Africa: societies and cultures of sub-Saharan Africa

This article looks at the societies and cultures of sub-Saharan Africa in pre-modern history. It gives a general portrait of the geographical environments they inhabited, their settlements, social structures and economies, and the their religions and cultures.

The histories and cultures of Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia and North Africa are covered elsewhere. 

1. Geographical background

The geography of Sub-Saharan Africa poses severe challenges to the rise and spread of pre-modern civilization.

A hard environment

The ancientness of the continent’s rocks, whose minerals have leeched out over the aeons, mean that the soil is generally of a poor quality, posing challenges for farmers. In many regions low or fickle rainfall greatly magnifies this problem. The abundant insect life of the tropics makes for a very high prevalence of serious diseases, for both humans and their animals; this greatly constrains the rates at which populations can grow.

As a result of these factors, throughout Africa’s premodern history, locations where densely-populated farming societies could emerged, and in which urban civilizations could be built, have been fewer and more scattered than most other regions of the world.

An isolated region

Compounding these difficulties, sub-Saharan Africa has been largely cut-off from the great centres of civilization elsewhere in Eurasia. It has therefore been comparatively isolated from the influences which have cross-fertilized and enriched historical societies elsewhere.

The Sahara desert forms a major barrier to contacts between the cities and states of the Mediterranean region and the peoples to its south. The narrow Nile corridor was home for one of the greatest and earliest of all human civilizations, ancient Egypt; but south of Egypt a series of impassable rapids severely limits contact with the interior of Africa. Further south a huge, well-nigh impenetrable swamp, the Sud, acts as a further major barrier.

Africa’s other rivers are all interrupted by falls and rapids along their courses. This makes them unsuitable for long-distance trade and contact. All this has left African societies comparatively isolated from the great developments affecting other regions of the Eastern Hemisphere, and indeed from each other.

Climatic zones

The continent of Africa covers several broad climatic zones.

North Africa

In North Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, there is a narrow zone of temperate, Mediterranean climate. In terms of history and culture this zone has been part of the European and Middle Eastern regions, and is therefore not covered by this article.

The Sahara desert

Just south of the narrow band of temperate climate in North Africa is the largest desert in the world, the Sahara. This crosses the content from its west coast to the east coast.

The great majority of this area is far too dry for agriculture – whether crop cultivation or animal grazing – of any kind. However springs or small lakes allow oases of vegetation to flourish at scattered spots, sometimes hundreds of miles apart. These have proved vital staging posts on the trade routes which cross the desert, allowing weary travellers to rest, and to water and feed their animals and themselves. The larger oases house trading towns and farming communities.

Outside the oases there are some areas of scrubland, and here nomadic pastoralists – Berber peoples, most notably the Taureg – graze their herds.

The Savannah and subtropical grasslands

To the south of the Sahara desert is the Savannah zone. This crosses much of the continent from east to west, from the Atlantic coast to the highlands of Ethiopia. Its flora consists of a mix of scrub, grassland and woodland. On the boundaries between the desert and savannah is a marginal band called the Sahel, which consists almost entirely of dry scrub.

In the west the southern border of the savannah is formed by the equatorial rain forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin, but to the east it continues down into East Africa, skirting round the Congo rain forests and blending into the subtropical savannah grasslands of central and southern Africa.

Most of the savannah is more suited to grazing herds of sheep, goat and cattle than growing crops. Where there is a spring, a lake or a river, however, cultivation is possible, and in some areas, for example in the inner delta of the River Niger (see below), or on the shores of Lake Chad in West Africa, or the Great Lakes of central Africa, intensive cultivation has allowed concentrations of dense population to grow up.

The grasslands of East Africa spread eastwards almost to the Indian Ocean, where a narrow belt of forest hugs the coastline.

Equatorial forest

To the south of the western savannah is the region of rainforest which encompasses the southern areas of West Africa and most of the Congo Basin.

The rain forests are very dense. They have few open spaces and are not suitable for herding animals – and in any case, in Africa the forests are infested with tsetse fly, which spread a disease deadly to cattle.

The forests are very difficult to cut down, and it was only with the coming of iron implements, in the later first millennium BCE and the early first millennium CE, that people could properly start clearing areas of forest for agriculture. The sheer effort of doing so, as well as the obstacles to population growth (such as the tsetse fly, mentioned above, which kills people as well as animals), meant that such clearings have formed isolated pockets of comparatively dense population surrounded by vast tracts of untamed forest. Some of these clearings became large enough, over generations, to include many villages and so become the basis for chiefdoms, or even kingdoms.

The untamed forests have remained home to hunter-gatherer peoples, notably the pygmies. Over the millennia they have become highly adapted to life in an ecosystem which is fiercely hostile to other peoples. It is an environment in which they feel at home and which provides them with all the necessities of life; however, they can live here in only small numbers, in scattered family bands which are constantly on the move.

The Kalahari desert

South of the forest the grasslands resume, having skirted around the Congo Basin; but further south, on the western coast of south-central Africa, lies the Kalahari desert, smaller than the Sahara but perhaps even more arid. It is inhabited by the San hunter-gatherer people who have adapted their lifestyle to this forbidding environment over 20,000 years.

Temperate climate of southern Africa

In southern Africa the climate becomes temperate and Mediterranean. The land, much of which is hills and plateaux, is covered with grasslands, with some sub-tropical forests on the coast.

Ironically, this attractive landscape posed a barrier to the spread of traditional farming southward, as sub-Saharan agriculture had adapted itself to tropical conditions. It was not well suited to the milder, temperate climate of South Africa. When Europeans arrived in the region, in the 1500s, they found only a small popluation of hunter-gatherers there.

Rivers, lakes and mountains

Cutting through these landscapes are huge rivers, outstanding amongst which are the Nile, the Niger, the Congo and the Zambezi. Apart from the Nile, all these are blocked by rapids fairly near their mouths, as a result of which seagoing craft have not been able to sail far into the interior of Africa. Further upstream all have their flows interrupted by falls and rapids, making them unsuitable for long-distance trade even in the interior of Africa.

Africa has some giant lakes, including a number strung out down the spine of the continent, from Lake Turkana in northern Kenya to Lake Malawi in south-east Africa. They include the second largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Victoria.

The shores of these large bodies of water have been suitable for intensive agriculture, allowing some of Africa’s most notable kingdoms to flourish.

Several high mountains rise up from the East African plains, most famously Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. Their streams water the surrounding areas and allow farming populations to thrive; and their different climate zones at varying altitudes encourage a localized exchange network to develop.

There are also some large mountain ranges, such as the Rwanzori mountains in Uganda (the “Mountains of the Moon”). Perhaps the highland areas which have had most impact on the history of Africa have been the Ethiopian Highlands, which have sheltered Africa’s only historic Christian state; and the highlands of southern Africa, which have played a key role in that region’s history.

Environment and Population

The environment of sub-Saharan Africa is one of the hardest environments for human populations to thrive in.

Africa has an exceptionally hostile disease environment, West Africa most of all; malaria, leprosy, tsetse fly and smallpox are only a few of the killer diseases of the continent, attacking not only humans but, in the last case, their animals as well. Moreover, away from areas especially favoured with plentiful rainfall or rivers, the grasslands which cover much of Africa do not make ideal land for crop growing, and are prone to droughts and famines.

These factors have acted as constraints on population growth right up to modern times, and historically sub-Saharan Africa has remained an under-populated region. The challenge for premodern African societies was to build up numbers to create viable communities. Building the dense concentrations of population necessary for the emergence of major civilizations was not an option in most locations.

At an individual and family level, dealing with the challenge to build up numbers manifested itself in the supreme importance attached to the production of children. Throughout Africa, bearing and bringing up children was probably the most vital task after brute survival.

To have children was essential to an individual’s social standing, to their welfare in old age, to their survival as ancestors, and to their lineage’s existence as an independent group in competitive and often violent societies. If a kinship group fell below a viable size it ceased to be able to protect itself properly and became extremely vulnerable to being absorbed, often brutally, by more fertile rivals.

Hunter-gatherer populations

Hunter-gatherer peoples had inhabited sub-Saharan Africa for millennia prior to herders, and later agriculturalists, starting to settle the region. They seem mostly to have been related to the present-day San people of southern Africa. However, populations of pygmies also inhabited large tracts of tropical forest which covered much of equatorial and western Africa.

Except in favourable locations, especially where fishing, or gathering aquatic resources, could supplement diets, hunting and foraging groups needed a large area of land on which to sustain themselves. This meant that they usually lived in small and highly mobile bands, building temporary shelters as they move from place to place.

Gradually, the hunter-gatherers were squeezed off the best lands by the incoming pastoralists and cultivators, who were able to live in larger groups. The earlier populations were either absorbed into the incoming populations, or pressed, either further and further south or further and further into the rain forests. Even so, until the start of the second millennium they inhabited large areas across the continent, in the wide spaces left vacant by farmers and pastoralists. Today they are confined to comparatively restricted areas in and around the Kalahari desert, or in the densest forests of the Congo basin;

The transition to a settled, farming way of life is quite a difficult one for many hunter-gatherers, but some of them were able to adapt to keeping cattle. Pastoralist people such as the Khoisan of southern Africa are closely related to San groups who still maintain their traditional hunting and foraging economy.

Pastoralist populations

The herding way of life probably dated to the third millennium BCE, and preceded agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. Pastoralists had come down the Nile Valley and then spread out across the grasslands of Africa, down as far as the Great Lakes region of central Africa. They had done this by the start if the first millennium BCE.

Some groups of Iron Age farmers from West Africa, moving into the Great Lakes region at the end of the first millennium BCE and then moving down towards central and southern Africa, adopted a cattle-keeping way of life. By the time they reached modern South Africa the dominant peoples were all pastoralists.

Although the majority of Africans were farmers, at least from the late 1st millennium onwards, large tracts of land were inhabited by nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists. These occupied the grasslands around (and sometimes within) the Sahara and Kalahari deserts, and the more arid grasslands which covered so much of the continent. In West Africa, the climatic zones aligned in a series of east-to-west belts – Sahara desert, desert-grassland margin (the Sahel), savannah grassland and tropical forest. The pastoralists tended to inhabit the desert and Sahel regions, leaving most of the savannah and forest regions to the farmers. It was only with the spread of the Fulani herdsmen across West Africa in the 2nd millennium that pastoralists would begin to live in areas between agricultural clusters, a development which would have a major impact on the history of this region in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In eastern and southern Africa, the folded landscape laid down by tectonic activity millions of years ago means that highland farming areas are interspersed with dry lowlands, suitable only for herding cattle. Pastoralist and farming communities have therefore lived in close proximity, which has been a major factor in state formation in these regions.

Pastoralist communities are more dispersed, and much more mobile, than agricultural ones, as they follow their flocks and herds around in the search for good grazing. This maximises opportunities for violent clashes with other groups, and their societies tend to be more militaristic. Many chiefdoms and kingdoms in all parts of sub-Saharan Africa have been formed by pastoral clans dominating agricultural populations. 

Agricultural populations

Agriculture spread to the northern grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa by the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE at the latest, and soon covered all of the West African savannah.

It was not until the coming of iron technology that large-scale settlement of the West African and Equatorial regions, and of eastern, central and southern Africa, was able to begin. This process only reached its completion in South Africa by the end of the 1st millennium CE. Even then it had left vast tracts uncultivated, which would be gradually and incompletely settled by farmers over the next thousand years.

The obstacles to population growth meant that there was always plenty of land available for new settlement. Agricultural populations were driven by a need to “humanize” the landscape, to drive back the forest, where danger lurked, and to make the land productive. There was a strongly felt urge to claim new land for future generations by burying their dead in it. African societies never really ceased to be colonizing societies, and this profoundly influenced all aspects of African culture.

All climate zones in sub-Saharan Africa were characterised by a highly uneven settlement pattern. Small, isolated areas of dense population were surrounded by large tracts of sparsely peopled wilderness. This wilderness was the abode of wild animals, fatal diseases, violent fugitives, evil spirits and other shadowy dangers which posed a constant threat to settled life.

2. African Societies

Throughout Africa the basic unit of society was the lineage-group, or clan. This would normally be a cluster of households. In some societies which were sparsely scattered across the land, such a group might form its own hamlet or small village. In more densely populated societies a number of such lineages might be clustered together to form a large village or small town. Even large towns often resembled several villages grouped together, with each lineage group in its own walled sector.

Village society

Each village consisted of a lineage group, or clan, tracing its origin to a founding ancestor. It was structured around a “big man” who was usually (by myth, at any rate) the man most directly descended from the founding ancestor. He was surrounded by his extended family – his wives and children, his brothers and their families, more distant relatives, and unrelated families who had been separated from their own clans for various reasons and who looked to him for protection.

There might also be slaves who had been reduced to their lowly status through some misfortune or other – famine, debt or even captivity in war.

Between ten and fifty people might live here, sometimes much more, in a complex of houses forming one compound. Around this would be clustered the huts of other households, with four or five members each. The greater number of people such a community embraced, the better – it meant greater security for all, and more labour for the back-breaking work of keeping the bush at bay and clearing more land.

This close concentration of dwellings formed the core of the villages. Surrounding this would be rings of less and less dense settlement and fields, eventually merging into the surrounding bush.

In larger population clusters, each village would be similarly surrounded by rings of fields and outlying woodland separating it from neighbouring villages.

Village clusters would be located in areas suitable for intensive crop production – river valleys, floodplains, lakesides and other well-watered places. Starting perhaps as just one settlement, they would expand outwards into the bush over time as they cleared new land and established new settlements. They would form a group of inter-related clans, or lineages, tracing their descent back to a single ancestor.

Come drought, famine or epidemic, however, clusters would contract again. Of the outlying settlements, only the more successful ones would survive.

Sometimes the growth of these village clusters went unchecked by major famine or disease for a long time. In these circumstances the population might grow to a point where the availability of good land grew short.

This would exacerbate the already existing social fault-lines which afflicted all such societies. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, this often took the form of inter-generational tensions between elder males with multiple wives and younger males with no wives. The resulting dissent, fuelled by machismo, ambition, or desire for land, might lead to the exodus of a group of young men to a new location.

These colonising pioneers would clear the forest or scrub, and divide the new fields between themselves as hereditary property. They were now in a position to acquire wives and found their own family lines.

State formation: chiefdoms and kingdoms

Some of these village clusters would experience the next step of evolving into small chiefdoms; and groups of chiefdoms might eventually be united (usually by force) into a single kingdom.

This process started to happen at different times according to region. In the West African savannah the earliest kingdoms had appeared by the mid-first millennium CE.

States emerged in the forest regions to the south from the end of the first millennium, while in the equatorial forests and grasslands of central, east and southern Africa the state-building process did not start until the early- to mid-second millennium.

African Kingdoms arose in a variety of ways. Some owed their rise to the wealth gained from long-distance trade. By taxing the trade as it passed through their territory and using the wealth gained to build up a body of warrior retainers, powerful chiefs were able to bring neighbouring communities under their control and form the nucleus of a kingdom.

The earliest kingdoms we know of in West Africa, such as Ghana and Mali, were located at strategic points in the trans-Saharan trade network. In southern Africa the kingdom centred on Great Zimbabwe was situated on a gold trade route.

Some states were created by rulers of village clusters who, through military prowess, were able to use their manpower to conquer other clusters. Other states were built around sacred shrines and their custodians, who enjoyed a concentration of religious authority which they were able to convert into political power. Still others were created by nomadic pastoral groups imposing control over a population of farmers, such as the Fulani kingdoms in West Africa.

The foundation myths of several states, including the kingdom of Benin, tell of populations inviting a foreigner to settle among them, to settle their disputes and provide them with leadership. Many African kingdoms had lineages of rulers who traced their origins to foreign lands.

Once a cluster had acquired some form of statehood, its people were able to act in a much more co-ordinated fashion. Defence could become more organized, and they could build up their numbers by large raids on neighbouring peoples and bring in captives as new (if somewhat disadvantaged) new settlers. Such states could also organise the colonisation of outlying areas in a more systematic fashion, perhaps under the leadership of a prince of the royal family.

In most territorial kingdoms, local rulers who had been defeated were not eliminated, but became vassal rulers. They did obeisance to their overlord, forwarded tribute to his court and providing men for his army. In a few, more sophisticated kingdoms, such as Songhai, power was more centralised, with the state divided into provinces ruled by governors appointed by the king. Sometimes these were royal kinsmen or aristocrats, at other times royal slaves completely dependent upon the king for his authority.

The larger the state the more resources it could commit to defence and expansion. However, state-building was not a straightforward process in African conditions. Underpopulation meant that disgruntled people could always seek new land beyond the reach of royal authority. If the demands of royal authority became too onerous, in the form of heavy taxes, say, or the demands made for public projects or service in the royal army, people could (and did) simply up and leave en masse. Under these circumstances, the ability of ruling classes to build strong state institutions like powerful armies or effective bureaucracies, or even construct impressive temples or palaces, was limited. Sub-Saharan Africa was therefore never able to develop an original civilization with the material culture on the scale of, say, an ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt.

One other consequence of African underpopulation was the prevalence of the polygamy (see below). The most spectacular practitioners of this were kings and chiefs, which gave rulers swarms of sons to contest the succession or fragment the state. African kingdoms suffered severely from the divisive effects of violent competition between royal princes.

When a state fell, its population sometimes dispersed away from its core area, perhaps due to attack from and/or immigration by a new group of people, or through desiccation of the environment. Much more frequently however, a kingdom simply fragmented into its constituent population clusters. These more local groups formed the enduring units of African societies, centres of local power which provided the building blocks of larger polities, and outlasted them.

Stateless peoples

Many of largest population concentrations in Africa remained entirely stateless, their constituent communities jealously guarding their independence. Their inhabitants regulated their affairs by means of commonly-accepted custom, relying on shamans or priests at area shrines for mediation, hierarchies of titled individuals of varying ranks who had moral authority within their communities, and/or in some cases on secret societies. Some stateless peoples even looked to the rulers of neighbouring states to provide arbitration in their disputes – village communities bordering the powerful kingdom of Benin were examples of this.

In everyday matters, the members of many stateless societies relied upon the threat of violent retaliation to maintain order. This caused individuals to be very sensitive to attacks on their personal honour, real or imagined. This situation was exacerbated by the extreme competitiveness which members of such societies displayed, in a situation where one’s status was not inherited but was down to one’s own abilities and cunning. As suggested by the above reference to status titles, however, stateless societies were by no means always egalitarian ones.

In times of external danger such societies could come together to resist attack; however, they were peculiarly vulnerable to slave raiding from predatory states.

Towns and cities

West Africa had the oldest, densest and most enduring urban tradition, with famous cities such as Timbuktu, Gao, Jenne and Kano. In the rest of Africa towns were few and far between. Even the Swahili trading ports of East Africa such as Lamu, Mombasa, Kilwa and Zanzibar, home to a sophisticated Arab-African culture, were strung out along the coastline with great distances between them. Otherwise, large urban settlements were rare: Great Zimbabwe, Mbaza Kongo, and a handful of other towns were exceptional. The limited nature of urbanization greatly restricted transport, trade and industry.

Apart from in West Africa and on the Swahili coast, where true cities had developed, African towns tended to have the appearance of large villages, or clusters of villages. The majority of townsmen, like villagers, were cultivators.

All African towns, with but one or two exceptions such as Jenne in West Africa, were capitals of kingdoms. At their centres were located rulers’ palaces, usually a complex of buildings housing a large number of people – the king, his wives and concubines and children, numerous attendants, often groups of skilled craftsmen such as the sculptures who produced the famous Benin bronzes, and a large body of domestic servants, often slaves.

Unlike in other parts of the world, temples and other religious buildings did not dominate townscapes – the exception here being the large mosques of Muslim cities. However, all African cities were to some extent religious centres, as rulers were closely associated with local shrines and rituals.

Many towns were centres of craft production. Craft workers were often dedicated to meeting the needs of the ruler and the elite, their workshops located within the royal compound. In many cases, however, craft production was devoted to local, regional or long-distance trade. Some towns specialized in a particular industry, such as leather-making, bead-making or metal-work, for which they were renowned over a large area.

They must also have all been centres of exchange, yet many African towns, especially outside West Africa (where commercial activity was a major function in urban settlements), seem to have had no markets. It is possible that in such cases systems of exchange were focussed on the palace, which acted as centres of redistribution.

Traders

One group in African society, which made up probably a tiny proportion of the whole but which had an influence out of all proportion to its size, were the traders.

Many of the market traders were local women, but above them was a class of comparatively wealthy merchants. Some of these lived permanently in one town, but others spent much of their time wandering from town to town, market to market, with their wares.

Such traders were men, and they ranged from single itinerant traders with perhaps a donkey to carry his goods, to those in charge of caravans of donkeys or, in the desert, of camels. Some of these caravans could be huge, numbering hundreds of animals. Funding and operating them required large amounts of capital and large-scale, disciplined organization. While a caravan was on the move, its hundreds of animal drivers and traders had to submit to an almost military discipline under the caravan-master.

Such organizations had strong parallels with modern corporations, with agents stationed in towns scattered over the area where they operated. Indeed, at times such trading organizations were able to take over large areas and establish small states.

The trading classes were predominantly, perhaps exclusively, Muslim. Their impact on West African society, where trade networks were strongest, and along the East African coast, with its maritime links to the Middle East, was enormous.

Craft workers

A larger group of non-farmers was made up of craftsmen. Much craft work in Africa, as in all pre-modern societies, was done on a part-time basis by farmers, particularly women. However the more organized societies such kingdoms had groups of full-time professional craftsmen. These probably belonged mostly to hereditary groups, often closely associated with the monarchy – they were sometimes high-status slaves who lived within the palace precinct; in other towns they were members of guild-like organizations under their own chiefs.

Gender and Age differentials

A man needed wives and children to help him cultivate his fields or keep his cattle, to give him support in old age, and to provide him with descendants whose veneration would aide him in the afterlife. From a wider communal viewpoint, wives and children were needed to build up a lineage’s numbers and so help it survive into the future.

There was intense competition for women, and great inequality in access to them. There were high levels of polygamy throughout Africa – in some societies perhaps two-thirds of women were in polygamous marriages. Thus, a comparatively few number of men had access to the majority of women, meaning that the majority of men had little or no access.

The usual form of marriage was through bride-wealth – a groom exchanged a portion for his wealth to a bride’s family in order to marry her. This meant that, for a man to marry he must have some wealth, and since this took time to build up most men were in their thirties when they married.

The wealthier the man, the more women he could marry. “Big Men” had four, five or more wives. Conversely, most men could afford only one wife, if that. Virtually all young men in a community were unmarried.

All women married, as early as possible. The diet in most parts of Africa meant that many did not reach sexual maturity until their late teens or early twenties. This limited the number of children they might have in their child-bearing years, which would have been much more diminished, on average, by the incidence of infant mortality, childhood diseases and the dangers of childbirth. Together with drought, famine, epidemic, violence, and an unforgiving food-producing environment, it is easy to see how African populations struggled to grow. Women who could not bear children were held in contempt, and by the same token male potency was esteemed.

The unequal access to women made for severe tensions between males of different generations – the young men felt frustration, envy and anger with the older men for monopolizing the female sex. There was constant tension between the generations, which could spill over into real violence. Younger men would set out to seduce or rape the young wives of their elders, and their elders would be determined to prevent this. This bred a society in which extra-marital sex was common and accepted, and young men adopted an attitude of machismo and insolence towards their elders.

It was by no means uncommon for a brave young man to capture a young wife and run off with her. In due course he would probably be accepted back into his community through paying a fine to, or offering to work for, his wife’s father.

One way in which the older generation could impose its control on the younger was through initiation. This was almost universal throughout Africa, and was a painful, even traumatic ceremony by which boys entered adulthood.

In cattle-herding societies, and some crop-growing societies which were in close proximity to them, the young men were grouped into an age set of junior warriors. As the years went by they (or in some societies their entire age set) would move up the rungs to senior warrior, and then when they were thirty or so, to elderhood. As warriors they would cultivate a military ethos and be sent out to military outposts to guard the group’s cattle and territory. This arrangement had the double benefit of giving the group as a whole more security and leaving the older men at home in more secure possession of their wives. Age sets were the mark of militarized, mobile societies which lived by cattle-keeping, but also by cattle-raiding and territory-taking.

Status of women

All this implies that women’s status in African societies was low, and in some this was indeed the case, especially amongst cattle-herders. In these, men did the more highly valued work of herding, protecting or raiding cattle, while women did the household chores and cultivated crops – a lowly occupation in such societies. The most prized qualities were seen as the preserve of males, such as aggression and courage. A woman’s standing and access to wealth was entirely dependent upon her husband. In case of divorce she often lost all rights to her children, a cruel policy used to impose more rigorous female chastity than was demanded elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

In agricultural communities the status of women varied greatly. In matrilineal societies, in which which descent was traced through mothers, women’s status could be particularly favoured. Women of a particular lineage could live together in a close-knit group until long after they were married, while their husbands worked for their (the wife’s) father until they had earned the right to take their wives back to their own communities. In some societies the wives even retained ownership of their family property after marriage.

In most patrilineal societies women’s status tended to be less favourable.  They were much more likely to have to go and live in their husband’s family’s village after marriage, which put them in a comparatively powerless position. They were usually much younger than their husbands, and were expected to act in a submissive way towards him and his family. The work they did tended to be less valued than the men’s: mundane work in the fields and in the house, rather than the demanding work of clearing the bush, which established a man’s rights to a piece of land. On the other hand, everyone, regardless of sex or age, was required to work in the fields in times of peak activity such as harvest, and in some societies men prided themselves in their diligence as farmers.

Women predominated in small-scale trade as market sellers, which gave those involved considerable economic independence. The more high-status and long-distance traders, however, were men.

At a much higher level, some kingdoms gave high status to female members of the royal family. In the West African state of Bornu, for example, some royal women controlled extensive territories and were active in the government of the realm.

At the opposite end of the scale, however, women probably made up the majority of slaves, and occupied a powerless and utterly dependent position in society.

The Poor

In a world where land was plentiful, the poor were those who lacked the labour to work it. If they were too old, ill or handicapped to work effectively; or if through misfortune they had no children; or if they had no kinsmen to aid them clear land and tame fields, they were very vulnerable. To survive in these harsh conditions a person needed his kin around him. It was they who provided the support and security needed to get by.

To judge by reports of early European travellers, many Africans had the misfortune to find themselves without kin, and unable to work. They then had no option but to throw themselves on the mercy of others by begging, a very common fate in traditional African society. When one of the regular famines struck, these individuals were the first to die.

Slavery

Slavery was widespread in traditional African societies. Taking captives was a major objective in war, with most of the individuals thus enslaved being women or children. Men were usually killed, perhaps as ritual sacrifices. Famine was another source of slaves, causing people to sell themselves, or their children, into slavery in order to survive.

Many captives were sold on to other peoples; there was an active slave trade in Africa. Most of this was within Africa itself, but as we have seen above, thousands of people were “exported” to North Africa and the Middle East each year.

Female slaves were employed as domestic servants or concubines. Men who were spared death were set to work as labourers, miners or porters; or, if they had suitable skills, as craftsmen. Male children could be trained up to become administrators in the royal service, and in some states filled the most responsible positions at court: their lowly social status was thought to act as a check to their ambitions and a guarantee of their loyalty (though a chief slave may have usurped the Mali throne in 1357). In some cases such children were castrated as a further measure to reduce ambition – they would not then be able to establish an independent dynasty. A large number of top officials in Hausaland, in West Africa, were eunuchs.

In some kingdoms, such as Songhai and the Hausa states in West Africa, and Kongo and Luba in Equatorial Africa, slave labour was on a larger scale than in other places. Here, captives of both sexes were settled in royal estates and set to work there, effectively as serfs. Whole slave villages were established. This was a strategy to counter a shortage of population, embarking on war and raids with the deliberate intention of taking captives to build up a concentration of unfree farmers under direct royal control.

Social mobility

Heredity counted for much, as in most societies, premodern and modern; passing status down from father to son was an important dynamic. African societies were often fluid from one generation to another, however. Cleverness, bravery, charm, charisma and aggression could provide the success to bring high status and abundant wealth in many circumstances. Many African societies were highly competitive in the pursuit of status and wealth.

If another man, through skilled farming, plenty of children and a charismatic personality, attracted a following, he could lead his people out into some vacant land and establish his own group. In folktales, the rewards for perseverance, intelligence and courage were wives, children, status, wealth, and security – in other words, to become a Big Man.

On the other hand, to maintain status and authority required a Big Man to be generous – why else would other men want to be his followers? He was therefore required to host lavish feasts at which many could eat and drink at his expense; and to provide costly gifts to his allies and supporters. These requirements imposed a considerable constraint on the ability of Big Men to accumulate material wealth; and in many cases his status was precarious. Many African societies therefore experienced considerable social mobility.

Population growth

Despite the obstacles to population growth, there was an extremely slow rise in numbers throughout historical times. This is most marked in eastern, central and southern Africa during the second millennium CE, at the start of which population levels were at a very low level. With the growing emphasis on cattle herding, infant survival must have profited from increased milk supplies, especially when cattle-keeping enabled their owners to colonize the malaria-free highlands which cover much of eastern and souther Africa. In West Africa, the slow multiplication of population concentrations laid the basis for further expansion. From the 17th century, European contact have brought new crops from America, such as maize, cassava and sweet potatoes, and these were beginning to provide additional nutrition and a significant boost to numbers all over Africa. By then, however, a countervailing force was at work on the continent, which would put a stop to any expansion in population for two hundred years. This came from exactly the same mix of European contact and American agriculture as the new crops; it was the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Health and medicine

Through history, Africa has had an exceptionally hostile environment in terms of the diseases which could strike humans and their animals; and of the regions, West Africa was probably the most dangerous.

Malaria was probably the biggest killer, especially of infants. Only the driest and coolest regions escaped this disease. Other common maladies were hookworm anaemia, yaws, leprosy, smallpox and endemic syphilis (though not the more lethal venereal kind, which was only introduced into sub-Saharan Africa in the 16th century, after Europeans arrived). The tsetse fly infested many wooded areas, especially along waterways, killing cattle and causing sleeping sickness amongst humans. All these diseases were, despite higher levels of resistance in indigenous populations to foreign ones (West Africa in particular would become known as the “The White Man’s Grave”) were all widespread killers.

Long experience of these diseases contributed to a remarkably deep medical knowledge amongst Africa peoples. An extraordinarily detailed understanding of plants and their properties, already noted in above in connection to their skills as cultivators, gave African healers an unmatched mastery of herbal remedies. They also applied a wide range of ointments, and practiced bone setting, surgery and skilled midwifery. Such was their reputation for effective healing that the early Europeans resorted to “witch doctors”, including Christian missionaries.

Like all pre-modern medicinal practitioners, they also used traditional methods less appealing to the modern Western mind, such as bleeding, purgatives, magic and exorcism. However, at the very least these would have had a psychological impact which in many cases would have contributed to the healing process. On the whole, though, anthropologist have emphasised the rational, experimental nature of African medicine. European travellers to Africa were surprised to find, even in the interior of the continent, inoculation being practiced. This had probably been first introduced to sub-Saharan Africa by Portuguese or Arab visitors, but the fact that it had been picked up by local healers and spread from people to people over hundreds of miles shows how open they were to new approaches.

Having said all this, disease remained common, debilitating and in may cases, fatal. As in all pre-modern societies, infants and their mothers, the very groups upon whom the successful growth of population most depended, were most at risk. The effects of disease were compounded by diets amongst crop-growing peoples low in animal protein and vitamins, in milk for infants, and, for many places, restricted access to clean fresh water. Not only so, but the general health of the population was regularly weakened by famine.

Such famines were usually caused by drought, but plagues of locusts or unseasonably heavy rains could also devastate crops. So too could warfare or misrule. Oral traditions and Muslim and European records suggest that large-scale famines occurred every 70 years or so, and were often accompanied by epidemic disease. Together, these might kill one third to one half of an affected population, nullifying the hard come by demographic gains of a generation.

3. Traditional African Economics

Food production

As we have seen, different African peoples specialized in different modes of food production – hunter-gathering (and fishing), nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralism, and cultivation of crops. In many places herders and cultivators, or cultivators and hunter-gatherers, lived in close proximity with each other, exchanging products on a regular basis. Indeed, in some areas, particularly where grassland and forest met, all three modes were practiced locally, resulting in a particularly fruitful exchange of produce.

In fact, we should not think of communities of cultivators or pastoralists concentrating entirely on a single subsistence strategy. Herders grew crops as a secondary activity where conditions were suitable, and cultivators also kept animals (outside the forests), fished and hunted – hunters were respected, even feared, by other members of the community as they ventured into the hostile wilderness in pursuit of game. In times of famine, the people took to foraging, braving the wilderness to do so.

The staple crops varied throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The savannah regions of West Africa specialized in millet and fonio, and further south, where rainfall was sufficient, sorghum. Rice was grown on particularly well-watered areas such as along the banks of the River Niger.

In the forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin, yams and plantains were the staple crop. Yams are a very productive crop, providing a large number of calories per acre harmed. This makes the huge effort of clearing even small areas of very dense forest worthwhile.

In East, Central and Southern Africa, the mix of staple crops varied from place to place according to environment, but normally included yams and sorghum, later supplemented by plantain.

From the 17th century onwards, indigenous African crops were supplemented by crops introduced from America, especially maize, cassava, beans and sweet potatoes. These transformed many agricultural systems, and probably facilitated population growth.

Conditions in much of sub-Saharan Africa make wresting a secure subsistence from the land a major challenge. In the grasslands, the hot, dry climate makes for a short growing season. Farming populations have therefore sought out well-watered locations such as river banks, lakesides and moist depressions. However, population pressures often forced farmers out onto drier land. Here, the early settlers often used fire to clear the bush, and over large swathes of East and Central Africa in particular, thick forest was reduced to, first, open woodland, and then, in some places, to treeless steppe, more suited to cattle herding than crop production.

African farming has relied on a thorough understanding of local environments, to an extent which has astonished Western observers. Anthropologists have noted that much of the education of the young has involved attaining an incredibly detailed knowledge of soils and plants, and their properties. As well as the staple crops, cultivators have grown sometimes dozens of other crops to which their locality is suited in an effort to reduce the impact of poor harvests. 

African cultivators have generally taken great pride in their skills. They have used a wide range of techniques, building up the productivity of the land through manuring, terracing, and digging channels to lead water from stream to field, sometimes across wooden aqueducts. In river floodplains  communities have constructed mounds raised above the flood level from which to take advantage of the rich silt deposited by the river waters.

Trade

In Africa, trade and industry were constrained by underpopulation. With distances between centres of population usually large, transport costs were high.

The absence of roads – very labour-intensive for scattered communities to construct and maintain – wheeled vehicles such as carts could not be used. Camels were employed in the long-distance trans-Saharan trade, and donkeys were the normal mode of transport in the West African savannah. Canoes came in all sizes on the great rivers, and were probably the cheapest form of transport; but, of sub-Saharan rivers, only the Niger and Congo were navigable for any distance along their length.

In forest regions, away from lakes and rivers, human porterage was the only means of transport as the presence of tsetse fly meant that animals could not be used; this was by definition very labour intensive and meant that agricultural produce could travel only short distances.

Difficulties in transport encouraged local self-sufficiency, and most trade consisted of purely local exchanges, for example at river banks where fish was bartered for vegetables, or where forest and savannah met, where the products of the two zones were exchanged. Most crafts supplied local markets, even when using high levels of skill.

There were, however, networks of long-distance trade criss-crossing the continent from an early date. Long-distance trade rested chiefly on high value goods produced only in confined areas. Even in West Africa, and certainly for Africa as a whole, salt was probably the most traded commodity, being an essential part of people’s diet, especially for those in regions where meat was hard to come by.

The exchange of salt for gold or grain was the foundation of the trans-Saharan trade, which had such a major impact on West African civilization. But humans also were traded: it has been estimated that from the mid-second millennium CE perhaps seven thousand captives a year were taken north across the Sahara from the south, to the slave markets of North Africa and the Middle East. A further one thousand a year may have been taken each year through the Swahili ports and up the east coast of Africa, destined for the Middle East and South Asia.

Some European captives came the other way, ending up as slaves in the West African kingdoms of Mali and Songhai.

The long-distance trade networks were in the hands of comparatively large and sophisticated commercial organizations. The trans-Saharan trade was carried in caravans made up of sometimes hundreds of camels. These operated as almost military organization, and required large investment to fund. They required widespread international contacts to be successful. In the savannah and forest regions of West Africa, an international group of traders grew up named the Dyula, who achieved an impressive scale of organization to handle commercial activities over a very wide area. Later, they faced competition from Hausa traders, who created an even more far flung network.

These West African trade systems were facilitated by an international currency based on cowrie shells, whose distinctive appearance, durability, and limited supply made them very suitable for such a role. Although they originated in the Indian Ocean, they played no major role in East African trade. This reflects the much more limited role of trade outside West Africa.

The sparser population of eastern, central and southern Africa, compared with western Africa, reduced the scale and impact of commercial activity. So too did the more widespread infestation of tsetse fly, which set a limit of animal transport. As we have seen, the only major trading towns in these regions were on the Swahili coast of the indian Ocean. Elsewhere, transport being limited to human porterage meant that there was little long-distance trade.

Local trade certainly existed, especially in areas of dense population such as in the Great Lakes region (which also benefitted from the water-borne transport which the huge lakes themselves permitted). Here, regional trade networks grew up based on such geographically specialized products as fish and salt. Iron was also an important regional trade commodity, as major smelting areas were only to be found in locations where abundant wood for the furnaces was available. Copper was also an important trade commodity, with trade routes running outwards from the copper belt in modern Zambia. In the second millennium CE copper crosses served as a form of currency across much of southern and central Africa.

Craft production

The difficulties of transport noted above acted to restrict trade, and thus to the emergence of centres of specialist production. This in turn placed a constraint of technological innovation. As a result, production was often labour-intensive, in a part of the world where labour was already scarce.

Having said that, no one can look at a Benin bronze figure and argue that skills of the very highest level were lacking in African craftsmanship; and fine crafts were to be found up and down the continent.

Metalwork held a special place in African culture. Skill in this field could only be obtained by long experience and involved a mastery of mysteries which was reminiscent of magic. Also, iron working especially produced goods vital to farmers, hunters and warriors. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, therefore, metalworkers were held in awe. Not a few chiefly dynasties traced their ancestry back to such a figure.

As in other parts of the world, textile crafts were widespread. Work in rafia and other fibres was common from an early date, and in the Great Lakes region bark cloth was common, as was the use of animal skins for clothes. Weaving with the loom seems to have come late to sub-Saharan Africa, introduced by Muslim traders into West Africa towards the end of the first millennium AD; and probably separately to eastern and southern Africa, also by Muslim merchants via the Swahili ports. Cotton and woollen textiles were probably introduced at the same time, and by the 16th century cotton had become a form of currency amongst some peoples in southern Africa (for example the Shona).

Spinning and weaving technologies remained comparatively primitive, and therefore labour intensive, but craftsmen and women produced cloth of high quality and often of great beauty. Most weaving was done by women, but in some major textile centres weavers were full-time professional men.

Crafts were usually hereditary, and expertise was often a closely-guarded secret of particular kin-groups. In some places, groups of skilled craftsmen had their own chiefs.

One group of industrial workers should be mentioned in this context, although they were not strictly speaking craftsmen in the normal use of the term. These were the miners.

The gold miners of West Africa formed a hereditary, and in some ways privileged, group of workers. They also had a reputation for being independent-minded. They were willing to put down tools and stop work when they felt their independence was being threatened. Indeed, they even went on strike when a neighbouring ruler attempted to convert them to Islam.

The salt miners, on the other hand, were a dependent group not much better than slaves. The most productive salt mines were located deep in the Sahara desert, and the miners lived isolated lives working in appalling conditions. Like the gold miners they were also hereditary, and in fact formed a distinct ethnic group within desert society. Whereas the people round about were Berbers, they were of black descent, either descended from captives brought there from further south or the last remnants of Negroid peoples who had lived in the region when it had a wetter climate.

 

4. Religion and culture

As one should expect for such a vast region as sub-Saharan Africa, with its thousands of societies and cultures, religious beliefs and practices varied enormously. Nevertheless there were some features which were widespread amongst African religions. Most involved a keen belief in spirits of different kind; of the afterlife; of a spiritual dimension to the land; and of evil. African religious practices were equally common, involving ritual experts, mediums, dances, often with masks and oftern involving trances, witches, and charms.

Gods and spirits

All Africans believed in spiritual beings. It has been noted that herding peoples had a stronger tendency to believe in a high god, whilst cultivators were more likely to worship many gods. These, as elsewhere in the world, had specialist activities – ensuring fertility of women and soil, for example, or providing wealth. Even here, however, there was commonly a belief that a ‘higher’ or ‘ultimate’ power lay behind the pantheon of gods who interacted with humans.

In many agricultural societies, however, the most important spiritual beings were the “spirits of the land” and, closely associated with these, ancestral spirits. A common idea was that the founders of a particular community, on first settling the area, had made a pact with the spirits of the land in order to ensure good harvests. The original settlers became the founding ancestors of the new community, and because it was they who had struck the original pact with the spirits of the land, it was they alone who could communicated with them, even (or especially) after death. These ancestral spirits thus became the channel through which spiritual forces could be accessed.

Similarly, belief that spiritual power came only through dead ancestors was common amongst herding societies. Given the nomadic nature of these societies the spiritual power in question could not be tied to a particular area – might, indeed, be a universal spirit who controlled all the land. But it was ancestors with whom these people directly interacted, and approaching them with sacrifices of cattle.

This categorization was not hard and fast. Some cultivators worshipped a supreme god, particularly when seeking rain. In fact, cults involving rain shrines and weather gods might command the loyalty of people over a wide area, a form of worship practiced side-by-side with that concerning the spirits of the land.

For cultivators in particular, any religious beliefs were underpinned by a deeply-held idea about the world in which they found themselves. This was that there was a fundamental distinction between the cultivated and the wild, between civilization and savagery. Establishing a new settlement was not just about clearing forest or scrub and creating fields for crops; it was about taming the land, seeking the permission of the spiritual forces which controlled a patch to settled on it, and making a contract with them to bless them with protection and fertility. The surrounding bush remained untamed, wild, a source of harm, the abode of dangerous animals and evil spirits. Those humans whose livelihood depended on adventuring into the bush – hunters above all but also herbalists and iron workers, who needed wood for their furnaces – were regarded with awe, for they must be protected by strong magic to survive such trips.

Surrounded as they were by vast stretches of bush, agricultural villages and the human societies they sheltered were fragile places, always under threat from the encroaching forest. Some communities, especially those in rain forests, had a sacred barrier to keep the wilderness at bay.

In contrast to all this, anthropologists found that the pygmies who inhabited the deep forests, and who relied for their survival on its produce, regarded the forests as innately good, and the lands surrounding it as fearful.

In many societies, the village chief, as the senior descendant of the founding ancestor, was deemed to have a special relationship with the spirit world. He therefore possessed both religious and secular authority within his community. Much religious activity, however, was in the hands of religious specialists adept at making contact with the spirit world in order to influence the forces of nature. To the Western mind, at least, this aspect of religion was indistinguishable from magic, and was in the hands of mediums, priests, diviners and healers. Their repertoire involved rituals, spells, dances and trances, as well as more practical applications such as herbs and ointments. Religious and medical knowledge was interwoven, and was mysterious to the community at large (except in so far as the healing properties of many plants were commonly appreciated). The mysteriousness of such knowledge might be reinforced in societies where secret associations had a monopoly of spiritual activity. In large settlements religion and healing was in the hands of professionals, whose interests naturally lay in keeping such matters out of the reach of the general populace.

In line with the pragmatic nature of African thought, the test for religious practices and practitioners was whether they worked, especially in relieving human misfortune or securing fertility of womb or field, prosperity, health and social harmony in the world. Such pragmatism made for an open attitude to ideas and practices from outside: if something worked it was acceptable, wherever it came from.

In large societies with dense populations, which showed marked differences in wealth and were controlled by strong political power, human sacrifice was widely practiced. Men captured in war or raids were often sacrificed to the gods, and the wives, retainers and servants of dead rulers were frequently buried with him.

One of the biggest threats to harmony within society was witchcraft. This was greatly feared, as it could spring up in communities and tear them apart.

Witches were widely blamed for misfortunes, especially involving the fertility of women and the survival of children. These matters touched on the central concern of Africans, the continuity of the community. Fear of witchcraft was particularly virulent in concentrated settlements where interpersonal tensions could be high. Those suspected of witchcraft were commonly relatives or neighbours who would benefit from a person’s misfortune; and especially women whose age, childlessness, deformity or demeanour suggested bitterness.

Suspects were often the victims of mob violence. More often, they might be tested by a poison ordeal and if found guilty, put to death, often with great cruelty.

When one society was conquered by another, it was the mediums and priests, as well as others in the community with high religious status such as iron workers and herbalists, who often put up the stoutest resistance to alien rule. Eventually, however, immigrant rulers usually learnt to co-exist with local religious practitioners. They sought to bring shrines and cults under their authority through a mixture of threat and patronage. This task would be helped by the fact that a defeated ruler had, by definition, been shown to have lost the support of the gods, and the victorious ruler had proved himself to be the more spiritually powerful.

In West Africa, a new religious influence began to make itself felt in the later first millennium. This was Islam, which gradually spread throughout the region over a number of centuries. Indigenous religions never died out, however, and the two belief-systems lived side by side in uneasy co-existence for a long time (indeed, they still do in parts of West Africa).

Art, literature and culture

Circumstances might have been against African societies in the effort to create advanced material cultures, but this did not stop some of them from producing some of the most highly regarded works of art known to man. The magnificent sculptures of the West African societies of Ife and Benin, for example, depict human figures in an idealized yet deeply moving way, and possess a serene majesty unsurpassed in human art.

The sculptural tradition in West Africa goes back to the terracotta figures of the Nok culture of the early first millennia BCE and CE, and began to reach a peak in the 13th and14th centuries in Ife, in Yourabaland (in modern day Nigeria). The surviving examples re terracotta, though there may well have been a much more substantial tradition of wood carving which lay behind these. They represent the spectrum of human conditions, from kings and courtiers to the diseased and the executed. In the 14th and 15th centuries this tradition was transferred to brass. Fewer than 30 example have survived, all made by the lost wax process. They are in a style of idealized naturalism, most representing kings at the height of their powers. The sculptural tradition spread to other Yoruba cities in the form of wood carvings, where they continued to reveal an artistry and appreciation of human worth that marks them out as truly great works.

This tradition of West African sculpture arose in a much broader context of mask-making and statuary in wood and ivory, which covered much of sub-Saharan Africa. In the Great Lakes region, for example, the Lega people developed a distinctive and lively series of exquisite miniature sculptures. The same eye for beauty and spirit, along with a zest for colour and pattern, was revealed in countless textile works from all over the continent.

Except where influenced by Islam, most pre-modern sub-Saharan societies were non-literate. Underpopulation, and the difficulties that this created for taxation and control, meant that the kind of bureaucracies which invented literacy in Sumer or Egypt could not emerge in the African context.

That said, African oral culture was exceptionally rich, with an enormous store of myths, stories, poems and aphorisms. Oratory, debate, story-telling, poetry and conversation were all held in high esteem, and were developed into a highly sophisticated art at the royal courts of African kingdoms and chiefdoms. Rulers displayed their power by the number of retainers they had, and the sophistication of their court, where urbanity, eloquence, and quickness of wit were cultivated.

Connected with this, feats of memory were a key part of African religious, political and commercial life. African ritual experts learnt thousands of verses of religious and wisdom poetry, and expounded the appropriate one to guide kings and ministers as they resolved disputes; Rememberers treasured the traditions and histories of the kingdoms; and traders astonished early European travellers with their powers of recall. In many of the great kingdoms of Africa, administration was carried on entirely orally. The Mali empire, for example, had secretaries to conduct foreign correspondence, but its internal administration only employed word of mouth.

Popular culture

Dance was the most important African cultural form, central to communal festivals, religious ceremonies and masquerades. Much dance was narrative in purpose, telling and retelling myths and stories. As such it was essentially a form of theatre. Everyone on the community would take part, but the central roles were reserved for the mediums with their trance-dancing.

A popular form of leisure was a board game called mankala. This was usually played communally, and noisily, in the open air, with plenty of noise. However, it was also played in the more refined atmosphere of some royal courts, both in West Africa and East Africa, where the game formed part of a succession ritual.

Under Muslim influence the game of dara became popular. This was a form of draughts, and was played in private rather than in public.

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