Africa Prehistory

Anthropologists that specialise in the archaeological evidence of past civilisations, or paleoanthropologists, are fascinated by Africa and its rich diversity of fossilised findings. These artefacts narrate a time in Africa’s past when written records were rare, if not non-existent, providing clues and puzzle pieces for modern researchers to piece together.

Fossils that have been discovered within the last century are thought to be up to 7 million years old. These remains include humans and what is believed to be their earlier ancestors, resembling apes. Using modern technology, these findings have been established as being 3.9 to 3 million years old.

Africa was, like the rest of the world, a vast continent with no defined countries or borders. Ancient civilisations trekked across the extensive plains in search of food and a suitable place to live. These included societies such as the Khoi and the San or Bushmen.

The most recent Ice Age refers to the period of time, approximately 20 000 years ago, that the earth experienced long-term and wide spread temperatures that were dramatically lower than usual. This change in climate resulted in some of the ice sheets and glaciers we see today. These ice sheets were extensive in areas such as North America and Eurasia, as they are known today. The end of the last Ice Age was at about 10 500 BCE (Before our Common Era). At this time, the Sahara was a fertile, lush valley. This meant that those who had migrated to the highlands to avoid the ice sheets could return to this area. Humans and animals alike thrived under these conditions. However, the climate alternated between dry and humid conditions over a period of many centuries, which eventually left this area in a desert state. By 500 BCE, the Sahara civilisations began to migrate towards the Nile. The climate change in East and Central Africa has had permanent effects on places such as Ethiopia, which continue to be parched right into the present day.

The prehistorical Africa also saw the domestication of cattle for farming purposes during the hunter-gatherer time of human development. This is before agricultural farming even became recognised. North Africa is said to have domesticated their cattle by 6000 BCE. With the dramatic changes in climate, grazing and agricultural land diminished or shrunk, forcing the farmers to migrate west, where Africa enjoyed a more tropical weather pattern.

It was just before 1000 BCE that North Africa encountered ironworking. This strengthened their trade relations and increased profitability for the civilisations in this area. The ironwork fad galloped through Africa and became very common in East and West Africa by 500 BCE. This has been confirmed by the discovery of copper objects that originated in Egypt, North Africa and Ethiopia found in West Africa. This would imply that trade across the sub-Sahara was already in progress as early as 500 BCE.

This prehistorical development laid the foundation for the civilisations that came out of it. These civilisations formed many of the cultures, religions and national groups that we see today.