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Hunter-Gatherers & Stateless Societies in Africa Video

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  • 0:01 States and No States
  • 1:05 Hunter-Gatherer Societies
  • 2:55 Stateless Societies in Africa
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore other forms of culture in ancient Africa that were not kingdoms or empires. These societies rejected the idea of a central government. Then you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

States and No States

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.

Hunter-Gatherer 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.

Stateless Societies in Africa

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.

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