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Society & Culture in Early Africa

Society & Culture in Early Africa
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  • 0:01 Africa
  • 0:44 Societies of Africa
  • 4:02 Religions of Africa
  • 5:40 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 some of the many sort of societies and cultures that have existed in Africa across time. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Africa

Africa is a very, very large continent - 11.7 million square miles large. It holds the world's longest river and the world's largest hot desert, straddles two oceans, and is the only continent to stretch from the northern temperate to southern temperate zones. Africa is also the home of humanity, with the earliest evidence of human fossils dating back 200,000 years.

As you can guess, the history of Africa is pretty complex. As a birthplace of humanity, Africa is the oldest place on Earth to be inhabited by people and over the last 200,000 years, it has seen societies of every shape and kind. Africa did not have a single culture, but instead boasts an incredible diversity of civilizations.

Societies of Africa

Ancient Africa had many different societies, but they can be roughly categorized into four types. First are the hunter-gatherer societies. These nomadic groups traveled continuously for food, relying on naturally available resources. Even after the development of agriculture, many groups chose to maintain hunter-gatherer lifestyles because many regions of Africa, especially the deserts and jungles, are not great for farming. Hunter-gatherer societies tended to be highly egalitarian, meaning that every member was treated equally, including men, women, elderly, etc.

Another style of society were the stateless societies. Stateless societies were larger than hunter-gatherer communities, but still small enough that they did not need a central government. That is the definition of a stateless society: a settled community with little or no organized government. The people in stateless societies dealt in complex trade networks, farmed, and developed art but dealt with issues democratically, taking into consideration every member of the group. At most, a small council of leaders might resolve disputes. Like hunter-gatherer societies, stateless societies were egalitarian with high gender equality. Stateless societies could be found throughout central Africa in ancient times.

Once a society grows to be larger than roughly 10,000 people, organizing it becomes difficult without a government. The next type of society in ancient Africa was a city-state, or an urban center with its own independent government. City-states are independent of larger kingdoms or empires, and thus have very strong local identities tied to their city. In ancient Africa, the most prominent city-states developed along the northeast coast, where the Nile River, Red Sea, and Arabian Sea intersect. This region grew very quickly in ancient Africa because of the lucrative trade routes that connected the rich territories of North Africa to faraway markets in India and China.

City-states had a slightly more complex culture that developed social stratification, or the separation of people into classes. Some people were leaders. Some were merchants. Some were laborers, or even slaves. This made society more structured, but also set some people above the others.

Finally, the fourth major form of society in ancient Africa was the true kingdom or empire. These were highly stratified societies that were controlled by a very powerful central government, usually in the person of a king. They maintained powerful professional armies, controlled the distribution of resources and international trade, and determined the fate of all the people they controlled. Unlike the smaller stateless societies, kingdoms in ancient Africa, or anywhere in the ancient world, had low degrees of egalitarianism. Women, in particular, were often treated as inferior to men, but slaves were at the bottom of society.

Kingdoms controlled wide territories and they formed empires as those territories stretched far enough to conquer other kingdoms. In ancient Africa, the first major kingdoms were in the north, centered upon the Nile River and Mediterranean Sea. Egypt is perhaps the most notable example, ruled by the powerful pharaohs for centuries. Egypt was one of the first great civilizations of ancient Africa, but it was not the last and as societies grew, hundreds of kingdoms competed across time.

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