Archaeology and Prehistory

Africa’s archaeological heritage is both ancient and rich. Several million years ago, the first ancestors of humans emerged in Africa. About 100,000 years ago, the first modern people appeared there as well. Since that time, a pageant has unfolded across the continent’s vast and varied landscapes. Multitudes of cultures have emerged, peoples have migrated, empires have risen and fallen, and Africans have interacted with traders and invaders from other parts of the world.

Because many African cultures did not use written language until the last century or two, historical records of Africa’s past are rare. However, bricks and stones, broken pots and buried beads, and graves and bones may speak as clearly as words on a page to archaeologists, paleontologists, and others trained to interpret them. Archaeology, the study of the physical traces left by people of the past, is the major source of information about how Africans have lived at various times in the course of their long history.

The work of archaeologists is not limited to studying grand and wellknown sites such as the PYRAMIDS of ancient EGYPT. As they discover prehistoric wall paintings in caves in the SAHARA DESERT, excavate ancient royal cities in western Africa, and unearth tools from centuries-old villages in central Africa, archaeologists are painting an increasingly complex and vivid picture of Africa’s past.

INTRODUCTION TO AFRICAN ARCHAEOLOGY

African archaeology is as diverse as the continent’s cultures and geographical regions. The objects it studies range from the simple stone tools used by ancient human ancestors to the ruins of great civilizations. African archaeology not only reveals something of the continent’s most distant past, it also provides a background for understanding the traditions and roots of the many ethnic groups that live in Africa today.

Changing Views of the African Past

Ideas about the African past have changed since the mid-1900s. Before that time, Africa was sometimes called a “continent without a past.” People outside Africa associated ancient Egypt with other great civilizations of the ancient world. They regarded North Africa and modern Egypt, which had been colonized and influenced by Arabs after the rise of the Islamic religion, as part of the Arab world. Most of the rest of Africa—sub-Saharan black Africa—lacked written history, which led some people to think that it lacked archaeological history as well.

Politics and racism also shaped the attitudes of outsiders toward African archaeology. Europeans based much of the political and social structure of their colonies in Africa on the notion that black Africans were inferior to white people and “uncivilized.” The controversy over the ruins of Great Zimbabwe shows how these attitudes affected African archaeology.

Great Zimbabwe is a collection of impressive stone ruins in the southern African country of Zimbabwe (formerly the British colony of Rhodesia). Some white archaeologists thought that Africans had built Great Zimbabwe. Many others, however, argued that the site’s builders had been ancient voyagers from the Mediterranean region, Arabia, or even China—in their view, peoples from more highly developed civilizations than Africa. Since 1950 archaeologists using new scientific methods have shown beyond a doubt that the ancestors of the SHONA and other African groups built Great Zimbabwe and other stone structures as political and religious centers.

Archaeology is continually expanding Africans’ knowledge of their history. Pointing out that archaeology had revealed unknown civilizations and cultures, Mali’s national director of arts and culture urged sub-
Saharan African nations to “make more use of archaeology to find the truth about their past.” They must also take steps, he said, to protect Africa’s archaeological heritage from destruction or misuse.

History and Prehistory

Archaeology can be divided into two basic categories. Historic archaeology deals with periods that have written records, produced either by local people or by outsiders. Prehistoric archaeology studies cultures or periods without written records.

Written history merely brushes the fringes of Africa’s past. Although Egypt developed written language before 2000 B.C., ancient Egyptians recorded little about Africa outside the Nile Valley. A few ancient Greek and Roman scholars left written accounts of Egypt and North Africa, but their descriptions do not provide much accurate information about the indigenous peoples of those regions. The civilization that arose in Ethiopia around A.D. 400 also kept written records. However, like the Egyptians, the ancient Ethiopians said little about lands beyond their own borders.

Much later, beginning in the A.D. 900s, Arabs documented their visits to the southern regions of the Sahara and to the East African coast. Europeans began exploring the African coastline in the 1400s, but their descriptions of local peoples and cultures are not always reliable. For much of the continent, recorded history is only a century or two old. As a result, prehistoric archaeology is the main key to unlocking Africa’s past.

Archaeologists studying prehistoric Africa may use various research tools to fill in the picture of the past. Paleontology, which focuses on the physical remains of early humans, offers clues about the evolution of prehistoric peoples. Another tool is oral history, a group’s traditions, myths, and stories as passed down from generation to generation in spoken form. In some societies, oral history provides useful knowledge of the past century or two. Historical linguistics, another tool, concerns the relationships among languages and how they have changed over time. It may provide clues about the past migrations and relationships of ethnic groups. Ethnography, the study of present-day ethnic groups and their immediate ancestors, helps archaeologists trace connections between the past and the present. Geography and geology offer insights into the physical landscapes that earlier peoples inhabited. Of course, artifacts are the most familiar objects of archaeological research. By studying tools and other material remains of past cultures, archaeologists can find clues about the way people lived long ago.

The Stone Age in Africa

Prehistoric archaeologists divide the past into different periods based on the kinds of tools people made. Several of these periods are grouped under the name the Stone Age. Broadly speaking, the Early Stone Age in Africa began about 2.6 million years ago, when the ancestors of humans shaped the first large, handheld cutting tools of stone to carve the carcasses of animals. Scientists believe that these early beings hunted small game and looked for carcasses that had been killed by large animals. This way of life continued until around 200,000 years ago.

During the Middle Stone Age, from about 200,000 to 45,000 years ago, large stone tools were replaced by smaller tools made of sharp flakes struck from specially prepared rocks. As in the Early Stone Age, people lived off game killed by animals and gathering wild foods. Hunting probably played an increasing role during the Middle Stone Age. However, archaeologists differ as to whether people hunted large game animals, and if so, how and when they learned to do so.

Archaeology of North and West Africa

Africa’s climate became cooler and drier during the Middle Stone Age, producing environmental changes that challenged people to adapt to new conditions. Archaeologists who study the Middle Stone Age are trying to determine what the environment was like and how it affected human life.

The Late Stone Age, which began about 45,000 years ago, marked the appearance of very small stone blades and tools that people attached to handles of wood or bone. Late Stone Age people hunted and gathered a wide variety of plants and animals to eat, including seafood. They made beads, painted pictures on rock walls, and formally buried their dead. They also produced many artifacts of perishable organic materials such as wood, bone, leather, and shell, which have survived at a few sites. Among the oldest such artifacts are 10,000-year-old tools of wood, bark, and grass, found at Gwisho hot springs in Zambia.

By 7000 B.C. people living in what is now the Sahara had domesticated cattle. Between 6500 and 4000 B.C., climate changes caused these cattle-herding societies to move southward, introducing domestic animals into sub-Saharan Africa. The development of economies based on livestock herding and farming marked the end of the Late Stone Age. At around the same time, ironworking technologies appeared in some regions, and new cultures began to develop.

Some of these new cultures were settled; others were nomadic. Some were based on agriculture, others on pastoralist activities. In a few desert areas and within deep forests, small bands of hunter-gatherers continued to live much as their ancestors had done. Elsewhere, however, African societies grew more complex and began interacting with each other. Around the edges of the continent, they began to encounter people of other races and cultures. Each region of Africa followed its own route to the present, a route that can be retraced through archaeology.

NORTHERN AFRICA

Northern Africa includes Egypt, the northern half of Sudan, LibyaTunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. The region’s archaeological heritage ranges from the massive monuments of ancient Egypt to the faint traces left by pastoral nomads thousands of years ago, when the Sahara was a wooded savanna instead of the desert it is today.

Prehistory

One of the oldest archaeological sites in northern Africa is Ternifine, Algeria. There scientists have discovered both human fossils and stone axes mingled with the remains of animals that lived more than 500,000 years ago. Early Stone Age axes have been found throughout North Africa, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and from the Mediterranean coast southward. In the Sahara they have often been unearthed near former springs and lakeshores that supported life during wetter eras in the region’s past.

Archaeologists have studied Middle Stone Age settlement patterns at various places in the Egyptian Sahara. Some sites were quarries, where people obtained stone for their tools. Others, especially those on ancient lakeshores, served as workshops for the shaping of tools. In some places, people butchered their kills. Still other sites, back from the lakes, may have been where people slept, out of the way of large animals that hunted near the water at night. This pattern continued for thousands of years.

Middle Stone Age sites in the Sahara and the MAGHREB (northwest Africa) show that people butchered rhinoceroses, giraffes, horses, antelopes, and gazelles. A few sites also contain stones that people may have used to grind wild plant foods to make them easier to eat. A location in the Nile River valley that has many fish bones, including some from very large deepwater fish, is among the oldest evidence in the world of fishing.

By the Late Stone Age, people in northern Africa had become very efficient hunters of large herd animals, such as wild cattle, gazelles, and sheep. Starting around 20,000 years ago, they began making a new kind of small stone blade that was often pointed. Sometimes they mounted several little blades together on a handle, a step toward more complex technology.

Archaeologists have studied many Late Stone Age sites in the highlands and mountains of northern Africa, but these may have been only seasonal hunting camps. Between 20,000 and 13,000 years ago, the sea level along the Mediterranean shore was much lower than today, and coastal regions that are now under water were probably the main centers of population. The Nile River, much smaller than it is today, supported a narrow ribbon of life surrounded on both sides by extreme deserts. The people who lived there probably had to compete for resources—many skeletons show evidence of violence, sometimes approaching the intensity of warfare.

Around 11,000 years ago, changes in rainfall patterns increased the flow of the Nile and also moistened the Sahara. Human population expanded into the Sahara, where some archaeological sites reveal fragments of early pottery and the bones of domesticated cattle. At first, people stayed in the Sahara only during rainy seasons. But by about 8,000 years ago they lived there year-round, digging wells and constructing round houses. They also set up large standing stones arranged in lines or circles, which perhaps had astronomical or religious meaning. Several thousand years later, the climate shifted again and much of the Sahara became too dry for humans to live in.

In the Nile Valley around 6,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers began herding, farming, and building villages. In some villages in northern Egypt, all houses were similar in size and had similar contents, suggesting that the inhabitants belonged to a society of equals with no class distinctions. In southern Egypt, however, burial sites reveal significant differences, and some graves had richer goods than others. This indicates that society was becoming more complex and social difference had emerged.

Archaeologists have not determined whether the growing complexity of the region’s social structures and technology (such as pottery) reflects influences from Southwest Asia or from the eastern Sahara. Whatever the source, this development in the Nile Valley eventually led to the rise of a great civilization.

The Historic Period

By 3100 B.C. a nation-state ruled by kings known as pharaohs had emerged in Egypt. This ancient civilization has revealed itself to archaeologists through written records and also through monuments such as the pyramids, temples, graves, villages, palaces, and other structures.

South of ancient Egypt along the Nile was a land that the Egyptians called Kush and the Arabs later called NUBIA. Today the area is divided between Egypt and SUDAN. The home of a black African civilization, Kush grew into an empire that traded gold, ivory, slaves, and ostrich feathers to the Egyptians. Closely linked with Egyptian society, Kush even ruled Egypt from 760 to 656 B.C.

Like the Egyptians, the Kushites buried their rulers under pyramids. The Kushites actually built more pyramids than the Egyptians, though theirs were smaller. The largest Kushite pyramid, discovered at a site called Nuri in Sudan, measures about 95 feet (30 meters) a side. Archaeologists have focused their efforts on the northern part of Kush, studying as much as they could before a series of dams on the Nile flooded the area. Research in southern Kush has centered on the royal cities of Napata and MEROE.

The Egyptian civilization survived, passing through many phases, until A.D. 30. In that year Cleopatra, the last ruler descended from the pharaohs, died. By then Egypt had been under Greek and Roman influence, and sometimes political control, for several hundred years. Some important archaeological discoveries of recent times date from this Greco-Roman period. Among these are statues and buildings in the harbor of the city of Alexandria, drowned by waters that have risen since ancient times.

Greco-Roman ruins also dot the North African coast west of Egypt. The Tunisian site of Leptiminus, for example, was a Mediterranean port that came under Roman rule in the A.D. 100s. During the 1990s archaeologists excavated three Roman cemeteries there. One was located in an area that produced a distinctive type of pottery, a major trade item in the Mediterranean region for five centuries.

WESTERN AFRICA

Western Africa includes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, ChadCameroon, Benin, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, LiberiaSierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, and Senegal. The region stretches into the Sahara desert in the north, but its coastal area consists primarily of tropical rain forest. Archaeologists believe that changes in climate—especially shifts between wetter and drier periods—played a key role in shaping the past societies of the region.

Prehistory

Although archaeologists think that parts of western Africa were inhabited more than 2 million years ago, they do not yet have a clear picture of the earliest settlements. In 1995 scientists found a fossil jaw and seven teeth at Koro Toro, Chad. The fossils came from an australopithecine, an early kind of human ancestor previously known only from sites in eastern and southern Africa.

Stone tools from both the Early Stone Age and the Middle Stone Age occur widely in western Africa, especially in the Sahara and northern Nigeria. At Asokrochona in Ghana and other sites in the southern part of the region, archaeologists have found tools from the Middle Stone Age that may have been used in woodworking.

Relics of the Late Stone Age show how climate affected human life in the region. During a very dry period between 20,000 and 12,000 years ago, the Sahara desert extended farther than it does today, and no traces of human life from that time have been found in the northern part of the region. During the wetter years that followed, the Sahara was reoccupied, probably from the north. Rock paintings of elephants and wild buffalo in areas that are now extremely dry may date from this period.

Work at a number of Saharan sites has revealed harpoons and the remains of fish, crocodiles, and hippopotamuses, suggesting that people of this period had access to lakes and rivers. In 1998 archaeologists discovered a boat more than 25 feet long near the Yobe River in northeastern Nigeria. Known as the Dufuna canoe, it dates from around 6500 B.C. and is thought to be Africa’s oldest boat.

Archaeological sites throughout western Africa highlight milestones in the region’s prehistory. At a place called Iwo Eleru in the forested area of southwestern Nigeria, scientists have uncovered a rock shelter that was inhabited as early as 10,000 years ago. The shelter contained many small stone blades that may have been used as arrowheads or, attached to handles, as cutting tools. Pottery found in the Sahara dates from the same period. Cattle skeletons excavated at a site called Adrar Bous in Niger show that people were herding domestic cattle, sheep, and goats about 4,000 years ago. Other archaeological discoveries in Mali and Mauritania suggest that agriculture—specifically, the farming of millet, a cereal grain—began in the region between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago. Beginning around 2000 B.C., agricultural production increased and settled communities developed in the forest and savanna regions in the southern part of western Africa. More than two dozen sites in Ghana and Ivory Coast have revealed houses in large settlements, complete with a variety of stone tools, remains of sheep and goats, and pottery vessels and figurines.

Around the same time, people in the area began to work metal. They may have learned techniques from cultures in Sudan and North Africa or developed them on their own. Discoveries in Niger show that people there worked copper as early as 2000 B.C. The earliest evidence of ironworking, also in Niger, dates from about 1000 B.C., although iron tools did not completely replace stone tools. A few centuries later, Nigeria, Mali, Ghana, Chad, and Senegal were also producing iron.

Historians used to think that western Africa developed large urban centers and complex social structures as a result of contact with Arabs from North Africa after the A.D. 600s. Growing archaeological evidence, however, reveals large, complex societies in western Africa long before that time. Some of the earliest such evidence comes from the Saharan Borderlands, where archaeologists excavated the city of Jenne-jeno in Mali. Established by 250 B.C., the town entered a period of rapid growth some 500 years later.

Elsewhere in western Africa large earthen mounds have been found. These contain burial chambers, human sacrifices, and various objects buried with the dead. Some archaeologists believe that such sites, together with evidence of expanding trade across the region, suggest the development of larger states and kingdoms. The trend toward centralization of power would eventually produce a number of great empires in western Africa.

The Historic Period

Oral tradition and a few written records, including accounts by Arab travelers, provide archaeologists with additional insights into western African states after A.D. 1000. Ancient Ghana, the subject of many of these reports, extended over much of present-day Mauritania, Mali, and Senegal. Arabic sources refer to Ghana as a flourishing kingdom. One description of a king’s burial has shed light on the ritual purpose of burial mounds in the area. At Koumbi Saleh, a site in Mauritania thought to have been Ghana’s capital, researchers have unearthed multistory stone buildings and graveyards.

As Ghana’s influence faded, the kingdom of Mali became powerful in the region, reaching its peak in the 1200s and 1300s. Some archaeologists believe that Niani, a site in present-day Guinea, was the capital of Mali. Although the site has extensive ruins, excavations suggest that it was unoccupied during Mali’s most powerful era. The exact location of the capital, as well as the true extent of ancient Mali, remain undetermined.

Arabic and European sources describe the rich and powerful kingdom of Benin in Nigeria, which reached its peak between the 1200s and 1600s. Archaeologists have added detail to these written accounts. Their research reveals that the inhabitants of Benin City, the capital, worked with copper and built massive earthen walls around important structures.

Archaeological sites along the coast of western Africa include forts and castles built by Europeans as they explored and traded in the area in the 1400s and later. Recent archaeological work has focused on indigenous towns and states near these European outposts, studying how local Africans responded to contact and trade with Europeans. One of the most fully studied sites is Elmina on the coast of Ghana, the location of the first and largest European trading post in sub-Saharan Africa.

By the 1800s, the African town there had grown to 15,000 or 20,000 inhabitants. Excavations have revealed evidence of far-flung trade: European pottery, glass and beads, and fine ceramics from China.

EASTERN AFRICA

Eastern Africa includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, SomaliaTanzania, and Uganda. Organized archaeological research did not begin in this region until around 1960, though some earlier work was done by colonial officials who collected various artifacts.

Eastern Africa first became famous in the 1960s when dramatic fossil discoveries were made by members of the LEAKEY FAMILY. These findings cast new light on the earliest human origins in Africa. Other archaeological work has focused on more recent eras in the region’s human history.

Archaeology of Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa

A key feature of current archaeology in the region is the growing participation of African scientists, students, universities, and museums.

Interpretation of the region’s history was once largely in the hands of Westerners, but now more local archaeologists and other scholars are studying their own past. In addition, eastern Africa has turned some archaeological sites into tourist attractions and has created local museums to educate schools and communities about their archaeological heritage.

Prehistory

Discoveries by the Leakeys and others have made sites in eastern Africa, such as the well-known Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, centers of paleoarchaeological research. Paleoarchaeology concerns the study of very old traces of human existence and culture. One area of research is the evolution of the first humans several million years ago. Another is the emergence of the modern human species, Homo sapiens.

Theories that suggest an African origin for Homo sapiens have focused attention on the Middle Stone Age sites, such as Gadamotta near Lake Zwai in Ethiopia. The inhabitants of Gadamotta used obsidian—glassy, volcanic rock that can hold a sharp edge—to manufacture tools more than 200,000 years ago. Other important sites in Tanzania contain stone tools more than 100,000 years old.

Archaeological remains from the Late Stone Age, including small stone tools and rock art, are found at many sites in eastern African. At Gamble’s Cave and Nderit Drift, near Lake Nakuru in Kenya, archaeologists have found blades, scrapers, and other tools crafted from obsidian between 13,000 and 9,000 years ago. Sites on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya have revealed bone harpoons, stone scrapers, scrapers, grinding stones, and pottery. Hunter-gatherers there ate a wide variety of foods, including crocodile, hippopotamus, fish, and plants. In the vicinity of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, archaeologists have located relics of a hunter-gatherer population they call the Oltome culture.

Among its artifacts are pieces of highly decorated pottery with stamped decorations. The best-known Oltome site is Gogo Falls, which dates from between 4000 and 1000 B.C.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the herding of domestic livestock began in eastern Africa about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, and many groups in the region still follow a pastoral way of life. The most common domesticated animals were cattle, sheep, and goats, though archaeologists have also uncovered bones of camels from sites in Ethiopia and northern Kenya. The earliest indications of farming in the region come from Lalibela Cave in the highlands of Ethiopia, which contained traces of beans, barley, and chickpeas. Evidence of domesticated wheat, grapes, and lentils has been found at other Ethiopian sites.

Although grown in eastern Africa, all these food plants originated in the Near East and would have been introduced to the region.

An economy that combined farming and trading developed rapidly in the Ethiopian highlands starting about 2,500 years ago. Local African communities traded valuable raw materials, such as gold, skins, and ivory, across the Red Sea to the Arabian peninsula. Several hundred years later, Ethiopia became part of a trading network that also crossed the Indian Ocean. These farming communities of Ethiopia are known from archaeological excavations at AKSUM, which eventually developed into a major state.

The first communities to use iron in eastern Africa arose along the shores of Lake Victoria between 2,500 and 1,700 years ago. Archaeologists have not yet identified the origins of these communities, and evidence remains scarce. By about A.D. 500, farmers using iron tools seem to have occupied areas of eastern Africa with wooded and wet environments, especially the coastal hills and plains.

Historic Era

Early evidence of complex African societies comes from the coast of eastern Africa, where urban communities based on Indian Ocean trading networks were developing by A.D. 800. Some communities built large structures of timber, coral, and limestone and minted their own coins. There is evidence of Islam, the religion that originated in Arabia. The inhabitants of these urban centers at Zanzibar and elsewhere along the coast were the ancestors of the SWAHILI coastal traders who now live in east African towns such as Mombasa.

Fierce debate has swirled around the origins of the Swahili coastal communities. Earlier generations claimed that Asian colonists had “brought civilization to Africa.” However, Swahili is a native African language. Archaeologists now believe that the Swahili coastal culture originated in Africa but that colonists from southern Arabia influenced the culture.

The pattern of peoples and cultures in eastern Africa today is largely the result of events during the past thousand years. Chief among these events are migrations from the north, with waves of livestock-herding people settling in the area. The newcomers developed a dairy economy, keeping cattle for milk and sheep and goats for meat.

The past thousand years also saw the emergence of large population centers around the lakes of eastern Africa. One such center, Bigo, had earthen walls more than 6.2 miles long, with ditches up to 16 feet deep. Some states that appeared in the region later, such as Buganda and Bunyoro, have survived.

CENTRAL AND SOUTHERN AFRICA

Africa’s central and southern regions include Angola, BotswanaBurundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of CongoEquatorial Guinea, Gabon, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Archaeological sites in these areas contain evidence for the origins and evolution of humans, as well as more recent remains of complex civilizations and trade networks. Research has been uneven, however, and many areas remain unexplored.

Prehistory

Archaeologists first uncovered fossils of humanlike australopithecines in South Africa in the 1920s and 1930s. The importance of these discoveries was not immediately recognized, but eventually paleontologists realized that australopithecines are the earliest human ancestors. Most likely they lived by gathering wild foods and scavenging carcasses killed by large animals. Some of the australopithecine fossils found in the region were individuals killed by animals, and the sites where they were found do not necessarily represent the places where they lived or made tools of stone and bone.

Some archaeological sites in southern Africa, such as Border Cave in Swaziland and Klasies River Mouth on the coast of South Africa, contain skeletons of Homo sapiens along with evidence of “modern” behavior such as the development of family groups, food sharing, and the planned use of resources. These sites may be more than 100,000 years old.

Archaeological evidence shows that, during the Late Stone Age, the peoples of central and southern Africa were largely nomadic, moving with the seasons between mountainous areas and low-lying lands. They trapped and hunted animals, gathered a wide variety of plant foods, and used marine resources such as shellfish. They also carefully buried their dead, sometimes placing various objects in the grave, and painted complex images on the walls of rock shelters—facts that lead archaeologists to believe that these Stone Age people had a strong sense of the spiritual world.

Around 2,000 years ago, the Stone Age way of life began to change in the region. In the drier western areas, domesticated sheep became an important part of the economy. Scientists debate the origins of this pastoralism, questioning whether local hunter-gatherers developed livestock herding on their own, or whether pastoral peoples arrived in the region from the north. Researchers agree, however, that the early pastoralists were the ancestors of the KHOISAN, the indigenous people of southern Africa.

In parts of central and southern Africa with fairly dependable summer rainfall, people adopted a system of mixed agriculture, combining grain farming with livestock raising. Excavation of many ancient villages has shown that this way of life was firmly established by A.D. 200. The villages were linked by the exchange of goods, such as food products, pottery, salt, and iron. They may also have interacted with huntergatherers who still followed the Stone Age way of life because stone tools have been found in some village sites.

Historic Era

The archaeological picture of central and southern Africa is clearer for the past thousand years or so. Domestic livestock, especially cattle, became very important throughout much of the region. Farming settlements spread into the highlands, where ruins of stone-built communities indicate the existence of large, thriving populations.

By the A.D. 1100s, complex states were emerging. Mapungabwe and other hilltop towns along the Limpopo River in Zimbabwe and Botswana were centers of such states. These societies were organized into different economic and social classes. Their rulers controlled both the local economy and connections with the outside world. These links occurred with traders from Arabia on the coast of the Indian Ocean, where African goods such as gold, ivory, and animal skins were exchanged for foreign items such as glass beads and cotton cloth.

The Mapungabwe state was followed by Great Zimbabwe, which flourished until the 1400s. At its peak Great Zimbabwe probably had a population of more than 10,000 people and included territory from eastern Botswana to near the Indian Ocean. The large stone walls in the center of the town reflected the high status of the ruling class; ordinary people lived in mud and thatch houses around the central stone buildings. More than 50 smaller regional centers, built in the same style, helped maintain the power of Great Zimbabwe.

The Arab traders who linked southern Africa to the Indian Ocean limited their settlements to the coast. European colonists, beginning with the Portuguese in the early 1500s, ventured into the interior. They were following rumors of vast wealth. Portuguese forts, Dutch trading posts, and British colonial buildings and settlements are the focus of archaeological research into the recent colonial past of southern and central Africa. Many parts of the region, however, are not well known archaeologically. Much work remains to be done, particularly in the great tropical rain forest that covers much of central Africa. Future research will undoubtedly challenge and change present ideas about the past of central and southern Africa and of the continent as a whole. (See also Africa, Study of; Animals, Domestic; Art; History of Africa; Hunting and Gathering; Humans, Early; Islam in Africa; Livestock GrazingRoman Africa; Sudanic Empires of Western Africa.)