Africa Etymology


Africa’s origin is steeped in mystery, effectively carried along the generations by those who valued their heritage and desired to continue the legends and tales that defined their culture to such a significant extent. The origin of its very name is filled with intrigue and presents many different theories.

“Afri” was associated with the Phoenician afar “dust” and was used as the name for the society of people living near Carthage (an ancient city near Tunis) in northern Africa. Their existence was first noted during the Punic Wars (between 264 and 146 before our Common Era or BCE). These three wars were the largest of their time, fought between the Roman Empire and Carthage. They were a battle over space between the well established Carthage and the ever-expanding Rome. Rome was ultimately victorious. When this happened, Carthage became the capital of the Roman province of Africa (which was, in part, made up Phoenician Ruinsof the coastal section of Libya). The Roman suffix to denote a country was “-ca” and this was thus added to “Afri”. The Arabians of that time converted this name to “Ifriqiya” in Latin. In Algeria, this name still exists, as is evident by such areas as Ifira and Ifri-n-Dellal.

Image of Phoenician Ruins
Phoenician Ruins

Another theory is that the word originates from Berber, a group of languages spoken in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt, as well as parts of Niger, Mali, the Sahara and northern Sahel. The Berber word “ifri” means “cave” and is thought to have referred to the numerous cave dwellers (or cavemen) of the time. These North African folk were called Garamantes in Greek, although the name they bore for themselves remains unknown. This society boasted an efficient underground irrigation system and left many valuable rock paintings that revealed their way of life and values.

Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived and worked in the first century of our Common Era. He hypothesised that the name “Africa” originated from the grandson of Abraham, recorded in the Hebrew scriptures of the Christian Bible at Genesis 25:4. This grandson, Epher, and his descendents invaded Libya (according to Josephus).

Joannes Leo Africanus, on the other hand, suggested that the Greek work phrike (φρίκη), meaning “cold and horror”, was prefixed by “a-” to indicate its opposite; i.e. “without cold and horror”. This would create the name to define this warm and inviting land. Africanus was a historian and Arabic diplomat that lived between 1488 and 1554 and used this nickname in much of his writings. However, his birth name was Al Hassan Ibn Muhammad Al Wazzan.

Another interesting theory was established by Massey in 1881. The Egyptian term “Ka” referred to every person’s energy, a non-fleshly double that defined your being (much the same as the Christian term, soul). The “opening of the Ka” then referred to the mother’s womb or the child’s birthplace and was held as a very special and honoured concept. The Egyptian word “af-rui-ka” literally means “to turn towards the opening of the Ka”, and recognises Africa as the birthplace of their earliest ancestors.

The theories outlined above are only some of those held by esteemed historians and archaeologists. Africa boasts a reputation of unanswered questions, lending it an air of intrigue on many different levels. No one name could define this continent in its entirety and no one definition could do such diversity justic.

Effects Of Climatic And Environmental Changes On Ancient African Civilisations

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the entire planet earth looked very different to what modern man experiences today. Continents were not yet divided, and the vegetation and animals were different. Significantly, the climate was also vastly different to what it is today. Climate plays an integral role in determining the plants and animal that live in a certain areas, as well as how habitable a place is for human beings.

In fact, even the theory of the evolution of man was dependent largely on the climatic influences on our ancient ancestors. It is hypothesised that the ancient versions of man were forced to walk upright, lose body hair and develop their coordination for survival in a changing environment. New skills also needed to be learned as farming techniques and living habits had to be adapted.

Ancient Africa experienced major vacillations between mega-droughts and Ice Ages, although these fluctuations occurred over thousands and thousands of years. As humans continued to develop and evolve through these phases, they needed to make major adaptations, not only to their ways of life, but also to their personal body structure. Prior to 135 000 years ago, the whole of Africa was lush and fertile, with a tropical climate. Then, the most intense mega-drought ever to occur hit the continent in the period referred to as the early part of the Late Pleistocene epoch. This is believed to have led to the migration of most of our human ancestors into other areas that were more habitable and fertile. Lake Malawi has been used by scientists as a rain gauge to ascertain water levels in ancient times. Research has shown that, during this mega-drought, the lake’s level dropped at least 1968 feet, or 600 metres! Evolutionists claim that this severe lack of water not only pushed ancient man from the area, it also forced aquatic animals (such as fish) to develop the facilities to be able to survive on dry land, thus evolving into land animals.

As people flocked out of the continent, only a very small proportion of this specific generation remained. Humankind as we know it is widely believed to have come from these few remaining on the continent, who evolved significantly and in response to the climatic changes.

These conditions continued until about 70 000 years ago, when the climate was again characterised by wetter conditions. These led to the growth and renewal of fresh vegetation, as well as an increased water supply to the region. More people were in the area during this time of abundance, and the population grew. This increase in numbers eventually led to migrations due to space limitations and the ownership of land.

Then, about 20 000 years ago, an Ice Age overcame the entire earth. This meant that the planet underwent a long-term period of cold temperatures over most of its surface. In places like North America and Eurasia, giant ice sheets covered enormous proportions of the land, making it impossible to farm and, sometimes, even live in these areas. This final Ice Age lasted for about 9 500 years. It forced most of the populations to migrate to the highlands, where they would be relatively protected from the ice sheets. Again, these civilisations had to adapt their farming methods, and change their diet, social habits, clothing and migratory patterns. This forced an evolution to a certain extent. Body hair was necessary to keep people warm, their skin lightened due to a lack of the harsh rays of the sun that they experienced during the mega-droughts, etc…

When this Ice Age came to an end 10 500 years ago, areas like the Sahara were left fertile and healthy. This made it and the other areas like it the ideal spots in which to settle as ancient man began to descend from the highlands. Animals and plants thrived in this environment, which made it very desirable in the eyes of mankind. The abundance of food, water and sunshine again changed the habits and physical structures of our earliest forefathers.

These conditions lasted for some time, but the Sahara in particular continued to experience fluctuations between humid and dry conditions. These eventually left the entire area unable to yield crops or sustain life for any extended period of time. Today, it remains a large stretch of desert. Then, approximately 2500 years ago, the group of people who had made their home in the Sahara began to follow the direction of the Nile River, which held promise of a rich water supply. The arid conditions of the Sahara and its surrounds continue to the present day.

Africa has, since prehistoric times, proven to be a place of fascination, life and evolution. Changes in the climate were often dramatic, and these were, to a great extent, responsible for determining the ancient civilisations that inhabited this vast continent. It is no wonder that many researchers and scientists maintain that Africa is the Cradle of Mankind, and research continues to yield fascinating evidence of this theory.