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Myths about Africa: the hunter gatherers were not smart (200 BCE – 1950 CE)

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Myths about Africa: the hunter gatherers were not smart

Travellers, anthropologists and historians from 1500 CE to 1800 CE that wrote about Africa sometimes recounted that some African people lived as hunter gatherers, when Europeans came across them. It must be remembered that not all Africans lived this way; based on the eye-witness accounts of Olfert Dapper (Dutch traveller), David van Nyendael (Dutch traveller), and others. Those societies where African lived in states we cover off in the articles about African’s political systems and Africa’s kingdoms. In respect of the hunter gatherers, it seems strange to overlook key events in history that would have created internally displaced persons and refugees: such as the Punic Wars, the wars in North Africa by Julius Caesar, Augustus (also known as Octavian) and Agrippa, Islamic wars, Byzantine Pacification Wars, the Afro-Ottoman Wars, slave trading, the Scramble for Africa, World War One and World War Two.

Internally displaced people (IDPs) were people fleeing violence who do not cross a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, they would go on the run within their home nation due to insecurity or economic instability. IDPs would stay within their own country and remain under the protection of its government, even if that government were the reason for their displacement. They would often move to areas where it became difficult for them to benefit from dividends of stability such as technology, regional and local trade markets, medicine men and specialisation of labour; and as a result, these people became very vulnerable.

Refugees however would cross borders, the Sahara, deserts, forests, mountains, rivers and lakes to escape threats to their lives.

Consequently, both IDPs and refugees would suffer loss of property, wealth, income and basic freedoms (to pursue their human potential); while on the run. Children without access to proper food could suffer illnesses, malnourishment and damage to their education linked to an unsafe environment.

To escape the threat of enslavement and the nine-year life span which awaited slaves in the New World, many Africans would have opted for a non-sedentary or even avoided a pastoral life, out of common sense; which shockingly some academics seem to overlook when discussing African History after 1500 CE. Some Africans would have abandoned cities, kingdoms, their homes, or other forms of permanent settlements, in order to increase their chances of both survival and autonomy.

Dangers from 200 BCE to 1,950 CE

The African people faced a variety of dangers from between 200 BCE and 1,950 CE, starting from the Punic Wars. The Punic Wars were fought between the Kingdom of Carthage and the Roman Empire which went on for around 150 years. It could be considered a world war as it affected two of the three mapped continents at the time (Africa and Europe). These were one of the biggest wars fought in that era, between two extremely strong forces.

Carthage was an empire based in North Africa, that had one of the strongest naval forces in history. The Roman Empire, wanting to expand, fought a series of wars with Carthage, culminating in the complete destruction of Carthage and its resettlement by an occupying Roman administration. This would create many small empires, all wrestling for power with each other, and leave a power vacuum that would cause much instability in Africa.

The next series of battles related to the Great Roman Civil War between the Populares (law-makers and forces favouring the people such as Julius Caesar) and the Optimates (the land-owning senatorial class) in a four-year-long political and military conflict that spanned Africa, Greece, Hispania, Illyria, and Italy.

Roman world in 56 BC, when Caesar, Crassus and Pompey meet at Luca for a conference in which they decided: to add another five years to the proconsulship of Caesar in Gaul; to give the province of Syria to Crassus and both Spains and Africa to Pompey

The next major event in history of externally initiated wars were the so-called Byzantine Pacification Wars, which were carried out by the Byzantine Empire, a continuation of the Roman Empire. They carried out many operations to expand their territory and to “pacify” those who revolted against them. These military campaigns hampered development along the coast line of North Africa, as many Mediterranean African empires were not equipped to defend themselves from an organized power of such strength.

The empire in AD 555 under Justinian the Great, at its greatest extent since the fall of the Western Roman Empire (its vassals in pink)

The empire in AD 555 under Justinian the Great, at its greatest extent since the fall of the Western Roman Empire (its vassals in pink)

These wars continued until the arrival of Islam in Africa, which led to another series of wars. The Islamic Empire launched wars against the Byzantine Empire, part of which was in Africa. This led to a large-scale assault, and the eventual capture of the Exarchate of Africa, from the Byzantines. These wars were huge operations, as the Muslim armies would also try to convert neighbouring areas, and those who refused to comply with their conditions had to face war. Many would have left as refugees due to the Jizya system, to continue their own religious beliefs in unfamiliar areas within the African interior.

A map depicting growth of the caliphate. Orange: conquests of Mohammed, founding prophet of Islam; Light Green: conquests of Abu Bakr 632 CE – 634 CE; Light Pink: conquests of Umar 644 – 656 CE; Brown: conquests of Uthman 644 – 656 CE; Dark Pink: conquests during the reign of Muawiyah 661 CE – 680 CE Yellow: territories gained by Abd al-Malik 680 – 705 CE; dark green: territories gained by Walid 705-714 CE. There were no territorial gains during the reign of Ali ibn Abi Talib 656 CE – 66 CE.

The Abbasid, Mamluks and then the Ottomans continued after the Fall of the Fatimids to rule different parts of Africa with little direct opposition to each other until the Afro-Ottoman Wars. This would begin with the conquest of Egypt by the Ottomans, which had been ruled by the Mamluk Empire (1250 CE – 1517 CE). Algeria, Tunisia and Libya were the next areas to be dragged into war, as once again, armies would ravage across the Northern coastline of Africa, leaving behind devastation in its wake.

While wars may have occurred at various intermittent times within the interior of Africa, it was the onset of trans-Sahara slave trading that truly hampered any chance of economic development in the continent. The Arabs brought with them the Arab slave trade, and they looked to enslave masses in Africa, relying at times, on local African slave traders. As many as 17 million innocent people were enslaved by the Arab slave trade, bringing fear and instability to many parts of Africa. This would increase the number of people who would go on the run, as the fall of any strong African Empire would mean slavery for the masses living within them.

While the Arab slave trade was going on, another major international danger would arrive to destabilise various African regions. The discoveries of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English explorers led to Western powers trying to buy African slaves or raid innocent towns to supply plantations, markets and mines newly created in the Americas. The Portuguese, the British and the French were the major proponents of this slave trade. Around 15 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic and forced into slavery, and these estimates are extremely conservative, as there were also many deaths during the travels that are not accounted for.

Major parts of Africa were ravished by a combination of both powers ransacking Africa for their own good. The economy of Western Africa was hit by the Atlantic slave trade, as many men of working age were enslaved against their will and taken out from the economy, while Eastern and Northern Africa was heavily ravished by the Arab slave trade.

After it became politically unpopular to engage in slavery or slave trading on home soil leading to the abolitions of slavery in the 19th century, the European powers decided to engage in the so-called Scramble for Africa, a decision to conquer vast parts of Africa.

While the European public were told this was to civilise Africa and suppress the slave trade, in practice these ventures were performed by chartered or joint-stock companies, supported by European navies, and to take control of the major resources present in many parts of Africa. While slavery was now illegal in much of Europe, a moral contradiction occurred whereby Africans were forcibly conscripted, either with low wages or no pay, to assist European companies with building infrastructure, carrying equipment and goods, fighting in wars against fellow Africans, leaving 90% of Africa would be under European control by 1914.

Raw materials such as cotton, copper, rubber and diamonds were pillaged from the continent, with no benefit going to the indigenous people. This rape of Africa was a major traumatic event for most Africans, as it meant that they were in no control of their own destiny, ruled from abroad by people who cared little about the development of African economy or African people and education, but who cared only about what profits they could get. The re-direction of agricultural sectors from producing food for Africans to producing food for Europe in some cases caused famine and death.

Africa would then also suffer from the effects of World War One, with 90% of Africa split between the warring nations. Africans would be conscripted and forced to fight on both sides, and the brave Africans given no respect for their achievements in the war, and still receiving little accolade for their roles in fighting for the allies. They were treated as disposable human shields, often sent to the front of the battles against other African askari without even basic gear, many not provided with boots, not provided with equivalent daily amounts of food to white soldiers, yet they fought with great gallantry and would turn the tides of many battles.

This would also occur in the second world war with many thousands of Africans dying for the French, Belgians and British territories and fighting against the fascism of Hitler. No nation would ever truly acknowledge the great price paid by the African people in these wars, and in the two thousand years that they suffered under foreign interference.

While African nations would soon manage to free themselves from oppression after the second world war, the effects left by nearly 2000 years of war, little development and little ability to coalesce as strong Empires without being attacked have left lasting effects on the continent as a whole. The Scramble for Africa have raped many of the resources of the nation, and the slave trade left many refugees with no land to call their own.

These periods of instability forced some African people into becoming hunter gatherers, when circumstances required evacuation from cities and civilisation, which was the best way of both protecting themselves from threats, and continuing to survive.


Civilians in African have had to face not only the internal conflicts within Africa, linked to the interests of political entrepreneurs, but also a wanton disregard for life that spilled over from slave trading of Islamic societies and Europe. Without inspiration to invent weapons of mass destruction or invade other continents, some civilians of Africa responded to cruelties beyond their control by applying “Fabian” tactics: staying on the run. This sometimes meant having to adopt a hunter gatherer lifestyle and looking for obscure places to live. When it seemed as though danger was no longer imminent, disparate peoples would reunify and re-form states, social hierarchies and labour socialisation based on the vision of political entrepreneurs.

Although Europe experienced many wars too, the series of religious laws prohibiting the enslavement of Christians during the Middle ages meant that wars were not followed by multi-generational chattel enslavement of Europe’s war captives. Faced with the risk of increasingly prevalent slave trading, African civilians that adopted hunter gathering were not stupid, they took measures to stay alive; no different to how Europeans evacuated target areas during periods of war and instability.

“He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day”

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Myths about Africa: the hunter gatherers were not smart (200 BCE – 1950 CE)

by Editorial Team time to read: 8 min