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Lesson 1: The Journey Begins in Africa 

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Lesson 1: The Journey Begins in Africa


By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • identify the ancient civilizations of Africa

  • describe the empires and cultures of ancient Ghana, Mali, and Songhai in West Africa

  • describe features of African systems of enslavement

  • list ways African culture has influenced African American culture

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The ancestors of African Americans came from the continent of Africa. Sometimes they came of their own free will, but most had been enslaved by Europeans and forced to make the journey. Enslavers tried to root out African culture. Over generations, African customs, languages, and stories were lost.

Despite resistance and hardship, Africans in the colonies, and later in the United States, preserved the history and traditions of Africa and passed them down over the years. To this day, Africa remains a source of pride and fascination in the African American community.

This lesson seeks to reclaim the African heritage of African Americans. The lesson begins with an overview of Africa's glorious past, from the ancient Egyptians through the arrival of European enslavers in the 1400s. The lesson concludes with a discussion of how African culture endured, and even thrived, in the U.S. and how it became an important and permanent aspect of American life.

Africa's Size and Variety

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The people in this family compound in Senegal belong to the Fula ethnic group, but nearby settlements belong to Bassari, Bedik, and Mandingo groups. Photo by John Atherton

At about three times the size of the United States, Africa is a large continent with thousands of cultures. Africa today contains more than 50 independent countries, 17 of which are bigger than the state of Texas. Almost every country has many, sometimes dozens of, ethnic groups. Some of these groups are small, with only a few thousand members. Other ethnic groups include millions. Africans speak between 800 and 1,000 different languages. Because Africa is so diverse, it is hard to describe African culture in simple or general terms.

Even within one region, customs may vary. For example, in the Akan ethnic group in the modern state of Ghana, the successor to a tribal chief's throne is determined by the mother's family line. So the kings of the Ashanti, a tribe within the Akan group, trace descent through their mother. However, families in the nearby Effutu group trace their family lines through the father's family line. For these reasons, the two societies have different ways of inheriting goods and arranging marriage.

Although many African societies have practiced traditional customs for generations, African societies continue to adapt and change. Many African ethnic groups hold to ancestral traditions. At the same time, many African groups rely on oral traditions rather than written texts. Oral traditions preserve the past while also providing some flexibility. In this way, tribes change their customs to adapt to new situations. Many African civilizations used oral traditions and stories to pass on their history, laws, and cultural values to younger generations. Oral histories were told during ceremonies and rituals. These histories were often accompanied by music, singing, and dancing.

Gender roles in African societies varied. Women took more active roles in some societies. Other societies only respected women if they gave birth to a child. In farming cultures, women had clear roles, such as controlling granaries where food was stored. In 18th century Gambia, women did most of the hard, year-round farm work. Men worked only to plant and harvest. In other West African societies, men did the physical work, while women managed trade and the marketplace.

Africa is three times larger than the U.S. and has 17 countries that are bigger than the state of Texas.

In the U.S. and many other countries, the popular image of Africa is of a dense jungle teeming with lions, hippos, elephants, and giraffes. These jungle scenes are only a small part of Africa. In fact, only about 10% of African land is rainforest. By contrast, about 40% of Africa consists of savanna , a term for grasslands dotted with trees. The savanna has a long dry season followed by a short, wet one.

Africa's great rivers, the Nile, Niger , Congo, and Zambezi, are key to understanding the continent and its civilizations. These rivers carved out wide river valleys, which became centers for Africa's first civilizations. Africa's rivers were and remain particularly important because about 40% of African land is desert, including the Sahara Desert in northern Africa, the largest desert in the world. Rivers also enabled people to travel faster than on land, and so they became key transportation hubs. Therefore, major civilizations in Africa tended to sprout up around large river systems.

Ancient East African Civilizations

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Egypt, Kush, and Axum were in East Africa along the Nile River.

The first large African civilizations emerged in East Africa around the Nile River. Egypt united into a great civilization around 3000 BCE (Before Common Era). The Kush civilization in modern Sudan reached its peak around 600 BCE. The Kingdom of Axum in modern Ethiopia flourished around 400 CE (Common Era). After discussing these Eastern African cultures, the lesson will then consider civilizations in South and West Africa.

Kemet, the Black Land of the Nile

The Sahara Desert and the Nile River helped shape Egypt, one of the first African civilizations. Egypt was situated on a long narrow plain surrounded by difficult deserts and water. Ancient Egyptians divided the world into two parts. They called the barren red desert Deshret and the fertile black river valley Kemet. Every year, the Nile flooded the surrounding plain, spreading fertile top soil and water to the land nearby. By 6000 BCE, farmers were growing wheat and crops in the soil.

On this obelisk from pharaoh Ramses II (1250 BCE), Egypt is referred to, inside the red square, as the Black Land.

Around 3000 BCE a pharaoh , the Egyptian word for king or ruler, brought all of Egypt under his rule. The pharaohs presented themselves and their families as the center of all power on earth, as divinely inspired, and sometimes even as gods themselves. Thirty dynasties of pharaohs ruled Egypt over the next 3000 years. The word dynasty refers to a ruling family in Egypt, but is now used for any family that has influence and power over generations.

Within a few hundred years after uniting Egypt, the pharaohs built giant pyramids as funeral monuments and tombs for themselves. In the fourth dynasty, around 2500 BCE, the pharaoh Khufu, sometimes called by his Greek name Cheops, built the largest pyramid ever constructed. This pyramid remained the tallest building in the world until Medieval European churches surpassed it almost 4,000 years later. Khufu's pyramid remains the world's largest stone structure.

This 1858 photograph shows the pyramid of Khufu next to the great Sphinx.

Khufu's pyramid, often called the Great Pyramid of Giza, provides a gateway into Egyptian culture. Originally around 40 stories tall (480 feet or almost 150 meters), the structure required more than 2 million stone blocks, each one weighing about 2.5 tons. Cutting, moving, and erecting these blocks required impressive feats of engineering and math.

Historians used to believe that the pyramids were built by the sweat of enslaved people. However, recent archeological evidence indicates that pharaohs paid teams of craftsmen for skilled labor. Historians also believe that some of the hard labor was done by farmers, who were required to do seasonal work honoring the pharaoh and the gods. The pyramids and other monumental buildings showed how pharaoh was the center of Egyptian political and economic power. These great projects placed pharaoh in the center of workers' lives and increased their pride in the kingdom of Egypt.

In this painting from 1390-1352 BCE, the face and body are turned in a stylized "one-eyed" profile typical to conservative Egyptian art.

The art within the pyramids highlights the conservative nature of Egyptian culture. The pyramids were constructed near the beginning of Egyptian civilization, but many reveal features of Egyptian culture that lasted for roughly 2,000 years. Egyptian artists developed painting and carving styles, including a preference for relief profile, which stayed the same over thousands of years. Sculptors set up standard body proportions so they could design and build large monuments and statues. Scribes developed more than 700 symbols for the hieroglyphic  script used to write Egyptian inscriptions and literature. By 2500 BCE, the religious, artistic, and political symbols and language used to express and commemorate the pharaoh's power were all in place.

Conservatism, a belief that things should stay the same, was a central feature of Egyptian civilization. Egyptians in later centuries retained the art and cultural traditions of the earliest Egyptians. Conservatism makes it easier for archaeologists to interpret Egyptian artifacts and ancient writing because those artifacts are often similar to other well-known works. However, conservatism sometimes masks major changes in Egyptian life. For example, a sculpture of the Roman emperor Augustus in the year 20 BCE looks similar to a sculpture of the pharaoh from 2000 years earlier. Both sculptures use the same titles and claim the pharaoh was the son of Ra. However, the Roman Augustus did not look like the other pharaohs and did not wear the same clothes. The society he ruled over was also much different. Nonetheless, artists portrayed him like every other Egyptian ruler had been portrayed. All rulers claimed that their rule followed the old traditions.

In Their Own Words

In this ancient Egyptian love poem from around 1200 BCE, a girl describes how love makes her act foolishly and brings shame upon her.

My Heart Flutters Hastily

My heart flutters hastily,

When I think of my love of you;
It lets me not act sensibly,
It leaps from its place.
It lets me not put on a dress,
Nor wrap my scarf around me;
I put no paint upon my eyes,
I'm even not anointed.
"Don't wait, go there," says it to me,
As often as I think of him;
My heart, don't act so stupidly,
Why do you play the fool?
Sit still, the brother comes to you,
And many eyes as well.

Let not the people say of me:

"A woman fallen through love!"
Be steady when you think of him,
My heart, do not flutter!

"Love Poems from Papyrus Chester Beatty I" in M. Lichtheim, ed., Ancient Egyptian Literature--A Book of Readings, Volume II: The New Kingdom (Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 1976), 183-4. Used with the permission of the University of California Press.

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Egyptian literature, art, and science were fully developed more than 2000 years before the classical age in Greece. Greek doctors, artists, mathematicians, and historians built upon Egyptian accomplishments. The first large Greek stone sculptures, for example, were clearly carved according to proportions established by Egyptian artists. Egyptian art and literature often celebrates personal life. Love poems and adventure stories show that Egyptian life did not entirely center on the pharaoh. The love poem in the In Their Own Words box reveals a personal world of emotions different from the conservative art of the pharaohs.

Egyptian power and influence went far beyond the boundaries of Egypt. Egypt sent armies far south along the Nile into what is now modern Sudan. Egypt also sent expeditions into the Middle East, reaching as far as modern Lebanon and Syria. The tombs of the pharaohs have materials that came from the Mediterranean and beyond. For almost 2000 years Egypt was the richest and most powerful empire on Earth.

Egypt was conquered by other empires after 700 BCE, but its ancient majesty has always fascinated people, even in the ancient world. The Greeks, Romans, British, and French have all tried to tie their empires to Egyptian power and glory by bringing Egyptian monuments and tombs to their countries. Egypt was celebrated in European art, poetry, and history for centuries, but only in the last 200 years have historians had real access to ancient Egyptian history and culture.

The Rosetta Stone was key to figuring out hieroglyphics. On the stone, a decree from the Greek king and pharaoh Ptolemy V in 196 BCE is carved in three different scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphics, hieratic (another Egyptian script), and Greek.

Few Egyptians ever mastered the difficult art of reading and writing hieroglyphics. While Egyptians were ruled by the Romans, this art was lost. For almost 1500 years, no one could read the old hieroglyphics. In 1822 a French scholar, Jean François Champollion, deciphered hieroglyphics by combining his knowledge of Coptic (a still-living language descended from Ancient Egyptian) and a bilingual text carved onto a slab of black rock called the Rosetta Stone . Since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, historians have been able to reclaim Egyptian history and literature.

The Kingdoms of Kush and Axum

Egypt was perhaps the most powerful and most ancient African civilization, but there were many others. Further south of Egypt along the Nile River lay the land of Nubia, which was divided into several kingdoms, the most powerful of which was the Kingdom of Kush. Sometimes pharaohs would lead expeditions further south to conquer lands, to punish raiders, or to enslave people. Southern Egypt, on the border with Sudan, has huge monuments celebrating Egyptian victories over the people living there, known as Kushites or Nubians.

Most Nubians were far enough from Egypt to remain free, but Egyptian culture deeply influenced them. Using the Nile River, the Kush traded their ivory, gold, and ebony wood to people along the Mediterranean Sea and across the Indian Ocean. The people of Kush benefited from a large network of sea trade with Arabia, Iran, and India. By 724 BCE, the Kush invaded and conquered Egypt. For a time, Kushite kings ruled both Egypt and Nubia.

Influenced by the Egyptians, the Kushite kings made pyramid-shaped tombs in their capital, Meroe. The rear pyramids are from around 200 BCE. The front two were originally built around 300 CE and have been recently restored. Photo by Fabrizio Demartis

The kings of Kush used Egyptian designs, such as in this tomb sculpture of Amanitenmemide. Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts

The Kingdom of Kush and large parts of Nubia were conquered around 300 CE by the Kingdom of Axum located in the southeast of modern-day Ethiopia. Although Axum was near a branch of the Nile River, it depended on the sea for trade. The kingdom became wealthy by trading and by taxing the goods that went through its markets.

Although Axum developed an Ethiopian script, its coins, such as this gold piece from king Endubis of 290 CE, followed Greek traditions and used Greek letters.

In 324 CE, two shipwrecked missionaries convinced King Ezana, the ruler of Axum, to convert to Christianity. Writers in Axum translated the Christian Bible into Ethiopic language.Under King Ezana, Axum expanded to include the territories of modern-day Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea, and parts of Sudan.

According to some Islamic traditions, the people of Axum offered shelter to the family of the Muslim prophet Muhammad during his exile from Mecca from 622 to 630 CE. For this reason, Axum was left untouched while Muslim armies conquered the surrounding areas. Though Muslim invaders conquered North Africa and geographically isolated Axum from other Christian communities, a form of Christianity survived there.

Over time, Arab traders along the coast took over Axum's trade, its main source of income. The kingdom slowly declined but small Christian kingdoms near Axum existed until around 1200 CE. To this day, the people of modern-day Ethiopia trace their Christianity back to Axum and King Ezana. Except for a brief period from 1936 to 1945, Ethiopia remained one of the few places in Africa that was never colonized by a European power.

Arabs on Africa's East and North Coasts

The Swahili language on Africa's East Coast formed from a mixture of Bantu and Arabic.

In the period from 700 CE onwards, northern and eastern Africa became key centers of Arab culture and Islamic religion. After the death of Muhammad in 632 CE, Arabs spread their religion, language, and culture from Arabia into Egypt. By 750 CE, the entire north coast of Africa was under Islamic rule. Although the Muslim world was separated from southern Africa by the Sahara Desert, traders and missionaries eventually connected the two regions.

South of Ethiopia, Arab traders from the Middle East settled in cities along the coast of modern-day Tanzania and Kenya. Over time, these traders and the Bantu-speaking people on the coasts developed Swahili, the dominant language of the East African coast today, which includes many Arabic and Indian words. In addition to the sea trade, contact and trade across the Sahara Desert spread Islam to many West African societies.

For hundreds of years, Arab merchants also brought enslaved Africans back to Arab lands. The Arab trade of enslaved Africans was never as large as the Atlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it supplied labor to sugar and cotton plantations in southern Iraq. As a result, Iraq was rocked by massive slave revolts. The last revolt was a huge uprising in southern Iraq in 879 CE which lasted 15 years. After this revolt was crushed, Arabs mostly stopped using enslaved people to farm large plantations.

However, traders continued transporting enslaved people from southern Africa across the Sahara Desert to Arab markets to work in harems and wealthy households. One estimate suggests that over the centuries, as many as 7 million enslaved people were taken across the Sahara. However, the estimated number taken each year--ranging from 1,000 to 14,000--was small in comparison with the Atlantic trade.

In Their Own Words

The Arab historian al-Tabari lived through the slave revolt in Iraq in 879 CE. Although he was not sympathetic to the rebellion or its leader, Ali bin Muhammad, al-Tabari presents an interesting picture of the beginning of the revolt:

Ali next proceeded to a place where al-Sanai worked, and there around five hundred slaves were seized, among them one who was known as Abu Hudayd. Their agent was likewise bound with fetters and taken along as well....Assembling them together, Ali rose and addressed them, raising their spirits by promising to lead and command them and to give them possession of property. He swore a solemn oath to them that he would neither deceive nor betray them and that they would experience only kind treatment from him....Ali ordered the slaves to bring whips of palm branches and, while their masters and agents were prostrated on the ground, each one was given five hundred lashes.

The History of al-Tabari 1749-50, in The History of Al-Tabari, An Annotated Translation Vol. 36 The Revolt of the Zanj, David Waines, trans. (Albany,NY: SUNY Press, 1992), 36-37.

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Great Zimbabwe in Southern Africa

Great Zimbabwe, the largest city south of the Sahara Desert, was far south of the other civilizations discussed in this lesson.

The largest ancient civilization in southern Africa was the culture of Zimbabwe . Flourishing between 400 and 1500 CE, Zimbabwe left no written records for historians. Historians do not even know what name these people called themselves. The word Zimbabwe means "stone houses" or "respected houses" in the local Karenga language. What historians know about Zimbabwe is based almost exclusively on the study of archaeological ruins. Fortunately, the ruins of its main city of Great Zimbabwe are the oldest and largest south of the Sahara Desert. At its peak in the 1400s, Great Zimbabwe had perhaps as many as 20,000 inhabitants. The surviving stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe span 2.7 square miles (7 square kilometers). Zimbabwe culture included many other sites, also known as Zimbabwes, spread over 100 to 200 miles across the country. Based upon the relics, Great Zimbabwe was probably built by the Shona people, who still live in the modern country of Zimbabwe. The Shona language is part of the great Bantu language family, which today is spoken by hundreds of groups in Africa.

The modern country, Zimbabwe, took its name from the ancient civilization of Great Zimbabwe, whose ruins are pictured above. Photo by Maeztro

The people of Zimbabwe mined gold and traded it for exotic goods from India and China. These traditional trade networks changed in the early 1500s as European countries sought their own trade routes to India and China by circling around Africa. Soon, Portuguese ships dominated the seas around southern Africa, destroyed the coastal cities, and cut Great Zimbabwe off from trade. By the time Europeans ventured into the interior of Africa, the huge city of Great Zimbabwe was already a ruin.

West African Kingdoms

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While the kingdoms of East Africa showcase the great antiquity of African culture, most African Americans trace their roots to the West African coast. Here, too, great empires rose and fell. Most of West Africa's societies were not unified into large kingdoms or empires. In general, West Africa was not as suitable for farming as the fertile Nile valley in the East. Without reliable food sources, large cities and civilizations were almost impossible. Instead, many West African societies remained small clans or tribes, each with different customs.

The few major empires in West Africa were located along major rivers such as the Senegal, the Gambia, the Niger, and the Congo. Deadly diseases such as malaria and hookworm in the river deltas also hindered population growth.Because deadly diseases made survival uncertain, most societies encouraged child-bearing and large families. Many local tribes did not allow fertile women to be enslaved. Therefore, most enslaved people taken from Africa were male.

People in West Africa still use rivers such as the Gambia River for transportation and trade. Photo by Ali Zingstra

In West Africa, gold and salt were key to power and empire. Gold deposits could be found on the west bank of the Niger River. Salt, which was used for preserving food, was also a valuable resource. The kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai grew strong by dominating the trade of these resources while traders and explorers from the Middle East, Asia, and eventually Europe flocked to the region to get them.

The kingdom of Ghana, on the Niger River, controlled the area occupied by modern-day Mali and Mauritania. The kingdom is not related to today's Republic of Ghana, although the modern country took its name. Records show the Ghana civilization was flourishing around 800 CE, but it probably existed several centuries earlier. Historians derived the name of the empire from its powerful kings, called Ghana. The Ghana grew rich from taxing gold and salt trade in the region. They also limited the amount of gold being mined so that the price would stay high. They used their wealth to build huge palaces and wore ornate clothing, including gold headdresses. Over time, Muslim merchants began trading with Ghana across the Sahara Desert. Around 1000 CE, Muslim armies invaded this civilization and weakened its influence as a trading power.

Mali, a small state that broke away from Ghana, took control of West Africa's gold and salt mines around 1240 CE. Mali then became a major West African trading kingdom. Trade prospered in the region, which became peaceful. Most of Mali's people lived in small villages, raised cattle, and grew crops.

The story of Mali's rise to power was preserved in oral tradition passed down by griots, people who memorized and recited past events. A griot (gree-OH)  usually learned his skills from his family. Some West African griots still recite an ancient epic about Mali's first king, Sundiata . This partly historical, partly fictional tale, the Epic of Sundiata, became a classic of African literature.

In 1324 CE, Sundiata's grand-nephew, Mansa Musa, a devout Muslim, traveled to Mecca and was inspired by the Arab city's architecture and culture. When Mansa Musa returned to Mali's great city Timbuktu, he built mosques and started basing his rule on the Muslim holy book, the Koran. Islam spread in Timbuktu and other big cities, but much of Mali's population lived in rural areas and still practiced local religions.

This page of an arithmetic commentary written by the scholar al-Rasmuki in the 1700s is one of many manuscripts from Timbuktu.

By the end of the 1300s, a series of invasions had left Mali too weak to protect its resources. The kingdom split into several warring states. One of these states, Songhai , conquered Timbuktu and took control of much of West Africa. Songhai dominated the rich gold and salt trade from their capital, Gao.

Timbuktu continued to be a center for Islamic writing and book production. At one time there were about 120 libraries in and around Timbuktu. Many manuscripts from Timbuktu have survived to the present day. Most of these manuscripts were written between the 16th and 18th centuries. An old West African proverb emphasizes Timbuktu's scholarly reputation: "Salt comes from the North, gold from the South, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom come from Timbuktu."

In Their Own Words

The Arab traveler Ibn Battuta visited Mali between 1352 and 1353 and wrote these impressions of a ceremony in Mali:

The interpreter Dugha comes with his four wives and his slave-girls, who are about a hundred in number. They are wearing beautiful robes, and on their heads they have gold and silver fillets, with gold and silver balls attached. A chair is placed for Dugha to sit on. He plays on an instrument made of reeds, with some small calabashesat its lower end, and chants a poem in praise of the sultan, recalling his battles and deeds of valor. The women and girls sing along with him and play with bows. Accompanying them are about thirty youths, wearing red woolen tunics and white skull-caps; each of them has his drum slung from his shoulder and beats it. Afterwards come his boy pupils who play and turn wheels in the air, like the natives of Sind...Thereupon the sultan orders a gift to be presented to Dugha and he is given a purse containing two hundred mithqals of gold dust and is informed of the contents of the purse before all the people. The commanders rise and twang their bows in thanks to the sultan. The next day each one of them gives Dugha a gift, every man according to his rank...

The negroes possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust, and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people. Their sultan shows no mercy to anyone who is guilty of the least act of it. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveler nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence. They do not confiscate the property of any white man who dies in their country, even if it be uncounted wealth. On the contrary, they give it into the charge of some trustworthy person among the whites, until the rightful heir takes possession of it. They are careful to observe the hours of prayer, and assiduous in attending them in congregations, and in bringing up their children to them...The women servants, slave-girls, and young girls go about in front of everyone naked, without a stitch of clothing on them. Women go into the sultan's presence naked and without coverings, and his daughters also go about naked.

Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354, translated by H. A. R. Gibb (London: Broadway House, 1929), 110-112.

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Askia Muhammad, an effective and ruthless leader, ruled Songhai from 1493 to 1528 and greatly expanded the Songhai kingdom. Muhammad divided the state into provinces, each with its own governor and tax collector. Muhammad ran an efficient government and established a legal system based on Muslim philosophy. During Muhammad's rule, Timbuktu boomed with trade. It became even more renowned as a Muslim learning center. Muhammad's Songhai Empire collapsed when Moroccan soldiers invaded in 1590 to gain control of gold mines. The Songhai army, armed only with swords, spears, and arrows, was no match for Moroccan guns and cannons.

The Moroccans seized one of Timbuktu's greatest scholars, Ahmed Baba, and brought him, enslaved, back to Morocco. His library of 1600 books--which he claimed was the smallest library of all of his scholarly friends--was taken from him. In both Timbuktu and Morocco Ahmed Baba wrote many books, including a description of the societies of West Africa and biographies of African Muslim scholars. His books gave information not only about the Songhai Empire but also about the many smaller neighboring societies.

The wealth and gold of the inland kingdoms of Mali and Songhai were known by Arabs and Europeans. However, until the 1800s Europeans themselves mainly stayed on the coast of Africa. African traders brought goods from the interior to port cities. By the time Europeans ventured inland, these empires had vanished like the civilization of Great Zimbabwe in southern Africa. Although European countries colonized Africa and denied the existence of Africa's great civilizations, excavations and records in Africa and the Arabic world have reclaimed West Africa's history.

Benin and the Kingdom of Kongo

African Americans also trace roots to Benin, located at the delta of the Niger River in modern-day Nigeria, and Kongo, at the delta of the Congo River.

The Kingdom of Benin was at the mouth of the Niger River, and the Kingdom of Kongo was at the mouth of the Congo River.

Benin was famous for its metalwork, such as this bronze plaque (about 15 inches/40 centimeters tall) of two armed warriors, made sometime between 1400 and 1800.

Benin impressed Portuguese explorers in the 1480s for its size, wealth, and artistic metalwork. In an effort to acquire guns and cannons from the Portuguese, the Oba, or king, of Benin and Kongo reluctantly agreed to trade enslaved Africans in the hopes of acquiring European arms. However, the Portuguese were unwilling to sell them guns, so the Africans restricted the slave trade and ended it completely around 1550. Benin preferred keeping people locally to work on their cloth and pepper industries, which they continued to export to Europe.

Hundreds of languages in Africa today are part of the Bantu language family, spoken by more than 400 ethnic groups across Central and South Africa. Historians believe that each of these languages evolved from a common language spoken by the original Bantu people. The Bantu were herders and metalworkers who spread their arts to many different lands. Historians have recovered the lost early history and migration patterns of Bantu-speaking societies by comparing languages and customs across Africa.

One Bantu group came to the mouth of the Congo River around 500 BCE and became known in English as the Kongo people. By the 1300s CE, they had developed several kingdoms. The most impressive became known as the Kingdom of Kongo, on the southern bank of the Congo River, in the modern country of Angola. Kongo's capital, M'banza-Kongo, had perhaps 100,000 residents in 1482, when Portuguese sailors first arrived. By the 1500s the estimated population of the Kingdom of Kongo was 500,000.

Kongo traded enslaved people to the Portuguese until the 1600s. Mainly they traded people captured from wars with their neighbors or people traded to them from societies in the interior of Africa. In these wars Kongo acquired cloth-making industries and switched from trading in enslaved people to exporting cloth.Both the Kingdom of Kongo and Benin eventually stopped exporting people, although they continued to use enslaved people in their own farms and industries.

Enslavement within Africa

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Many West African societies practiced enslavement, as did other pre-industrial societies, such as Greece, Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and ancient Israel. The treatment of enslaved people depended on their status and on local traditions. Most enslaved people were in small families, but in a few places they worked in mines, industries, or on large plantations. If enslaved people worked in homes, sometimes they would be adopted or marry into the family of their enslavers.

Like many societies in West Africa, the Kongo grouped enslaved people into four classes: people captured from other tribes in war, Kongo people in debt, criminals, and family members given away as dowry. Some tribes in rural areas of West Africa still practice this type of slavery, although it is now technically illegal throughout Africa. Even today, a person who owes a lot of money to someone or who commits a crime can be assigned to a person as their enslaved person. In general, the personal relationship between enslaver and enslaved person ensured better treatment than on American plantations.

In Their Own Words

Ahmad Baba, the famous scholar from Timbuktu wrote a book about enslavement, explaining that it was common in West Africa:

Sometimes there is disharmony among the chiefs of these lands and one sultan might march against another, and invade his country and capture whatever he can from the other's followers, who are Muslims, and he sells the prisoners although they are free Muslims. Alas! This is much practiced among them. The people of Katsina invade Kano and others do the same although their tongue is one, their language is one, and their conditions are approximate.

Ahmad Baba, 1614 Miraj al-Suud ila nayl Majlub al-Sudan in Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 74.

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Think About It

Many African societies, as well as other traditional societies around the world, had a tradition of enslavement. The traditions of some societies, such as bigamy or the denial of rights to women and children, can offend people in other cultures. In many traditional societies, children have to submit to the will of their parents and grandparents without question, even if the children themselves are 50 years old. What traditions offend you? What would you recommend to a society that believes in the power of traditions but practices things that deeply offend you? Do you believe cultures in Europe and the U.S. did the right thing by changing traditions, for example, by allowing women to vote or allowing women to fight in wars?

Practice Questions

Take some time to answer the following questions and to write your answers down in your notebook. Then click the “Check Answers” button to see our suggested answers. Some of these questions may be asked in the submission for this lesson.

Where were the earliest African civilizations located? What commercial or geographical features connected or separated these civilizations?

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Which civilizations came first and which came later? Make a chronological list of the civilizations discussed in this lesson. Making this list and taking the interactive map quiz later in this lesson are great ways to prepare for submission questions about the contexts of African civilizations.

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What were the sources of wealth for the West African civilizations of Ghana and Mali?

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Group together the civilizations below into three groups based on geography. By what geographic feature does it make the most sense to organize these civilizations?

  • Axum

  • Benin

  • Egypt
  • Ghana

  • Kongo

  • Kush

  • Mali

  • Songhai

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Who were the Bantu speakers and where do they live today? Which civilization discussed in this lesson was founded by a Bantu ethnic group?

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Give at least three facts relating to the geography, culture, religion, or history of the kingdoms of Axum and Kush.

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African Societies When Europeans Arrived

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Between 1450 and 1600 European societies explored and colonized much of the world, including Africa. European dominance continued for centuries. Historians still debate why European societies were able to dominate the other continents for several centuries. What advantage did European societies have? What did African societies lack? How did civilizations in the two continents develop differently? Part of the answer is that geography led African and European societies to develop different skills. European societies had more access to seafaring, trade, and technology, which allowed them to become powerful and eventually colonize and control large parts of Africa.

Ancient Europe, like Africa and most of the world, was full of many small, traditional societies. Most regions of Europe were littered with small civilizations with diverse customs and languages. For example, cities and villages in Italy just two day's journey away from Rome spoke dozens of different languages even at the height of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. However, in later years European countries took a different path than African civilizations.Because of technology and geography, smaller societies in Europe were often destroyed or merged into larger societies. Although some small European societies today have been trying to revive their languages and customs, most--such as Cornish, Romansh, Old Prussian, and Sorbian--have been consumed by English, French, Spanish, and German cultures.

Unlike most African societies, European societies developed mainly around seas and islands. Trade and travel were quicker and easier by boat rather than by land; therefore, seaborne empires could grow large while remaining strong. Many larger European societies--the Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Normans, Norse, and the Venetians--centered around the sea. Large African societies, such as Egypt, Mali, Songhai, Benin, and Kongo, developed inland around rivers that served as trade networks, but these were much more limited in size than the seas around Europe.

By mastering sea travel, Europeans were able to acquire technology from other cultures. They learned writing from Mesopotamia and Egypt and how to make gunpowder and cannons, as well as printing, from China. These technologies made it easier to build large, strong, uniform societies. Writing and printing helped Europeans develop a common culture and a common language, which made it easier to rule and unite a sprawling, diverse society. In order to build guns and cannons, Europeans developed trade networks that brought in iron, lead, sulfur, and potassium nitrate from Sicily, Poland, England, Morocco, and India. Any society that wanted to build large ships also required a lot of iron, wood, and manpower. In turn, these complex technologies allowed European societies to conquer and rule even larger areas. For all of these reasons, European societies were larger, more unified, and better equipped for battles when they arrived in Africa in the 1500s.

By the 1500s, many African societies had some of the same strengths and technologies as European societies but never all of them. African societies in the 1500s--Songhai, Benin, Kongo, and Zimbabwe--were culturally rich and involved in industry, manufacturing, and commerce. Yet even within these empires, people were divided into smaller societies with different languages and customs. They were at a disadvantage against European invaders because they were not unified and did not have guns.

However, the path Africa took kept many more of its cultures alive. African societies preserved their diverse cultural traditions, while larger European societies generally destroyed or absorbed smaller cultures.

African Legacies in the Americas

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As a result of their superior firepower and technology, Europeans were able to enslave and ship Africans to American plantations. Enslavers there often tried to root out African culture. However, parts of African culture survived not only in African societies, but in the U.S. and other countries in the Americas.

Enslavers often made enslaved Africans use European names instead of their own. They forbid African religions and promoted Christianity. They separated Africans from the same tribes and mixed Africans from different regions together. In that way, enslaved people could not speak to one another or organize and plan resistance. Instead of African languages, enslaved people had to learn the language of their enslavers. Over generations, many words, customs, and stories from Africa were lost.

Despite attempts by enslavers to destroy or replace the memory of African culture, African heritages survived in African American culture. Africans preserved traditional spiritual practices, music, and foods in the Americas. African culture continues to leave a mark on African Americans today.

African Spiritual Legacies

The Kongo and other West African groups carried many aspects of their traditional religions to the Americas. Animism  was widely practiced among many cultures in Africa and persisted even after Islam and Christianity took hold on the continent. Animism is a belief that natural forces are controlled by gods and spirits. In this system, every good and evil event is triggered by a specific person, either by casting a spell or somehow offending a spirit or god. Animists believed that witchcraft caused disasters and sicknesses. Spiritual leaders were said to be able to fight against witchcraft. As a result, they held a key role in African tribes.

Most West African societies combined animism with a belief that dead people were still present in spirit form and could work good or ill. Dead ancestors were believed to be a source of help for their family and the community as a whole. The idea that nature, family, and community were all interrelated was at the core of many West African belief systems. These beliefs remained strong even after some societies converted to Christianity or Islam.

West African animism left a strong mark on African American folk beliefs and practices. In many West African languages, the word for the spirits that influenced all events was vodun or vodu. Enslaved African Americans brought these beliefs to Haiti, Cuba, South America, and North America, where the beliefs and practice were sometimes called voodoo or hoodoo. The beliefs of many African cultures were blended with Christianity into voodoo practices or into Cuban customs known as Santería. Stories of zombies, voodoo dolls, curses, and protective spells all have roots in the customs of many West African societies.

This illustration of a voodoo dance from a New Orleans newspaper in 1889 shows how African American spiritual practices scandalized white society. The New Orleans Mascot, June 1, 1889

In 2008, archeologists in Annapolis, Maryland, found sacks buried by Africans or African Americans as part of sacred rites to cast spells of protection over places. These sacks from 17th and 18th century Annapolis were buried under buildings or beside streets and contained roots, metal scraps, axe heads, ivory, animal bones, and even objects from Africa. These artifacts prove that Africans continued to practice African religion in colonial America.

This sack buried in colonial Annapolis, Maryland, contained the blade of a stone axe, probably from Africa, which archeologists believe could have been part of a statue of Eshu, a Yoruba god, similar to the Afro-Brazilian statue on the right. Drawing by Brian Payne courtesy of the University of Maryland Department of Anthropology.

African Music Legacies

Despite enslavement and emigration, African culture strongly shaped American music and dance. The polyrhythmic music found among many groups in Africa laid the foundation for much modern music. Popular music today includes many elements of African music such as call and response, improvisation, complex multi-part harmony, and percussion. The scale, or progression of notes, found in many jazz, rock, and blues songs, is a combination of African and European scales. Enslaved Africans also brought ethnic dance traditions to the Americas. Some of these, such as ring shouts and get downs, are still used today. Some music scholars, comparing MCs to West African griots, have even traced hip hop music to African influences.

The Gambian scholar Daniel Jatta plays the akonting, a West African instrument similar to the banjo. An American painting from 1856The Banjo Player, is in the background. Photo by Ulf Jagfors 1999

 Click here to hear banjo scholar Eli Smith and akonting scholar Daniel Jatta play and compare the instruments. Audio courtesy of the Down Home Radio Show

One of the central instruments in traditional American music, the banjo, developed from West African traditional instruments. Enslavers brought African instruments aboard slave ships and encouraged enslaved Africans to sing and dance as a remedy for despair and depression. In the U.S., African Americans built string instruments with drumskins similar to ones from their homelands, and then combined them with European guitars to make the banjo.

African Food Legacies

African influence can even be seen in the foods eaten in the U.S. Okra, watermelons, black-eyed peas, and sesame plants were brought to the Americas from Africa either by enslaved Africans or by their enslavers. The okra plant, used in Louisiana gumbo, is native to Africa. The name okra comes from an Igbo word in Nigeria, while the name gumbo comes from quillobo, the name for a plant in Congo and Angola. Records show that okra was part of many colonial diets before 1776. Watermelons are another ancient African food. Watermelons were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun in ancient Egypt. After traders brought watermelons over from Africa, they became a standard food in the U.S.

These African foods were brought from Africa to the Americas either by Africans or by enslavers to feed Africans.

Farmers also grew the African crop black-eyed peas in the 1700s in order to feed enslaved Africans. Enslaved people brought sesame seeds and grew them for use in breads and for their oil. President Thomas Jefferson and other white plantation owners noted that enslaved Africans baked sesame seeds in breads, in greens, and used them to enrich broth. Often plantation owners such as Jefferson benefited from seeing how Africans grew their own crops or adapted local American food crops.

Rice and peanuts did not originate in Africa but came with Africans to the U.S. Peanuts were first domesticated in South America and brought to Africa by European traders in the 1500s. Peanut soups became a staple of the West African diet. Centuries later, enslaved Africans brought peanuts to the U.S. Colonists called them goobers and pindars, based on African words. Jefferson used the term peendars when he described his crop of peanuts in October 1794. Rice was grown in Africa for thousands of years before people tried to grow it on plantations in South Carolina in the late 1600s. Much of the seeds, labor, and technical expertise on rice plantations came from Africans because British people had little experience with rice. Africans in the U.S. also made fans and winnowing baskets from rice as they had in Africa.

Corn came from the Americas, but enslaved Africans adapted it for traditional African dishes. In 1739 Mark Catesby, a white naturalist, observed that enslaved Africans were making corn mush and grits. These foods resembled eba, a Nigerian food made from cassava roots instead of corn. Enslaved people also substituted corn in African bread and cake recipes. Like corn, sweet potatoes are native to the Americas. However, enslaved Africans called the sweet potatoes a yam, an African term for a much larger African vegetable. Yams continue to be central to diets in several West African societies.

Think About It

Do any African legacies--in music, food, or religion--affect your life today? Which one is the most important for you? Does learning about the African origins of these things change your experience or appreciation of them?

Lesson Review

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Throughout history the African continent has been populated by many cultures and powerful civilizations with diverse customs. Eastern Africa produced the powerful Egyptian, Kush, and Axum Empires. These kingdoms created advanced societies, architecture, and ironworks long before such technologies reached Western Europe. From Western Africa rose the powerful kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. These kingdoms established trade routes to the Middle East and the Asian continent. From this exchange, the Ghana Empire achieved extravagant wealth. The Mali Empire absorbed and adapted the culture and religion of Islam. Further south along the coast, the kingdoms of Benin and Kongo were centers for metalwork and cloth production. African cultures preserved their traditions and individuality rather than becoming unified like many Western European cultures. It is important to remember that this lesson has only described a few of the most important civilizations in Africa before the 1600s. There were many more.

Most enslaved people sent to the Americas came from the West African coast and brought their traditions with them. African spiritual practices, music, and foods shaped colonial American culture. Despite attempts by enslavers to force enslaved people to give up traditional customs, African Americans preserved their heritage and passed it to future generations while blending it with new traditions.

Practice Questions

Take some time to answer the following questions and to write your answers down in your notebook. Then click the “Check Answers” button to see our suggested answers. Some of these questions may be asked in the submission for this lesson.

What geographical features were often the center of European societies but not African ones? What difference did these features make on these societies?

Check Your Answer

Did traditional African religious practices survive in the U.S.? Defend your answer.

Check Your Answer

Agree or disagree with the following statement, offering evidence to back up your claim:

Banjos and blues music came to the United States directly from Africa.

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How did Africans adapt indigenous foods of the Americas, such as corn and sweet potatoes?

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Suggested Reading

Holloway, Joseph E., ed., Africanisms in American Culture. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005. A scholarly look at how Africa influenced American food, language, and culture.

To Learn More

Bower, Anne. African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Burstein, S. Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 1998.

Ibn Battuta. Ibn Battuta in Black Africa (World History). edited by Said Hamdun and Noel King. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2005.

Iliffe, J. Africans: The History of a Continent. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995.

Kubik, Gerhard. Africa and the Blues. Oxford, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Mendes,Helen. The African Heritage Cookbook. New York: MacMillan, 1971.

Pikirayi, I. The Zimbabwe Culture: Origins and Decline of Southern Zambezian States. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2001.

Tillery, Carolyn Quick. The African-American Heritage Cookbook. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1996.


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