Africa – Pre-History

Anthropologists that specialise in the archaeological evidence of past civilisations, or paleoanthropologists, are fascinated by Africa and its rich diversity of fossilised findings. These artefacts narrate a time in Africa’s past when written records were rare, if not non-existent, providing clues and puzzle pieces for modern researchers to piece together.

Fossils that have been discovered within the last century are thought to be up to 7 million years old. These remains include humans and what is believed to be their earlier ancestors, resembling apes. Using modern technology, these findings have been established as being 3.9 to 3 million years old.

Image of Skeleton of a dinosaur.
Skeleton of a dinosaur.

Africa was, like the rest of the world, a vast continent with no defined countries or borders. Ancient civilisations trekked across the extensive plains in search of food and a suitable place to live. These included societies such as the Khoi and the San or Bushmen.

The most recent Ice Age refers to the period of time, approximately 20 000 years ago, that the earth experienced long-term and wide spread temperatures that were dramatically lower than usual. This change in climate resulted in some of the ice sheets and glaciers we see today. These ice sheets were extensive in areas such as North America and Eurasia, as they are known today. The end of the last Ice Age was at about 10 500 BCE (Before our Common Era). At this time, the Sahara was a fertile, lush valley. This meant that those who had migrated to the highlands to avoid the ice sheets could return to this area. Humans and animals alike thrived under these conditions. However, the climate alternated between dry and humid conditions over a period of many centuries, which eventually left this area in a desert state. By 500 BCE, the Sahara civilisations began to migrate towards the Nile. The climate change in East and Central Africa has had permanent effects on places such as Ethiopia, which continue to be parched right into the present day.

The prehistorical Africa also saw the domestication of cattle for farming purposes during the hunter-gatherer time of human development. This is before agricultural farming even became recognised. North Africa is said to have domesticated their cattle by 6000 BCE. With the dramatic changes in climate, grazing and agricultural land diminished or shrunk, forcing the farmers to migrate west, where Africa enjoyed a more tropical weather pattern.

It was just before 1000 BCE that North Africa encountered ironworking. This strengthened their trade relations and increased profitability for the civilisations in this area. The ironwork fad galloped through Africa and became very common in East and West Africa by 500 BCE. This has been confirmed by the discovery of copper objects that originated in Egypt, North Africa and Ethiopia found in West Africa. This would imply that trade across the sub-Sahara was already in progress as early as 500 BCE.

This prehistorical development laid the foundation for the civilisations that came out of it. These civilisations formed many of the cultures, religions and national groups that we see today.

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.