African Geography – Plateau Region

A plateau is a section of land that is relatively flat, due to various reasons. Some plateaus have been formed by erosion and others by volcanic activity. In ancient Africa, these areas would, for the most part, have been ideal settling options for colonialists as well as the native hunter-gatherers as they would present few challenges in the way of travelling across them or establishing homes and farms. Mountainous regions or those pitted with deep valleys, on the other hand, present many more challenges.

Africa boasts many such plateaus, making it one of the most ideal lands to travel and cultivate. Even in the times of earliest human civilisations, it is believed to have been the Cradle of Humankind, albeit in different areas of the continent. These plateaus would have provided ample room for the establishment of villages, the farming of plants and animals as well as the moving around of the more nomadic of ancient Africans.

Africa has high plateaus in the east and south. These are elevated approximately 3 300 feet above sea level, and have a minimum elevation of 2000 feet. The whole of the country of South Africa is a plateau, with high ground on all but its northern border. This high land drops steeply towards the coast. It was these mountainous areas with which the first settlers had to contend in order to colonise a land that was so familiar to the local inhabitants. These mountains and the caves they house are also the sites of many of the rock paintings, tools and implements once used by prehistoric man. As the South African plateau heads south, three parallel steps form the rim, each separated by a strip of level ground between them. The Great Karoo makes up the largest of these gaps between steps. The Karoo and the Kalahari Desert (perched on the plateau) are dry and arid.

The East African plateau is higher than that of South Africa. The eastern axis has widened and split into several zones that run in northerly and southerly directions. This split has meant mountains ranges, flat land and deep depressions in this region. There are two significant depressions in the earth’s surface and these have become the sites of huge lakes. Where they converge, Lake Nyasa lies.

In the north, the depressions in the plateaus have formed the Great Rift Valley and its many impressive lakes (Great Lakes of Tanganyika, Kivu, Lake Edward and Lake Albert). This plateau is also peppered with volcanic peaks. The East African Trough contains far fewer depressions and, therefore, lakes. These sources of water would have sustained ancient man and their crops and animals.

To the east, Mount Kilimanjaro towers over the plateau. This mountain peaks at almost 20 000 feet, and has always proved to be one of man’s greatest challenges to conquer. In this region of Africa, there remain active volcanoes, some of which actually lie on the floor of valleys and depressions, rather than on the plateau itself.

Image of Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia
Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia

Another significant plateau region is the Ethiopian Highlands. This is Africa’s largest continuous plateau. This may account for its popularity in times past, testified to by the abundance of remains and fossils found here. In the centre of this plateau is a round dent, where Lake Tsana resides.

The African continent is flanked on both sides by plateaus that run in strips along the coastline. In some places, these are higher and broader and in others narrow and low, but still part of the continuous plateau.

Evidently, this aspect of Africa’s geography has impacted significantly on settlements and travel routes. They had an integral part to play in the movements and developments of ancient African civilisations and, therefore, are still a key part in the research being undertaken to establish certain parts of Africa as the Cradle of Mankind.


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.