Lecture 24: Africa from the Origins of Humanity to the Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay

We have already discussed the history of northern Africa with reference to the Mediterranean world. The Mediterranean tradition of commerce, intellectual exchange, and empire building affected all of northern Africa from the ancient Egyptians to the Islamic kingdoms of the fifteenth century. As I noted in the lecture on Egypt, however, North African civilizations also had extensive contacts with sub-Saharan Africa, as goods and ideas moved down the Nile into the Mediterranean from kingdoms in Nubia and the Sudan. To note these connections is, however, merely to scratch the surface of the interconnections, since kingdoms in western, eastern, and southern Africa engaged in complex exchanges of goods and ideas that extended through the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century.
I note the breadth of these connections and influences, because sub-Saharan Africa has gotten short shrift from both Europeanists and Africanists. There is a tendency among historians to fight over which race has the best claim to Egypt. The European school sees it as part of a Mediterranean and “western” civilization, hence not “black.” Africanists, however, claim Egypt for “black” civilization and use it as means for asserting black Africa’s superiority over “western” civilization. The whole fight is stupid, reflective more of the modern fascination with race and the current rhetoric of racial pride than of any genuinely historical issues. If European historians were racist to deny the possibility that black people could influence such a great civilization as the Egyptians, it is just as racist to reverse the equation, exalting Egypt as having been “black” for the purpose of making “western civilization” appear derivative. Egypt was at a geographic crossroad, both influencing many civilizations and, in turn, being influenced by them. If the Egyptian population’s genetic markers were a combination of white, black, and whatever else, it was not an issue for them; there is no reason why it should concern us.
Having finished my diatribe on race and Egyptian history, I will now note that one unfortunate effect of this silly debate has been to obscure, even to denigrate, the accomplishments of sub-Saharan African civilizations. Kingdoms such as Ghana, Mali, and the Songhay, which we will discuss today, functioned according to their own rules and accomplished great things in spite of the difficulties created by Africa’s often-unforgiving environment. These civilizations were not like those that flourished on the Mediterranean, but they do not need to be. They had their own religions, state structures, and tastes in architecture. In this lecture and the next we will consider the origins, structures, and world significance of these sub-Saharan African civilizations.
Over the last few weeks, I have begun each lecture with a brief look very far back into the past. This lecture will be no different. However, this is Africa we’re talking about, so I will need to go back even further into the past, since this land mass was where humanity’s ancestors first appeared. We begin by looking back 22 million years, when our species and those of the modern apes first diverged. Somewhere between 22 million and 5 million years ago the first hominoids appeared. These were little chimpanzee-like creatures that weighed no more than 20 kilograms. About 3 million years ago, descendants of these little creatures, the first hominids, began to walk the earth. Called Australopithecus africanus, this human ancestor was probably around 1 meter tall and weighed anywhere from 30 to 60 kilograms. Australopithecus gave way to Homo habilis about 2.4 million years ago. Slightly larger at maybe 1.5 meters tall and more importantly having a bigger brain, Homo habilis was probably the first tool-making hominid. Just for comparison, Homo habilis’ brain was about 630cc to Australopithecus’ 520cc.
Homo habilis then gave way to Homo erectus around 1.8 million years ago. Homo Erectus was bigger still, over 1.5 meters, and a little heavier, but also had a bigger brain, approximately 1000cc. This may have made greater cooperation and communal living possible. By about 200,000 years ago Homo erectus died out and was replaced by Homo sapiens, which was larger than all earlier hominids and had an even bigger brain—approximately 1280cc. Homo sapiens had a number of distinct forms, the most famous of which is probably Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, or the Neanderthals. This particular species of hominid flourished in Europe until it finally disappeared about 30,000 years ago. It is not clear whether the Neanderthals were an ancestor of ours, or simply a genetic dead end among Homo sapiens.
Anatomically modern humanity appeared with Homo sapiens sapiens. It is not clear when our species first appeared; it could have been anywhere from 100,000 to 30,000 years ago. Modern humans probably appeared first in Africa, before spreading around the globe. It is not clear how this dispersal took place, whether human beings replaced other hominids or interbred with them. Nor is the development of modern physical types clearly understood. The black population of Africa is probably the oldest human population, based on the genetic diversity evident within its current population. But Africa is also the origin of other physical types, including Caucasoid populations of North Africa, Khoisan speakers of southern Africa, and various Forest Peoples once collectively known as Pygmies. In the north, in particular, cultural and genetic mixing of various human groups had been a part of African history from the beginning. Thus, Africa was not merely the cradle of humanity but also provided the environment in which humanity’s remarkable diversity first appeared.
With the survival of Homo sapiens sapiens in Africa, we are now in a position to begin discussing early African settlements in that part of Africa that is now the Sahara desert. Until about 38,000 BC north central Africa was moist, lush, and green. Lake Chad for example was full of water and human populations could hunt and gather enough food to survive. This changed after 38,000, as Lake Chad began to dry up and the entire area became arid. By about 10,000 BC the rain returned and the pace of life in the Sahara picked up greatly, as cave paintings and other signs of human culture began to appear. This emergence of early Saharan culture was cut short, however, as around 4,000 BC the arid weather patterns returned. At this point, great migrations took place, with the future Berber population of North Africa heading north and other tribes heading south.
Among the most important of sub-Saharan Africa’s migratory tribes were a people called the Bantu, which means persons or people in the Bantu language. The Bantu originated in an area that is today part of Nigeria and Cameroon, just southwest of Lake Chad. The earliest Bantus were river people. They settled on the banks of rivers and navigated them with their canoes. The Bantu lived in clan-based villages that were headed by a chief who was part political and part religious leader. The chiefs practiced the religious rituals that placated the gods and, most importantly, brought rain. They also represented the villages in exchanges with neighboring communities. These chiefs were not absolute rulers, but were selected by the local community of men. If a chief brought disaster on the community, such as drought or flooding, he was then removed and replaced by someone who might control the rain better. The Bantus were an agricultural people, cultivating yams, oil palms, as well as millet and sorghum. These crops were all originally cultivated in the Sudan, so the Bantu inherited the same agricultural traditions that went to Egypt. The surplus that the Bantu produced encouraged trade with other peoples, usually the hunter-gatherer Forest Peoples that lived in the African forest. The Bantu traded things such as pottery and stone axes for forest products, such as honey and meat.
About 4,000 BC these Bantu speakers began moving south and southeast. By 3,000 BC they had spread into the African forest, and after 2000 BC they moved along the Congo River and headed east toward Lake Victoria. As they moved along they absorbed many local populations, adding local skills such as fishing to their own. As the Bantu spread across central Africa their language began to break up into what became 500 separate tongues. Today more than 90 million people speak some variety of Bantu, making it the largest language group in sub-Saharan Africa. By 1,000 BC Bantu speakers covered most of Africa below the Sahara. After that time, Bantu peoples began to produce iron tools and weapons. The tools allowed the Bantu to put ever-greater expanses of land under cultivation, and the weapons meant that they could defend their gains. The Bantu, thus, became the most important southern African population and they spread knowledge of iron throughout the region.
Other African peoples migrated south as well. Between 3,500 BC and 1,000 BC, a pastoral people called the Kushites moved into the part of eastern Africa that is now Kenya and Tanzania. Sudanese pastoral people moved up the Nile River valley into the area that is now Sudan and Uganda, thus bringing their skills to the ancient Egyptians. Another people that spoke a language called Mande moved along West Africa, spreading the cultivation of African rice. Still other peoples of the larger Niger-Congo language group, of which Bantu is a part, spread the cultivation of okra through West Africa. The most important result of all this movement was the spread of agriculture and pastoralism throughout sub-Saharan Africa. By 500 BC many Africans were cultivating yams and a variety of grains, while also the raising of sheep, pigs, and cattle. Only the densely forested areas were left out.
The spread of agricultural production led to an increase in cultural diversity. Bantu communities usually consisted of no more than a few hundred people connected through kinship structures and led by a chief. This basic structure will be important throughout African history, particularly when some groups begin to build states. These communities were organized by age group and gender, with each group being responsible for specific work appropriate to their level of maturity and skills. Young people did light duty, but after reaching maturity they would graduate to more complicated work. The most important work was organizational and was dominated by the older males. The men determined when, where, and how to plant and also did military service. Women did domestic chores and often engaged in merchant trading.
These emerging African communities developed their own distinctive religious traditions as well. The people of the Sudan and Niger-Congo peoples were monotheistic by 5000 BC. The Sudanic people recognized one divine force that was the source of both good and evil. They believed that this divine force could take the form of spirits and they addressed it through individual prayers to the spirit. This divine force was then responsible for punishing or rewarding people for their behavior in this world. The Niger-Congo peoples, for example, recognized a single god named Nyamba, who created the world and then removed himself from it to allow it to function. The Niger-Congo peoples tended not to address this god directly, but prayed to ancestors and local territorial spirits that they believed influenced people’s daily lives. This is only to paint with the broadest brush. There was not African “system” of religion. Individual communities worshipped in their own way, borrowing things from some neighbors and rejecting others. For example, Bantu peoples combined their belief in Nyamba with the Sudanic divine force. Nyamba thus became associated with goodness in the world, changing the world’s architect and creator from a distant demiurge into a moral force.
The Bantu migration and the spread of agricultural and metallurgical skills that went with it set the stage for future growth. By AD 1,000 Bantus had spread to cover most of Africa south of the equator, while the other peoples I have mentioned also established their own zones. These migrations displaced earlier hunter-gatherer peoples and put agriculture and pastoralism in their place. This made growth possible as now Africans could produce more food, which meant more people. A key moment in the increase in food production came between AD 300 and 500, with the arrival of the banana from Asia. Malay seafarers had been exploring the Indian and African coasts for centuries, and it was they who colonized the island of Madagascar, bringing bananas with them. (Thus, the language spoken in Madagascar, Malagasy, is not an African, but an Asian tongue.) From here, bananas moved to the mainland before spreading across the sub-Saharan region by AD 500. The banana is a nutritious fruit and its cultivation encouraged the Bantu to move ever deeper into the forest. The lowly banana, thus, was a key ingredient in sub-Saharan Africa’s coming population increase, which was essential to the creation of future kingdoms. In 400 BC, sub-Saharan African population was about 3.5 million people. By AD 1 it was about 11 million, and by AD 1,000 that number had doubled.
It is at this point that African peoples began to organize their societies more intensely. As Africa became more populous, it was no longer possible to migrate to new areas in search of better conditions. Africans across the continent now searched for better ways to govern themselves. Here I need to return to an earlier point. Most Bantu regions were organized through kinship relations. Historians looking for a Bantu “state” look in vain, since the Bantu governed themselves without officials and bureaucrats. Bantu peoples were organized at the village level, with approximately 100 people in a village that was led by a chief. Male heads of families sat on the village council, offering advice to the chief. The various villages were then organized into a district, which became the central focus for ethnic loyalties. There was no leader for the district itself; village chiefs negotiated with each other on broader policy issues. The family or kinship group exercised discipline within each village.
The growth in population, however, presented this system with problems. Having more people around strained resources, and conflicts arose between groups for the scarce resources, with the result that communities began to organize militaries to defend their interests. One important result of this trend was the rise of powerful chiefs whose command over military resources allowed them to control entire districts. The chiefs overrode kinship networks in their districts and then proceeded to take over other districts, building kingdoms as a result. Several kingdoms emerged in sub-Saharan Africa after AD 1000. Two examples of successful kingdoms are Ife, an ancient city in the Yorubaland in Nigeria, and Benin, of the Edo people, which arose in West Africa. Both kingdoms were based on city-states that exercised political and military control over the surrounding countryside. Other small kingdoms appeared in southern and central Africa.
The Congo region became one of the most active areas politically after AD 1000. Population pressures were most intense here, which encouraged the rise of small states. By AD 1200 these small states had been swallowed up by ever-larger political entities. One example was the Kingdom of the Congo, which developed an extensive trading empire, trafficking in copper, textiles, and seashells. It reached its height during the fourteenth century, when it encompassed the area that is today the Republic of Congo and Angola. This kingdom had a king and a cadre of officials that ran the military, the judiciary, and finance. The central government was then divided into six provinces, each of which had responsibility for several districts. Local chiefs ran the villages that made up the various districts. The Congo was probably the most tightly organized of all the West African states of the period. It had its own currency, which was based on seashells, and maintained political order until the sixteenth century, when Portuguese slave traders undermined the central government.
Although many African states arose based on native traditions, some also borrowed heavily from Islam. For centuries, Muslim merchants had come across the Sahara desert in caravans and their ships traded extensively with cities in Africa’s eastern coast. Sub-Saharan Africa’s encounter with Islam was possible, in part, due to the arrival of the camel in Africa. Camels came to North Africa from Arabia around the seventh century BC, making possible huge merchant caravans that traveled across the Saharan desert. By AD 300, the camel had virtually replaced all horses and donkeys in the caravan trade. When Arab conquerors came to North Africa they found an existing trade network with sub-Saharan Africa and integrated it into the emerging Arab trading empire. By the eighth century AD, Arab traders were crossing the Sahara, trading in copper, iron, cotton, salt, grain, and beads.
West Africa’s most important state at the time of Islam’s arrival was Ghana, which was located between the Senegal and Niger Rivers. (This area now contains Mali and Mauritania.) Ghana developed as a state during the fourth and fifth centuries AD, and was at its height from the eighth to the twelfth centuries. The arrival of Muslim merchants helped change Ghana from a powerful regional state into the most important commercial center in West Africa. Ghana had gold, which was in high demand in the Mediterranean world due to the great economic expansion that followed the rise of Islam. By controlling and taxing the trade in gold, Ghana’s kings became extremely wealthy, which made their realms very strong. In addition, Ghana’s merchants also traded ivory and slaves with markets in North Africa for horses, cloth, manufactured goods, and salt. The lively movement of goods and money through Ghana made its capital, Koumbi-Saleh a large city with a population of some 15,000.
Islam slowly gained a foothold in Ghana, as local merchant communities began to practice their faith in the region. During the tenth century, Ghana’s kings converted to Islam, which led to improved relations with the Muslim peoples of North Africa. There was no attempt to spread Islam forcibly in Ghana, though a neighboring kingdom called Tazkur did use force to convert its people. Nor did Ghana’s kings give up their old traditions, using old magical practices when it suited them. Nonetheless, Islam spread steadily throughout the region and a number of large mosques were built in the capital city to accommodate the growing number of believers.
The Kingdom of Ghana collapsed as it expanded northward. Nomadic peoples from the north began engaging in constant raiding against the kingdom’s wealth, and it collapsed under the strain. A series of successor states took over Ghana’s territory, the most powerful of which was the Kingdom of Mali. This kingdom was founded around 1235 by the lion prince Sundiata. The Lion Prince had been exiled from his home, because relatives feared his increasing power. Life in exile had allowed him to make a number of political alliances with other kings. He returned from exile at the head of a cavalry and by 1235 had won a large territory for himself, which included most of the Kingdom of Ghana, as well as parts of what today are Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Mali was an even bigger trading power than Ghana had been. From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century it controlled almost all trade that passed through West Africa. Its capital city Niani filled up with merchants, and market cities on major trade routes, such as Jenne, Gao, and Timbuktu became large, prosperous cities. The Kings of Mali were also Muslims and protected the religion, but like Ghana’s kings they did not impose it by force.
Mali became especially wealthy during the reign of Sundiata’s grandnephew Mansa Musa, who ruled from 1312 to 1337. Mansa Musa made a famous pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324-25 putting his kingdom’s wealth on lavish display. The caravan included thousands of soldiers, attendants, subjects, and slaves. He distributed gifts, mostly gold, on a grand scale. When he arrived in Cairo, for example, he gave away so much gold that the metal’s price dropped 25% in the local market. Mansa Musa returned from his pilgrimage an even more devout Muslim. He built a series of mosques in his kingdom and supported a growing cadre of scholars, which included four descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. For a time, Timbuktu achieved such fame as a center of learning that North African Muslims went there to study rather than to Arabia. Mansa Musa’s reign was, however, Mali’s highpoint. Within a century, the kingdom showed signs of serious decline. By the late fifteenth century, the Kingdom had been overcome by a successor state called the Songhay.
The Songhay state was also a powerful force in West African trade. The Songhay people established themselves in the city of Gao around AD 800. By the eleventh century Gao had become so important a part of the Saharan trading network that the Songhay started to consider it their capital city. It was at this time that Kossoi, the Songhay king, converted to Islam. Gao became so wealthy over the years that by the 14th century the Mali added it to their empire, under whose control it remained from 1325 to about 1375. The Songhay increased in power throughout the fourteenth century, until they were able to win their independence from the Mali. In the late fifteenth century, the Songhay kingdom was powerful enough to repulse invasions from neighboring peoples such as the Dogon, Fulani, Tuareg, and the Mossi. In the 1470s, Songhay armies liberated Timbuktu and Jenne and extended their power throughout the Niger River Valley. Songhay policy was to manage the religious and ethnic tensions between its urban Muslim population and its rural pastoralist populations that still practiced traditional African religions. This practice worked well throughout the fifteenth century, as the Songhay increased in wealth and cultural prestige. By the sixteenth century, however, dynastic squabbles weakened the empire, which then later succumbed to the Moroccans. In the period 1588-91, Moroccan armies routed Songhay forces and the empire disintegrated, with its most important centers now in Moroccan hands.
We end this discussion with the Songhay’s fall. Next time we will consider African civilization in eastern and southern Africa.