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9.5: Writing the History of Ancient and Medieval Africa

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    Scholars of Africa, particularly those working in the last two generations, have employed all sorts of methods to describe the ancient African past. They have necessarily been on the forefront of methodological innovation because of the limited availability of written primary sources, meaning sources recorded by ancient Africans themselves. Therefore, scholars have turned to a wide range of materials to complement the available written records.

    Before about 1800 CE, many African societies kept their records orally, as opposed to in written form. These societies have rich, complex histories that some past historians, relying primarily on written records, ignored when they studied the African continent.

    The professionalization of the study of history in the West (meaning primarily in Europe and the United States), which entailed the transition from writing about the past out of personal interest to writing about the past as a profession with established methodologies, mainly occurred in the 1800s. European and American views of Africans during that era were generally derogatory and prejudiced. These nineteenth century professional scholars tended to portray Africans as primitive, meaning unchanged from time immemorial. Western methodologies, with their reliance on written sources, backed up European views of Africans as unchanged. Two general results of the nineteenth century scholarship in the West were the assumptions that Africa, which was commonly referred to as “the dark continent,” lacked a history prior to European arrival on the continent and that any urban developments or complex state structures in Africa were the achievements of outsiders. For example, as you will see in this chapter, there were nineteenth century European scholars who credited people from Yemen with building the Axum trading empire and attributed the archaeological findings at Great Zimbabwe to Phoenicians. Especially since the 1960s, there has been a strong movement to reclaim these (and other) developments as African. As part of this effort, scholars employ new methodologies, including the study of oral sources, archaeology, climate change, linguistics (the study of languages), and paleoarchaobotany (the study of ancient plant materials), to gain more accurate, multi-faceted information about the African past.

    Perhaps most contested and also potentially the most revealing are the available oral sources. Many ancient African societies had special people tasked with orally transmitting official histories and preserved traditions. For example, griots in parts of West Africa memorized chronologies, cultural traditions, and legal precedence to advise kings and state leaders. Griots also traveled and performed theater and praise-songs throughout empires to spread cultural values and communicate news from governments. Griots held honored places in their societies, reflecting their importance to both rulers and people’s everyday lives. Locally produced proverbs and oral teachings also played vital roles in many ancient African societies. Additionally, African communities honored older generations for their knowledge of the past, leading Amadou Hampate Ba, a famous author from Mali, to write, “In Africa, when an old man dies, it’s a library burning.”6 These examples are just some of the ways that ancient peoples used oral traditions. Since the 1960s, scholars of Africa have recognized the importance of studying these oral sources as they convey a great deal of information about the past. Using oral sources is not without its challenges, but their inclusion has broadened the scholarly understanding of African societies.

    9.5.1: Terminology

    Especially due to nineteenth-century tendencies to portray Africans as inferior, current scholars of Africa have a whole host of stereotypes to correct. One of the main stereotypes they encounter is the common perception that African societies are timeless, that they have not changed in hundreds or thousands of years. The movie The Gods Must Be Crazy encapsulates this stereotype. The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) is a fictional account that follows the San people in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. The movie portrays the San as untouched by and unaware of the modern world until one member of their community finds a Coke bottle discarded from an airplane. In the movie, adventure ensues.

    Movies, television shows, and other media often show us an Africa that is rural, a landscape dominated by wild animals, and a continent isolated from the rest of the modern world. However, these images do not accurately represent the continent in either our present time or the past. In 2010, one-third of Africa’s population lived in cities, and it is likely that one-half of Africa’s population will be urban dwelling by 2030.7 Lagos (Nigeria) is Africa’s largest city south of the Sahara Desert, with population experts estimating that it is home to 21 million people. With this estimate, Lagos is on a par size-wise with cities like Beijing, Cairo, and Mexico City. Urbanization on this scale is a fairly recent phenomena. However, this chapter will introduce you to some Medieval cities, including the famous city of Timbuktu, to discuss African urban cultures. We will also explore the trade routes that connected Africa to much of the world, emphasizing that Africa has been connected to the Arabian Peninsula, Asia, and Europe for millenia.

    Even if we do not intend it to, some of the language that we use on an everyday basis can perpetuate assumptions that Africa is isolated or behind the rest of the world. One example of a potentially problematic term is “tribe.” As African historian Christopher Ehret has pointed out, the use of “tribe” in reference to Africans often carries the underlying judgment that the people who are “tribal” are exotic, wild, backwards, and potentially dangerous. In common usage, “tribesmen” are not modern citizens of nation-states, but instead remnants of the past. To highlight the discriminatory use of the term, Ehret asks us to consider why African wars are often referred to as “tribal” wars instead of as the civil wars they actually are, and,

    …Why is Shaka, the famous nineteenth-century ruler, called the king of the Zulu “tribe” when he was actually the king of a centralized and military powerful state? Why are Africans in “traditional” dress said to be engaging in “tribal” dancing, when Europeans garbed similarly in the clothes of an earlier time are said to be performing “folk” dances?8

    Ehret makes the case that the way that we commonly use “tribe” perpetuates a lot of the negative stereotypes Europeans had of Africa in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, many historians question the idea that African “tribes” even existed prior to European colonization of the continent one hundred and fifty years ago. Instead, scholars discuss much more fluid, adaptive, or inclusive ethnic identities and suggest that nineteenth century Europeans tried to harden divisions and create “tribes” to suit their own administrative purposes. Dismissing Africans as “tribal” also allowed European to legitimize the trans-Atlantic slave trade (in the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries) and colonization of the continent (in the nineteenth century). Today, people often fall back on “tribe” and “tribal” instead of trying to understand the complexities of African politics and social organization.

    There are a handful of other terms that modern scholars scrutinize to show that they are based on similar prejudices. Two such terms are “stateless society” and “bushmen.” Many written sources from the nineteenth century produced by Europeans did not recognize the existence of states in Africa that had more democratic, less centralized, or less hierarchical leadership structures. These written sources assumed that all states had kings or other centralized authority figures. They denied the existence of states organized in other ways. Some African societies were centralized under the rule of monarchs, but others used, for example, councils of elders, had more decentralized, egalitarian systems, or relied on age-sets to mobilize labor and manage government affairs. These latter examples had functioning governmental structures, but nineteenth century Europeans usually did not recognize these alternative forms of state organization and claimed that Africans were incapable of ruling themselves without European intervention. The use of the phrase “stateless society” was one way that Europeans claimed to be more advanced and thus destined to colonize Africa in the nineteenth century.

    According to this same nineteenth-century ideology, the “bushmen” and “pygmies” of Africa were hopelessly behind and isolated from modern times. The San people featured in The Gods Must Be Crazy are an example of a society sometimes referred to as “bushmen.” Scholars now consider ”bushmen” and “pygmy” to be derogatory when used in reference to Africans because of the history of the terms. Over the past two hundred years, the terms have been coupled with assumptions of a lack of historical development, isolationism, and a lack of participation in modern economies. These assumptions do not reflect the reality of hunter-gathering societies. Instead, scholars have shown that hunter-gathering societies have long been in regular contact with pastoralists and people living in agriculturally-based societies in Africa. Most people,who in the past would have been labeled bushmen or pygmies, prefer to be referred to by their linguistic or ethnic identities in order to avoid the stigmas attached to these terms and to avoid being lumped in with people with whom they share very little. If we understand how words like tribe, stateless societies, and bushmen have been used in the past, then we can avoid perpetuating some of the problematic stereotypes about Africa.

    Overall, as you read this chapter, keep in mind that Africa has been a continent of innovation and change since the first behaviorally modern humans emerged there between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. Africans were some of the first farmers and some of the first iron-workers. Africans developed their own artistic traditions (see Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\), Map \(\PageIndex{1}\), Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)) and unique state structures. With such a big, diverse continent to consider, this chapter examines four civilizations (states of larger scale and complexity) to show major changes impacting the continent. Each of these states was also connected to the rest of the world. The chapter starts with ancient Ethiopia in Northeast Africa (300 to 700 CE) and moves to the Western Sudanic Empires in the Sahel of West Africa (800 to 1591 CE). In the second half, it discusses Great Zimbabwe (1200 to 1450 CE) and, finally, the Swahili states in East Africa (1000 to 1500 CE).

    Screenshot (907).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): An Example of a Terra-Cotta Statue Produced by the Nok Culture, c. 550 BCE | The Nok people lived in what is today Northern Nigeria. Author: User “Daderot” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain
    Screenshot (908).png
    Map \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of Nok Culture | The Nok were just one innovative community in ancient Africa. They were a sophisticated Iron-Age civilization (c. 1000 BCE) now known for their terra-cotta sculptures. Author: Locutus Borg Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain
    Screenshot (909).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): A lifesize bronze head found at Ife (Nigeria) | Created by a Yoruba artist in the thirteenth century CE, it may represent a member of the royal family. Author: Locutus Borg Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

    6 Quoted in Ann Badkhen, Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015): 20.

    7 “Growth Areas: the urbanisation of Africa,” Economist (Dec. 13, 2010),

    8 Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2002): 7.

    9.5: Writing the History of Ancient and Medieval Africa is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Charlotte Miller.

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