Back To CourseHistory 112: World History I
30 chapters | 246 lessons
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Think about the civilizations of ancient Africa. What comes to mind? Pyramids? Large kingdoms with powerful rulers? Maybe early systems of writing, math, and philosophy?
Well, believe it or not, these images only cover a very small portion of ancient African cultures. While there were major civilizations along the northern and eastern coasts of Africa, the majority of people throughout Africa's interior did not develop into such complex societies.
Many anthropologists have noted that cultures without social stratification, defined as class systems that divide people into rulers and followers, have many social benefits. For people who lived in areas like Egypt, where an abundance of resources demanded certain governmental organization, large civilizations may have been good. But for everyone else, there was little need to organize governments or to develop complex civilizations. Two sorts of cultures in Africa that did just fine without major government systems were the hunter-gatherers and the stateless societies.
Before people learned how to grow plants in a row and the development of agriculture, almost all human societies were nomadic. A nomadic society continuously moves to follow resources, as opposed to a society that can settle in one place, build permanent structures, and produce food. Around 10,000 BC, small communities around the world began transitioning out of nomadic life. But not every community chose to do this. Many remained nomadic hunter-gatherers, gathering almost all of their resources from a natural source rather than producing them.
In Africa, hunter-gatherer societies were very efficient, and the sparse deserts or extremely dense jungles did not necessarily support agriculture, so this style of society remained strong throughout ancient times. It is important to remember that the choice to remain nomadic is not a reflection of the complexity or intelligence of a culture. It is simply a choice reflecting the group's values and needs. In Africa, many hunter-gatherer societies were in central Africa, where the climate is much more favorable for hunting.
Hunter-gatherer societies tended to be very egalitarian, meaning that everyone is treated with a high degree of equality. Men do not hold privilege over women, and there is rarely a single leader who tells everyone what to do. Since hunter-gatherer societies tend to be smaller, it is possible to actively seek the support of every member of the group. When a leader is selected, it is generally for a specific purpose, such as hunting.
Technically, there are still groups in Africa today that rely on a hunter-gatherer culture, but most of these societies died out after the European colonization of Africa, when they were forced onto small farms as laborers. Through the majority of history, however, hunter-gatherer societies composed a major portion of African cultures.
Another form of culture that was popular in ancient Africa was the stateless society. A stateless society is a non-nomadic civilization that is not governed by any sort of central authority. People in a stateless society most often practice agriculture and are settled in one place, but they retain the democratic process and are opposed to one person being dramatically more powerful than the rest.
A major factor in this is population. Again, the greater the population, the more need there is for some form of government. With fewer than about 10,000 people, it was still possible for many African civilizations to remain stateless societies. In fact, many historians believe that up to a third of African societies were stateless before European colonization.
One example of a stateless society is the Igbo people, an ethnic group who lived in modern-day Nigeria. The ancient Igbo people developed very successful stateless societies. Igbo communities were ruled over by a council of elected elders, who really had very little practical power beyond resolving disputes. Evidence of Igbo cultures have dated as far back as 2,500 BC, and their stateless societies lasted well into the 15th century. The Igbo communities traded with each other and developed agriculture and their own traditions of math and art, but most never felt the need to create a central government to oversee their societies.
Not all societies have the same needs. Some don't need walls. Some don't need complex trade relations. And some don't need governments. Although Africa is often called the 'cradle of civilization' because of complex societies like Egypt, historically, there were many more cultures in Africa that did not choose this lifestyle.
Some African cultures chose not to settle in one location because the environments were not conducive for agriculture. People who rely on the natural availability of resources are called hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherer societies tend to be very egalitarian, meaning that everyone is treated equally with no single person or group being privileged.
Of the African societies that adopted agriculture and decided to settle in one place, many were stateless societies, which means they did not have a central, organized government. These societies traded with other cities, developed complex cultures, and relied on agriculture, but were small enough that there was still no real need for a governing power.
Once societies went over roughly 10,000 people, there was more need for a government, but the stateless societies in Africa remained small enough to resolve issues democratically with a small council, at most. These two cultural systems were effective enough that hunter-gatherer and stateless societies were a major part of Africa all the way into the modern era and the colonization of Africa by Europe.
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Back To CourseHistory 112: World History I
30 chapters | 246 lessons