There are a few myths about African history and a few reasons why some European writers – not all – felt the need to malign brown-skinned people and claim Africans came from a continent without history. It probably gave them moral peace of mind to believe that they were not committing physical, mental and moral violence against their fellow human beings, during the era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and subsequently during Colonization. Without the social control over public thought that used to exist, we can now consign those myths to the “dark ages” of human history with facts and the latest scientific knowledge.
Due to these various myths about African history, even Africans don’t know about the contributions of the continent to humanity, including: cooperative behaviour (behaviourly modern humans), burials, clothes, tools, art, ornaments, fishing, weapons, cotton, kola nuts (the Cola in Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola), sea-faring vessels, rice, civilizations, elections, age sets (the equivalent of school years), law, medicine, engineering, mathematics, multi-story buildings and so on.
We now know that skin colour is just one of many genetic variations among the world human population. There are more than 1000 variations. Skin colour is independent of hair and eye colour. We also know that due to all modern humans emanating from Africa, there is more genetic variation amongst humans in Africa than amongst the non-African population due to the founder effect. The genetic information for a lighter skin was already present amongst humans before the colonisation of Asia, Europe and America; among North Africans and South Africans due to adaptation and their distance from the equator.
There have been three significant breakthroughs that made it possible for researchers after 2007 to settle the matter about who we all are biologically, and how we got here. First, James Dewey Watson (a molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist) along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material. Next, there was the international Human Genome Project (HGP) launched in 1990 which was completed on April 14, 2003. The Human Genome Project helped humanity decode the sequence of nucleotide base pairs that make up human DNA and explain it in physical and functional terms. Finally, the method for human genome sequencing advanced even further when James Watson managed to sequence 6 billion pairs of his own genome, in four months, at a cost of less than $1.5 million and with only a handful of scientists.
These discoveries had certain unintended consequences because although the projects were undertaken to improve medical practices, suddenly it became cheaper to use human genome sequencing to investigate the DNA of archaic humans, ancient humans, and anatomically modern humans. What does the most modern evidence imply?
Archaic Humans (2.8 million years ago to 50,000 years ago)
Ancient sites of hominin presence. Zhu et al.1 report their discovery of approximately 2.1-million-year-old stone tools at Shangchen in China’s Loess Plateau, which provides the earliest known evidence for the presence of hominins (the evolutionary group that includes humans, extinct species of the genus Homo and related bipedal species) outside Africa. The dates (Myr, million years ago) and locations of some of the important earliest known sites of hominin fossils and stone tools are shown.
The earliest fossils and tools of Homo (archaic humans) were found in Africa. Archaic humans also came from Africa but are considered different to anatomically modern humans (AMH) because they left no strong evidence that they had developed language, art, religion, or group cooperation. The brain sizes of Archaic humans which ranged from 1200 to 1400 centimetres overlapped with the brain sizes of AMH. Both archaic humans and AMH were bipedal and capable of making tools.
What made AMH different was a plethora of behaviours that made them more successful in populating the earth in larger numbers than archaic humans. AMH were inventive: discovered fire, fishing, started wearing clothes around 130,000 years ago, developed language, art, paint-making, religion, abstract thinking, time keeping (Ishango bone), mathematics (Lebombo bone), care for the sick and infirm, sculptures of figurines, developed collective learning, hunting animals, gathering edible plants and making ornaments.
The term “archaic humans” is a broad label for genetic populations of humans that diverged between 2.8 million years ago and 360,000 years ago. These genetic populations included Homo neanderthalensis (430+–25 ka), Denisovans, Homo rhodesiensis (300–125 ka), Homo heidelbergensis (600–200 ka), and Homo antecessor. We know that Neanderthals and Denisovans were not separate species because AMH successfully interbred with them. The average European today has 2% Neanderthal genes, while Asians have up to 6% Neanderthal genes. The average South Asia and Melanesian has Denisovan admixtures in their gene pool. Therefore, some scientists categorise archaic humans as Homo sapiens (s.) neanderthalensis, Homo s. Denisovans, and Homo s. rhodesiensis. All archaic humans were replaced by Homo Sapiens and died out.
Distinctions between different types of archaic humans mostly tell us that those categories are from a particular region. So for instance, Neanderthals were in parts of Europe and Asia, Homo rhodesiensis were from Africa, H. sapiens were in Africa and migrated out of Africa to populate the whole earth, H. denisovans were in South Asia, H. soloensis were in Indonesia, H. daliensis were in North China and H. mabaensis were in South China. The locations of these types also match genetic variations.
After leaving Africa, due to changes in glaciation, archaic humans were only able to migrate close to the equator east towards China. Archaic humans were only more recently able to explore Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Central Europe and the Middle East.
Time Span of “Homo” History by Continent
(in thousands of years before 1950)
Anatomically Modern Humans (340,000 years ago to Present)
The term “anatomically modern humans” (AMH) describes a set of phenotypes and morphological features that distinguish modern humans from archaic humans. The physical appearance tests are not reliable, and better tests can be conducted using genetic science to distinguish AMH fossils from archaic human fossils.
Homo sapiens split from Neanderthals around 750,000 years ago. Denisovans and Neanderthals split from each other around 450,000 to 350,000 years ago. Within the Homo sapiens group, the Khoisan (the oldest AMH inhabitants of Southern Africa) split from other humans around 350,000 to 260,000 years ago.
Migration path of Homo sapiens genetic populations; Source: National Geographic
Time Span of Homo sapiens History by Continent
(in thousands of years before 1950)
Challenges of developing human history before writing
Scientists have found that the genetic history of most world populations follows the make-up of migrants and mixtures of masses more closely rather than the genetic contributions of the political ruling class. Where descendants live today is no indication of where ancestors lived either centuries ago, millennia ago or tens of thousands of years ago. The current location of archaeological materials does not reflect the location of production, the path of travel of artefacts, the location of use of artefacts, the location after the death of the user of artefacts and the path of travel after inheritance procedures kicked in. Most of world history cannot be accurately deduced from writing since this was not invented until 5,000 years ago. Furthermore, writing was exclusive prior to 1500 AD, both written and read by a minority of the world population in every region.
Before agriculture was developed there was no logic in making heavy tools or building housing from time-consuming materials since being immobile reduced survival chances, in times when humans couldn’t fly in a plane from an airport away from danger, drive in a car away or ride on a horse, donkey or camel away. The diverse environments of the earth limited the usefulness of various innovations to every environment.
Peopling of Arabia, South Asia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and East Asia (130,000 – 40,000 years ago)
Around 130,000 to 40,000 years ago, AMH left Africa by two main routes. The first route from Northeast Africa into the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea is called the “Southern route” out-of-Africa migration; with the earliest date range around 70,000-40,000 years ago. The second route from Africa via the Nile into the Near East (Israel and Iran) is called the “Northern route” out-of-Africa migration; with the earliest date around 130,000 years ago. Some AMH broke off from the Arabian Peninsula and Iran and expanded into South Asia and Central Asia.
Around 54,000 years ago to 49,000 years ago AMH and Neanderthals interbred resulting in European hunter-gatherers, East Asians and the ancestors of Negritos of India, Papuans and Australians. The ancestors of the Negritos of India, Papuans and Australians intermarried with H. S. Denisovans between 49,000 to 44,000 years ago, and retain these admixtures in minor percentages.
The South Asians founded the Harappa culture in the Indus Valley. Still, more AMH moved into China and Japan. Between 19,000 and 4,000 years ago the steppe populations from Afghanistan expanded back south into India, with the advancing warriors taking wives among the India inhabitants to create the Ancestral South Indians. The next wave of migrants then settled in the North of India creating the Ancestral North Indians, and the caste system through endogamy. All Indians are therefore a mixture of Ancient Persians, Ancestral South Indians and Ancestral North Indian, but even more remarkably all Indians descend from the H. sapiens branch of H. erectus according to geneticists. Those societies that have avoided mixing with steppe ancestors of stereotypical Indians completely still look like Sub-Saharan Africans and are called Negritos.
Peopling of Europe (19,000 years ago to 2,000 years ago)
After the Neolithic revolution, the AMH already in Eastern Europe responsible for the Yamnaya culture (c. 4000 BCE – c. 3000 BCE), Cored Ware culture (c. 2900 BCE – c. 2350 BCE) and the Bell Beaker culture (c. 2800 BCE – c. 1800 BCE) using copper tools and more effective agricultural practices expanded into much of Europe to populate everywhere from the Balkans to the British Isles during 4,000 to 2,000 BCE, replacing any European hunter gatherers occupying Western Europe. These people became the Celts. Later migrations and mixtures of different technological and political ideas followed creating the pre-history populations that left archaeological materials.
Locations of Bell Beaker Culture. Source: Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Between 19,000 years ago and 9,000 years ago, the typical features of Europeans were dark-skin, blue eyes and black hair. After the mixtures of farmers with the hunter gatherers of Europe, appearances including a mixture of dark and blond hair developed along with pale skin and blue eyes.
Peopling of the Americas (17,000 to 10,000 years ago)
The land bridge between North-eastern Europe and the Americas was used by AMH to expand into North America and subsequently South America. While in America, the Native Americans were the first to begin copper and brass use around 6,000 years ago. The Native Americans also developed independent breakthroughs in farming and medical drug development.
Pre-History of Africa
Civilisation has been defined by mostly European and North America scholars, and as such it is weighted towards cultural achievements that they feel indicated “early” achievement of civilisation. Those marks of civilisation include a complex society, urban development, state formation, and domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialisation of labour, stratification and writing. Some other marks of civilisation are considered monument building, expansionism and taxation.
One way in which Africans in Pre-History (before the advent of writing) have been grouped is mainly into 4 linguistic groups as Nilo-Saharans, Niger-Congo, Afrasan and Khoisan. Although this seems logical, it is also possible that past languages included blending of proto-languages which no longer exist, so using languages in existence today to make judgements about culture that existed in the past may be prone to the weaknesses of survivorship bias.
Before writing was invented, Africans had made some advancements we now take for granted today, including: fire, clothing, art, painting, hunting animals, gathering edible plants, mathematics, fishing, the stone age, inheritance systems (both patrilineal and matrilineal systems), the calendar, laws and religion. Humans that left Africa took these ideas with them to the rest of the world.
Developments in Africa 3,500 BCE to 50 BCE
Between 5,500 and 2,000 years ago, various writing systems were either exclusively developed in Africa or adopted by Africa including Hieroglyphs (3,200 BCE to 400 BCE), Hieratic, Demotic, Sahidic, Boharic, Meroitic (2,000 BCE to 600 CE), Akkadian, Coptic from 200 BCE, Archaic Hebrew (1,000 BCE to 100 CE), Old Nubian, Tifinagh script, Ge’ez from 900 BCE, Punic (800 BCE to 200 BCE), Wadaad writing, Nsibidi and Gicandi script. Colonists in Cyrenica also made Greek a spoken language in Africa, while the defeat of Carthage by Rome and later the defeat of Egypt by Rome made Latin (100 BCE to 639 AD) a spoken and written language among Africans. More recently the kingdom of Luba used the Lukasa memory board.
In contrast, evidence of European writing systems did not materialise until Ancient Greek by Hesoid in 750 BCE, Archaic Latin in the Praeneste fibula from the 7th Century BC, Runic in Germany in 400 AD, Ogham in Ireland from 550 AD, Gallo-Romance (Old French) in the treaty of King Charles the Bald in 842 CE.
To be consistent with how African History is judged we have to use the same basis used for Africa as Europe. This means Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt cannot be considered Indo-European. If France, Germany, Italy, the British Isles, Scandinavia, Greece and Ireland were illiterate before 800 BCE, we can’t chop and change the world map to make Europe look cleverer at a time they lagged behind the Middle East, Asia and Africa in technological development.
Evidence of writing in Europe, which is used to beat Africa with a stick by those who have nothing better to feel good about, typically leans on the achievements of ancient populations living in the middle east which are no more Western European than the Lebanese, Syrians, Saudi Arabians or Persians.
Africa is a diverse continent, in language, geography, religion, genetic variations and political ideas. The continent has forests, deserts, rivers, lakes mountains, islands, coastlines and savannahs. Rivers, deserts, lakes, the Oceans and mountains all in some cases either created the natural borders of different nations or made it easier to divide and rule large territories.
Across much of Africa, including North Africa, various models of political governance developed. We summarise 15 systems in an article about pre-colonial Africa’s political ideas. States were able to form based on actions of political entrepreneurs in peace times, in response to external threats, or natural disasters. Oral or written history is how the families of political entrepreneurs drew an intellectual property dividend from the contributions of nations founders. Both oral and written history often protects the rights and authority of the royal family, legislature, wealthiest families or the national priesthoods. Both genetic, oral and written history often fail to tell the story of the original inhabitants of any region on earth, due to survivorship bias and migrations.
Some states had certain concepts in common which formed the foundation of societies which arose across the African continent. These concepts included:
- The right for subjects to vote with their feet and leave bad governance by abandoning the societies which were based on failing systems
- Decisions were made by either age grade, ability or nominated leaders in the most “atomic” administrative units. By atomic, I mean the smallest decision-making body that underpinned African societies, in villages, towns and wards within cities.
- Cities were split into quarters and wards, so that the smallest ward of a city was similar to a village by size.
- Authority, the right to make rules for society and execute them, came from councils. Councils were formed by splitting societies into either guilds in the Sahel, families among the Niger-Congo and among the Khoisan, age sets or age grades in Afrasan societies. The age grade and age set systems were the earliest form of democratic rule in which those appointed to the ruling councils of each standard chief-less society had to reach a certain age before being eligible to get involved in leadership.
- Chiefs, judges and kings were entrusted with acting in the interest of the people. Heads of state or council members who failed in their duties could be ordered to commit suicide. People who did not hold an equivalent rank as the leader could not execute a chief or king.
- Land allocations were made by a chosen representative from the family of the founder of the local community or the state. The lineage head of the family of the founder was not always also the king.
- Kings, chiefs and judges were not above the law and treaties struck by ancestors had to be observed in future generations unless amended in the present generation.
- Taxes were paid in the form of goods or services to enable the head of state to discharge his duties and pay his servants
- Land could be bought and sold
- Land could be held for life and passed on the family’s heirs, in perpetuity
- Societies that lived with unsafe areas due to the presence of wild animals or threats of nature remained mobile.
- Chiefs, judges and kings held unused land in trust and ensured the fair use and allocation of land and property.
- Disputes could be escalated from village level to district level to provincial level, and then to the Royal Court.
- The administrators and wealthy in society had to provide gifts to the poor among them.
- Fines, the death penalty and immolation were penalties for certain crimes
- Property could be inherited through either the mother or father.
- Oral tradition was used to educate the future generation about the philosophy, institutions and political processes of the society.
- Wars had a time limit.
- Caste, class, age grades or age sets were economic, political, social and military mechanisms for rationing education, individual and social responsibilities, police or military training, division of labour and religious duties.
- Dowries or bride price were symbols of the union of two families. The bride price could be returned in the event of serious wrong doing.
- Slaves could hold government positions, hold property and in some cases marry
- Some government positions only went to eunuchs to eliminate any motivation to participate in treason or regime change.
- The king was not allowed to associate freely with society all year round, but could only appear in public on specific occasions, in order to minimise disruptions to normal business that would be caused by the king or chief’s retinue moving through areas within the kingdom or nation. Most societies had protocols for how chiefs and kings had to be greeted and paid respect.
- The history of clans, villages and families were transmitted in songs and dances.
On this website, we have provided various articles to help you discover the various political structures that existed in Africa in the past, 56 countries on the continent and achievements of its people since time immemorial.
Zhu, Z. et al. Nature 559, 608–612 (2018).
Groucutt, H. S. et al. Nature Ecol. Evol. 2, 800–809 (2018)
Harmand, S. et al. Nature 521, 310–315 (2015).
Ferring, R. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 10432–10436 (2011).