Who ruled Africa while Rome ruled Europe? How did they come to be forgotten?

A quick scan of online message boards will tell you that worldwide awareness of African empires — aside from ancient Egypt — is seriously limited, to say the least.

A Quora commenter asks, “Why hasn’t a single prominent civilization come out of Africa?” On Reddit, someone poses (or rather, begs) the question, “Why were there so few empires in Africa?” Although responders quickly mopped the floor with those commenters’ loaded questions, millions of other people around the world have never bothered to ask in the first place.

But this knowledge gap is a fairly new phenomenon.

The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt actively exchanged goods and ideas with the southern kings of Kush, who were “proud of their black faces.” The Ethiopian kings of Aksum, who traded as far afield as India and China, were the most powerful rulers between Byzantium and Persia. Centuries later, an emperor of Mali would become —

The richest person in all world history.

Oh, but this goes back much, much further. Once you start digging into the history of Africa, you begin to encounter ages and dates that are really hard to wrap your mind around — and yet, there they are, staring you in the face.

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Let’s use ancient Egypt as a point of reference. The Great Pyramid was built about 4,500 years ago. Recognizably Egyptian culture dates back about twice that far. People were actively building and farming in Ethiopia and Eritrea long before that — at least 10,000 years ago.

If you’ve read my article, “Time’s Orphans Have Names,” you’ve seen the writing of the people of Kish and Eridu, around 4,000 BCE. Now we’ve gone back a full 5,000 years before that—

And that’s nothing. We’ve barely even gotten started.

The Afroasiatic Urheimat
The Afroasiatic Urheimat

 

At least 13,000 years ago, linguistic and genetic evidence shows, the common ancestors of the ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Arabs, the Hebrews, and many other East African and Levantine peoples lived around the Red Sea, concentrated on the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula, the Sinai, and what’s now Ethiopia (and possibly further south in Africa).

These people spoke a language known today as Proto-Afroasiatic, which is so ancient that it was the common grammatical ancestor of ancient Babylonian and modern Swahili. Try getting your head around that one.

A San man
A San man

Ever heard of the San people?

(They were once known as the “Bushmen” of the Kalahari.) Not only are they and their relatives the most genetically diverse human populations in the world—their DNA also carries genetic traits so old that they likely split off before the earliest Homo sapiens migrations out of Africa, about 200,000 years ago. Their language, too, contains some of the oldest features of any surviving language on earth.

A set of stone tools essentially identical to modern San equipment have been found in a cave in South Africa, and dated to 44,000 BCE, when Europe was deep in the midst of the last Ice Age —

And Neanderthals were still alive and well.

If you ever find yourself in a conversation about living cultures with the longest continuous histories, drop in a mention of the San people (or the Australian Yidindji people, whose oral traditions clearly describe a sea level rise that happened when the Ice Age glaciers melted, 13,000 years ago).

Facts like these shift the whole scale of the discussion.

 

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I’m going to have to skip and condense a lot over the course of this series. We’ve already reached the length of a short news story, and I haven’t even started describing the actual empires yet!

For that reason, I’m going to focus only on four of the biggest, wealthiest and most influential African empires— which means that in this series, we won’t have time to go into smaller city-states like Opone, Mosylon, Cape Guardafui and Malao; or even relatively small empires like Bornu Empire, the Mossi Kingdoms and the Kingdom of Zimbabwe; or ancient civilizations on which there’s still a lot of work to be done, like the bronze-age Igbo-Ukwu culture, the Kingdom of D’mt, and the mysterious Kingdom of Yam and Land of Punt.

For the sake of length, I’m also going to have to restrict myself in terms of time periods; focusing on African empires from antiquity, and from the medieval period. I’m truly, genuinely sorry that I won’t have time (at least, not in the immediate future) to talk about the mighty Songhai Empire, or the nineteenth-century Benin Empire, or the Zulu Kingdom — or many, many other great and powerful African states.

Groups of empires throughout Africa
Groups of empires throughout Africa

Each of those African empires and kingdoms was populated by real people, every one of whom had favorite foods and life goals and romances every bit as heartfelt as yours and mine. Unfortunately, when covering an entire continent with at least 50,000 years of continuous cultural history, we’ve got to limit our range. Still, I highly recommend opening all those links above in new tabs, so you can check them out later.

 

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Across thousands of years, Africa was recognized throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean as one of the great global centers; a cultural anvil that hammered out powerful militaries, influential technologies, and wealth by the boatload. But by the 1800s, the rest of the world seemed to have forgotten all about Aksum, Wagadu and Mali.

Such a massive loss of prestige demands explanation.

Thus, I’d be shortchanging you here if I didn’t explain that Africa’s loss of historical renown occurred due to deliberate, calculated effort by European writers.

While slavery and slave-trading had been practiced in some African cultures since time immemorial, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an explosion of aggressive colonial expansion by European powers like France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, England, Holland and Spain. This “Scramble for Africa” was justified by the myth of the sub-Saharan “savage,” who had never created any “real civilization” of his own.

The "Scramble for Africa"
The “Scramble for Africa”

At least some nineteenth-century Europeans must have known this myth of savagery was false. Invaders would have seen the Nubian Pyramids and the ruins of Aksum as they pressed westward and southward into the continent. What’s more, literate Europeans surely encountered Roman, medieval and Arabic mentions of their powerful African contemporaries, whose rulers traveled to meet as equals with their fellow kings.

All the same, European writers from the 1870s to the 1930s churned out “tendentious and Eurocentric” accounts of African culture, spreading the idea of Africa as a “dark continent.” Many Europeans celebrated colonialism as a “civilizing mission.” Still more atrocious was the philosophy of “Social Darwinism” (never endorsed by Charles Darwin himself) which claimed that African peoples had always been “culturally inferior” because they were “genetically inferior” to Europeans.

I wonder what the San people have to say about that!

However, as more African peoples threw off their colonial chains, especially from the 1950s onward, African and international scholars began to fight back against this smear campaign.

Experts churned out thousands of books and papers that not only debunked European colonialist dogma, but also argued for an active “rehabilitation” of African historiography, energized by people of African descent.

Timeline of African empires
Timeline of African empires

Today, African archaeologists, geneticists, linguists and historians partner with teams from all over the world — and a new generation of curious travelers are coming to see the wonders of Mali and the natural beauty of Ethiopia for themselves (I spent a few days in Addis Ababa just this summer, and I highly recommend it).

Africa’s road to cultural recognition has been a long, hard one — and even now, the continent’s history is nowhere near fully rehabilitated from the damage done by colonialist writers. Many archaeological sites are astonishingly under-studied, the scholarly literature remains notably undersized, and many ancient African cultures are still very poorly understood in comparison to their European and Asian contemporaries.

But despite all this, one thing remains abundantly clear:

Africa has never been a “dark” continent.

All the way back to the earliest days of humankind, it’s always been a center of light and life; a forge of innovation and creativity; a stage for breathtaking pageantry and drama.

The kingdoms of gold deserve to be remembered for their brilliance.

The Great African Empires Series (So Far):

Part 2: Pharaohs of the Upper Nile

Part 3: Kingdom of Gold

Part 4: Bringing Ideas Westward

Part 5: The Richest Man in History

Part 6: The Tattooed Lords of the Desert

Bibliography

  1. The Antiquity of Man by Mike Brass
  2. Ethiopia, the Unknown Land by Stuart Munro-Hay
  3. Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum by Stanley Mayer Burstein
  4. Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity by Stuart Munro-Hay
  5. The Empire of Ghana by Rebecca L. Green
  6. Ghana by by Rodrigo Quijada Plubins, Ancient History Encyclopedia
  7. Ghana: A West African Trading Empire by Teachers’ Curriculum Institute
  8. The Empire of Mali by Carol Thompson
  9. Mansa Musa and the Empire of Mali by P. James Oliver







4 thoughts on “Great African Empires, Part 1: Staggering Timescales

  1. Hi Mr Thomas,

    My name is Sam Dresser and I’m an editor at Aeon Magazine (aeon.co). I’ve very much enjoyed your writing and was wondering if you would like to write for us? If so, do send me an email at sam.dresser@aeon.co. (Apologies leaving a comment – couldn’t find your email address elsewhere!)

    All best,

    Sam

  2. Thank you so much for this article! I have to confess, I didn’t know much about the history of Africa (having had the wool pulled over my eyes by the European smear campaign you mentioned) but I am consciously trying to rectify that. And your writing is a great jumping off point. Thank you! Please keep it up.

  3. Thank you so much for this awesome article. This means a lot to me and my people. I am very interested in learning more about my African heritage and history. I am very intrigued by your writing and it has captivated my creativity. I look forward to reading more of your writings concerning this very special topic. God bless you in all of your endeavors.

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