A History of World Societies,
African Societies and Kingdoms, ca 400-1450
The African subcontinent, the land
south of the Sahara, developed in relative isolation from the Mediterranean
world, India, and China until roughly A.D. 1000. Thus, a unique set of cultures,
traditions, languages, and identities emerged. The following activities will
help you explore these aspects of African history. They also look at the impact
of other cultures in Africa as the continent became more involved in the trans–Eurasian
trade routes that you explored in previous chapters.
- You may want to begin by printing this page. As you explore
different sites, use the printout to refer back to the instructions and
questions detailed in each activity.
- On many web sites you can increase the size of the images
by clicking on them. Whenever possible, use the larger images to examine
fine details in photographs.
- To better understand African history, you need a firm
grasp of the geography of the continent. Click on Map 1
and review Map 10.1 on page 280 of McKay, A History of World Societies
(Sixth Edition). In addition, go to map
2 and then click on Africa. You can examine the physical features of
Africa more closely by clicking on each zone depicted in the smaller map
at the top of the page,
- Try to identify the various climate zones of Africa.
You should be familiar with Africa's deserts, rain forests, sahel, savanna,
and subtropical regions. Print out map 3 and
use it to try to trace these areas. When you have completed this task, identify
other major geographical features such as the Niger River, the Nile River,
the Congo River, the Zambezi River, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Atlantic
Ocean, Lake Chad, Lake Victoria, and various mountainous areas of Africa.
- Explain why the African subcontinent was relatively isolated
from events in Eurasia for so long. Where do you think it was easiest for
the cultures of the subcontinent and Eurasia to interact?
- Review this chapter and make a list of all the African
cultures and civilizations (kingdoms or cities) that emerged around or after
A.D. 1000. Locate these cultures on your map. McKay, A History of World
Societies (Sixth Edition), claims that "what spurred the expansion
of these small kingdoms into formidable powers controlling sizable territory
was the development of long–distance trade" (page 285). Where did long–distance
trade emerge? With which cultures did this trade bring sub–Saharan Africa
- One of the early Neolithic cultures to appear in Africa
was the Nok. First, read The
Nok. Next, examine map 4
and read Nok Terracottas
(make sure to click to the second page of this brief discussion). Who were
the Nok? Where did they reside? How do we know about them? How are we limited
in our knowledge of them? What historical controversy surrounds them? How
did they influence African history?
- Another Neolithic culture influential in African history
was the Bantu. Go to The
Iron Age South of the Sahara. When you have finished, read more about
and tools. Also review pages 284–285 in McKay, A History of World
Societies (Sixth Edition). Who were the Bantu? Where did they reside?
How do we know about them? How are we limited in our knowledge of them?
How did they influence African history?
- The Bantu migrations, with their expansion of
technology, agricultural products, and knowledge, ultimately led to the
first urban societies in sub–Saharan Africa. To explore an example of this
development, go to Jenne–jeno:
An Ancient African City. What does this site reveal about the level
of social development in West Africa before the year 1000?
- What do the authors of this site mean when they
say that "the results indicated that earlier assumptions about the
emergence of complex social organization in urban settlements and the development
of long–distance trade as innovations appearing only after the arrival of
the Arabs in North Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries were incorrect"?
Why do you think that historians have assumed that urban societies did not
exist in sub–Saharan Africa before 1000? You might want to review pages
283–284 in McKay, A History of World Societies (Sixth Edition).
- Around A.D. 1000, long–distance trade began to
have a tremendous impact on Africa. At Trade
in Ancient Africa, there is a map of trade routes in West Africa and
an explanation of what goods and peoples were involved in this commerce.
- Read The Saharan Trade and
Swahili Kingdoms. What goods did societies in Africa export to the rest
of the world? With which civilizations did this export trade bring African
societies into contact? How did these commercial connections affect developments
within Africa after A.D. 1000? In other words, did any foreign religions
spread in Africa? Did any African civilizations adapt any political techniques
from their neighbors? Was there any immigration or emigration?
- The advent of Islam in Africa led to more than
just greater economic ties. It also led to greater cultural ties. Many non–African
Muslims traveled extensively in East and West Africa. You have already met
one of these travelers, Ibn Battuta, in the Chapter 9 Internet activities.
There were numerous others. Read the following accounts of two travelers'
encounters with Africa: Leo
Africanus: Description of Timbuktu and Abű
Űthmân al–Jâhiz: From The Essays, c. 860 CE,
- How do these Muslim observers describe Africa?
In what do they seem most interested? For whom are they writing? (Are they
writing for other sub–Saharan Africans or for people of their own cultures?)
What impression of sub–Saharan Africa do their essays convey?
- Muslim scholars helped spread the knowledge of
Africa to other places as well. For example, their maps began to include
more of sub–Saharan Africa after the year 1000. See al–Idrisi's
World Map from 1456 and Ibn
Sa'id's world map from the Kitab al–bad' wa–al–ta'rikh, 13th century.
You might find the orientation of these maps confusing. The first looks
upside down; the second is sideways. You may have to print them out and
manipulate them to understand them better. How did these Muslim cartographers
depict Africa? Is it large or small? Do the maps include all of Africa or
just areas where Islam was present?
- Examine this medieval map
of Africa, which is drawn from a European perspective. How does it compare
to the two Muslim depictions? How did Europeans learn about Africa at this
- Islam was not the only religion to influence sub–Saharan
Africa. Christianity also penetrated the Sahara. To understand more on the
Christian influence, go to Axum
African, Christian, & Muslim—A Multi–Heritage Kingdom. Where did
Christianity have a strong impact? What nation is there today? Was Christianity's
influence the same there as Islam's was in other parts of Africa? In other
words, did the spread of Christianity link Axum/Ethiopia to a broader civilization?
Was Christianity there the same as in Europe? (See McKay, Chapter 8, "The
Making of Europe.") To help you answer these questions, see Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido
Church and Christians
- One other great kingdom flourished in sub–Saharan Africa
before 1450. Review The
Riddle of Great Zimbabwe and Great
Zimbabwe. (When you visit the latter site, make sure to click on the
images to examine them more closely.) How was this kingdom influenced by
long–distance trade? Why is our knowledge of it not as extensive as that
of Ghana, Mali, the Swahili city–states, and Axum/Ethiopia?
- This sweeping chapter has introduced you to major
developments in African history before 1500. To help you make better sense
of the information, make a time line that covers major trends from the emergence
of the Nok culture through 1450. For assistance, see Africa
South of the Sahara Chronology. Keep this document handy, as Africa
and its contact with the rest of the world will be a major theme throughout