|The Battlefield Palette|
from Naqada III Period in Egypt, c3200BC
showing defeated soldiers being eaten by beasts
African history is sometimes dismissed as being less interesting than that of other areas and it is true that it is understudied and sometimes suffers from lack of source materials. But Africa is also the birthplace of Egypt, possibly the world’s second oldest civilisation (if not the oldest) and cannot thus be treated as unimportant. The origins of Egyptian culture are distinctly African and considering that Africa is held to be the original birthplace of humanity and contains not only Egypt but so much more, this continent is fully deserving of historical study. My hope is that the next decades will see great strides in our understanding of African history.
Africa is long held to be the original cradle of the human race so by the year 4000BC humans had been in Africa since time immemorial. Exact dates are not expected at this point in prehistory but by 4000BC agriculture was in the Nile Valley and had spread across much of the northern belt of the rainforests in the centre of the continent.
|Skull of a megatherium. These large beasts once roamed |
the Saharan lands before going extinct
Megafauna roamed across the savannahs and were prey to the Neolithic hunters of the region. The Nile and other rivers in the region all carried much more water and were probably higher than they now are today.
The Last Glacial Maximum began to recede but was interrupted by the Younger Dryas period (which saw the warming planet temporarily cooled again) about 10,000BC according to current climate estimates. But the glaciers had now begun to disappear to their current proportions and this caused a change in climate that saw heavy rainfall across Africa, as the currents of the North Atlantic shifted with the changing climate.
This wet Sahara period was ended by what is known to us as the 5.9 Kiloyear Event (as in it happened roughly 5900 years before the present date). This saw the fertile and semi-arid lands of what was then the North African savannah begin to turn to desert. This desertification did not happen overnight but did seem to happen more rapidly than could be entirely attributed to climate. It is a theoretical possibility that human hunting, gathering and subsistence agriculture in the region may have contributed to the creation of a climate loop that created the largest desert known today.
|Rock art from Wadi Mathendous in Libya|
|Naqada I sculpture|
with lapis lazuli eyes,
evidence of trade
In Upper Egypt (higher along the Nile, hence in the south of the country) the Naqada I culture, also known as the Amratian culture, flourished. They traded obsidian, a hard volcanic rock used for tools, and gold, with the Nubian region further to the south. They also began to build in mud-brick, although nothing more than small settlements.
|Reconstruction of a stone circle from Nabta Playa|
|Postage stamp commemorating|
In Egypt, from c.3300BC onwards the Naqada III culture was predominant in both Upper and Lower Egypt. This period is also sometimes referred to as the Protodynastic period, as we know that there were attempts to unify the land of Egypt. This is also the point where Egypt, and by extension, Africa, enters history, as the hieroglyphic writing system was invented around this time.
|Gebel-el-arak knife from Naqada III|
Egypt. The designs on the hilt are
|Macehead showing King Scorpion, c.3150BC|
|Macehead of Narmer, c.3100BC|
Later Egyptian writers would credit the unification of Egypt to a king they called Menes, but this was probably just another name for Narmer, or one of the other Proto-Dynastic kings who was involved in the unification of Egypt. One interesting remnant of this time was the crowns that would be worn by the later Pharaohs. Upper Egyptian rulers wore a tall white crown, while Lower Egyptian rulers wore a low red crown. These were united by Narmer and his descendants into a single crown known as the Double Crown of Egypt.
|Palette of Narmer, showing the |
king wearing the white crown of
Upper Egypt and smiting a foe
While Egypt was being unified under Narmer, the civilisation of Egypt was being paralleled in Nubia. This was a region to the south of Egypt, further upstream along the River Nile. From about 3800-3100BC the region had what was known as the A Group culture. While it does not appear that a fully-fledged kingdom emerged here at this point, their grave goods and the artefacts that remain seem to have been culturally very similar to the Egyptian developments and we know that the two regions traded with one another.
|Rock art of Laas Geel|
I have not mentioned anything so far from the southern part of the vast continent of Africa. The reason for this is that there is not much to say. We know that the area was inhabited with hunter-gatherers who possibly resembled the San peoples in South Africa today and almost certainly spoke different languages to the ones spoken today. These hunter-gatherers, living either in rainforests or arid lands, lacked the resources to erect substantial monuments or leave many material remains. There are cave paintings from the region but they are hard to date, as many of them are much more recent. As agriculture became more significant in the north and west of Africa the pastoralists and farmers would expand southwards, but around 3000BC hunter-gathering was probably the most sensible method of survival in these regions. So, while acknowledging that the area was inhabited, there is sadly not much that we can say with certainty about it at this time.
|King Den of Egypt striking an Asian foe, c.3000BC|
So, after traversing the thousand years between 4000-3000BC in Africa we have seen the rebirth of the world’s largest desert and the mass migrations and extinctions of those who fled from this devouring wasteland. We have looked at what is possibly the world’s oldest ancient astronomical megalithic site, as well as the foundation of the world’s first real state known to history, the invention of the world’s second-oldest script and possibly the first names known to history.