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9.1 Africa’s Geography and Climate

Geography played a critical role in the development of early human civilization in Africa. Climate conditions such as temperatures and rainfall dictated agricultural growing seasons, and soil fertility governed what crops—if any—could be grown in a particular area, as well as the availability of fodder for grazing animals. In particular, the availability of water dictated the likelihood of fixed settlement. A wide range of peoples populated Africa’s diverse geography, from the desert-dwelling San to the Baka people of the rainforest. All developed lifestyles and cultures that were not only suited to their geography but were also greatly influenced by it.

9.2 The Emergence of Farming and the Bantu Migrations

The earliest evidence of plant domestication in Africa has been uncovered in three different areas: Egypt, the eastern Sahara, and West Africa. In Egypt, agricultural technologies were introduced from southwest Asia, where the Neolithic Revolution first occurred. From there, wheat and barley agriculture spread across North Africa over thousands of years. In the other two locations, plant domestication appears to have emerged independently. In these locations, early Neolithic societies grew crops of sorghum, yams, watermelons, and African rice. In Central and West Africa, the farming of these crops was aided greatly by iron technology.

Once believe to have been introduced to Africa through Egypt, scholars now generally agree that iron smelting was developed independently in Central Africa. Iron tools allowed sub-Saharan African farmers to more efficiently clear forested areas to establish farms. By at least 500 BCE, Bantu-speaking peoples migrating across Africa were using iron tools to aid them in their gradual expansion.

The Bantu speakers likely originated in West and Central Africa and began spreading east and south as early as 3000 BCE. Their migrations were gradual, protracted, and took a few different routes. As they spread, they established farms, introduced others to agricultural practices, and dramatically transformed the linguistic makeup of much of subequatorial Africa.

9.3 The Kingdom of Kush

Long the center of prehistoric African civilization, the region of Nubia, between Aswan in southern Egypt and the confluence of the Blue and White Nile Rivers in northern Sudan, flourished thanks to its links with Nile-based trade and its well-watered hinterland. Beginning with the city-state of Kerma in the early second millennium BCE, the Nubian people of Kush steadily absorbed Egyptian culture, including its language, religious practices, and architecture. During periods of Egyptian weakness, such as during the Second Intermediate Period, the Kingdom of Kush was able to achieve political independence. Similarly, during periods of great Egyptian regional strength, Kush was again subjugated by Egypt. Incredibly, in the eighth century BCE, the Kushite king Piye turned the tables on Egypt and placed himself on the Egyptian throne.

Once Egypt was conquered by Assyria in seventh century BCE, the Kingdom of Kush retreated to Meroe far to the south of Egypt. There they built up a kingdom known for its iron production and trade goods. For many centuries, the kingdom blended its many Egyptian cultural practices with Nubian traditions to develop its own distinctive styles and even writing system. After confronting Rome in Egypt in the first century BCE, it settled into a centuries-long trading relationship with the imperial Roman province of Egypt until it finally declined and died out sometime in the fourth century CE.

9.4 North Africa’s Mediterranean and Trans-Saharan Connections

From the earliest Phoenician forays across the sea in the first millennium BCE, North Africa played an increasingly prominent role in the trade-based economies of the Mediterranean and the polities that surrounded it. It was the source of rare and valuable commodities such as salt, gold, and ivory, transported from the African interior across the Sahara by Indigenous nomadic peoples and long sought after by Egyptians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, and Arabs, each in their turn. Many parts of the Mediterranean coastline of North Africa were also renowned for their fertility, particularly the Maghrebi region immediately surrounding Carthage and the Egyptian Nile delta, whose bountiful lands constituted the “breadbasket” of Rome.

Egypt’s stability was thus critically important. When Cleopatra of Egypt began influencing Roman officials, including Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, to the benefit of her kingdom, Rome responded with force, and Egypt came under Roman rule. Three hundred years later, the Romans’ introduction of the camel to North Africa enlarged the practical scope of truly trans-Saharan trade from the far south of the great desert to the Mediterranean coast.

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