Discovering Africa’s Ancient Civilizations: Glimpse of the Neolithic Period

Africa is little understood even by contemporary academics, as the whole spectrum of African existence has only generally been researched since the end of the colonial period of the 1960’s. Africa was known in European terms as the ‘Dark Continent’, and as such was treated as archaic and savage. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that Africa is home to some of the greatest human civilizations including the first appearance of home sapiens around 300,000 years ago. It was then progressively spread to the parts of Nile basin and then later to the whole world. More on General History of Africa II.

Discovering Africa’s Ancient Civilizations: Glimpse of the Neolithic Period

Discovering Africa’s Ancient Civilizations: Glimpse of the Neolithic Period

Also Read: 20 Important Questions about Christopher Columbus | History and Voyages

Eurocentric attitudes interfered with outward world interest in the continent, much as it had with the ancient societies of India and China. Few realized that both societies had traded with African kingdoms well before the age of  exploration. There has been archaeological evidence found of this on the African continent. Africa certainly went through similar transitions as the indigenous North Americans did, before Christopher Columbus discovered the North American continent. The similarities are striking.


The African Hunter gatherers and Agri-pastoralist peoples

African indigenous groups have over time been called tribes or have been labelled with ‘titles’ such as the ‘Bush Men’ of Namibia for example, for many decades. ‘Tribes’ have also been used as a common colloquial term; these have been changed by name in modern times by Anthropologists, who have described these labels as demeaning and racist.

Ethnic groups are a more common phrase used today, the ‘Bush Men’ are called the San and their extended family ethnics, the Khoi-San people. The Khoi-Khoi peoples for example, were the early  inhabitants of the Southern African coastline,  who also created clientship’s with the migrating San people, and other African ethnic groups, married and then migrated from one fertile region to another, thus spreading their group habitations and influence on the Southern East African coast.

Both ethnic groups were hunters and gatherers in their community. Agri-pastoralist functions were the duty of the community women such as the bearing of children, and their care and the planting of basic vegetable plots. Typical examples cultivated were ground nut, sorghum and gem squash, commonly consumed with lean meat from the hunt.   


The Neolithic Period

It is important to note that the processes of Neolithic’s, such as the growing of large areas of crops, a practice used in China and India for thousands of years, was not possible or known to the early indigenous African people, that would come sometime later with the Portuguese explorers.

The Neolithic period was a time estimated to have occurred at the end of the stone age and was also referred to as the New Stone Age. It could be considered part of the early iron age, an overlapping of sorts at that time.

Livestock were the main source of community wealth. Fat tailed sheep, goats and cows, provided milk and meat sources, not on a regular basis, but most importantly as an indicator of wealth and even as a trading commodity. Livestock were and important part of group ceremonial function. Unfortunately, theft of livestock by outsiders was also common.    

African indigenous groups as elsewhere in the developing world, relied on fertile ground with good rainfall. The difference was that the availability of fertile ground with good rainfall on the continent was sparse either side of the equator line in central Africa. A typical annual rainfall in a year was under 400 millimeters, on average, other areas were semi-arid or deserts as a result of poor rainfall and corrosion.

Fertile ground was well mapped by the nomadic communities, but as time passed and groups expanded, these fertile areas became a much sought-after commodity as communities migrated. This caused conflict between migrating groups in some cases, but also the ability to build clientship’s and integration, among other ethnic groups, through trading, marriage, and wealth. 

Language and communication were affected between the ethnics, so cultures developed and absorbed parts of other languages into their own mother tongue, which grew and extended group languages further over time. There have been linguistic studies started several years ago to identify origins, but estimates are that this could take 150 years to decipher, to their original sources on the continent.

Several ethnic groups have been known to have lived on the coastlines of Africa too. Traces of their existence there have been found in caves in hilly areas by archaeologists, the remains of shellfish for example, being some of the elements left behind. It is believed that these peoples habitations were as a result of forced migration from other regions to escape the attentions of hostile communities.

Central, West and East Africa had developed through migration, and the need by the early indigenous peoples, to move and explore further unknown regions. When standing upon a hill or mountain, people must have wondered what lay in other areas as far as the eye could see.

Curiosity and travel are a natural human trait. Tanzania is believed to have been a central migration staring point particularly affecting Southern Africa.  North Africa too was affected as migrations from the central continent to Ethiopia and the routes further north along the great Nile River were also used by nomadic peoples. Africa was not a continent of modern countries and borders for thousands of years.

Kingdoms controlled by Chieftains or the most predominant ethnic groups over time, had ‘boundaries’ of their own. An example is the area inclusive of Mozambique, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana and Zimbabwe among others, which were all part of the Mutapa Kingdom under a single fiefdom.  It is considered a Southern African kingdom.   


Trade and Africa

Africa was no stranger to trade with African and foreign peoples. This is not very often understood and sadly never been accepted by academics over time. The stigma of backwardness has persisted through secondary historical accounts internationally, particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Not so the Greeks, Herodotus the great historian, described the trade routes and practices in Northern Africa from 484 – 425 BCE.  The rest of Africa too was certainly active through trade with China and India. Common trading commodities were ivory, copper, pepper, and other spices, etc. India and China trading fine cloth, and furniture, in return.

Ancient towns were constructed from stone, not makeshift structures but permanent living testimonies to their community life, skills and hierarchy. An example of this is the ‘Great Zimbabwe’ settlement that has stood for centuries, its origins are still being researched at university level today. Carthage too was also an example of North African power, so too the ancient communities of Timbuktu.



Africa has a rich history indeed, despite its ‘Dark Continent’ descriptions in contemporary times. Beautiful landscapes, with a diversity of fauna and flora abound. Areas that are as if taken from somewhere in Europe set the most beautiful scenery. The people’s generosity and kindness abound.

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