Pre-Modern Africa: Diverse Societies
Africa’s geography is very
diverse, containing mountain
ranges, scorching deserts, rain
forests, river valleys, open
plains, and jungles
The African Environment in
Global Perspective
1. How are Africa and the Americas geographically similar?
2. According to the excerpt, what are three of the
environmental challenges historically faced by Africans?
3. Why is the soil better in temperate climates? What does
this mean for tropical societies?
4. What is meant by “farmer power?” How does this affect
the development of civilizations?
5. What is shifting cultivation, and how does this type of
agriculture affect gender roles?
The Bottom Line:
The peoples of sub-Saharan Africa (and the Americas)
faced more environmental challenges compared to the
civilizations of Eurasia.
•Fewer crop varieties and more difficult agricultural
•A large amount of tropical environment – and all the
tropical difficulties and diseases.
•North-South orientation of the continents makes the
spread of people, crops, animals more difficult due to
environmental changes.
•Fewer domesticated animals (especially in the Americas).
This was a huge disadvantage. Why?
Regional developments in
pre-modern Africa included:
•The rise of West African kingdoms
that controlled trans-Saharan
trade routes, connecting the region
to the Islamic world.
•Bantu Kingdoms developed in
central and southern Africa, and
often transferred trade goods to
Swahili Coast city-states.
•Indian Ocean trade routes led to
the growth of Swahili Coast citystates and ports. The Swahili
culture and language developed
along the coast, mixing African
and Arabic cultures and languages.
Woman of Burkina Faso
Early societies of North
Africa were influenced by
Mediterranean cultures
such as the Egyptians,
Phoenicians and Romans.
By 750 CE, North Africans were part of the Islamic
Empire, and most converted to Islam.
The East African
kingdom of Aksum
(Axum) traded with
Persia, India, Arabia, and
Rome. Christianity was
introduced in the 300’s
CE, and Axum became a
Christian kingdom,
developing close ties
with the eastern
Christian world.
built by King
The gold-salt trade led to
increased wealth in
West Africa and the
formation of empires
A West African kingdom,
Ghana, amassed vast
wealth by taxing
Ghana became an empire
when it used that wealth to
build a massive army and
conquer neighboring people
By the year 800 CE, Ghana
was the most powerful
empire in West Africa
Ghana’s kings were not
merely rulers; they served
as judges, religious
leaders, and generals
Trading Kingdoms and
Empires of West Africa
A kingdom neighboring
Ghana, Mali, eventually
overthrew Ghana and
absorbed its territory into
the new Mali Empire
Mali’s King Sundiata took
over the Ghana Empire
and controlled the major
trade cities of West Africa
The kings of Mali who
ruled after Sundiata
converted to Islam
The most important of
these Muslim kings of Mali
was Mansa Musa
Mansa Musa built an
army of 100,000
soldiers to control
Mali’s gold trade and
secure his empire
To easier manage his territory, he
divided the Mali Empire into
provinces, each controlled by a
governor he appointed
Mansa Musa was a devout
Muslim and went on a hajj
to Mecca in 1324
Mansa Musa distributed an enormous amount of gold
as charity during his hajj.
A European map
of West Africa
with a depiction
of Mansa Musa–
map made by
Abraham Cresques,
a Jewish mapmaker
in Spain in 1375
Timbuktu became a
trade city that attracted
scholars, religious
leaders, and doctors
The city had a university and became an important
center of learning in the world
More on Timbuktu…
•Timbuktu was founded around 1100 C.E. as a
camp for its proximity to the Niger River.
•Caravans quickly began to haul salt from mines
in the Sahara Desert to trade for gold and slaves
brought along the river from the south.
•By 1330, Timbuktu was part of the powerful
Mali empire, which controlled the lucrative goldsalt trade routes in the region.
•Two centuries later, Timbuktu reached its
height under the Songhai (a.k.a. Songhay)
empire, becoming a haven for Islamic scholars.
Mosque in Mali
Askia the Great
Sunni Ali
After Mansa Musa’ reign
was over, the Mali Empire
began to decline
Another neighboring
kingdom, the Songhai,
eventually took over
Mali and formed the
Songhai Empire
Songhai kings gained
control of the major
trade cities along the
highly valuable goldsalt trade routes
The Songhai grew into
the largest of the West
African empires
The fall of the Songhai Empire
in 1591 CE ended a thousand
year era of West African
Southern Africa:
Great Zimbabwe
1350-1450 CE
Zimbabwe was one of
the major kingdoms in
southern Africa:
although located far
inland, it prospered from
trade with Muslim
merchants on the coast
of the Indian Ocean
East African
Swahili City-States
800-1505 CE
Beginning in the 8th
century CE Arab Muslim
traders began to settle
in ports along the East
African Coast.
The result was a string of
City-State trading ports.
Some people and traders
of Mogadishu,
Mombasa, Zanzibar and
Kilwa grew quite wealthy
from trade with India,
China and West Africa.
This ship is called a Dhow,
and was (is) used by
Swahili peoples for trade
in the Indian Ocean. This
sail design would later
influence Portuguese
shipbuilding in the 141500’s.
East africa, continuEd…
•By 1200 East African trading cities had become thriving
city-states by taxing the import/export business
associated with Indian Ocean trade.
•Kilwa, an East African port, developed a monopoly on
the gold trade.
•Malindi, Mombasa, Mogadishu, and Sofala were other
thriving port cities.
•Iron ore mined in East Africa was shipped to the
Arabian peninsula and South Asia.
•The Island of Zanzibar also became a trade center.
•As a result of trade, East Africa became multicultural.
•Islamic and African traditions and beliefs blended.
Indian Ocean
Indian Ocean trade
system stretched from
East African coast to
Middle East, India,
and Indonesia (Spice
Islands) and included
ivory, gold, and slaves
from Africa traded to the
Islamic empires of the
Middle East to be used
as soldiers, servants
and laborers.
Spices, silk, and other
Asian goods were
traded back to Africa
and the Middle East in
exchange for their
The Bantu Migrations
• Bantu is a language family. There are more than 400
Bantu-based languages throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
• Bantu speaking people originated in West Africa (the
region around Nigeria and the Cameroons).
• Migrations began around 3000 BCE. By the 1st century
CE Bantu-speaking peoples occupied much of
equatorial Africa.
• Bantu language, iron-working technologies, agricultural
techniques and products, and culture spread.
• The migration process was a long, slow movement of
people over thousands of years. Throughout the
process, hunting and gathering peoples were often
encountered by Bantu migrants, and either subjugated,
absorbed, or their numbers were greatly reduced. They
often retreated to harsh environments. For example, the
Batwa in the rainforests of central Africa, or the Khoisan
of the Kalahari Desert.
and Dialect
to Trace
Other Items
• Bananas
-Between 300/500 C.E., Malay seafarers reached Africa
• Settled in Madagascar, visited East African coast
• Brought with them pigs, taro, and banana
• Bananas became well-established in Africa by 500
-Bantu learned to cultivate bananas from Malagasy
• Bananas caused population growth, migration
Common Bantu Cultural Characteristics
• Stateless societies evolved in some regions.
1. organized based on family lineage basis, with no formal political
specialists or political class. Instead, decisions were made and conflicts
resolved by using age-based kinship groups across lineage and family
2. sometimes, wealthy and powerful heads of lineages became chiefs.
• In some places, kingdoms developed, usually due to
connections with wider trade networks (Zimbabwe,
• Bantu societies were often less patriarchal than urban
based civilizations. Women often played a large part in
village life, responsible for child-care, farming, food
preparation, and making baskets, pots, mats, etc.
• Men were often associated with hunting, fishing, and
collecting building materials.
These bronze sculptures are from the West African
city-state of Benin. They represent the heads of
important obas, or kings.
Common Bantu Cultural
• Bantu religions emphasized local and
ancestral deities and spirits.
• The idea of personal malice – evil
people causing harm and misfortune
– was common. Belief in witches
was widespread, and superstitions
are still prevalent among some
cultures in modern Africa.
• The idea of “continuous revelation”
was also common. This is the belief
that some people could continuously
receive messages from the spirit
The Great Zimbabwe
(Great Stone Fortress of the Karanga People)
Development of African Civilizations Through
the Postclassical Period:
700’s B.C.E.
•Kushite army defeats Egypt and begins century of rule
100 – 300 C.E.
•Camels are introduced for trade in the Sahara
•Origins of the Kingdom of Ghana
•Christianity becomes the official religion of the East
African kingdom of Axum
600 – 700 C.E.
•Islam spreads across North Africa
“Ships” of the Desert carrying salt and gold
900 – 1100 C.E.
•Arab and Persian merchants settle on East African
•Height of power in the West African Kingdom of
Ghana – the city of Timbuktu is founded
•Islamic Almoravid movement in the Sahara
1200s C.E.
•City-state of Kilwa on the Swahili coast develops a
monopoly on gold trade
•Rise of the empire of Mali in West Africa
•Large stone fortresses and buildings are built by
the Karanga people of present day Zimbabwe
1300s C.E.
•The height of Mali
•Mansa Musa’s Hajj
1400s C.E.
•The cities of Timbuktu and Djenne flourish in the
West African kingdom of Mali
•Swahili cities flourish on the east coast of Africa
•Sunni Ali of the Songhai captures Timbuktu in 1475
1500s C.E.
•Songhai empire flourishes in West Africa
•The height of power in the West African forest
kingdom of Benin
Pre-Modern African
societies were
transformed by
powerful forces:
Trade with
of Islam

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