beautiful.

The Human Expansion in Africa

The earliest Homo sapiens fossils date from over 200,000 years. Our ancestors probably migrated inside Africa, gradually populating the continent, and then later expanded into Asia, starting big migration processes that took them all around the world. However, this took a while - humans only moved out of Africa about 70,000 years ago.

Expansion of modern humans (red) and the location of primitive hominids like the Neanderthals and the Homo erectus (yellow)
Human expansion

During those ancient times, the Sahara was covered by grasslands, where fertile land and wildlife were abundant. As the climate changed, the growth of the desert probably forced the migration of several groups southward into central Africa and the Congo basin.

Other groups settled near the fertile lands of the Nile valley. There, the availability of resources allowed them to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle and they developed early forms of agriculture. These advances helped in the development of hallmarks of human civilization like textiles, writing systems, and religion. These fertile valleys were the cradle of Ancient Egypt, an advanced civilization of the antiquity that developed complex social, economic and religious structures and also sophisticated forms of art.

The fertile valley of the Nile River
The fertile valley of the Nile River

Early Origins of African Art

The earliest prehistoric art in Africa is believed to be rock art, which consisted of engraving rocks. This art form is considered to have developed in the southern areas of the continent.

The Blombos caves engravings found in South Africa are among the oldest known examples, estimated to be from about 70,000 years ago. These small rocks are about four inches long and have abstract patterns of lines carved on them. Inside the caves, shell beads were also found, dating from about the same period.

The purpose of these objects remains a mystery, but they have a huge significance - they suggest the existence of a creative behavior among humans. In Europe, the earliest similar example we've found is from about 40,000 years later.

Another form of prehistoric art is cave painting. Using earth pigments, humans drew different representations of animals and people on the interior walls of the caves.

Some of the earliest examples of cave painting have been found inside the Apollo 11 cave in Namibia, dated from about 25,500 years ago. The paintings represent animal and human forms and were made using different colors, mainly black, red and white.

Fragments of a painting from the Apollo 11 cave
Fragments of a painting from the Apollo 11 cave

Archaeologists have also found examples of rock carvings, known as petroglyphs, in different areas of the continent. The oldest example is considered to be from around 6,000 BCE and was found in today's Niger (southern Sahara desert). The carvings on the rocks depict giraffes and other animals that no longer exist in the now-desert area.

Most of these early forms of art seem to have represented the surroundings of their creators. Common motifs include animals and people, and the human figures sometimes exhibit aspects of social behavior like hunting scenes, rituals or even contact between different groups.

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