Early African Civilizations

The Development of Agriculture in Africa.  Sedentary agriculture came to Africa as early as 9000 B.C.E. in the area presently comprising the Sahara Desert. At that time, it was a grassy steppe with many rivers, lakes and streams. The people of the area, originally nomadic, established permanent settlements as early as 7500 B.C.E. and cultivated Sorghum for human and animal consumption. Later they cultivated yams, onions and watermelons and domesticated sheep and goats. By 5000 B.C.E. they had organized small monarchies ruled by kings who were considered divine. They recognized a single deity which they associated with rain.

Early African people believed in life after death, but also believed that it was available only for royalty and very important persons. Upon the death of a monarch, a large retinue of royal servants were executed and entombed with them to serve their master in the next world. This practice continued for several thousand years.

Ultimately, climactic changes turned the Saharan area into a desert, and forced its inhabitants to migrate elsewhere. Some settled around existing bodies of water such as Lake Chad. Others moved south into present day Uganda, still others congregated in the valley of the Nile River.

The Egyptian Civilization developed in the delta of the Nile and in small ribbons of land along the banks of the river. The Nile flooded every fall as a result of tropical rains deep in the African continent. The Nile flows south to North, but because it has such a lengthy course (one of the longest in the world) and because it travels through vast desert areas, its origin was unknown for many hundreds of years. When the Nile flooded, it deposited a thin layer of rich topsoil on the surface each year. This annual flooding became the basis for the Egyptian civilization. The soil was so fertile and moist that farmers literally scattered wheat seed into the mud, and it grew, producing a surplus crop. The river was so vital to Egyptian civilization that the Greek historian Herodotus called it the "Gift of the Nile."

Remember: Surplus agricultural production is necessary for development of a civilization.

Aside from its annual flood, the Nile was a calm river, easily navigated, at least near its Delta. This made transportation easy, and helped the people of Egypt unite into a single kingdom. They were able to stay in close contact with one another. Upstream, a series of cataracts made the Nile virtually unnavigable, which protected the Egyptians from invasion by people living upstream. In addition to the Nile, Egypt had a rich store of stone for building, clay for pottery, gold for jewelry and ornaments. Copper was nearby in the Sinai Peninsula; and cedar could be obtained from Lebanon, both close by. This made the Empire virtually self-sufficient.

The Desert on each side and cataracts on the Nile River meant that only on the Mediterranean was Egypt exposed to danger from invasion. The Egyptians were thus free from outside influence, including immigration, and were able to peacefully develop their culture and civilization for hundreds of years. There were occasional invasions, and foreign influences; but these did not affect the fundamental nature of Egyptian civilization. Among those foreign influences, migrants from the Red Sea area on northern Ethiopia introduced a language ancestral to Coptic, the language of ancient Egypt.

To the south, another civilization known as Nubia developed along the Nile's banks. The floodplains along the Nile in Nubia were not as extensive as in Egypt, therefore the Nubians relied on prepared fields and irrigation, using water diverted from the Nile. With the geographic buffers mentioned above, and successful agricultural practices, both societies saw large population increases which forced them to develop more sophisticated methods of agriculture. Dikes were built to protect fields from floods, and catch basins to store water for irrigation following the Nile's floods.

The Unification of Egypt:  Egypt was unified into a single kingdom about 3100 B.C.E. under the leadership of a strong military ruler known as Menes.  Tradition holds that Menes founded the city of Memphis, which sat at the junction of Upper and Lower Egypt and ultimately became the cultural and political capital of the empire.

Egypt was ruled by a King known as the Pharaoh. The name translates to "Great House." He was believed to be a God, in keeping with the tradition established centuries earlier. He was thought to be the human manifestation of the god Horus, the god of the sky (shaped like a falcon) and his people never saw him. It was considered a great offense to look him in the face; and to touch his person (unless he requested it) was a crime punishable by death. Upon his death, a number of royal servants were executed and buried with him to serve him in the next life. Later Egyptians considered Pharaoh to be the offspring of the sung god, Amon; he was literally the son of the sun. Just as Amon supervised the entire cosmos, so Pharaoh oversaw events on earth below. Upon his death, he merged with Amon. Many representations show pharaohs as being larger than life, towering over mere humans.

Pharaohnic power was greatest during the Archaic period (3100-2660 B.C.E) and during the Old Kingdom (2660 - 2160 B.C.E.) It was during this time that the pyramids, royal tombs, were constructed. Most date from the century 2500 - 1500 B.C.E. The Great Pyramid of Cheops (also known as Khufu) is the largest of these testimonials to their architectural prowess. It contains over two million limestone blocks, some weighing up to 15 tons, and averaging 2.5 tons. It is geometrically correct within two centimeters, and is sloped so that it points toward the North Star. It is NOT an isosceles triangle, but is sloped; almost a right triangle. It is estimated that 84,000 workmen working eighty days per year (during the late fall and winter when agricultural demand was minimal) for twenty years. Although the pyramids appear drab and worn now, it must be remembered that they now demonstrate the ravages of time. When originally constructed, they were elaborately painted and adorned.

During the  Old Kingdom, Egyptians maintained a strong interest in Nubia to the South. Nubian gold, ivory, ebony and precious stones was in demand, plus they did not want a strong neighbor who might eventually threaten them. Pharaohs led at least five military campaigns against Nubia. The ancient Nubian kingdom of Ta-Seti was destroyed, and Nubian rulers were forced to concentrate military power to the South where they formed the kingdom of Kush

Turmoil and Empire:  Several regions of Egypt became powerful enough to break away from the rule of the Pharaohs, and the central state disappeared altogether for over a century. The Pharaohs reestablished control during the Middle Kingdom (2040 - 1640 B.C.E) but were not as powerful as their predecessors. During this time, Egypt was invaded by Semitic people from southwest Asia whom they Egyptians called Hyskos ("foreign rulers.") They introduced horses to Egypt and horse-drawn chariots which they had adapted from the Hittites and Mesopotamians. This together with their bronze weapons and bronze tipped arrows, gave them a significant advantage over the Egyptians, who fought with wooden weapons and arrows with stone heads. The Hyskos invasion provoked strong resentment, and disgruntled nobles organized revolts. They also used bronze weapons and eventually forced the Hyskos out, established a new capital at Thebes and formed a new state known as the New Kingdom (1550 - 1070 B.C.E.)

The New Kingdom:  Pharaoh's of the New Kingdom did not erect pyramids; however they did erect temples, palaces, and monumental statues to advertise their great power. They also extended authority well beyond the Nile River Delta to prevent invasion by controlling areas that might pose a threat. The most famous of these Pharaohs was Tutmosis III(1479-1425 B.C.E.) who personally led campaigns into Palestine and Syria. Egyptian dominance was also restored in Nubia, as far south as the fifth cataract of the Nile.

Egypt entered a period of political and military decline after the New Kingdom. Egyptian rule provoked reaction in the areas which it had subdued, and resistance drove Egyptian forces out of Nubia and Southwest Asia after which Egypt itself was invaded by Assyrian and Kushite armies. By 1100 B.C.E., Egyptian forces had vacated Nubia. Nubian rulers organized a new Kingdom of Kush with a capital at Napata, just below the fourth cataract of the Nile. By 700 B.C.E., Kushite armies invaded Egypt itself and founded a dynasty there that ruled for almost 100 years. The Kushite rulers took the title of Pharaoh and extended authority beyond the Nile delta. As the Kushites invaded from the South, the Assyrians invaded from the North. The Assyrians drove out the Kushites and ruled for a time before the collapse of their own empire.

Formation of Complex Societies and Cultural Traditions:  Both Egyptian and Nubian society was patriarchal, with authority in the hands of adult males. However, Egyptian society was matrilineal; ones family heritage was traced through the mother. In the royal family, the pharaoh often spoke of his wife as his "sister." Whether or not they engaged in incestuous marriage is unclear. Men governed households and also dominated public life. Rulers of both societies were almost always men. Even so, women were more significant in both societies than in Mesopotamia. In Egypt, if the Pharaoh was young, his regent was often a woman. In one instance, the stepmother of Tutmosis III, Queen Hatshepsut,  (1473 - 1458 B.C.E) was co-ruler with her stepson. The idea of a female ruler was perhaps unsettling to the Egyptians, and as a result most statues of Hatshepsut show her with the beard often shown on the statues of Pharaohs. Nubia, by contrast, had a number of women rulers, some of whom ruled in their own right, while acted as co-rulers with male kings. Some acted as regents, under the title of kandake, the root of the name, "Candace.".

Egyptian population was mostly clustered in small agricultural villages, as the society was primarily agricultural, but several prominent cities emerged, notably Memphis, founded by the Pharaoh Menes. Other important cites were Thebes, Tanis, and Heliopolis, (Greek for "the city of the sun.".)  Aside from wheat and barley, the Egyptians grew cucumbers, melons, pomegranates, and figs. They mixed bread with honey and water, allowed it to ferment, and made an especially strong beer. The accumulation of wealth encouraged the development of social distinction in both Egypt and Kush. In Egypt, peasants and slaves supplied the hard labor that made an agricultural society possible. However, Egyptians recognized the pharaoh as the supreme ruler who theoretically had absolute power. There was therefore nor need (or place) for a class of nobility. Egyptians relied on professional military forces as well as administrators and tax collectors who served under the Pharaoh. As a result, individuals of common birth could attain high positions in society by meritorious government service. This was a marked distinction from Mesopotamia, where title of nobility was a result of birth.

Economic Specialization and Trade:  Nile societies were much slower than the Mesopotamians to adopt the use of metal tools and weapons, in fact bronze was introduced to Egypt by the Hyskos invaders. Only after they were expelled did the use of metal become widespread. The high cost of copper and tin (combined to make bronze) kept it out of the hands of all but the most important. So valuable was it that supplies of the metal used for tools at royal tombs was weighed by officials to make sure that workers did not shave off slivers for their own use. Bronze was even less prominent in Kush, primarily since the area had few copper deposits. After 1000 B.C.E., however, they developed iron metallurgy independently, based on their own iron ore deposits. (The Hittites had also developed iron production independent of other societies.)  

The Nile was the primary source of transportation for Egypt. Since it flows North, boats could travel easily from Upper to Lower Egypt. Also, prevailing winds blew from the north to south most of the year, so by hoisting a sail, they could travel upriver. After 2000 B.C.E. Egyptians were trading as far as the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. They also used wheeled chariots and donkey caravans to transport goods. Cataracts on the Nile prevented the Kushites from substantial use of it for transportation, as a result they relied more on donkey caravans and wheeled vehicles than did the Egyptians.

In both societies specialization of labor and efficient transportation lent itself to long distance trade. Since Egypt had few natural resources, trade was important. The city of Aswan (whose name comes from the ancient Egyptian word swene. meaning "trade" and Elephantine, named for the large quantities of ivory traded there, became important cities for trade. Linen textiles woven from flax were the most prized items used by the Egyptians for trade. Since Egypt had very few trees, all wood came fro abroad as a result of trade, the most famous of which were cedar from Lebanon.

Writing in the Nile Valley:  The Egyptians were the first to use Paper for writing. They made paper from Papyrus; leaves of a water reed that were woven together, then soaked and pressed, which made a sheet of paper. The dry climate of Egypt has allowed many writings on papyrus to survive. Earliest Egyptian writing appeared by 3200 B.C.E., possibly from Mesopotamian influence. The writing consisted of large pictographs, often handsomely drawn, which Greek visitors later denominated hieroglyphs, from two Greek words meaning "holy writing." Hieroglyphic writing often appeared on monuments and buildings, but was also written on papyrus. Because the process of writing them was cumbersome and time consuming, they were only used for important writings and on monuments.

Hieroglyphs were symbolic, not phonetic. Each character was a symbol, which represented a word, not a sound. Hieroglyphics had over 400 symbols. Hieroglyphics also had no written vowels. One would not know if the word were big, bag, or bog unless he knew the context in which it was used.

Hieroglyphic writing remained a mystery for over a thousand years; but when Napoleon invaded Egypt to attempt to stop the British fleet, he erected a Fort made of stones at the Egyptian town of Rosetta. The soldiers building the fort discovered one stone was part of an ancient monument; it was inscribed in Hieratic, (described below) Demotic (which used the Greek alphabet,) and Hieroglyphics. (A large portion of the stone was missing, but the surviving portion weighed 1200 pounds) This was the Rosetta Stone. Scholars could read the Greek, so they looked for comparisons in lettering --even then it took 20 years to decipher it. The First word translated was the name Ptolemy, a descendant of Alexander's general who established the Ptolemy dynasty in Egypt, of which Queen Cleopatra was a member..

For everyday writing and record keeping, Egyptians used a hieratic, or "priestly" script, consisting of a simplified cursive form of writing. This script was in use for almost 3000 years, but was ultimately replaced with Demotic, ("popular") or Coptic ("Egyptian") scripts which adopted the Greek alphabet and converted it to Egyptian linguistics.

Only learned scribes could write, and the position was quite lucrative; scribes often led lucrative lives. One scribe, writing to his son and exhorting him to study diligently compared professions. He remarked that metalworkers stunk like fish, potters groveled in mud like pigs, fishermen ran the risk of crocodile attack, only the scribe led a comfortable and dignified life.

The Kushites originally used Egyptian hieroglyphics, largely as the result of Egyptian influence. However, after Kush repelled the Egyptians and a new capital was established at Meroë,  a new system of writing known as Meronic developed. Meronic writing used Egyptian hieroglyphs, but they were used to create sounds rather than ideas, a truly phonic alphabet. Although a large number of Meronic specimens have survived, and linguists have been able to determine the sounds of each hieroglyph, the language itself is so different from any other known language that no one has yet been able to decipher it. As a result, Meronic writing to this day is unreadable.

Organized Religion and Traditions:  Egyptian and Nubian societies was polytheistic, and as did their Mesopotamian counterparts, believed that proper respect and attention to the Gods was an important community responsibility.  Chief among the Egyptian Gods was Re the Sun God. At Thebes, a local deity known as Amon was worshiped, and associated with the sun, creation, fertility, and reproduction. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the priests of the two gods associated them so closely that a cult known as Amon-Re developed. By the time of the New Kingdom, there was even the suggestion that Amon-Re was a universal god who ruled over all creation.

There was a brief challenge to the worship of Amon-Re during the rule of Amenhotep IV (11353 - 1335) who promoted the worship of a single monotheistic god, Aten, who was associated with the Sun. He was called "sole god, like whom there is no other." Amenhotep even changed his name to Akhenaton to honor his god. This was one of the earliest expressions of recorded monotheism. Akhenaton erected a city, Akhenaton ("Horizon of Aten") and sent agents throughout Egypt to chisel away representations of Amon-Re; however after the death of Akhenaton, the priests of Amon-Re mounted a counter-attack, and Egypt returned to its traditional beliefs.

Some writings dedicated to Aten survive, including the following excerpts from The Great Hymn of Aten:

Splendid you rise in heaven's lightland,
O living Aten, creator of life!
When you have dawned in eastern lightland,
You fill every land with your beauty
You are beauteous, great radian,
High over every land
Your rays embrace the lands,
To the limit of all that you made.

Your rays nurse all fields
When you shine, they live, they grow for you,
You made the seasons to foster all that you made,
Winter to cool them, heat that they taste you,
You made the sky to shine therein,
To behold all that you made;
You alone, shining in your form of living Aten,
Risen, radiant, distant, near.
You made millions of forms from yourself shine,
Towns, villages, fields, the river's course:
All eyes observe you upon them,
For you are the Aten of daytime on high.

The Nile River itself, the ultimate source of life, was venerated, if not deified. It's mysterious appearance (its source remained unknown for thousands of years) enhanced the mystique surrounding it. Hymns to the Nile were often sung, of which the following is an example:

Hail to thee, O Nile, that issues from the earth and comes to keep Egypt alive.
He that waters the meadow which Re created.
He that makes to drink the desert….
He who makes barley and brings wheat into being…
He who brings grass into being for the cattle.
He who makes every beloved tree to grow.
O Nile, verdant art thou, who makest man and cattle to live.   

The practice of Mummification was an important part of Egyptian religious life. The early Egyptians buried their dead in the desert; where the remains dried out and remained relatively well preserved. (If they were sealed in caskets, they decomposed quickly.) From this, the Egyptians developed a strong belief in life after death. They perfected the process of mummification to preserve bodies. Mummification was a long process, which might take as long as 3 – 6 months, and was extremely expensive. The brain was removed through the nasal cavity with a hook, the internal organs preserved in jars, while the body cavity was washed in palm wine and packed with salt, which served to desiccate it. Throughout, a religious ritual was followed, as the practice was considered a religious one. The God of mummification was Anubis; who had the head of a jackal. Originally, the Egyptians believed that only their pharaohs lived after death, so only they were mummified. Later, it was believed that eternal life was available to all, yet only the extremely important and very wealthy were preserved in this fashion.

In the 1960’s, the Egyptian Artifact Museum discovered bacteria in the mummy of Rameses II, a particularly powerful ruler. The mummy was flown to Paris for special laser treatment to kill the bacteria. When the plane landed carrying the mummy, it was greeted by color guard and a 21 gun salute; all the dignity and respect one would afford to a visiting head of state.

Cult religions, promising life after death, arose throughout Egypt. Among the most important was Osiris, the God of Earth and Fertility. Osiris was associated with the Nile. Presumably, he had been murdered by his evil brother Seth, who had dismembered his body and scattered them throughout the land, but his loyal wife, Isis, gathered his body parts and gave him a proper burial. Impressed by his wife's devotion, the gods restored Osiris to life as king of the dead, and god of the underworld, who weighed human hearts on a scale balanced by a feather to determine if they had lived a just life. Those with heavy hears carrying a burden of sin did not merit immortality, but those whose deeds were good were rewarded with eternal life. Thus, eternal life was available only to those who had led a just life.

Egyptians buried a large number of artifacts with their dead, which would provide important clues to the past. Most of the pyramids had secret entrances; often the slaves who built it were put to death when it was completed to keep it secret; but still over the years, thieves have broken in and stolen many treasures. Most of what we know about ancient Egyptian civilization comes from the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen. (Commonly called "King Tut). Tutankhamen was not that important; he died when he was only 15; but because he was not considered that important, thieves largely left his tomb alone; so it was substantially intact. Even the jars, which contained his viscera, were still in place.

Very little written information survives of ancient Nubian religion. Their chief god was Apedemak, often depicted with a bow and arrows, and served as a god of War. Another deity, Sebiumeker, was the god of creation and the guardian of humanity. The Nubians did not mummify their dead, but did build small pyramids to bury their dead.

Bantu Migrations and Early Societies of Sub-Saharan Africa:  Sudanic culture not only spread to Egypt and Kush, but also southward to the sub-Saharan regions, as a result of which distinct agricultural societies developed there. Among the more influential were a group who called themselves Bantu, meaning "persons" or "people." They spoke a language belonging to the Niger Congo languages (which include Mande, Kru, Wolof, Yoruba, and Igbo.) The earliest Bantu speakers lived in an area comprising present day Nigeria and Cameroon. They lived mostly on the banks of rivers, which they navigated with canoes, and in open areas of the forests. They cultivated yams and oil palms, and later millet and sorghum, but also kept goats and guinea fowl. They lived in clan-based villages headed by chiefs who conducted religious rituals and negotiated with other villages if such became necessary. They also traded regularly with the people of the tropical forests, formerly known as pygmies, but now known as "forest people." Among the items traded were pottery and stone axes in exchange for meat, honey, etc.

Bantu society migrated readily to other areas, and by 3000 B.C.E. had spread south into the west African rain forest, probably as a result of population pressures. Later, they expanded rapidly into the Congo River basin where they absorbed local hunter/gatherer societies into their own. These migrations were intermittent and gradual, usually by means of small groups moving into new territories which grew and became the foundations for even further expansion. By 1000 C.E., Bantu speaking peoples occupied most of Africa south of the equator In time, language distinctions developed between the various groups as they moved into different territories. There are presently more than ninety million people who speak some form of Bantu language dialect.

Bantu speaking people used canoes effectively to travel through the river networks of the Niger, Congo and other rivers. This allowed them to move rapidly and leapfrog established settlements for more suitable spots on the riverbanks. Agricultural surplus also enabled these populations to increase more rapidly than the forest people whom they encountered already living in the regions. The Bantu adopted the use of iron tools and weapons about 1000 B.C.E. which allowed them to both farm and fight more effectively, and thereby augmented population growth.  The forest people were hunter gatherer fisher communities which remained small. It is entirely likely that the Bantu and Forest people frequently clashed as one group infringed on the territory of another; but they also had extensive trade relations and on occasion even intermarried.

Early Agricultural Societies of Sub-Saharan Africa:  Among the other groups moving into the region were Mande speaking people who cultivated rice along the west African coast, and other Niger-Congo language groups who spread okra cultivation from forest regions into West Africa. These migrations, together with the Bantu migrations, led to the establishment of agricultural societies in the region. These people cultivated yams and grains and also introduced sheep and cattle to the area. By the late centuries before the Common Era, agriculture was practiced in all areas of sub-Saharan Africa except for the deep tropical rain forests.

Distinctive societies and traditions developed with agricultural development. People were often organized by age, in fact they were often identified with age sets or age grades, consisting of individuals born within a year or two of each other. Each set assumed responsibility for certain tasks which were determined by the sets strength, maturity level, and experience. Members of young age sets performed light public tasks, whereas at maturity they underwent elaborate initiation rites that introduced them into adulthood. Older men cultivated the fields and fought when necessary; women performed domestic tasks and traded at markets. Later, members of certain age sets served as military officers or community leaders.

Religious Beliefs:  Both Sudanic and Niger-Congo peoples practiced monotheistic religious beliefs by 5000 B.C.E. They frequently borrowed and adapted religious elements from other communities, and adapted beliefs to their circumstances as those circumstances or understanding of the world changed. The Sudanic people believed in an impersonal force which was the source of both good and evil, and which could take the form of spirits. They often addressed the force through prayers to the spirits. Niger-Congo people recognized a single god known as Nyamba, who had created the world, established the laws of nature, and then stepped back and allowed the world to proceed on its own. One did not address Nyamba directly, but offered prayers to ancestor spirits and territorial spirits who were believed to influence human fortunes. Proper attention to these spirits would bring good fortune while neglect could bring punishment or adversity.  As with other elements of their societies, the people of sub-Saharan Africa  adapted religious ideas from other peoples with whom they came in contact. In time, Bantu people associated Nyamba with goodness, and the god became a moral force more directly involved in the lives of individuals.