Topics: African Archaeology
The continent of Africa has the longest record of human activity of any part of the world and along with its geographical extent, it contains an enormous archaeological resource. Scholars have studied Egyptology for centuries but archaeologists have only paid serious attention to the rest of the continent in more recent times.
Pliocene and Pleistocene Africa
The earliest evidence of archaeological activity anywhere comes from the Rift Valley sites of East Africa such as Olduvai Gorge in modern-day Tanzania. It is thought that the earliest hominids evolved in Olduvai or somewhere similar around 4 million years ago. They are known as australopithecines and fossils of them include the famous Lucy. The first, crude Oldowan stone tools produced there were made as long as 2.5 million years ago by the later homo habilis. Around a million years later, Developed Oldowan and then Acheulian industries produced more advanced handaxes made by homo erectus. Archaeological study of this era was pioneered by people such as Louis Leakey and his family and has centered on the earliest development of tool use, fire and diet in hominid societies. Sites such as Kalambo Falls have produced well-preserved evidence of this activity.
By the beginning of the Middle Palaeolithic, around 120,000 BC, African societies were hunter-gatherers proficient in exploiting the herds of large mammals that populated the continent for meat, including elephants and the fearsome African Buffalo. The area that is now the Sahara desert was open grassland and it seems that early humans preferred this plains environment to the jungles in the centre. Coastal peoples also existed on seafood and numerous middens indicate their diet.
Homo sapiens sapiens appears for the first time in the archaeological record around 100,000 BC in Africa and soon developed a more advanced method of flint tool manufacture involving striking flakes from a prepared core. This permitted more control over the size and shape of finished tool and led to the development of composite tools, that is projectile points and scrapers which could be hafted onto spears, arrows or handles. In turn this technology permitted more efficient hunting such as that demonstrated by the Aterian industry.
Although still homos, there is evidence that these early humans also actively managed the food resource as well as simply harvesting it. The jungles of the Congo Basin were first occupied around this time; different conditions and diet there produced recognisably different behaviours and tool types. There are also the earliest signs of art appearing through the use of ochre as a body decoration and paint and burial rituals may have been practised.
Later Stone Age Africa
Around 10,000 BC, African societies developed microlith technology which permitted even finer flint tools that could be mounted in rows on a handle. Such a tool was useful for harvesting wild grasses and also permitted fine shell and bone fish hooks, further varying diet. These nifty Neolithic conditions led to eventual settlement sites being founded in parts of Africa as the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle was replaced by an agrarian and herding society. Other parts of the continent remained in the Palaeolithic however. Africa's earliest evidence for pottery and domesticated plants and animals comes from the north of the continent, in around 7000-6000 BC, and this different lifestyle is preserved in the images of Saharan rock art. As the Sahara increased in size due to global climate change, its early farmers were forced south and eastwards, to the Niger and Nile valleys spreading their new ideas as they moved.
Wheat and barley, sheep and goats were quickly adopted from Asia by African farmers but the early use of metalworking was not widely introduced in Africa until the Egyptians joined the Bronze Age around 4,000 BC. Pockets of bronze usage appeared in subsequent millennia but metal did not supplant stone in the continent until around 500BC when both iron and copper spread southwards through the continent, reaching the Cape around 200AD. The widespread use of iron revolutionised the Bantu farming communities who drove out the remaining hunter-gatherer societies they encountered as they expanded to farm wider areas of savanna The technologically superior Bantu spread across southern Africa and became rich and powerful, producing iron for tools and weapons in large, industrial quantities.
Trade with the Near East and Europe led to strong mercantile empires growing such as the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum. The Bantu people built the impressive site of Great Zimbabwe between the 10th and 15th centuries AD. The north of the continent had close cultural and economic ties with the Classical and medieval Mediterranean. Cattle herding became important in East Africa and huge earthwork enclosures were built to corral the animals. The people of Christian Ethiopia produced impressive rock-cut monolithic churches such as that of St George at Lalibela during the 13th century and the first Portuguese forts appeared soon after this, penetrating as far south as Zambia.