Full History of Africa | From hieroglyphics to the fight for freedom

15 min


The written History of Africa begins in the 4th millennium BC with the rise of Egyptian civilization. Over the centuries, many diverse societies began flowing into the continent ingenerating a variety of cultures and religions that spread across the different regions of Africa.

Early Foreign Occupation

The Romans colonized all of North Africa in the first century BC, spreading Christianity throughout the large areas of the region as far south as Kush and Ethiopia. However, the spread of Islam began in the late 7th century in North and East Africa leading to new cultures such as those of the Swahili in East Africa and the Songhai Empire in the sub-Saharan west.

The rise of Islam generated an increase in the Arab slave trade, which culminated in the 19th century and eventually led to the forced transport in the Atlantic slave trade and the beginning of European colonization throughout Africa, which had dramatic effects on the history of Africa.

In West Africa

The Muslim north had little influence on the independent kingdoms in the forested regions of West Africa. The Ife government, the first of the Yoruba city-states was established under a priestly king and was the religious and cultural centre of the region.

At the beginning of the 14th century, Yorubaland established a community east of Ife that developed in the Benin Empire. Benin became an independent trading power by the 15th century, cutting off Ife’s access to coastal ports. Benin encompassed much of southeastern Yorubaland and the western Igbo by the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Bantu Migrations

The Bantu people had settled the area south of the Limpopo River by the 4th or 5th century, displacing and absorbing the Khoi-San speaking peoples who migrated slowly southwards. In the Eastern Cape Province, the southernmost group is the Xhosa people, who incorporate certain linguistic traits from the earlier Khoi-San people.

Settlers in Southern Africa

In 1487, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias made his stamp on the history of Africa by becoming the first European to reach the southernmost tip of Africa.

In 1652, the Dutch settled in the Cape of Good Hope area and established a portal between Europe and the East on behalf of the Dutch East India Company.

The region was seized by Great Britain in 1795 to prevent the French from taking control of it but also to use Cape Town as a stopping point en route to Australia and India.

The Dutch regained possession in 1803 but when the Dutch East India Company declared bankruptcy, the British annexed the Cape Colony in 1806.

The Partitioning of Africa

By the mid-19th century, Protestants were carrying on missionary work on the Guinea coast in South Africa and in the Zanzibar dominions. The missionaries became explorers or agents of trade and colonialism.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, lines of partition were drawn across Africa marking possessions of Germany, France, Britain and other Great Powers.

None of the African countries were consulted during the partitioning and an “International Treaty” was signed that disregarded the ethnic, social and economic composition of the people living in the area. This has has been the cause of endless years of ethnic or “tribal” conflict as the African countries have fought to gain their independence back.

African history is harsh and brutal – even to this day conflict exists in between the African tribes and the different ethnic groups.

Facts about Africa

Considered by many scientists to be the origin of mankind…

Considered by many scientists to be the origin of mankind, Africa is a continent of 54 independent countries and a rich mix of native peoples, cultures, economies and history.

The scenic beauty and variety is quite stunning, it is home to vast deserts, tropical rain forests, rugged mountains and fertile grasslands. It is abundant in flora and fauna unsurpassed by any other continent.

An ever-increasing number of tourists from around the globe are drawn to this incredible continent every year to experience its wonders.

Yet despite its natural wealth and beauty, Africa includes the fifteen least developed nations in the world, 70% of its population survives on less than $2 a day, disease and famine continue to kill millions of its people each year, and even the most basic education is denied to a large percentage of its children.

Quick Facts About Africa

Continent SizeSecond largest in the World
Continental area11,700,000 square miles
Estimated population1.2 Billion people
Largest CityCairo, Egypt, 20 million people
Largest CountryAlgeria – 919,595 square miles
Longest RiverNile, 4,160 miles
Largest LakeVictoria, 26,828 square miles
Tallest MountainKilimanjaro, Tanzania, 19,340 feet

New York Times Quote of the Day for June 2, 2002:

“Africa is still the poorest continent in the world, the biggest sufferer of HIV and AIDS, the continent with the most external debts and the least foreign investment. But we are lot more hopeful than we were 5 or 10 years ago.” ~ IBRAHIM GAMBARI, United Nations special representative for Africa

Some Interesting Facts

Africa on the globe

Africa is considered to be the second largest continent in the world with a total area of around 11 million square miles that account for 5.7% of the earth’s surface as well as 20% of the total surface of land on our planet.

It has a rich geography as well as an interesting history thus making it a continent with such biodiversity that is awe inspiring. Africa has much more to it than poverty and apartheid, for which it is well known the world over.

There are 54 countries as well as quite a few disputed territories. Sudan used to be the largest country in Africa until it was split into Sudan and South Sudan. Algeria is now the largest African country by geographical area. Cairo is the capital city of Egypt and is also the largest city.

As far as the size is concerned along with the population Africa is the second largest continent. Africa is filled with some of nature’s greatest wonders, there are a few facts about Africa given below that will help you to understand more about this beautiful continent.

Amazing Facts About Africa

• One of the most interesting facts about Africa is that the length and breadth of this continent are about the same. It measures around 4,660 from north to south and from east to west.

• Africa is not only the second largest but the second most populated continent as well and houses about 12% of the world population.

• Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa and has an estimated population of 120-140 million. The population in Seychelles is around 80,000 people and is the least populated country.

• The African continent has approximately 3,000 distinct ethnic groups while Nigeria alone has about 370 of these tribes that have been officially recognized. You will find more information on African culture here.

• Around 2,000 different languages are spoken in Africa and each of them have different dialects while Arabic is the language that is most widely spoken in the African continent.

• The Equator goes around 2,500 miles from the west to the east of the African continent thus dividing this continent into two separate halves – north and south. It passes through many of the African nations such as Congo, Somalia, Uganda as well as Kenya.

• If we go by the records of the fossil remains Africa seems to be the first continent where humans were found. The fossil remains have suggested that humans had inhabited the African continent around 7 million years ago.

• Africa also boasts of having the longest river in the world which is the Nile that runs for around 4,150 miles before it meets the ocean. It flows through several African countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda as well as Egypt thus making the land extremely fertile.

The Victoria Falls as seen from Zimbabwe

The Victoria Falls

• The largest waterfall in Africa is the Victoria Falls and it is located on the Zimbabwe and Zambia border. It has a height of 355 feet and the width of the water fall runs into almost a mile.

• The largest desert in the world the Sahara desert is also situated in Africa and it spans across at least a dozen countries – around 3.5 million square miles.

The extent of the Sahara Desert across Africa

The Sahara desert covering a chunk of northern Africa

• Mount Kilimanjaro is the largest mountain in Africa and stands tall at 19,340 feet. Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa measuring 26,560 square miles.

• Madagascar is the largest island in the African continent and it lies just off the east coast of Africa. It has a length of around 1,000 miles with a width of around 350 miles. This island is also the 4th largest island in the world.

• Africa also boasts of the best flora and fauna in the world. It has the most flourishing wildlife in the entire world. It also houses some of the fastest animals on land such as the cheetah, wildebeest, gazelle and lion. Find out more information on the African animals here.

• Africa’s mining is well known and the continent produces at least 50% of the diamonds and gold in the whole world. The rest of the countries around the world contribute to the remaining 50% of the production of these precious stones and metal.

• South Africa is also home to the ‘largest green canyon in the world’ and it is known as the Blyde River Canyon and this is also the 3rd largest Canyon in the world.

Traditional African Customs

Africa has a multicultural society with innumerable African tribes and ethnic groups throughout the continent

Each group of people have customs that are unique to them. However, in all ethnic groups throughout Africa, the family unit is of the utmost importance and it is reflected in the customs of each tribe.

One traditional custom in African culture is that of lobola, where the groom pays the father of the bride in order to compensate for the ‘loss’ of the man’s daughter.

Traditionally, lobola was paid in cattle, a valued commodity in many African cultures, but today many modern couples pay lobola in cash.

Lobola is intended to bring together two families, fostering mutual respect. It also indicates that the groom is financially capable of supporting his wife. The negotiations of lobola can take up to two days.

The wedding is held at night when the moon is full…..

The wedding is held at night when the moon is full. It is considered bad luck if the wedding takes place when the moon is not bright. The wedding celebrations can last several days but the bride’s parents do not attend because it is too sad for them and the event is intended to be a joyous one.

A man can have as many wives as he can afford and the wives share the responsibilities of the daily chores, such as babysitting, pounding corn, preparing meals and washing clothes. The practice of polygamy brings more families together and deepens the interest of the welfare in others. The protection of the family is the core value in most African tribes. Members in the tribe care for one another, share wealth and food and assure that no child is abandoned.

In African culture, a child learns at an early age how to become a good member of his tribe. Each member of the tribe belongs to an age group that has special services within the tribe. Each person is expected to contribute to the tribe by doing his share of the work and obeying its customs.

The rite of passage…..

The rite of passage is a controversial African custom that varies from tribe to tribe. Circumcision, which is usually performed on males is, in some cultures, performed on females as well. The ritual is usually spread over a period of several months and the one being circumcised is forbidden from screaming or crying because doing so is considered cowardly behaviour.


The African customs of tribal circumcision has often caused mutilation and even death. The victim seldom seeks medical care from a hospital because they are often abandoned by their family and their tribe for doing so. It is believed that complications arising from circumcision are the fault of the victim because they are either being punished for having done something wrong or they are too weak to be qualified as men.

African Culture

This rich and diverse culture varies from country to country…

In African culture, the “self” is not separate from the world, it is united and intermingled with the natural and social environment.

It is through relations with one’s community and surroundings that an individual becomes a person of volition, whose actions and decisions affect the entire group rather than just oneself.

There is a Xhosa proverb that is common to all African cultures and languages, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” (“A person is a person through persons”).

The rich and diverse African culture varies not only from one country to another, but within each country as well. The culture of each ethnic group centres on family and can be found in each group’s art, music and oral literature.

Throughout Africa, the people speak a variety of languages, practice numerous religions and reside in various types of dwellings.

The vast majority of people living in Africa are indigenous; however, people from all over the world have migrated to Africa for hundreds of years. Arabs began crossing into North Africa from the Middle East in the 7th century, A.D., bringing with them the religion of Islam. Europeans began settling in the southern portion of the continent in the mid-17th century, as did South Asians, who settled in the areas of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. Over the centuries, African culture has meshed with cultures from around the world, although much of traditional African customs have remained throughout.

Ethnic groups and African tribes have customs that are unique to their culture. The customs and traditions of each group have been woven into a tapestry as colourful and diverse as the people of Africa themselves.

African Art

African arts and craft include sculpture, weaving, beading, painting, pottery, jewellery, headgear and dress. Art from particular regions have distinct characteristics depending on beliefs, values and customs, but common themes found in art include women, couples, children, animals, man with a weapon, or a combination of these. Masks are usually a representation of religious and spiritual beliefs. They are used for traditional ceremonies to honour deities or ancestors.


The type of clothing worn across Africa varies from north to south, and by religious beliefs and traditional customs. Some cultures wear colourful attire, while others wear less colour but include shiny threads in their dressing with minimal jewellery.

African Food

The environment plays a huge part in what kinds of foods are consumed in different parts of the African continent. Most cuisines include fruit, grain, vegetables, milk and meat products. Quite a number of cultural groups have very similar foods in their cuisines. For example, a very common maize/corn-based dish is pap, also named ugali, sadza, nsima, nchima, chima, poshto, tuozafi, ubgali, bugali, sokoro, sokora, depending on which part of the continent you are eating it.

Music of Africa

African music is as diverse as the people, and has also been influenced by music from the western world. Traditional music in southern Africa usually involves drums and singing, and such instruments as the thumb piano accompanied by rattles made from some dried fruit or vegetable with seeds inside.

Below are Zimbabwean musicians playing the mbira (left) and the hosho (right)

Some Interesting African Cultures

• Men from the Latuka tribe in Sudan still practice the tradition of kidnapping a woman that they want to marry. After a Latuka man has taken his bride-to-be, he goes back to the father of the woman to ask for his blessing.

• To protect their skin from the sun, the Himba people of northern Namibia cover themselves with a mixture of red soil and milk fat, and so they appear to have reddish skin. The otjize mixture is considered to be a beauty cosmetic. They also use wood ash for cleansing the hair because water is scarce.

• The Algerian men of the Ahaggaren Tuareg group wear a veil almost all the time, occasionally taking them off when in a family group or while they travel.

African Folklore and Legends

Passed down from generation to generation…

African folklore is passed down from generation to generation and the stories are very important to the traditions and customs of all African people.

Tricksters and animals play a common role in their folklore. The stories are not only entertaining but serve to teach a lesson as well, sometimes of a moral value and other times of survival.

West Africans have many tales about a wandering trickster spirit who is associated with change and quarrels. In some stories, he is the messenger between the world and the supreme god.

Among the Fon people of Dahomey (Benin), Legba is the guardian and trickster of crossroads and entrances. He speaks all languages and has the power to remove obstacles and provide opportunities. All ceremonies begin and end with Legba because no communication with the gods can exist without first consulting him.

African folklore tales about animal tricksters often describe how helpless creatures manage to outwit fierce animals. One of the most important animal tricksters of West African legends is Anansi, who acts on behalf of the sky god, Nyame. Anansi became the King of All Stories after proving to Nyame that he could trick a jaguar, hornets and a fairy. Anansi is often depicted as a spider, a human or a combination of both.

Other animal tricksters common in African legends include the tortoise and the hare. There are even stories of animals who help humans. According to the San Bushmen, the praying mantis gave them words and fire. The Bambara people of Mali claim that an antelope taught them agriculture.

Animals play an important role……

In other African Legends, animals play an important role in how death came into the world, such as the tale of the lizard that carried the message of death to mankind or the hyena that severed the rope between heaven and earth.

Many stories are based on talking animals with human characteristics, such as greed, jealousy and loneliness.

More Folklore and Legends to read ….

African Myths

The earth is a very important element…….

According to many African myths, the creation of heaven precedes the creation of earth and man was created before the animals. The sun and the moon are given high status, even seen as gods in some cultures and because all African societies depend on rain, it is also held in high regard.

The earth is a very important element in the many myths. It is regarded by many as a mother goddess who rules all people and gives birth to new generations of all beings. It is believed that earth conceals life, protecting it from drought and reviving it when the rains come.

All creatures are earth and none can live without her. Even the elements come from the earth, yet the earth itself is seldom worshipped. She is regarded as a powerful spirit, ruling over life and death, moving mountains, forests and all when angered. It is said that animals understand and obey the earth but that man does not.

Some African peoples believe that the spirits live in the sky and control the rain, while others believe in water spirits that control the rivers, lakes and oceans. There also exist African myths of spirits that inhabit rocks, mountains and trees, such places are considered sacred.

It can be good or evil….

In African mythology, Jok is the concept of the divine; it can be good or evil, one or many. Unlike Europeans, who believe spiritual beings must be separated, African mythology believes Jok is the unified spirit of all supernatural beings: God and the spirits, the gods, the holy ghost and beings from the otherworld.

African Religion believes in the existence of good and evil spirits and rituals play a very important part in African culture. Bad spirits are believed to cause misfortune and illness and many societies have spiritual professionals who communicate with ancestral spirits to protect against evil. Mediums enter into trance-like states, allowing a spirit to possess their body and use them to communicate or prophesy.

African religious practitioners undergo intense training and there are different roles of spiritual professionals including priests, rainmakers and healers, also known as diviners or herbalists.

Some African Religions even distinguish more than one spiritual essence residing within a person. In Nigeria, the Yoruba people believe that a person has at least three spiritual beings. Emi (meaning “breath”), is a vital force that keeps man alive. It resides in the heart and lungs and is fed by the wind. Ojiji is a shadow that follows its owner and awaits his return in heaven when he dies. The third being is Eleda, or spirit, which must be fed by sacrifices. These spiritual beings flee the body at the time of death and all await his return in heaven.

African Myths on Destiny

The Yoruba people also believe that a man’s success or failure in life depends on the choices he made in heaven before his birth. Ori is the Yoruba god in heaven who supervises people’s choices. Ori means “head” or “mind”.

Even the gods themselves depend on Ori to direct their personal lives. Gods and men alike consult their sacred divination palm nuts daily in order to receive direction from Ori.

African Traditions

African Traditions are expressed through music, art, dance and sculpture…

African Tradition is expressed through many different art forms, such as music, dance, art, sculpture and beadwork.

These traditions are deeply ingrained into the whole African culture.

Many African languages are “tone languages,” meaning that pitch level determines meaning.

Oral Tradition

Oral tradition is very important in African culture, as it insures the passage of cultural practices from one generation to another.

Listening is an equally important skill, which has been perfected by the traditional oral practices. Numerous songs and dances have been transmitted by word of mouth.

Music and Poetry in African Traditions

Naturally, singing is very important to the African society because the melody and rhythm follow the intonation of the song text. The songs are often sung in call-and-response form.

In West Africa, a griot is a praise singer or poet who possesses a repository of oral tradition passed down from generation to generation. They must know the traditional songs and must also be able to improvise songs about current events and chance incidents.

Music is a form of communication and it plays a functional role in African society. Songs accompany marriage, birth, rites of passage, hunting and even political activities. Music is often used in different African cultures to ward off evil spirits and to pay respects to good spirits, the dead and ancestors.

Although the musical styles and instruments vary from region to region, there are some common forms of musical expression. The most significant instrument in African music is the African drum. It expresses the mood of the people and evokes emotion. The beat of the African drum is the “heartbeat of the community” and its rhythm is what holds the dancers together.

Dance is an integral part of the African culture, and it utilizes symbolic gestures, masks, costumes, body painting and props to communicate. The dance movements can be simple or complex with intricate actions including fast rotation, ripples of the body and contraction and release. Dance is used to express emotion, whether joyful or sorrowful and it is not limited to just the dancers. Often spectators will be encouraged to join in.

Traditional African Masks

The African masks that are used in dances have religious, ceremonial and functional origins. The artist who carves the mask will ceremonially purify himself and offer prayers to his ancestors for guidance before he begins the actual carving of the mask.

The African mask represents a spirit and it is believed that the spirit possesses the dancer as they wear the mask. The chosen dancer goes into a trance-like state in order to receive guidance and wisdom from the ancestors. The dancer will utter and moan the messages received and a wise man, who accompanies the dancer will translate the message.


Although music and dance are extremely important African traditions and are very common forms of communication, many African people express themselves in other art forms as well.

Zulu woman wearing intricate bead work only her husband would understand

The Zulu people are well known for their intricate beadwork. The colour of each bead carries a specific meaning. The beads have been used to carry messages known as “ucu,” a Zulu term loosely translated as “love letters”.

It is an African tradition for young girls to send a boy a beaded bracelet of different colours. The boy will court her for a while and at the appropriate time, he will ask her the meaning of the beads.

Art and sculpture are prevalent in African culture, and the most common themes depict a couple, a woman and child, a male with a weapon or animal, or a “stranger.”

Couples are usually freestanding figures of the same size, representing the importance of “two as one.” A male and female couple in African art usually depicts strength and honour rather than love and intimacy, as it is uncommon for African men and women to publicly display their affection.

A mother and child couple can represent “mother earth” and her people or the strong bond between mother and child.

The male figure with a weapon or animal, represent honour to departed ancestors. African men are often honoured in warfare and there is a great emphasis on weaponry in African art, as it depicts survival and power.

When the stranger is represented in African art, it usually depicts someone from a foreign country or tribe that is not welcomed.

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