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African Civilisations

Written by Oadeye

Africa’s Civilizations: Paving The Path For The Growth Of Other Civilizations World Wide

Most of the people have been falsely taught that the ancient Africans had little or nothing to do with the development and progression of civilization. This couldn’t be more wrong, for a massive number of sources shows that the origins of several advancements actually hailed from Africa. Anthropological evidence proved that the advances in various fields such as engineering, mathematics, navigation, writing, arts occurred solely in African societies. Many essential things that we utilize today should be rightfully credited to the ancient accomplishments of Africa’s ancient civilizations.

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First Humans

The earliest human-like fossil was found in East Africa and dates back to about 2.8 million years. This evidence suggests that the “true” humans or the Homo Sapiens were of African descent. Scientists have also found signs of primitive life in Algeria when they discovered primitive stone tools, and animal bones that were scratched in a way suggesting that the animals were skinned, gutted and butchered. This evidence shows that the origin of mankind might not have been restricted to East Africa, but rather the entire continent of Africa was the cradle of humankind.

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The Benin Empire

Dating back to the 11th century, one of the oldest and most highly developed civilizations in West Africa, was the Benin Empire. The Benin City and the surrounding kingdom were lined with man-made walls known as the Walls of Benin, which were one of Africa’s architectural marvels that were described as the world’s largest earthworks preceding the mechanical era according to the Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition). The city was made up of banks and ditches that formed a series of earthworks. The great earthworks of Benin are four times longer than the Great Wall of China and took up about a hundred times more material than those consumed by the Great Pyramid of Cheops. It is estimated that 150 million hours were spent working on the construction, after which the walls stood for over 400 years protecting the civilization of Benin.

Ancient Egypt

Established around 3100 BC, the early Egyptian civilization had to invent things for themselves since they had no one to learn from. Therefore, they were the first to discover metallurgy, astronomy, writing, paper, medicine, mechanics & machinery (including ramps, levers, ploughs and mills) and all that goes for the continuation of a large organized society. Their exploration of the different fields of studies allowed them to create iconic inventions such as: the pyramids, the first codified form of writing (hieroglyphics), the papyrus sheets, black ink, the calendar, the clock and wigs just to name a few.

Empire of Mali

The Empire of Mali introduced the prosperous University of Sankore to the world as a highly significant seat of learning. The university is located in Timbuktu which has been a desirable destination for merchants, and so the university with its valuable collection of books and ideas became a sought after center of learning as well as worship (since it originated from the Sankore Mosque). Today, Timbuktu holds over 700,000 manuscripts with many dating back to the 12th -16th centuries (West Africa’s Golden Age).

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Timbuktu manuscripts in astronomy and math

Empire of Songhai

In the 15th and 16th century, the Songhai Empire – one of the largest states in African history- dominated the western Sahel of Africa. Due to the stationed army in the provinces throughout the empire, the state would protect the port cities and the merchants who formed partnerships making it a very strong commercial center known for the production of both practical crafts as well as religious crafts. The empire possessed craft guilds that consisted of several artisans and mechanics including metalworkers, fishermen and carpenters. This labor system from the 15th century is often described to resemble the modern day unions.

The Garamantes

According to Herodotus, the Garamantes, -tribal people in Fezzan, Libya around 100BC – were a great nation who farmed dates, herded cattle and used four-horse chariots. The Garamantes tribes are particularly known for their elaborately constructed agricultural system known as the “foggara underground irrigation system”. This allowed them, despite being in the desert, to grow a myriad of crops including figs, grapes, dates, olives, wheat, barley, millet and sorghum. The Garamantian kingdom stood its place for over six centuries.

Kanem-Bornu Empire

At the height of the Kanem-Bornu Empire from the 8th century, it encompassed an area covering most of Chad, parts of southern Libya, eastern Niger, northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon. The empire was geographically situated amidst one of the most convenient trans-Saharan routes facilitating trade connections with the surrounding kingdoms. This allowed the empire to be in control of a strongly built network of trade between North Africa, the West African Kingdoms, and East Africa. A long line of successive rulers of the kingdom managed to maintain its stability and allow it to prosper.

Kingdom of Luba

At around 1585, the Luba Kingdom ascended in the wet grasslands of the Upemba Depression – in today’s Democratic Republic of Congo. What sets the Luba Kingdom apart from other kingdoms is that it held the arts in high esteem. A carver with an axe (adze) carried over his shoulder held a relatively high status among the society. Among the figures used to adorn objects were female figures, due to the important role that they played both in political society and in myths of creation. Headrests and staffs owned by kings were specially carved embedding within them elements from prophetic dreams which were believed to be messages communicated from the other world. The Kingdom’s rulers held such high prestige that rulers of small neighboring chiefdoms were keen to associate themselves with the Luba culture.

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Kingdom of Makuria

Makuria was a Nubian kingdom located in the modern day Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan region. By the end of the sixth century, Makuria had converted to Christianity, but a century later, Egypt was conquered by Islamic armies who made an attempt to invade Makuria. Thus, in the 7th century, a treaty known as the “baqt” was signed between the Christian state of Makuria and the Muslim rulers of Egypt to create a relative peace between the two sides. This treaty lasted almost seven hundred years, making it the longest-lasting treaty in history.

Nri kingdom

Snail Bronze Vessel from Igbo-Ukwu

9th century snail-shaped bronze vessel excavated in Igbo-Ukwa, Nigerian Nationa lMuseum, Lagos

Established in the 10th century, the Nri Kingdom was a medieval polity administrated by the priest-king Eze Nri. The kingdom of Nri served as a haven for those who have been rejected from their communities. Moreover, it was a place where slaves were set free from their servitude. Thus, the kingdom expanded through converts which allowed it to gain the allegiance of neighboring communities. In Igbo-Ukwu, a part of the Nri Kingdom, bronze casting techniques were practiced using elephant-head motifs. The bronze pieces are so detailed depicting natural aspects such as a hatching birds, snails and chameleons.

Oromo

Representing 34.5% of the Ethiopian population

Map of Ethiopia highlighting the Oromia Region

Map of Ethiopia highlighting the Oromia Region

, the Oromo people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Long before the 16th century, the Oromo people implemented the Gadaa system of governance, an exceptional democratic socio-political system. The Gadaa system would elect a leader from five Oromo groups (miseensa), and the leader remains in power only for 8 years, after which another election takes place for the successive leader. Every eight years, the newly elected leader would be responsible for various political, judicial, religious and ritual roles.

Land of Punt

The kingdom of punt was an ancient land known for being a powerful trading partner of Egypt. The exact location of the kingdom is debatable; some say that it might correspond to Opone on the Horn of Africa, while others believe it to be the biblical land of Havilah or Put. However, due to the strong channel of trade with Egypt, it is most likely that Punt was situated to the southeast of Egypt. The land of Punt was known for the production and exporting of gold, ivory, ebony, aromatic resins, blackwood and even wild animals.

Some of Africa’s Ancient Contributions to the World

Writing

Africa’s oldest known writing system dates back to over 6000 years ago. While on the other hand, Europe’s oldest writing dates back to 1400 BC, which was used by the Greeks yet largely derived from the Proto-Sinaitic, an old African script. The most famous indigenous writing system that emerged from Africa is the Egyptian hieroglyphs, which developed later into Hieratic, Demotic and Coptic. Then, there was the Meroitic language native to the Kingdom of Kush (present day Sudan). There is also the Tifinagh writing system which is still used to a certain degree (Tamazight) in the Maghreb, Sahel and Sahara regions. The Horn of Africa also developed the Ge’ez script which is used today in Ethiopia and Eritrea for different languages such as Amharic and Tigrinya.

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Hieroglyphs (left) and Ge’ez (right)

Art

It was Africans that introduced arts to humanity for the first time about 73,000 years ago, and Africans were the first artists. This fact was brought to light with the discovery of ancient artworks in the Blombos cave of South Africa. It is also strongly believed that the African art’s abstract nature influenced the modern European art movements.

Scupltures

Sculpturing was one of the most important forms of art in ancient African civilizations. Sculptures were mostly inspired by natural elements including people and animals. Sculptures of masks often represented the spirit of animals in religious rituals. The African artists mainly used wood, but they also explored with different materials such as bronze, iron, ivory, ceramics and terracotta. Precolonial African art is mainly characterized by being three-dimensional rather than the regular flat paintings.

African Nok sculpture African soldiers in bronze Bronze sculpture of an African Woman's Head

Sea-Faring Vessels

The ancient maritime trade between civilizations dates back to nearly 10,000 years ago. The coastal civilizations used sailing vessels for both fishing and travelling. The constructed sailing vessels started as simple ones on the safer coastal sides, but later evolved into more complex sea-faring vessels that crossed vast water boundaries such as the Arabian Sea. The sails of early vessels were made from animal skins or woven fabrics. Among the leading civilizations in the construction of sea-faring vessels were, Egypt (with the Khufu ship) , the Kingdom of Axum and the ancient land of Nibua, Somali sailors (with the ancient Beden vessel) along with many other Swahili nations who established extensive coastal trading posts.

Papyri

The writing material of the medieval times known as the papyrus was derived from the aquatic plant Cyperus papyrus, which was native of the Nile delta region in Egypt. At the time, the papyri were reserved for use only by experienced scribes to document religious and medical texts, scientific manuals, literature, and for record-keeping and writing official documents. Many papyri survive to that day telling us of ancient discoveries made by the Egyptians. Among those is the ancient Egyptian dating system or the first calendar that used a year of 365 days.

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Bibliography

  • Brian K. Hall; Benedikt Hallgrímsson (2011). Strickberger’s Evolution. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4496-6390-2.
  • Patrick Darling (2015). “Conservation Management of the Benin Earthworks of Southern Nigeria: A critical review of past and present action plans”. In Korka, Elena (ed.). The Protection of Archaeological Heritage in Times of Economic Crisis. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 9781443874113
  • Stride, G.T & C. Ifeka: “Peoples and Empires of West Africa: West Africa in History 1000–1800”. Nelson, 1971
  • Karim Sadr (Reviewer): WHO WERE THE GARAMANTES AND WHAT BECAME OF THEM? The Archaeology of Fazzan. Volume I: Synthesis. Edited by DAVID J. MATTINGLY. London: Society for Libyan Studies, and Tripoli: Department of Antiquities, 2003. (ISBN 1-90097-102-X)
  • Mafundikwa, Saki. 2004. Afrikan alphabets: the story of writing in Afrika. West New York, NJ: Mark Batty. ISBN 0-9724240-6-7
  • Enwezor, Okwui (2010). Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity: Contemporary African Photography from the Walther Collection. Göttingen: Steidl. ISBN 978-3-86930-157-0.
  • Diringer, David (1982). The Book Before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and Oriental. New York: Dover Publications. p. 252 ff. ISBN 0-486-24243-9.

About the author

Oadeye

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