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World History Volume 1, to 1500

9.1 Africa’s Geography and Climate

World History Volume 1, to 15009.1 Africa’s Geography and Climate

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the way geography and climate shaped Africa’s ancient societies
  • Discuss the various Neolithic and hunter-gatherer societies in early Africa

Geography played a vital part in shaping early human societies. Landscape, climate, wildlife, vegetation, and the availability of natural resources all helped influence what early societies looked like, whether they were nomadic units that kept animals and survived by hunting and foraging or settled communities that grew crops, tended herds or flocks, and built shelters. Such characteristics depended on factors like weather patterns and soil fertility, as well as the proximity of drinking water and toolmaking resources.

Well-watered regions in Africa, such as the grassy plains of the savannas and the northern and southern fringes of the continent, have historically produced environments that foster settled human communities. Here abundant rain, adequate forestation, and a host of wildlife provided conditions that could support ever-growing populations over long periods of time. More arid regions, such as the narrow transitional belts separating the savannas from Africa’s deserts, experience less rain and have less fertile soil, producing land that cannot be successfully farmed. These areas lent themselves to nomadism and the herding of grazing animals to provide many of the necessities of life, from milk and meat for food to leather and fur for clothing and bones for toolmaking. Throughout most of human history, geography has been an important factor in human development. As a result, exploring Africa’s diverse geography opens a window into the development of the earliest human civilization on the continent.

Geographic Diversity on the African Continent

Owing to its position across the equatorial and subtropical latitudes of both the northern and southern hemispheres, Africa is home to a range of climates, including searing deserts, frozen glaciers, sweltering rainforests, and lush grasslands. These divergent environments exist because most of the continent lies between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, in the tropical climate zone. Only its northernmost and southernmost fringes are beyond the tropical area.

Across the center of Africa, stretching like a band from Guinea in the northwest to parts of Mozambique in the southeast, lies a swath of wet, tropical land subject to extremely heavy rainfall. Here we find the deep canopy and undergrowth of Africa’s equatorial rainforest (Figure 9.4). Centered on the Congo River Basin, the rainforest is densest in the present-day central state of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here there is very little space between trees, resulting in thick layers of leaf covering that prevent much sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Approximately 386,000 square miles in extent, the Congo rainforest is the second largest in the world. Overall, it receives between sixty-three and seventy-eight inches of rain every year.

A map of Africa is shown. The Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn are labeled. Five different biomes are represented in varying degrees of colors: 1. Tropical/Subtropical Biomes which show Flooded Grasslands and Savannas in light yellow (small areas in several locations all around Africa), Coniferous Forests in green (none on this map), Dry Broadleaf Forests in dark green (located mostly on the northwestern coast of Madagascar and in a small inland location in southern Africa), Grasslands, Savannas, and Shrublands in light green (located throughout most of the middle third of Africa), and Moist Broadleaf Forests in dark green (located on the eastern half of Madagascar, in a thin slice along the eastern coast of Africa, and running in a horizontal section in the middle of Africa). 2. Temperate Biomes which show Broadleaf and Mixed Forests in mustard yellow (none on this map), Coniferous Forests in brown (none on this map), and Grasslands, Savannas, and Shrublands in dark brown (none on this map). 3. Dry Biomes show Deserts and Xeric Shrublands in light orange (located in the north and south and in some small areas in between as well as in the south of Madagascar) and Mediterranean Forests, Woodlands, and Scrub in dark orange (located at the northern and southern tips of the continent). 4. Polar/Montane Biomes which show Boreal Forests/Taigas in denim blue (none on this map), Montane Grasslands and Shrublands in blue (located in the south as well as in the east and in small areas throughout the continent), Rock and Ice in dark blue (none on this map) and Tundra in light blue (located in patches on the eastern side of the continent). 5. Aquatic Biomes which show Lakes in seafoam green (located in the a few spots in the western part of Africa) and Mangroves in pink (shown in small areas along the coasts of the continent and Madagascar).
Figure 9.4 A Diverse Continent. Africa has historically been home to a diverse range of climates and geographies, ranging from savannas and deserts to tropical rainforests and temperate zones. Notice that the bands of climate patterns above the equator are a near-mirror image of those below it. (credit: modification of work “Africa: Biomes” by SEDACMaps/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The Congo River, which forms the heart of the rainforest region, is the second-longest river in Africa; only the Nile is longer. The geographic differences between the environments of these rivers produced vastly different societies. The Nile River and its predictable flood patterns allowed Egyptian civilization to flourish for centuries. Large cities and grand architecture were features of the region due to readily available and plentiful food supplies, and hieroglyphs remained that left a clear and permanent record of key moments of its history. The Congo, however, flows through a tropical region, where dense forests created a very different kind of society, and the moist environment did not allow for recorded history but rather oral stories passed down through generations. Thus, while both regions had a human past, we know far more about one than we do about the other.

Africa’s tropical band is further divided into the monsoon area and the tropical savanna. Wetter than temperate savannas, tropical savannas are characterized by tall grasses, sparse trees, and greater rainfall and are found bordering the equator. The monsoon area is subject to seasonal wind changes that produce wetter and drier periods in isolated locations of the West African coast and the Central African interior. In the tropical savanna, on the other hand, rainfall diminishes considerably, and the dense stands of thickly layered trees that characterize the rainforest give way to forested pockets and lush grasslands.

The savanna is a grassy plain that constitutes another of Africa’s immense biomes. A biome is a community of vegetation and wildlife adapted to a particular climate. At around five million square miles in size, the savanna covers almost half the surface of the continent and has been home to more people and history than any other part of Africa. Stretching from the warm and humid reaches of the rainforest to the torrid zone of the Sahara, it is wetter than the desert but drier than the rainforest and presents a striking geographic contrast to the landscapes of the desert and rainforest. Unlike those areas, the savanna landscape encompasses snow-capped mountains, vast expanses of grassy plains dotted with trees, and marshy tropical areas.

Geographers consider the savanna a region of transitions, with three successive belts running east–west: the Sahel, the tropical grassland savanna, and the woodland savanna. The Sahel, the northernmost band, is a semiarid belt between the Sahara and the grassland savannas to the south (Figure 9.5). It is the driest part of the savanna and experiences rain only periodically during six months of the year.

A picture of short green trees with flat tops are shown along a dry, brown, sandy terrain littered with dry yellow grasses and sparse shrubs. Small puddles of water are in the forefront and a blue, cloudless sky shows in the background.
Figure 9.5 The African Sahel. This photograph shows acacia trees that grow on the road to Timbuktu in the African Sahel, between the Sahara and the grasslands. (credit: modification of work “The road to Timbuktu in the Sahel, Mali” by Annabel Symington/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

The people of the Sahel have historically been seminomadic—that is, they have adopted a mixed-farming system of crop production and the breeding and raising of livestock. Although the soil of the Sahel lacks sufficient nutrients to grow forests of trees, it is rich in the kind of nutrients that support the growth of plants in gardens as well as those that allow for small-scale farming and foster the growth of abundant grasses for the grazing of larger animals, particularly cattle and sheep. These herding animals also provide a key ingredient to help African farmers grow crops: manure. With the use of manure and the process of composting, the people of the region successfully navigate the challenges posed by their environment. Its conditions have tended to produce limited agriculture and smaller homesteads that are spaced farther apart to accommodate livestock. Many people of the region continue to live a seminomadic lifestyle rooted in animal husbandry. They do not cling to the past, a recurring myth about Africa; rather, their lifestyle is still the best way to harness what their climate provides.

The Sahel gradually gives way in the south to a grassland savanna carpeted by short grasses and studded by scattered trees. At the extreme, this area can see as much as forty-eight inches of rain per year (the rainy season lasts from May to October). The most famous of all Africa’s tropical savannas is the Serengeti. Located in northern Tanzania, the Serengeti is a tremendously diverse ecosystem that witnesses some of the world’s largest mass migrations of animals. In January each year, for example, nearly 1.75 million wildebeests begin migrating out of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area at the southern extreme of the Serengeti, following the rainfall in search of food (Figure 9.6).

An aerial picture of a large expanse of grass is shown with mountains in the background. In the bottom two thirds of the picture are thousands of animals making their way across the green and yellow grasses toward the left in an arc. They are brownish and have a white backside.
Figure 9.6 Migrating Wildebeests. Every year between January and November, nearly two million wildebeests migrate in a great circular sweep across the Serengeti, arcing from northern Tanzania through southern Kenya and returning to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area nearly eleven months later. (credit: “Wildebeest Migration in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania” by Daniel Rosengren/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)

Moving clockwise in a northerly direction toward the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya, along the way these wildebeests encounter hundreds of thousands of other animals, including zebras and gazelles, that preceded them on their migration. They confront many obstacles and dangers on their trek, including rivers that hide dangerous hippopotamuses and crocodiles, not to mention numerous predators they face on land. When they finally arrive in Kenya, the female wildebeests birth around half a million calves. Their migration comes to an end in early November, after months spent grazing in the savanna grasslands of the Masai Mara Reserve. The herds then migrate south on their return trip to northern Tanzania from Kenya.

The woodland savanna is the last of the belts separating the great northern desert from the equatorial rainforest. It is characterized by tall grasses occasionally interrupted by scattered trees, and corridors of gallery forests along streams and rivers. The area receives plentiful rainfall, usually nine months of the year, and farmers in the region cultivate palm oil trees and root crops such as yams.

As distance from Africa’s tropical zone increases, so too does the unpredictability of the rainfall. Progressively, to the north and south of this region, the bands of tropical and temperate climate give way to increasingly drier environments. Limits on resource availability in the more arid parts of Africa, as elsewhere in the world, have necessarily restricted the growth and expansion of civilizations. Regions that lack accessible supplies of water in the form of underground aquifers or wells, rivers, or lakes or that receive little rainfall are ill-suited to farming. Because only farming can support larger human population centers, the lack of accessible water is a barrier to human settlement. This helps explain why no large civilizations emerged in the more obviously arid parts of Africa, such as the Sahara and the Kalahari Desert and also why certain of the drier transitional zones between savanna and desert remain so thinly populated.

The Sahel transitions to desert in the extreme north of the savanna belt. Deserts are the sunniest and driest parts of the continent. Africa’s largest desert—in fact, the world’s—is the Sahara. At 3.6 million square miles, about the size of the United States, the Sahara covers much of North Africa (excluding the fertile coastal zones along the Mediterranean and the Nile delta) and stretches from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The Sahara has not always been a vast desert, however. In the period following the last Ice Age, this was a lush region that experienced monsoon-like weather conditions and was home to pastoralists and large herds of cattle. In fact, the earliest evidence we have of the domestication of cattle was discovered on Saharan rock art. But between 6000 and 2500 BCE, the region witnessed a great drying, which resulted in the retreat of the rainforest and the expansion of desert zones. These changes prompted crises for the human inhabitants of the formerly tropical zones, who found their old hunting and gathering techniques no longer suitable in the changed environment.

This desertification is what produced the modern Sahara, which receives less than an inch of precipitation per year with variations of some regions experiencing up to four inches per year, while other places go decades with no rain(Figure 9.7). The average daytime high is 99°F, and average nighttime lows are as cool as 68°F, but highs can reach up to 120°F during the warmer months from April to June, and lows can dip below 37°F in the cooler period between December and January. The only plants that can survive in this hostile environment rely on the water that collects in dry riverbeds during the exceptional periods of rain, but they are few.

A picture of a sandy terrain made up of small hills and sparse, small green bushes is shown on a clear blue background.
Figure 9.7 The Sahara Desert. Aside from its rare oases, the Sahara is one of the most inhospitable places on earth, with sparse rainfall and extreme temperature swings from day to evening. (credit: modification of work “Sahara” by “Not So Dusty”/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Among the Sahara’s thousand-foot-tall sand dunes, hard stony surfaces, and vast mountain ranges with peaks as high as eleven thousand feet are oases, green dots of civilization formed around underground water sources that reach the surface via wells or springs. Although together these oases take up only eight hundred square miles—about 0.02 percent of the desert’s total landmass—they are home to some three-quarters of the people living in the desert. The remainder of the population are nomads, including the Tuareg and Teda. These peoples engage in a range of economic activities, such as farming and herding, but on a severely restricted basis. Pasturage, for example, exists only in marginal areas such as mountain borders and the somewhat moister areas to the west, limitations that govern the herders’ nomadic lifestyle.

As famous as it is, the Sahara is not Africa’s only desert; there is also a desert region in the African Horn (the area corresponding to Somalia, Ethiopia, and northern Kenya), as well as the Namib and the Kalahari Desert, Africa’s great southwestern desert (Figure 9.8). The Kalahari Desert presents perhaps the most interesting contrast to the extremes of the Sahara.

Two maps are shown – the map in the background shows the world with gray continents and white water. A black square encases southern Africa and western Madagascar. The second map enlarges the area of Africa from the black square. The Kalahari Desert is shown as a brown oval in the southwest inland part of Africa and the Kalahari Basin is shown by a beige brown area circling the Desert. The Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean are labeled to the west and southeast respectively.
Figure 9.8 The Kalahari Desert. The Kalahari in southwest Africa is the second largest of Africa’s deserts. (credit: modification of work “Kalahari Desert and Kalahari Basin map” by “Quadell”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Kalahari is a semiarid sandy savanna some 350,000 square miles across. Occasionally referred to as the southern African equivalent of the Sahel, it stretches south from modern-day Namibia into South Africa’s Northern Cape province, extends deep into the interior of the South African veld or grassland, and covers almost the whole of Botswana. While Saharan sand dunes are typically large, in the Kalahari they are much smaller, ranging between twenty and two hundred feet high and measuring at least one mile in length and several hundred feet in width. The landscape is also distinguished by numerous “dry lakes” or pans, evidence of a wetter period earlier in the region’s history. Even today, some of the northeastern parts of the Kalahari receive more than ten inches of water per year and thus climatically do not qualify as “desert.” However, they do lack surface water. When they experience rain, it drains instantly through the deep sands, leaving the soil completely devoid of moisture.

Precipitation in the Kalahari depends largely on weather patterns influenced by the Indian Ocean and is highly variable. While the northeastern part receives comparatively abundant rainfall, the southern fringe of the desert sees less than five inches of rain per year. This rainfall accompanies severe thunderstorms, which often appear suddenly and produce violent downpours that deluge the landscape. Still, for six to eight months of the year, the region receives no rainfall. As a result, there is very little ecologically to distinguish the southwestern landscape beyond flat sand plains—aside from a few drought-resistant shrubs and bushes. On the other hand, the central Kalahari, which enjoys more rain, is dotted with scattered trees, shrubs, and grasses. At the extreme end, the northern reaches of the Kalahari appear to be an entirely different biome with woodlands, palm trees, and forests.

The final major climate in Africa is the Mediterranean climate, found only on the northernmost and southernmost fringes of the continent in the coastal regions of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in the north, and in South Africa. The combination of dry summers with lower humidity (relative to the tropical band) and mild rainy winters makes them ideal environments for the growing of olive trees, cereal grains, and grapes—the so-called Mediterranean triad of crops that dot the landscapes of both regions. The temperatures there are pleasant, with average daily highs of 77°F and average nightly lows hovering around 60°F.

Africa also offers regional climates, each with its own local variations. East Africa, for example, straddles the equator and includes Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Along the coast and around Lake Victoria, hot and humid conditions prevail, but there are much cooler climates in the highlands and mountains (Figure 9.9). Many areas of the region experience extreme amounts of rainfall. Coastal islands and the tropical area around Lake Victoria, for example, receive upward of fifty-nine inches of rain per year. To the north, the Ethiopian highlands form a drier climate region, thanks to the influence of the eastern desert. Locally, Africa’s diverse microclimates belie the continent’s broad regional climate patterns and suggest the impressive variety of ecosystems that span it—and to which people have adapted over the millennia.

A map of a blue area labeled “Lake Victoria” is shown surrounded by land. Lines of longitude and latitude can be seen. Red lines are drawn connecting cities and some areas are highlighted green in the north and southwest. Some major cities are labeled, including Kampala, Entebbe, and Jinja in the north, Kisumu in the northeast, and Mwanza in the south. Lines between the countries are drawn with long and short dashed lines and highlighted red.
Figure 9.9 Lake Victoria. Hot and humid Lake Victoria, home to one of Africa’s regional climates, is centrally located in East Africa and bordered by Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. (credit: modification of work “Lake Victoria 1968” by U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

A staggering variety of wildlife has also adapted to these climates. Because of the abundance there of grasses as sources of food, Africa’s savannas are home to a range of large grazing mammals including gazelles, wildebeests, elephants, ostriches, and zebras. Large herds of these animals are commonly seen in the savanna, none more spectacular than the wildebeests on their annual migration in East Africa. Although giraffes, elephants, hippopotamuses, and rhinoceroses can be found in many places on the continent, including modern-day Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia in the interior of south-central Africa and East Africa, one of the greatest concentrations of these animals on the continent is found in the sub-Saharan savanna.

Types of Ancient African Societies

The variety of African climates directly influenced the evolution of human societies there. People adapted to these climates in many ways, developing techniques and technologies that both helped them survive and altered their surroundings. Understanding the connection between climate, geography, and humans opens the way to understanding Africa’s early history.

Before the domestication of plants and animals, life in prehistoric Africa was characterized by the hunter-gatherer stage of human civilization. Hunter-gatherers survive by hunting prey and foraging for fruits and vegetables, or by exchanging game for crops grown by others. In some regions, such as Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa and Botswana in southern Africa, hunter-gatherers followed the seasonal migrations of large game animals, such as wildebeests and elephants. Hunter-gatherers do not plant crops or build permanent shelters but rather live nomadic lifestyles guided by the seasons, limited resource availability, conflict with other groups, or a combination of these factors. They must be highly mobile so their communities tend to be small, consisting of only several dozen interrelated people. Their mobility means that they often play an important role in connecting different regions and cultures and in transmitting goods and ideas across great distances.

Hunting and gathering peoples of Africa have historically included the rainforest-dwelling Baka of Central Africa and the San people of the Kalahari Desert. The Baka, found today in Cameroon, Gabon, and northern Congo, eat wild roots, nuts, fruits, vegetables, a variety of insect species, fish, and wild game they hunt using bows, poison-tipped arrows, and traps (Figure 9.10). Baka villages are made up of small single-family huts of branches and leaves, built predominantly by women and usually dismantled after about a week so the Baka can follow the available food supply. Baka society has a well-defined structure. In addition to building the family hut, women also dam small streams to catch fish and carry material gathered while foraging with their husbands. Men hold a higher social status derived from the fact that they engage in the more hazardous task of hunting and trapping animals.

A sepia-colored picture of eight unsmiling people are shown standing in a line on dry ground. They are barefoot, dark skinned, and bare chested with short hair. They all wear rough cloth tied around their waist that goes down to their knees. Some of the cloths have frayed edges and some have ruffles. The last man wears a dark cloth that hangs down to his ankles. The first person wears a square cloth on their head, the second person wears a very dark feathery round object at the front of their head. The seventh person wears a round spray of dark and light feathers on the back of their head and the last man wears a dark bowler hat. In the background there are straw huts, a wooden fence, and trees.
Figure 9.10 The Baka People of Central Africa. Peoples such as the Baka have historically dwelled in the rainforest regions of Gabon, Cameroon, and northern Congo. This photo of Baka people was taken in 1904. (credit: modification of work “Group of Pygmies from the Department of Anthropology at the 1904 World's Fair) by Missouri History Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Like that of many other African peoples, the Baka religion was and remains centered on a belief in animism—that is, it teaches that certain objects, places, and creatures have spirits. Those who can interpret what those spirits desire have positions of leadership. Animism is also polytheistic, meaning it has numerous gods, each of whom typically personifies a natural force such as rain, wind, or lightning. Given the impact of weather on survival, it is not surprising that trying to control the natural environment was a key factor in religious observance. Among the gods of the Baka are Kamba, the creator of all things, and Jengi, the spirit of the forest. The Baka live in and rely on the forest for their survival, so they view Jengi as a parental figure and, perhaps most importantly, the protector of the forest.

Although ancient African religions were remarkably complex, and their rituals, practices, and beliefs varied greatly among the continent’s diverse populations, some commonalities can be identified in the pre-Judaic, pre-Christian, and pre-Islamic periods, including polytheism. Another typical feature of the pantheon of traditional African deities is a supreme being, like the Ngai of the Kikuyu, held to be the creator god from whom the universe originated. The supreme being was a distant deity who played no role in the ordinary affairs of Africans. Instead, management of the day-to-day fell to specialized secondary deities, such as Obatala, the Yoruba god of earth, and Makasa, the Baganda god of harvest and fertility. Other shared features of many ancient African religions include the worship of ancestors as protectors and guides and ceremonial practices to mark important life events, such as the Bantu Okuyi, a rite of passage celebrating the transition between youth and adolescence.

The San people of southwest Africa were and remain seminomadic hunter-gatherers and are polytheistic (Figure 9.11). Their diet is dictated by the arid conditions in which they live. Lack of water in the Kalahari Desert means there are fewer vegetables and fruits to forage, although seasonal nuts, plant buds, and certain roots are food staples. The San also hunt a variety of big game animals, including giraffe and antelope species such as kudu and hartebeest, using poison-tipped arrows and traps. They do not build permanent homes. Rather, their shelter types vary by season: they erect nightly rain shelters in the spring, when they move constantly in search of budding greens, and in the dry season, when water is scarce and most plants are dead or dormant, they congregate around the only permanent water holes in the area.

A photo of eight dark skinned people (three men, three women, and two small children) of varying ages are shown siting and squatting on sandy ground in a line amid green leafed trees and grass. The men are naked from the waist up and wear loincloths, the two babies wear beads around their waists while the women wear cloths on one shoulder. Two people wear cloths on their heads. One man drinks form a white jug while everyone else looks and smiles at him.
Figure 9.11 The San. A San family in present-day South Africa. (credit: “Bushman family” by Aino Tuominen/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

The hunt is a key part of San society, and all the San gods have jobs related to it. The supreme deity Cagn ensures a successful hunt, often by protecting the San hunters from animals or people who could endanger the hunt. Hei-tusi the hero god assists Cagn in leading and protecting the hunt. To these are added a host of lesser spirits, including predators and tricksters.

The most important of the San religious rituals depends on the hunt. The curing or great trance dance is initiated by a San shaman through the hunting of a “power animal” such as an antelope, whose fat is believed to have supernatural potency and is used in different ritualistic settings, including rites of passage. The shaman enters a trance-like state after a night-long dance around a fire surrounded by clapping women. The San believe the trance dancers can be affected physiologically and mystically by the ritual, giving them powers to heal or provoking in them an out-of-body experience. The dance, often depicted on ancient San rock art, is the key source of all spiritual knowledge for the San and is often prompted at times of great social stress such as during times of settler incursion, outbreaks of disease or illness, and poverty.

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