Early African Culture
Africa Unit
1. Look at the graphic to help organize your thoughts.
List characteristics of stateless societies.
Lineages share
Elders negotiate
Stateless Societies
No centralized
continued . . .
African Societies
• Africa so vast and diverse neither universal states or
religions characterize it history
• Stateless Societies: these are societies that organize
authority around kinship or other obligations.
– Sometimes these stateless societies were quite large while
others were small.
– No need to tax people if you don’t have a large government.
– Authority only affected small parts of peoples lives.
• Secret Societies: West Africa, group controlled customs
and beliefs and were able to limit the authority of rulers.
Maintained stability within the community.
• Problems: outside pressure, mobilizing troops, organizing
building projects, and long term stability to support trade
Stateless Societies
• Function of mobile population,
underpopulation, and land as resource
• Even when dense population, there was no
• Hunters valued over warriors
• Ideal was the large complex household with
Big Man surrounded by 10-40 people
• Control happened laterally, not hierarchically
(secret societies, age-grade societies, ritual
experts as mediators)
North and Central African Societies
Hunting-Gathering Societies
Hunters and Gatherers
• Studying hunting-gathering groups today can give
clues to the past
Forest Dwellers
• Efe live in forests of Democratic Republic of Congo
• They live in groups of 10 to 100 related people
• Women gather vegetable foods, men hunt
Social Structure
• An older male leads, but each family makes its
own decisions
• Problems within group are settled by discussion;
no written laws
Stateless Societies
• Some societies group people in lineages—those
with common ancestor
• Members of a lineage have strong loyalties to one
• In some African societies, lineage groups take the
place of rulers
• These stateless societies balance power among
• Stateless societies—no centralized system of
Continued . . .
Early Societies in Africa
Societies Organized by Family Groups
• Extended families made up of several
• Families with common ancestors form groups
known as clans
Local Religions
• Early religions usually include elements of
animism—belief in spirits
Keeping a History
• Few African societies have written languages
• History, literature, culture passed on by
storytellers called griots
• Cultures in West Africa are advanced long before
outsiders arrive
Family Ties
• Farming and herding
societies consisted of
extended families
• Kinships created
strong bonds and a
sense of community
Social Hierarchy: Kinship Groups
• Extended families and clans served as the main
foundation of social and economic organization
– Villagers functioned in society first as members of a
family or clan
• Notion of private property ownership did not
exist in sub-Sahara Africa
– Communities claimed rights to land and used it in
• Villages consisted of several extended family
• Male heads of families jointly governed the
On your Left Side:
• Draw the following
pyramid on the next slide
and add the information
to the diagram.
Structure of African Society
Kinship –
to individual
Family –
members of a
Clan – Group made up
of related families
Tribe – Group made up of related
Patterns of Government
listen to
is reached
continued Stateless
Tracing Family Descent
• Some societies are patrilineal—trace ancestry
through fathers
• Others are matrilineal—trace ancestry through
• Lineage determines how possessions are inherited
Age-Set System
• Age set—group of people born about same time
who form close ties
• Age sets go through life stages together, such as
warrior or elder
• Ceremonies mark the passage to each new stage
The Age Grade System
• Includes all
boys or girls
born in the
same year
• This same
age group
together for
their entire
• To Learn
and shared
• Together
they take
part in
special age
• This group
and works
quite well
Social Hierarchy: Age Grades
• Members of age grades performed tasks
appropriate for their development and
bonded with one another socially and
• Age grades offered some integration to a
society otherwise organized based on
family and kinship
Economic Organization
• Most villagers were subsistence farmers
– They produced only enough food for
their own needs with little or no surplus
• Fallow – allowing the land to regenerate
important minerals needed to grow crops
• Land was community property
Natural Resources
[water / land]
Human Resources
[labor / knowledge]
Capital Resources
[seed / tools]
[family / friends]
Inheritance and Descent
• The Ashanti people believed
the child’s blood came entirely
from the mother
• Uncle is more important than
the father
• Oldest son is the head of the
• Oldest son was the inheritor
Social Hierarchy: Sex and Gender
• Sex largely determined work roles
– Men usually did the heavy labor
– Both sexes participated in planting and harvesting
– Women tended to domestic chores and child rearing
• Men largely monopolized public authority but women in
sub-Sahara Africa generally had more opportunities than
their counterparts elsewhere
– Women enjoyed high honor as the sources of life
– Women acted as merchants
– Some women engaged in combat and formed all-female military
– Even the arrival of Islam did not drastically curtail opportunities
for women
Status of Women
Societies that
valued women
Women could be
Societies that did
not value women
Women did the
planting, weeding, and
Women were the
teachers of the family
Were respected
because the bore
Bride Wealth paid to
brides family
In some societies
men married many
women [polygamy]
Viewed a wife as
property of the
Roles of Women
• An African woman's roles are as life
bearer, nurturer, and source of
• For an African woman in a traditional
rural community, the chief measure of
success in life is her ability to bear many
• The very existence of the family and clan
depends on women's ability to bear
children, who will provide security for
their parents in old age and who will
continue to nourish the spirits of the
ancestors through sacrificial offerings.
• As a result, much African art is directed
toward encouraging the fertility of
• Many shrines are devoted to spirits that
provide the blessings of fertility, and
these frequently contain sculpture and
other objects devoted to the concept of
On your Left Side:
• If you were a women in a
African society at the time,
how would you react to the
treatment and roles placed
upon you by the society?
Little Girl’s Dolls-Preparing for Role
of Adult Woman
Like children everywhere, African children play with
toys that help them visualize their roles as adults
and teach them the skills of parenting, hunting, and
At the end of a day of trading and shopping a
parent may stop at the blacksmith's stall in the
market to buy a small carved doll with which his
daughter can play.
She may dress the doll in new clothes she has
made, feed it, and tuck it to bed under a tiny blanket
in the corner of her room at night.
The carved figure is called biiga ("child"), but it
represents a mature women with developed
breasts, an elaborate hairstyle, and the scarification
patterns that mark passages in life.
The doll represents the child, as she hopes one
day to be.
In the same way American girls play with dolls
such as "Barbie" that represent an ideal or a
stereotype to which the child hopes to conform.
Initiation into Adulthood
Both young men and young women pass through
For Mende women, this life passage prepares them
for life as adult women in Mende society, teaching
them the skills of child rearing, cooking, trading, sex
education, and much more.
It is especially important as a means of
communicating knowledge of healing medicines and
the spirit world from one generation of women to the
At the end of the initiation period the young women
are ritually bathed, their bodies are oiled with
cosmetics, they are dressed in their best clothing and
are presented to the community, ready to receive the
gifts of potential suitors.
Their reintegration into community life is
accompanied by the appearance of masks such as
this one, worn by the middle aged women who
supervise the initiation, and which represent the
ideals of feminine beauty among the Mende.
The Mende are very conscious of personal
appearance and value a glossy black skin, beautiful
hairstyles, and a well-fed and prosperous physical
• Marriage is a key moment that follows
immediately after initiation among many
peoples because both events serve to break
the bonds of the individual with childhood and
the unmarried state and to reintegrate the
individual into the adult community.
• Among the Woyo people a young woman is
given a set of carved pot lids by her mother
when she marries and moves to her husband's
• Each of the lids is carved with images that
illustrate proverbs about relations between
husband and wife.
• If a husband abuses his wife in some way or if
the wife is unhappy, she serves the husband's
supper in a bowl that is covered with a lid
decorated with the appropriate proverb.
• She can make her complaints public by using
such a lid when her husband brings his friends
home for dinner.
• The carved figure on this lid represents a
cooking hearth with a pot on three stones.
• Divorce requires only the scattering of the
stones, and it takes three to support the pot.
Bride Wealth
• It has been argued that such a system
commodifies the bride and thus dehumanizes
her, but others also make the argument that
the system defines her value to the marriage in
a concrete way and that it contributes to the
stability of the marriage, because were the
marriage to end in divorce the "bride-wealth"
must be returned to the groom's family, and if
it has already been invested in "bride-wealth"
for the bride's own brothers this can be
difficult indeed.
• The "bride-wealth" creates a bond between
the families which forces them to invest in the
success of the marriage.
• When there is trouble between husband and
wife the relatives on both sides intervene to
find a solution.
• The male-female couple from the Dogon
people of Mali represents the ideal of pairing
that is necessary for procreation.
• The linking of the male arm around the
woman's neck emphasizes the bond that is
created by marriage.
Becoming a Parent
• For an adult in Africa success in a traditional community
is measured by his or her ability to find a partner, raise a
family, and provide for the children that guarantee that
the family will survive through the generations.
• Every adult is beset by concerns about the health of her
children, his ability to secure and hold a means to earn a
living, about his own health and that of his partner, and
about the many uncertainties that we must confront
throughout our lives.
• For a Baule man or woman to fail to marry, bear
numerous children, and provide for his family is
considered a serious problem.
• She may visit a diviner who may prescribe the carving of
a figure that represents the spouse s/he had in the spirit
world before birth.
• The spirit spouse takes possession of the figure, and
care and attention as well as prayers and offerings are
lavished on it to please it, so that it will permit its realworld spouse to fulfill his gender role.
• This figure pair represents the female larger than the
male, and so it may have belonged to a Baule man.
On your Left Side:
• What is the following
primary source saying
about women in
traditional African
“No marry’d Women, after they are brought to Bed, lie
with their Husbands till three Years are expired, if the
Child lives so long, at which Time they wean their
Children, and go to Bed to their Husbands. They say
that if a Woman lies with her Husband during the Time
she has a Child sucking at her Breast, it spoils the
Child’s Milk, and makes it liable to a great many
Distempers. Nevertheless, I believe, not one Woman in
twenty stays till they wean their Children before they lie
with a Man; and indeed I have very often seen Women
much censur’d, and judged to be false to their
Husbands Bed, upon Account only of their suckling
Child being ill.”
--F. Moore (European trader) on the River Gambia in
the 1730s, Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa
(London, 1738), pp. 132-3.
Becoming an Elder
• The respect that is accorded both men and
women who have attained positions of
authority and honor is made visible among
the Dan people (Liberia) by the large
wooden ladles known as wunkirmian.
• The spoon bears an idealized portrait of the
owner as a young woman, at the moment
she began her role as mother and wife.
• The spoons are carved for women who are
recognized by other women of a town as
the most hospitable persons in a
• The spoons serve as symbol of that status
and are used as a kind of dance wand when
the honored women dances through the
town accompanied by her own entourage of
African Culture
• Painting and Sculpture
– Rock paintings, wood carving, pottery, metalwork
• Music and Dance
Often served religious purposes
Wide variety of instruments
Integration of voice and instrument
Music produced for social rituals and educational purposes
• Architecture
Stone pillars
Stone buildings
Sometimes reflected Moorish styles
• Literature
– Written works did not exist in the early traditional period
– Professional storytellers, bards
– Importance of women in passing down oral traditions
West Africans have preserved their history through
storytelling and the written accounts of visitors.
Writing was not common in West Africa. People passed along
information through oral histories, a spoken record of past events.
West African storytellers were called griots. They helped keep
the history of their ancestors alive for each new generation.
In addition to stories, they recited proverbs. These were short
sayings of wisdom or truth. They were used to teach lessons
to the people.
Some of the griot poems are epics that are collected in the
Dausi and the Sundiata.
Visitors’ Written Accounts
The people of West
Africa left no written
histories of their own.
• Much of what we
know about early
West Africa comes
from the writings of
travelers and
scholars from Muslim
lands such as Spain
and Arabia.
Ibn Battutah was the
most famous Muslim visitor
to write about West Africa.
• His accounts describe the
political and cultural lives of
West Africans in great
Through art, music, and dance, West Africans have
expressed their creativity and kept alive their cultural
• Of all the visual
forms, the
sculpture of West
Africa is probably
the best known.
– The sculpture
is mostly of
– It was made
for religious
– Artists were
• Artists carved
masks, which
were used
mostly for
rituals as
they danced
around fires.
• They wove
cloth such as
kente, a
•Music and
dancing were
helped people
honor their
history and
were central
to many
On your Left Side with your
• In a T-Chart, compare and
contrast the role of the arts
in traditional African society
to that of American society.
Native Religion
• Many African recognized a creator god as the
single divine force responsible for setting the
world in motion and providing it with order
• Beneath him were many lesser gods associated
with the sun, wind, rain, trees, rivers, and other
natural features
– Unlike the supreme creator god, these lesser gods
actively participated in the workings of the world
• Diviners were religious specialists who had the
power to mediate between humanity and
supernatural beings
African Religions
• Supreme being had created
• Supreme being was a distant figure
• Many are monotheistic
• Oral traditions and myths
• Ancestors could help or harm them
• Every object on earth was filled with a
living spirit (Animism)
Animism is the belief that all living and
nonliving things in nature have a spirit.
Animism was the belief system of many early
Animism in early civilizations was often
combined with ancestor worship.
The Roots of Religion
Animism (Shamanism) - the belief that
all objects, animals, and beings are
“animated” or possess a spirit and a
conscious life. Also called shamanism
because of the prominence of a shaman.
• Such beliefs are common among hunter-
• 10% of Africans follow such traditional
ethnic religions.
• These beliefs are losing ground to
Christianity and Islam throughout Africa.
Nigerian Shaman
• Animism dates back to earliest
humans and still exists.
• It can be practiced by anyone
who believes in spirituality, but
does not proscribe to an
organized religion.
• Animist gods and beliefs often
explain natural earthly things.
• The presence of holy men or
women, visions, trances,
dancing, sacred items and
places are often characteristic
of animist societies.
• Animism exists in traditional
African, Asian, American and
Aboriginal cultures.
• The term animism is derived from the Latin word
anima meaning breath or soul.
• The belief of animism is probably one of man's oldest
beliefs, with its origin most likely dating to the
Paleolithic age.
• From its earliest beginnings it was a belief that a soul
or spirit existed in every object, even if it was
• In a future state this soul or spirit would exist as part
of an immaterial soul.
• The spirit, therefore, was thought to be universal.
Most of world’s
– But
and Islam
Diviners and Healers
• Rooted in Tradition
• Their purpose was to
explain the cause of
• Experts in herbal medicine
• Today, doctors study the
roots and herbs used in
traditional African healing
Islam and Christianity in Africa
Muslim Influence in West
• Muslim traders came
on land routes which
allowed Islam to
spread wherever they
• Rulers like Mansa
Musa supported
Islamic scholars which
spread the religion
through religious
schools and education
Mosque at Djenne
• Cities and territories in N. Africa had been an important
part of the classical world: Carthage and Egypt
• 640-700 followers of Muhammad swept across N. Africa
• 670 Muslims ruled (Tunisia) Ifriqiya
• 711 Berbers into Spain. Stopped in 732 by Charles
Martel in Poitiers (battle of Tours)
• Many N.Africans converted to Islam b/c of message of
equality & umma
• Abbasid unified territory for a while
• Almoravids: (11th century) reform movement in Islam
grew among Berbers. They launched a jihad or holy
war to purify and spread Islam. They moved south to the
African kingdoms and also north into Spain
• Almohadis: (1130) reformist group
The Coming of Islam
• African Religious Beliefs before Islam
– Common beliefs
• Single creator god
– Sometimes accompanied by a pantheon of
lesser gods
• Most believed in an afterlife in which ancestral souls
floated in the atmosphere through eternity
• Closely connected to importance of ancestors and
• Rituals very important
– Challenge by Islam but not always replaced;
The Coming of Islam (cont.’d)
• North Africa
– Arab forces seized the Nile delta of Egypt in 641
– New capital at Cairo
– Arabs welcome due to high taxes and periodic persecution of
Coptic Christians by Byzantines
– Arabs seize Carthage in 690, called Al Maghrib
– Berbers resisted for many years
• The Kingdom of Ethiopia: A Christian Island in a Muslim Sea
– Axum began to decline
– Shift in trade routes and overexploited agriculture
– Muslim trading states on the African coast of the Red Sea
transforming Axum into an isolated agricultural society
• Source of ivory, resins, and slaves
– Attacked by Muslim state of Adal in early 14th century
– Became a Christian state in mid-twelfth century
Muslim Influence of the Swahili
• Islam arrived on the
African coast in many
waves, at different
times, rather than in
one great sweep
– Because Muslim
traders came via
ship, penetrations
were very
compared to in
west Africa
• The Great Mosque at
Kilwa built in the 12th
Century is the oldest
remaining mosque on
the east African coast
Great Mosque at Kilwa
• Islam brought large areas of Africa into more intensive
contact with the global community
• Although Islam was to bring equality to the people it
brought more stark divisions
• Many locals retained their beliefs or mix Islam with local
traditions like in India
• Royals were Muslim
• Muslims controlled trade and were very wealthy and
becoming a Muslim opened up doors for individuals
involved in merchant activities.
• Kongo and Great Zimbabwe were examples of statebuilding that development independently!
• In the 15th century, the Portuguese found well
development and powerful kingdoms
• European advances to seek alternative routes to Asia due
to Ottoman Turk advanced shutting down Constantinople/
Religion: Christianity
• Around the middle of the 4th Century,
Christianity established a foothold in
the Kingdom of Axum, in the highlands
of modern Ethiopia
– Missionaries later established
– From the 12th through the 16th
Century, Christianity was
especially strong in Ethiopia
– As Islam spread, Ethiopian
Christians became isolated from
other Christian lands and therefore
retained much of the original
theology and rituals
– Not until the 16th Century did
visiting Portuguese mariners
expose Ethiopian Christians to
Christians from other lands
Church of St. George
at Lalibela, Ethiopia
Christian Kingdoms: Nubia
and Ethiopia
• Developed in Africa along the Nile prior to the
Romans making it their official religion
• Egypt (Coptic-language of ancient Egypt) connect to
Byzantine empire
• Copts able to maintain religion in Egypt after Arabs
conquered b/c they were dhimmi
• Muslim tried to penetrate Nubia/ Kush and were met
with resistance. Remained an independent Christian
state until the 13th century
• They were cut off from Byzantium due to Arab
• 13-14th centuries dynasty in Ethiopia traced it roots
back to Solomon and Sheba. Continued being
On your Left Side:
•What effects did the
Islam culture have on
the African societies?

History and Geography of Africa