When you hear “Africa”, what comes to mind? Some think of the food. Others think of African culture and the colorful aesthetics that most African media relies on. Unfortunately, most people who don’t desire to learn more about the continent know little to nothing about this continent before slavery. This has led to a lot of ignorance on the topic of African history. However, the story of the African people has a timeline more vast than that of colonialism and the slave trade. Civilizations like Great Zimbabwe and the city of Timbuktu are excellent examples of Africa’s wealth of education and inovation before European intervention.
In earlier history, every continent had a special resource that other countries wanted, and Africa was no exception. However, the resourcefulness of this continent extends much farther than the resources that Africa provided, as many inventions that were developed in Africa greatly advanced mankind. In fact, many of the things made in these places are still used today, like the oven and different forms of medicine. Overall, the history of the African continent before the 1500s is a hidden gem that must be discussed more when innovation is mentioned in a historical context. The earliest known African people were the San, who have been around for roughly 20,000. They were nomadic and survived through a hunterer-gatherer lifestyle. The Khoi people were around at around the same time, and their lifestyle centered more around herding. However, the Bantu-speaking people are the most important of all three, as most of Africa is Bantu-speaking because of their migrations (South African History, 2011) .
After migrating for some time, they settled and established great kingdoms like Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe. Their teachings of iron smelting led to the development of more civilizations than just Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe, though. This is described as “The Iron Age”. The Bantu peoples’ travel across Africa during this time is what lead to their culture being so widespread. The Iron Age wasn’t a worldwide historical event, but rather a timeline that varies on which continent is being discussed. In Africa, the Iron Age dawned much earlier than in other continents, starting in the 6th century. It spread along Ethiopia, the Great Lakes region, Tanzania, and Nigeria. The discovery of iron led to the creation of furnances, equipment that helped smelt things more effectively, and other tools.
Pots and dishes were also made out of the iron, but they sometimes resulted in lead poisoning. Because of this innovative new set of ideals, metal swords, body armor, and better catapults were no longer a fantasy. Being that metals were such a hot commodity, knowledge on mining had to develop rapidly. Like dominos falling down, pumps were created to keep mines from flooding.
The Iron Age was an important period of time in Africa, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. This was all the work of the Bantu people. Due to the Iron Age and its spread of knowledge on topics that made life much simpler, more people were able to settle down in communities and villages. This later led to the development of towns, cities, cultures, and even civilizations. The more ideas that were spread, the more complex cultures became. This made it so people in sub-Saharan Africa became less nomadic. As groups settled more, societies gradually become more organized, which led to the people of these communities becoming more specialized in different skills. The city of Timbuktu was the greatest learning hub in the world during this time, as it was one of the only places of its kind.
Amidst all of this, administration, the African economy, trade, and politics were born. Because people were working much more efficiently, there was a much higher yield of goods, especially in the agricultural sense. Trade had to be put in place in able for Africa to receive the goods that they couldn’t get otherwise.
One of the most well-known examples of this is the trade of gold for salt, as gold was so abundant in Africa that it was virtually worthless. Salt was desperately needed because the people in this region were lacking in essential vitamins and needed salt to preserve their food. Later on, the trade shifted from gold to humans after the colonization of Africa. After proper preservation techniques were discovered, pottery was developed further to contain food.
The need to keep track of trade and production/productivity resulted in an increase in literacy and numeracy, which was also taught in a more evolved form in Timbuktu. When transport and communications grew, there was an inevitable population increase. Africa was thriving. So far, we have discussed the development and complexification of civilizations, but have not really delved too far into individual examples.
Great Zimbabwe is an excellent way to set the tone. Great Zimbabwe started in 400 CE. Oddly enough, although Great Zimbabwe is seen as an important example of ancient African civilizations, we know little about it! There aren’t any pieces of evidence that lead us to understand how it was built and organized, and what caused its decline in the 1600s. There’s also no written or oral history about the people who inhabited Great Zimbabwe. The only source that’s seen as credible is the ruins.
What we do know is that Great Zimbabwe was the central spot in the Kalahari Desert for Iron Age innovation. In 500 CE, the ancestors of the Shona people, who were Bantu speaking, arrived in the general area of what would be one of the most important civilizations in Africa. In fact, “Zimbabwe” is actually Shona for “house of rock or stone”, or “venerated house”. The class system in Great Zimbabwe was ruled by the elite. They controlled the wealth of the region through the management of the civilization’s cattle. There was estimated to have been about 10,00 – 20,000 people in the civilization all together.
One of the main things that Great Zimbabwe is known for is its enormous walls. There were roughly 200 – 300 people living within them, all of which were the ruling elite. The walls are thought to have been used to preserve the privacy of the elite and keep them apart and above the commoners.
However, the houses within the walls were still huts, although larger than the others. This is the only information that could be retrieved from primary sources. Outside records are the only things that can be found after this point. On Sept.
5th of 1871, the diary of Carl Mauch states that he believed that Great Zimbabwe were the ruins of Ophir, a region mentioned in the bible. A single German man was the only known person who assisted Mauch, merely mentioning, “quite large ruins that could never have been built by blacks.” Karanga tribesmen led him to the site. Another secondary source is European travelers and British colonizers in the 1870s.
They were amazed by the clever worksmanship and grand scale, but there was still much ignorance on the topic of Africans. They felt that they architecture couldn’t possibly be local, as they didn’t believe that African “savages” could have built a structure so grand. Instead they thought that it was the work of foreign powers, such as the Egyptians, Phoenicians, or even Prester John. The ruins were not confirmed to have been built by Africa until the early 20th century, when David Randall-MacIver and Gertrude Caton-Thompson confirmed its African origin and age. Being that much of the information about Great Zimbabwe’s structure has been theorized, it only makes sense that information about its collapse is the same. Hypotheses include changes in the environment that involved weather, and another theory is that the usable land, gold resources, water, and other resources were depleted (Demerdash, 2017).
Most notable is the possibility of a decline in the gold trade. As mentioned before, trade in Africa switched from gold to slaves very quickly, which is a valid explanation for the sudden collapse. This ties in with the idea that Zimbabwean trade and industry were disrupted by the Portuguese.Contrary to popular belief, Africans were trading across the ocean before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
In fact, Ancient Africans sailed to Asia and South America hundreds of years before Europeans. Most of this can be attributed to the kingdoms of Mali and Songhai. They are responsible for building boats 100 feet long and 13 feet wide that could carry up to 80 tons.
Trade between East Africa and Asia led to the development of city-states along the African coast, which includes the Swahili cities of Kilwa and Sofala. There was initially only trade between the Swahili and Arab people, but cowry shells, cloth, beads for gold, rhinoceros horns, iron, and ivory spread inland. The trade did not just include physical items, though. Islam was spread to Africa through Arab traders. The trade route used by the Arab people also contributed to the development of the Swahili language and culture. Currents in the Atlantic Ocean flow from West Africa to South America as well, which indicates that Africans sailed from the East coast of South America and continued to stay there. Genetic plant and animal evidence supports this idea. Art from these South American societies indicate that this is true.
This is a prime example of the idea that trade includes so much more than items and resources. People tended to move along trade routes and form new ethnic groups, as evidenced by South Americans with African roots. This is also confirmed by the Swahili culture, which was cultivated because merchants from Arabia, India, and Southeast Asia married locals in East Africa and settled there.
The blending of these two cultures created the Swahili ethnic group. Swahili cities went on to become among the richest of the 1400s, playing a major role in the world economy despite the fact that Europe had no idea about them. In retrospect, Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe had an economy that was based on selling and buying goods along the river, while coastal Swahili cities traded with inland kingdoms like Great Zimbabwe to get gold, iron and ivory. All of these resources were sold in India, Southeast Asia, and China. Being that all were rare in Asian countries, they could be sold at a fairly high price, and a profit would be made. In exchange, East Africa received cotton, silk, and porcelain from East Asia at high prices.
Both regions were made much richer because of trade with each other. The Trans-Saharan trade isn’t to be forgotten when discussing African trade during the 1400s, either. The presence of this trade route expanded when the Arabs and the Berbers arrive, which made West Sudanese kingdoms possible. Earlier we discussed how civilizations became more complex as innovation peaked during the Iron Age. During the development of civilizations, there came a need for specialized individuals. This is where the city of Timbuktu comes into play. Timbuktu was a West African learning center, more specifically located in Mali. Along with being an important hub for scholars, the spread of Islam was encouraged there.
Scholars came from as far as Rome to study in Timbuktu. Luckily, there is a sufficient amount of information on Timbuktu. This is because scholars in Timbuktu ensured that ancient documents were preserved. Timbuktu peaked from 1493-1591.
Around the end of the 1500s, it began to collapse. Most of the Songhai empire was defeated by the Moroccans after an attack in 1591, which is marked as the end of the region’s trade. They were attacked by several different places until 1893, when the French took the city. The expertise of Ancient Africans goes far beyond trade, though. The entire African continent was fairly proficient in the sciences and kept up with technology.
“African Stonehenge”, which is located in present-day Kenya, was created in 300 BC. It was known for working as a “remarkably accurate calendar”. Metallurgy and tools are the most commonly known trade practiced in Africa, with some of the first known instances of steam engines, metal chisels and saws, nails, and glue. Medicinal sciences were prevalent as well, with medicines in Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa being more advanced than their European counterparts at the time.
Africans in earlier times made use of plants with salicylic acid for pain, kaolin for diarrhea, and those with anticancer qualities. Salicylic acid is what we know today as aspirin, and kaolin is Kaopectate. Medicine discovered back then could also be used to induce abortion and treat malaria. Ancient African malaria treatment is actually just as effective as its modern day counterparts! According to Sydella Blatch of ASBMB, “Medical procedures performed in ancient Africa before they were performed in Europe include vaccination, autopsy, limb traction and broken bone setting, bullet removal, brain surgery, skin grafting, filling of dental cavities, installation of false teeth, what is now known as Caesarean section, anesthesia and tissue cauterization. In addition, African cultures preformed surgeries under antiseptic conditions universally when this concept was only emerging in Europe (Blatch, 2013).” Algebra, geometry, and numerals were also used in daily life in Africa, especially in Timbuktu. Concerning ancient African art, there were many different kinds.
Metalworking and terracotta were among the different mediums used. In present-day Nigeria, the first terracotta was found. It ranges from 500 BCE to 200 CE, which was a “period of time coinciding with ancient Greek civilization” (Clarke, 2006).
Art made by this group of people is referred to as Nok. This is because the first terracotta that was discovered was found in a village by that same name. There isn’t much information on the culture of those who created the sculptures, but Nok terracottas continue to be unearthed. There aren’t any excavations that have been organized for the purpose of finding them. In South Africa, similar sculptures of heads made of terracotta have been found. Those too were buried around 500 CE. Metalwork was incorporated much more at a site in southern Nigeria called Igbo-Ukwu; However the art world was thriving here as early as the 9th century.
Several hundred copper alloy castings with amazing intricacy were discovered there. This is evidence of artistic sophistication, as well as a highly esteemed culture. While some of these pieces can be found in Western museums, there are many restrictions in place that put strain on artifacts being exported. Africa is a lost gem in world history, with many great feats overlooked. In ancient Africa, the Bantu people were responsible for the dawn of the Iron Age, as well as the development and cultivation of many civilizations. The Iron Age started in Africa much earlier than it did in other regions of the orld because of the Bantu people.
They were even referred to as “The Iron Age people” for this reason. African communities and trade were boosted because of the Bantu people, and the most known item used in trade was gold in exchange for salt. Great Zimbabwe, one of the most notable African civilizations, was no exception.
Although Great Zimbabwe is one of the most important of the known African civilizations, little is known about it beside its architecture and inventions. Miseducation on the continent of Africa wasn’t any different as it is today, which is evidenced by the testimonies of Mauch and the British, who felt that Great Zimbabwe couldn’t possibly have been built by “blacks”. Despite these negative viewpoints of Africa, Swahili cities made large contributions to the world’s economy although Europeans had no idea about them. While much of the world viewed the people of Africa as “savages”, the African population was very proficient in the maths and sciences. Algebra and geometry was used in everyday life, as they had to keep track of sales and profits during trade. One of the most important learning hubs in history was Timbuktu, which hosted scholars from places like Greece and Rome. During this time, Africa was filled with experts on astronomy, mathematics, and metalurgy.
This expertise intersected with ancient African art as well, with metalurgy and terracotta being the main mediums in most areas. Sadly, much of ancient Africa’s history has been distorted or simply lost due to negative perceptions of the continent with no logical foundation. This carried on into the slave trade, because, “. .
. the devastation of Africa through transatlantic slavery was accompanied by the ignorance of some historians and philosophers to negate its entire history. These ideas and philosophies suggested, that among other things, Africans had never developed any institutions or cultures, nor anything else of any worth and that future advances could only take place under the direction of Europeans or European institutions. (Understanding Slavery, 2011)” Although we cannot rewrite the past, it is our obligation to rewrite our biases and make the utmost effort to give accolades to those who have earned them, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
This starts with properly educating ourselves on the lost history of the people of Africa.