Ancient Africa

Ancient Africa

The origins of African art exist long before recorded history, beginning with the evolution of the human species. Over time, the continent became increasingly diverse in culture, politics, and religion.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the cultures of Ancient Africa

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The human species originated on the African continent, making it the oldest inhabited territory on Earth. It was here that cattle were first domesticated and metalworking invented. Climate change in the fifth millennium BCE triggered a migration to the western and tropical areas of the continent.
  • For much of prehistory , Africa had no nation-states. The Egyptian civilization arose by the late fourth millenium BCE, impacting the northern part of the continent for the next 3,000 years. The fourth century BCE ushered in European exploration and conquest with Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE and the Roman conquest in the late first century BCE.
  • The early seventh century CE witnessed the spread of Islam into North Africa and eventually into sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Between the ninth and 18th centuries, Africa contained as many as 10,000 separate nation-states, as well as polities governed by units as small as familial clans.

Key Terms

  • Ife: The first of the Yoruba city-states or kingdoms, which established government under a priestly oba (“king”).
  • Nri Kingdom of the Ig: One of several independent kingdoms that developed
    in the forested regions of the West African coast.
  • San peopl: Familial groups of hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa between the ninth and 18th centuries.
  • Hausa states: The early dynastic states that had spread across Africa by the ninth century, including Ghana, Gao, and the Kanem-Bornu Empire.
  • Almoravids: A Berber dynasty from the Sahara that spread over a wide area of northwestern Africa and the Iberian peninsula during the 11th century.
  • Banu Hilal and Banu Ma’qil: A collection of Arab Bedouin tribes from the Arabian Peninsula who migrated westwards via Egypt between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Africa is considered the oldest inhabited territory on Earth, where the human species originated. During the middle of the 20th century, anthropologists discovered evidence of human occupation as early as seven million years ago. Their findings included fossil remains of early hominid species thought to be ancestors of modern humans.

Early Civilizations

Throughout humanity’s prehistory, Africa had no nation-states and was instead inhabited by groups of hunter-gatherers such as the Khoi and San. The domestication of cattle preceded agriculture. It is speculated that by 6,000 BCE, cattle were already domesticated in North Africa. In 4,000 BCE, climate change led to increasing desertification, which contributed to migrations of farming communities to the more tropical climate of West Africa.

By the first millennium BCE, ironworking began in Northern Africa and quickly spread across the Sahara into the northern parts of sub-Saharan Africa. By 500 BCE, metalworking was fully established in many areas of East and West Africa. Copper objects from Egypt, North Africa, Nubia, and Ethiopia dating from around 500 BCE have been excavated in West Africa, suggesting that trans-Saharan trade networks had been established by this date.

At about 3300 BCE, the Pharaonic civilization of Ancient Egypt came to power, a reign that lasted until 343 BCE. Egyptian influence reached deeply into modern Libya, north to Crete and Canaan, and south to the kingdoms of Aksum and Nubia.

European exploration of Africa began with Ancient Greeks and Romans. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in Egypt, which would become the prosperous capital of the Ptolemaic dynasty after his death. Following the conquest of North Africa’s Mediterranean coastline by the Roman Empire, the area was integrated economically and culturally into the Roman system. Christianity soon spread across the region.

In the early seventh century, the newly formed Arabian Islamic Caliphate expanded into Egypt and then into North Africa. Islamic North Africa became a diverse hub for mystics, scholars, jurists, and philosophers. Islam spread to sub-Saharan Africa, mainly through trade routes and migration.

Ninth to Eighteenth Centuries

Precolonial Africa possessed as many as 10,000 different states and polities characterized by many sorts of political organization and rule. These included small family groups of hunter-gatherers, such as the San people of southern Africa; larger, more structured groups, such as the family clan groupings of the Bantu-speaking people of central and southern Africa; heavily structured clan groups in the Horn of Africa; the large Sahelian kingdoms; autonomous city-states and kingdoms such as those of the Akan; Edo , Yoruba , and Igbo peoples in West Africa; and the Swahili coastal trading towns of East Africa.

By the ninth century a string of dynastic states, including the earliest Hausa states, stretched across the sub-Saharan savanna from the western regions to central Sudan. The most powerful of these states were Ghana, Gao, and the Kanem-Bornu Empire. Ghana declined in the 11th century and was succeeded by the Mali Empire, which consolidated much of western Sudan in the 13th century. Kanem accepted Islam in the 11th century.

In the forested regions of the West African coast, independent kingdoms such as the Nri Kingdom of the Igbo grew up with little influence from the Muslim north. The Ife, historically the first of the Yoruba city-states or kingdoms, established government under a priestly oba (“king”).

The Almoravids were a Berber dynasty from the Sahara that spread over a wide area of northwestern Africa and the Iberian peninsula during the 11th century. The Banu Hilal and Banu Ma’qil were a collection of Arab Bedouin tribes from the Arabian Peninsula who migrated westwards via Egypt between the 11th and 13th centuries. Following the breakup of Mali, the Songhai Empire was founded in middle Niger and the western Sudan. Its leader Sonni Ali and his successor Askia Mohammad I (1493–1528) made Islam the official religion, built mosques , and brought scholars to Gao Muslim.

Slavery had long been practiced in Africa. Between the seventh and 20th centuries, the Arab slave trade took 18 million slaves via the Trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean routes. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the Atlantic slave trade took an estimated seven to 12 million slaves to the New World .


Ancient African Kingdoms and Empires: This map depicts a sample of the diverse cultures, kingdoms, and empires of pre-colonial Africa.

Art of Ancient Africa

The art of ancient Africa is characterized by surviving sculptures, rock art, and architectural ruins.

Learning Objectives

Provide an overview of sculpture, architecture, and rock art produced by cultures of ancient Africa

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Africa is home to a rich history and diverse visual art. However, because most ancient art consisted of perishable materials, few works survive.
  • Human and animal forms are common in ancient African art, appearing in rock art imagery and sculptures in the round. Some cultures influenced the art of Europeans with whom they had contact.
  • While abstraction and stylization dominated the art of ancient Africa, some cultures produced strikingly naturalistic depictions of human heads, snail shells, and other organic forms.
  • Ancient architecture tended to be load-bearing and constructed from a variety of durable and perishable materials.
  • A rare surviving example of two-dimensional art, rock art provides a glimpse into a northern Africa that was a grassland as opposed to its modern desert.

Key Terms

  • votive: Dedicated or given in fulfillment of a vow or pledge.

African art constitutes one of the most diverse legacies on earth. Though many casual observers tend to generalize “traditional” African art, the continent consists of a breadth of people, societies, and civilizations , each with a unique visual culture. As the birthplace of the human species, Africa is the home of some of the oldest existing art forms. But because most were produced from wood and other highly perishable materials, few artworks produced before the 19th century survive. Examples include terra cotta sculptures, rock carvings, and architectural ruins.

The art of ancient African was just as diverse as its cultures, languages, and political structures. Most cultures preferred abstract and stylized forms of humans, plants, and animals, but they had a range of distinct approaches and techniques. Some cultures preferred more naturalistic depictions of human faces and other organic forms.

The Nubian Kingdom of Kush in modern Sudan was in close and often hostile contact with Egypt, and produced monumental sculpture mostly derivative of styles that did not spread to the north. In West Africa, the earliest known sculptures are from the Nok culture, which thrived between 500 BCE and 500 CE in modern Nigeria. These clay figures typically had elongated bodies and angular shapes.

A clay figure of a rider on a horse, both with elongated faces.

Nok Rider and Horse, 53 cm tall (1,400 to 2,000 years ago): The Nok culture appeared in Nigeria around 1000 BCE and vanished under unknown circumstances around 500 CE in the region of West Africa, in modern Northern and Central Nigeria. Scholars think its social system was highly advanced. The Nok culture was the earliest sub-Saharan producer of life-sized terra cotta.

Human and Animal Forms

The human figure has always been a primary subject of African art, and this emphasis even influenced certain European traditions. For example, in the 15th century, Portugal traded with the Sapi culture near Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa, whose residents created elaborate ivory saltcellars that were hybrids of African and European designs. This was most notable in the addition of the human figure, which typically did not appear in Portuguese saltcellars. European subjects can be distinguished by their clothing and hairstyles. The human figure might symbolize the living or the dead. Possible subjects include chiefs, dancers, drummers, or hunters. They might be anthropomorphic representations of gods or ancestors or even have votive functions.


Saltcellar, 16th Century: Saltcellar by an Edo or Yoruba artist representing a Portuguese man decorated with horses among geometric patterns.

Even before contact with the Europeans, some African cultures opted for naturalistic depictions over the dominant preference for abstraction and stylization. This can be seen in the Yoruba portrait bronzes of Ile-Ife, which include indented and incised details that might represent ritual scarification .

A realistic bronze sculpture of a face.

Yoruba head: Bronze. Ile-Ife. Twelfth century.

The bronzes of Igbo-Ukwu pay special attention to detail depicting birds, snails, chameleons, and other natural aspects of the world. The objects are so fine that small insects were included on some surfaces. Each bronzes was produced in one piece.

A conch-shaped bronze vessel with elaborate, intricate designs.

Ceremonial vessel: Bronze. Igbo-Ukwu. Ninth century.

Architecture and Saharan Rock Art

Architectural ruins in locations such as Mali and Zimbabwe demonstrate the popularity of load-bearing architecture in such diverse materials as adobe and stone. In areas like Mali and Igbo-Ukwu, buildings constructed from perishable materials continue to be built or rebuilt in traditional styles that provide a window into the past.

Painted and incised scenes on caves, boulders, and other rock formations in the Sahara provide a glimpse of life in this now-desert region when it was a grassland with ample water supplies over 10,000 years ago. Imagery includes scenes such as farming, hunting, and swimming.

Rock Art in the Sahara

Ancient rock art in the Sahara provides a window into the art and culture of the prehistoric peoples of Africa.

Learning Objectives

Define rock art and locate examples such as the Cave of Swimmers, Tassili n’Ajjer, and Jebel Uweinat.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Sahara, located in northern Africa, was the home of many complex human settlements dating from the Neolithic period.
  • Images carved and painted on natural rocks depict vibrant and vivid scenes from the Neolithic period, such as animals, hunting, and dancing.
  • Among the most famous sites are the Cave of Swimmers in Libya, Tassili n’Ajjer in Algeria, and Jebel Uweinat near the border of Libya, Egypt, and Sudan.

Key Terms

  • pictograph: A painting or drawing on a rock face, typically made with mineral earths and other natural compounds.
  • pastoralist: A person involved in raising livestock.
  • petroglyph: An engraving or carving into a rock face, usually created with a hammerstone, chisel, or fine metal blade.

Ancient rock and cave art can be found throughout the Sahara desert, providing a significant window into the art and culture of the prehistoric peoples of Africa. The Sahara, located in northern Africa, was the home of many complex human settlements dating from the Neolithic period. The region has a long history of climate change, and the desert area of today was once a savanna. Images carved and painted on natural rocks depict vibrant and vivid scenes from the Neolithic Subpluvial period. Most Saharan rock art dates to a period that climatologists call the Neolithic Subpluvial period. This was the most recent of a number of periods known as “Wet Sahara” or “Green Sahara,” during which the region was much less arid and supported a richer biota and human population than the modern desert.

Wall art depicting various grassland animals, including giraffes.

Petroglyph at Balho, Djibouti: Djibouti lies on the eastern edge of the Sahara desert, which has not supported foliage-dependent animals such as giraffes for approximately 10,000 years. This image informs us that the Sahara was once a grassland that contains plant life similar to that of modern sub-Saharan Africa.

Most rock art depicts hunting scenes, but others include animals, dancing, and people involved in everyday life. With the help of these pictographs and petroglyphs , archaeologists and scientists can piece together information about the complex societies that once inhabited the region.

The Cave of the Swimmers

The Cave of Swimmers is among the most famous examples of rock art in the Sahara. Located in the mountainous Gilf Kebir plateau of the Libyan Desert, the cave and its art were discovered in 1933 by the Hungarian explorer László Almásy. It contains Neolithic pictographs of people swimming estimated to have been created between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, when wet climatic conditions maintained bodies of water deep enough for swimming and diving.


Cave of the Swimmers, Egypt: Painting of men swimming in the Cave of the Swimmers, Wadi Sura, Gilf Kebir, Western Desert, Egypt.

Tassili n’Ajjer

Tassili n’Ajjer is a mountain range in the Algerian section of the Sahara Desert, noted for its prehistoric rock art depicting herds of cattle, large wild animals such as antelopes, and human activities such as hunting and dancing. The art has strong stylistic links to the pre-Nguni Art of South Africa, executed in caves by the San Peoples before the year 1200 BCE. First discovered in 1933, more than 15,000 petroglyphs have been identified at Tassili n’Ajjer.


Sleeping antelope: Petroglyph depicting a sleeping antelope, located at Tin Taghirt on the Tassili n’Ajjer in southern Algeria.


Hunters or pastoralists: Neolithic cave painting of either hunters or pastoralists during the Neolithic Subpluvial period. Tassil n’Ajjer (Plateau of the Chasms).

Jebel Uweinat

Jebel Uweinat is a large mountain made of granite and sandstone located at the borders of Libya, Egypt, and Sudan. It harbors one of the richest concentrations of prehistoric rock art in the entire Sahara, mainly of the Neolithic cattle pastoralist cultures, but also a number of older paintings from hunter-gatherer societies.

Other important regions of rock art include Tadrart Acacus, Libya; South Oran, Algeria; Tibesti, Chad; Mesak Settafet, Libya; Djelfa, Algeria; Ahaggar, Algeria; Draa River, Morocco; Figuig, Morocco; the Aïr Mountains, Niger, and throughout Mauritania. One petroglyph in Mauritania depicts pastoralists on horseback as they tend their livestock.


Livestock petroglyph: Mauritanian Petroglyph of bovine animals and abstract people on horseback.