Chapter Summary and Key Concepts

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

  • understand the tremendous geographic, climatic, and environmental differences found throughout Africa, and their effect on local social developments
  • describe the lifeways of Holocene hunter-gatherers in Africa
  • understand the role of ethnographic analogy in the interpretation of archaeological material
  • discuss how the intensification of hunting, gathering, and fishing was a pre-adaptation for early farming
  • characterize the transition to farming in the various regions of Africa: the Sahara, Central, and Southern Africa
  • trace the beginnings of sedentism in Africa’s various regions
  • enumerate the different domesticated species of plants and animals, and say whether they were imported or indigenous
  • describe how conditions along the Nile were conducive to farming but also created competition
  • explain how competition among early farmers led to the development of more complex groups
  • discuss the Bantu expansion and its relationship to the spread of farming and ironworking
  • understand the general outline of urbanization and state formation in Africa
  • describe the conditions present in Predynastic Egypt, and how they led to the formation of towns, led by elites
  • characterize the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms in terms of their political, economic, and social systems, what aspects display continuity, and how they differed from each other
  • describe the use of writing in pharaonic Egypt
  • understand Egypt’s relationship with the Mediterranean, Nubia, and other areas
  • describe the development of Nubian and Ethiopian states and their relationship to Egypt.
  • trace the later development of urbanization and state formation in northern, western, central, eastern, and southern Africa
  • characterize trade, both within Africa and with non-African entities, and its impact on African societies
  • assess the impact of Christianity and Islam on African civilizations
  • discuss the arrival and impact of Europeans and Americans in Africa beginning in the 15th century.

Chapter Summary


Holocene cultures in Africa must be contextualized within the continent’s huge size and environmental diversity. This variety resulted in several population movements, technological innovations, varied food-production strategies, and socio-political and ideological developments.


Microlithic tools originated earlier than the Holocene, for example they are found at Matupi Cave (Democratic Congo) 30,000 years ago, and at Klasies River Mouth (South Africa) at c. 70,000–60,000 years ago. Many Holocene hunting, gathering, and fishing groups and some early farming societies continued to use microlithic tool industries. These indicate more efficient stone use and intensified hunting, since some points indicate use of the bow and arrow. Core-tools such as axes and hoes also remained useful to some later hunter-gatherer societies for woodworking and unearthing plant foods.

Southern and Central Africa

Sites indicate use of bows, arrows, digging-sticks, pegs, wedges, bark trays, leather bags and clothing, and plant foods and fibers. Plants and animal bones reveal that Southwestern Cape groups moved between the coast in winter and inland in summer.

Ethnohistoric and ethnographic data aid interpretation of archaeological evidence: people gathered at resource-rich seasons, exchanged commodities and reinforced social relationships, but later dispersed into small groups. Numerous artifact types have been found, and ocher was used for body decoration and rock paintings.

Northern, Eastern, and Western Africa

The earliest African farming was part of a continuum of socio-economic change over thousands of years, not an abrupt or rapid adaptive shift. Before the Holocene, economic intensification, early sedentism, and some territoriality are seen among some hunter-gatherers in the Nile Valley’s favorable but confined environment.

Central and southern Saharan sites are often located by rivers and lakes to allow fishing, along with hunting and gathering. Pottery and bone harpoons similar to Early Khartoum are also found.

In East Africa hunter-gatherers exploited terrestrial fauna and increasingly used microlithic tools. Obsidian was traded long-distance; objects feature high quality workmanship.

In West Africa, hunting and gathering intensification, with increased sedentism, microliths, ground-stone axes, pottery, and eventual domestication is seen at numerous sites.


African farming developed gradually. The earliest evidence, from north of the Equator, probably was related to environmental fluctuations.

The Nile Valley

Farming began later in the Nile Valley, appearing relatively suddenly, through introduction of western Asian plants and animals.

West Africa

Early West African savannah farmers are not well known. Cultivation developed later than pastoralism, and important indigenous crops were millet, West African rice, and sorghum. In the rainforest region, yams and oil palms were probably important. Ground-stone artifacts and pottery occur as far south as the lower Congo, suggesting that mixed farming was widespread, though some continued to hunt and gather as well

Northeast and East Africa

In Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, rock paintings indicate cattle herding but are not well dated. Wheat and barley were introduced, but unique local varieties developed, and indigenous Ethiopian plants – teff, noog, the false banana, ensete, coffee, and chat – were domesticated. The ox-drawn plow probably arrived by the 1st millennium bc but did not spread further south. For some time, pastoralism did not spread south of northern Tanzania due to the distribution of tsetse fly and trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness). Toward the end of the 1st millennium bc climatic changes created fly-free areas and pastoralism spread south with iron tools and weapons.


Except in Egypt, the Sudan, and parts of Mauritania and Niger, the earliest metallurgy was iron, not copper. Ironworking may have diffused from Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean or may have been an indigenous development. For most of south of the Equator, iron was not adopted until the 1st millennium ad. One remarkable early iron-using society in West Africa was that of Nok, who produced life-sized terracottas.

Movements of Bantu-speaking Peoples

Iron was first used for ceremonial, decorative, and high-value artifacts, and later for tools and weapons. Its adoption co-occurred with the movements of Bantu-speaking people, who may also have spread farming south of the Equator. A “Bantu expansion” began in the Grassfields of Cameroon, spread east through the savannah, reaching interlacustrine east-central Africa, then into the sub-equatorial savannah. Migration may also have occurred along the Atlantic coast and along the many rivers from the 2nd millennium bc until the late 1st millennium ad.

Ironworking and farming next spread into South Africa, resulting in similar pottery traditions, collectively called the Chifumbaze complex. Chifumbaze people are divided into eastern and western groups.

Cattle thrived in drier environments and were accumulated as wealth, whereas to the west, metal filled this role. By the 7th century ad some sites indicate iron smelting.

Domesticated Plants and Animals

In savannah and highland eastern and southern Africa, millet, sorghum, and cowpeas were important. In the rainforest, yams, oil palm, root crops, pulses, and vegetables were grown. Southeast Asian imports, such as Asian yam, Asian rice, sugarcane, coconut, and citrus fruits arrived via Indonesian colonists in Madagascar and East Africa. The chronology of Southeast Asian plant introductions is still uncertain.

Early cattle in the southern half of Africa were humpless (taurine), later crossbred with Indian zebu (humped) cattle. This generated diverse “Sanga” cattle breeds. Sheep breeds were also crossed, while goats of two types were less important. Other domesticates included donkeys, dogs, and finally, chickens, introduced from India and Southeast Asia.


Metallurgy improved farming efficiency, and farming increased sedentism and population growth, sometimes resulting in large villages that grew into urban centers. The earliest example of this process is seen on Egypt’s lower Nile, which flooded annually and predictably, creating agricultural land surrounded by desert, resulting in population aggregation and rapid socio-economic and political change.

The 3000 years of the Egyptian state are divided by periods of collapse known as the First, Second, and Third Intermediate Periods. The Early Dynastic Period comprised the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd dynasties, from about 2950 to 2575 bc. Rulers include Djoser, who built the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. The Step Pyramid indicates great economic and administrative power, the result of a highly centralized state.

The Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom lasted from about 2575 to 2150 bc and comprised the 4th to the 8th dynasties. Characterized by economic prosperity and political stability, the state was centrally organized around the pharaoh, who had both secular and sacred powers. The massive expenditures on public works used by only three generations of rulers must be contextualized within this setting. The period ended with a weakening of state control, possibly brought on by a loss of economic control and possible famines.

The New Kingdom and After

The New Kingdom lasted until about 1075 bc and included the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties. Powerful pharaohs, including Thutmose I, Amenhotep II, Sety I, and Ramesses II, consolidated the state, and expanded it into an empire. The army and priesthood grew more powerful; temples and royal tombs were created in the Valley of the Kings. Strong afterlife beliefs resulted in complex mortuary rituals such as mummification.

Egypt disintegrated again when general instability also affected Mycenaean Greece and the states of Southwest Asia. The Third Intermediate Period, c. 1075 to 715 bc (the 21st Dynasty to the early 25th) ended with the reunification of Egypt and Nubia, by the Nubian ruler Piye. The Late Period followed, c. 715 to 332 bc, the later 25th Dynasty to the 30th Dynasty, during which Nubian, Egyptian, and Persian kings ruled. It was followed by the Second Persian period, and then the Greco-Roman period (332 bc–ad 395), ruled by the Macedonian and Ptolemaic dynasties. Egypt became a Roman colony in 30 bc.


Urban development also took place elsewhere, with substantial regional variation in subsistence, socio-political organization, religion, and trading contacts.

Kerma, founded in the mid-3rd millennium bc, was the center of Nubia’s first state by the mid-2nd millennium bc. Napata was important during the first half of the 1st millennium bc until the 4th century bc, when power transferred to Meroë. During the later 1st millennium bc and the early 1st millennium ad, the Meroitic state rose. Iron slag indicates industrial activities. Six cemeteries contain rulers under small stone pyramids.

Pre-Aksumite and Aksumite culture on the Ethiopian Plateau spanned the 1st millennium bc to the 7th century ad. The Meroitic leadership role was assumed by Aksum in the 4th century ad, with the port of Adulis facilitating Red Sea trade. Monumental stone architecture is displayed in elite dwellings, tombs, and stelae with indigenous inscriptions. Christianity was adopted early and Christian Ethiopia was Aksum’s direct successor.

North and West Africa

Greek and Phoenician colonies developed into Cyrene and Carthage. Among the Berbers, the Numidian kingdoms of the Maghreb emerged, with stone-built royal tombs showing Hellenistic influences. Roman conquest brought Imperial centers at Timgad (Algeria) and Leptis Magna (Libya). During the Islamic period, Kairouan (Tunisia) and al-Fustat (old Cairo, Egypt) became important.

Archaeological evidence at Jenné-jeno (Mali) indicates urbanization at least 1000 years earlier than once thought. The massive site of Dakhlet el Atrous (Mauritania) dates from the late 2nd and early 1st millennia bc. Ancient Ghana dates to the mid-1st millennium ad, and during the 2nd millennium ad, indigenous states included Mali, Songhai, Kanem, and Borno. Urban centers included Tegdaoust, Timbuktu, Gao, Kano, and Birnin Gazargamo. Extensive trade brought Islam and Arabic literacy.

In the southern rainforest, indigenous urbanization in the early 2nd millennium ad is seen at Begho (Ghana), and Ife and Benin City (Nigeria). By the 19th century the Yoruba (Nigeria) were highly urbanized. State development includes Akan (Ghana), the Yoruba state of Old Oyo, and the Edo state surrounding Benin City.

Eastern, Southern, and Central Africa

Archaeological excavations at Shanga and Gedi (Kenya) and at Kilwa (Tanzania) reveal that urban development was indigenous, but 2nd millennium ad growth was fuelled by Indian Ocean trade, which also introduced Islam.

On the Zimbabwe Plateau, good farmland and natural resources led to the development of states during the first half of the 2nd millennium ad. Rulers dwelt in enclosures of dry-stone masonry, most famously at Great Zimbabwe.

By the mid-2nd millennium ad urbanization and state formation arrived in Central Africa. The 16th-century kingdom of Kongo (Angola) was later joined by the kingdoms of Bunyoro and Buganda (Uganda), Loango (Congo), Luba (Democratic Congo), and Ndorwa (Rwanda). Indigenous developments, they were spurred by control of production and trade.


Contact between Africa and the rest of the world was long and frequent, involving politics, trade, and immigration. Southwest Asian Sheep and goats spread through Africa by 2000 years ago, simultaneous with Asian zebu cattle and South Asian chickens. Southwest Asian domesticated wheat and barley arrived in northeastern Africa by about 5000 bc. Ivory from African elephants reached southern Portugal by the first half of the 3rd millennium BC.

Ceramics indicate 2000 years of East African contact, via the Indian Ocean, with the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, South Asia, and Indonesia. New domesticates, trade goods, and the Islamic religion arrived, and Southeast Asians and Arabs settled in East Africa.

Adverse winds discouraged Atlantic sea trade until the 15th century ad, after which contact expanded rapidly, and Western European economic ventures profoundly affected coastal Africa, joined, from the 17th century onwards, by American interests. The establishment of the trans-Atlantic and Arab East African slave trades had a devastating impact. Atlantic trade introduced useful American crops from the 16th century onwards. Christianity, new cultural concepts, alcohol, firearms, and European immigrants also came to Africa.

Box Features

Key Controversy: Symbolism in Southern African Rock Art

Key Controversy: Climatic Change and Cultural Adaptation in the Sahara

Key Controversy: The Enigma of Sorghum Domestication

Key Controversy: The Origins of African Ironworking

Key Controversy: What Factors Led to the Formation of African States?

Key Discovery: New Insights from the Pyramids

Key Site: Ethiopia’s Rock-cut Churches

Key Site: Jenné-jeno: Origins of Urbanism in West Africa

Key Site: Great Zimbabwe

Key Site: Quseir al-Qadim and the Indian Ocean Trade

Key Site: Igbo-Ukwu

Key words and terms

Geography and environment

  • great environmental diversity
  • vegetation includes tropical rainforest, savanna, sub-desert steppe, desert, Mediterranean, and montane
  • climatic seasonality
  • long- and short-term climatic fluctuations
  • hot, dry season and cool, wet season
  • 30 major climatic events over the last 14,000 years, both long and short

Concepts, ideas, theories

  • hunting and gathering
  • seasonal movement; aggregation, dispersal
  • intensification
  • trend towards sedentism
  • aquatic resource exploitation
  • wild grasses exploitation
  • ceramics
  • transitions to herding and/or cultivation
  • resource competition, intergroup aggression
  • Sahara: adoption of domesticated animals
  • Nile valley: sudden importation of western Asian plants and animals
  • indigenous crops: sorghum, finger millet, panicum, West African rice, yams, oil palms, teff, noog, the false banana, ensete, coffee, chat; indigenous cattle, Sanga cattle
  • imported crops: barley, emmer wheat, flax, Asian yam, Asian rice, banana, sugarcane, coconut, and citrus fruits; Zebu cattle, sheep, goat, pig, dog, donkey, chicken
  • tsetse fly and trypanosomiasis prevented spread of pastoralism
  • Bantu expansion
  • flooding of the Nile
  • Egyptian cities: administrative, cultic, craft production, military
  • Predynastic period competition for resources
  • pharaoh, pharaonic state
  • Egyptian system of writing earlier than Mesopotamia
  • extensive sea and desert trade routes
  • coastal-interior trade
  • Christianity
  • Islam
  • European exploration, 15th century ad onwards
  • American trade, 17th century onwards
  • Trans-Atlantic and Arab East African slave trades


  • microliths
  • composite tools
  • bow and arrow
  • Howieson’s Poort industry
  • axes and hoes
  • Wilton stone industry
  • Oakhurst Complex
  • weighted digging-sticks
  • ocher
  • cave painting, engraving
  • Tshitolian industry
  • Capsian industry
  • Eburran industry
  • iron metallurgy
  • Egyptian hieroglyphs
  • hieratic

Artifacts, features, structures

  • fishing, harpoons, canoe
  • early stone huts (Nile)
  • ground-stone axes
  • pottery
  • sickles
  • storage pits for grain
  • Kansyore pottery
  • Chifumbaze complex pottery
  • Urewe subgroup pottery
  • Kwale ware
  • Matola ware
  • Narmer Palette
  • Step Pyramid at Saqqara
  • pyramids at Giza
  • pyramids of Snofru at Dahshur
  • Meroitic pyramids, hieroglyphs
  • stelae of Aksum
  • coinage
  • currency


  • Khoisan language family
  • Afroasiatic languages
  • Semitic languages
  • Bantu
  • Kufic

Cultures, traditions, phases, states

  • San
  • BaTwa
  • Hadza
  • Sandawe
  • Okiek
  • A Group
  • Elmenteitan
  • Nok
  • Bantu-speaking peoples
  • Chifumbaze complex
  • Urewe subgroup
  • Nkope tradition
  • Gokomere/Ziwa tradition
  • Badarian
  • Naqada I, II, and III
  • Predynastic period (4500 bc–3100 bc)
  • Dynastic Egyptian state emerges c. 3100 bc
  • The Early Dynastic Period (1st, 2nd, and 3rd dynasties) 2950–2575 bc
  • The Old Kingdom (4th– 8th dynasties) 2575–2150 bc
  • First Intermediate Period (9th, 10th, 11th dynasties) 2125–1975 bc
  • The Middle Kingdom (late 11th–14th dynasties) 1975–1640 bc
  • Second Intermediate Period (15th, 16th, 17th dynasties) 1640–1550 bc
  • Hyksos
  • The New Kingdom (18th, 19th, 20th, dynasties) 1520–1075 bc
  • Third Intermediate Period (21st–25th dynasties) 1075–715 bc
  • The Late Period (late 25th–30th dynasties) 715–332 bc
  • Second Persian period
  • Greco-Roman period (332 bc–ad 395)
  • Kerma
  • Napata
  • Meroitic state
  • Pre-Aksumite and Aksumite
  • Greek and Phoenician colonies, Cyrene and Carthage
  • Berber Numidian kingdoms of the Maghreb
  • Roman Imperial centers Timgad (Algeria) and Leptis Magna (Libya)
  • Islamic Kairouan (Tunisia) and al-Fustat (Egypt)
  • Mali, Songhai, Kanem, and Borno states
  • Yoruba Old Oyo state (Nigeria)
  • Yoruba Edo state (Nigeria)
  • Akan state (Ghana)
  • Kongo (Angola)
  • Bunyoro and Buganda (Uganda)
  • Loango (Congo)
  • Luba (Democratic Congo)
  • Ndorwa (Rwanda)


  • Djoser
  • Imhotep
  • Khufu
  • Khafre
  • Snofru
  • Mentuhotep (I or II)
  • Amenemhet I
  • Senwosret I
  • Senwosret III
  • Ahmose
  • Thutmose I
  • Amenhotep II
  • Sety I
  • Ramesses II
  • Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten)
  • Tutankhamun
  • Piye
  • Cleopatra
  • Marc Antony
  • Octavian
  • Manetho


  • Matupi Cave (Democratic Congo)
  • Klasies River Mouth (South Africa)
  • Melkhoutboom Cave (South Africa)
  • Gwisho Hot Springs (Zambia)
  • Apollo 11 Cave (Namibia)
  • Wonderwerk Cave (South Africa)
  • Wadi Kubbaniya (Egypt)
  • Qadan sites (Egypt)
  • Jebel Sahaba (Egypt)
  • Kom Ombo plain sites (Egypt)
  • Catfish Cave (Egypt)
  • Early Khartoum (Egypt)
  • Columnata (Algeria)
  • Kharga Oasis (Sahara)
  • Dakhleh Oasis (Sahara)
  • Dufuna (Nigeria)
  • Lake Turkana (Kenya)
  • Lowasera, Lothagam, Lopoy (Lake Turkana, Kenya)
  • Ishango (Lake Edward, Democratic Congo)
  • Lukenya Hill, (Kenya)
  • Kenyan Rift Valley sites
  • Iwo Eleru rockshelter (Nigeria)
  • Shum Laka rockshelter (Cameroon)
  • Nabta Playa (Egypt)
  • Enneri Bardagué (Chad)
  • Uan Muhuggiag (Libya)
  • Grotte Capeletti (Algeria)
  • Adrar Bous (Niger)
  • Dhar Tichitt (Mauritania)
  • Zinchecra (Libya)
  • Merimde (Egypt)
  • Fayum Depression (Egypt)
  • Esh Shaheinab (Sudan)
  • Kadero (Sudan)
  • Jebel et Tomat (Sudan)
  • Qasr Ibrim (Egypt)
  • Karkarichinkat (Mali)
  • Gajiganna and Daima (Nigeria)
  • Birimi (Ghana)
  • Ti-n-Akof (Burkina Faso)
  • Kursakata (Nigeria)
  • Jenné-jeno (Mali)
  • Kintampo sites (Ghana)
  • Iwo Eleru (Nigeria)
  • Nkang (Cameroon)
  • Asa Koma (Djibouti)
  • Laga Oda and Lake Besaka (Ethiopia)
  • Lalibela Cave (Ethiopia)
  • Quiha (Ethiopia)
  • Dongodien (Kenya)
  • Enkapune Ya Muto (Kenya)
  • Njoro River Cave (Kenya)
  • Gogo Falls (Kenya)
  • Do Dimi (Niger)
  • Taruga (Nigeria)
  • Kemondo Bay (Tanzania)
  • Meroë (Sudan)
  • Kapwirimbwe (Zambia)
  • Toutswe sites (Botswana)
  • Silver Leaves (South Africa)
  • Broederstroom (South Africa)
  • Lydenburg (South Africa)
  • Die Kelders (South Africa)
  • Bambata Cave (South Africa)
  • Hierakonpolis (Egypt)
  • Koptos (Egypt)
  • Naqada (Egypt)
  • Abydos (Egypt)
  • Kahun (Egypt)
  • Memphis (Egypt)
  • Thebes (Egypt)
  • Valley of the Kings (Egypt)
  • Amarna (Akhetaten) (Egypt)
  • Kerma (Nubia/Egypt)
  • Napata (Nubia/Egypt)
  • Meroë (Nubia/Egypt)
  • El Kurru and Nuri (Nubia/Egypt)
  • Jebel Barkal (Nubia/Egypt)
  • Sanam (Nubia/Egypt)
  • Aksum (Ethiopia)
  • Adulis (Ethiopia)
  • Jenné-jeno (Mali)
  • Dakhlet el Atrous (Mauritania)
  • Tegdaoust, Timbuktu, Gao, Kano, Birnin Gazargamo
  • Begho (Ghana)
  • Ife and Benin City (Nigeria)
  • Shanga and Gedi (Kenya)
  • Kilwa (Tanzania)
  • Husuni Kubwa (Tanzania)
  • Great Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe)
  • Ras Hafun (Somalia)
  • Debra Damo (Ethiopia)
  • Unguja Ukuu (Zanzibar)
  • Chibuene (Mozambique)
  • Bambandyanalo and Mapungubwe (Limpopo Valley)
  • Majâbat Al-Koubrâ (Sahara)
  • Quseir al-Qadim (Egypt)
  • Igbo-Ukwu (Nigeria)