Africa is not only home to the earliest elements of the human species, it is also the oldest land. While the rest of the planet has been shifting around, the vast majority of African soil – or rock to be strictly accurate – has been in place for the last 300 million years.
The first signs of early man began about 2 million years ago somewhere in east Africa , although it wasn’t until around 150,000 years ago that they developed into the ‘modern’ man that we would recognise today. Slowly they began to spread north to the Mediterranean coast, and around 100,000 years ago the first of them began to leave the continent and settle in the Middle East . From these humble beginnings our planet became inhabited in the way we see today.
There is evidence that farming with crops and cattle was already in existence across northern Africa as early as 10,000 BC. At that time the Sahara was still a green and fertile area. By 2000BC, however, the climate had begun to change, and slowly the population moved south away from the increasingly barren lands of the north.
These groups began to link up forming one large tribe called the Bantu. But these were no primitive or unskilled peoples. They were adept at agriculture, and had mastered the art of iron smelting. As their numbers spread, so did the area of land they occupied, until by about the 4 th century AD they covered most of Africa .
Of course this was by no means the first really civilised African society. That honour goes to the Egyptians, who were a well established, sophisticated, trading society, as far back as 3000BC. Their power and dominance brought them great wealth, helped them develop a written language, and gain an understanding of astronomy and mathematics. It also, later, bought them many enemies who sought to steal these prizes for themselves.
Further south, in what is present day Ethiopia and Sudan , was the kingdom of Askum . Home of the legendary Queen of Sheba, this is also apparently where the mysterious Ark of the Covenant is supposed to be hidden, waiting for a real life Indiana Jones to come and reveal it. The Askumites ruled these lands, and some of southern Arabia , for many centuries. They traded with Egypt and with the Bantu along the coast of East Africa , and were a remarkably civilised society. They had their own coinage and language, substantial buildings, and a well developed agricultural and manufacturing industry. From the 3 rd Century they became a Christian kingdom, following the Orthodox Church.
As the Egyptian power began to suffer at the hands of many invaders, there began to appear voids in the Mediterranean trading markets. In the 6 th century BC, Carthage was taken over by the Phoenicians, who began to develop strong trading routes across to Europe . They were a well developed nation, and ruled this area until the Romans decided enough was enough, and destroyed Carthage in 146BC. For the next 800 years North Africa was a constant battleground, until the Arabs finally took control in the 7 th Century AD.
South of the Sahara , both east and west coasts developed successful and highly profitable trading empires. In the east, the rulers of the many small kingdoms in present day Kenya , Tanzania , and Mozambique , were trading with nations as far away as China , way back in the 7 th century. On the west coast a succession of empires traded gold and salt, mined in the Sahara , and transported overland to the coast by camel. They became fabulously wealthy, and at their height held land from Niger to the Atlantic coast. They were organised, civilised, and even built centres of learning in cities such as Timbuktu .
In the 15 th century all this changed, when the Portuguese began taking over the lands along the east coast, and Morocco invaded the gold trading kingdoms in the west.
Around the same time, the Europeans began to develop the slave trade. Slave trading was not new to Africa, having been a mainstay of the trading with the Far East and India for centuries. But it was the huge numbers, many sold for profit by warring tribal leaders, that was different this time. It’s estimated that over 20 million Africans were taken as slaves for either America or Europe , with many dying on the tortuous journey, or on the capture missions.
All this time the interior of the southern half of the continent remained a complete mystery to the rest of the world. But in the 19 th century, with the thirst for discovery and knowledge, a flood of explorers began to delve deep into uncharted areas. Following the great rivers, or travelling across inhospitable and dangerous plains, these were brave men who had no idea what they would encounter. But it opened the way for the insane rush to grab territories, known as the ‘scramble for Africa’, in which the major European powers all claimed whatever area’s they could in the hope they would yield precious resources. The boundaries set in those years, are mostly those that shape the continent’s political map today.
The colonisation of these lands meant Africa had been changed from a rich, proud, trading continent, to one of forced labour, harsh punishments, and subservience, in a little over 500 years.
Following the Second World War, the move towards independence for African states has seen many of them returned to self-rule. Sadly though, the prosperous past, and much of their wealth, seems for many to have been lost forever.