About 4.5 million years ago, in a declining forest in East Africa, the Earth witnessed something that had never happened in its 13.49 billion years of existence. This event while seemingly insignificant, will change the course of the planet’s history forever.
I’m talking about the evolution of humans.
Now, I’m not here to debate about whether evolution happened or not (because there are some people here who do not have the same conviction I have about the veracity of evolution); I simply started this way because it is necessary for the journey we are going to take down the roads of history.
Africa has always been a fascinating place; it is the second largest continent on the planet, has 54 countries with about 5000 different languages. These speak of the amazing people living in it with diverse origins and cultures.
In the modern world, Africa is seen as a backward continent, with little to no technological advancements. (I use the term “advancement” to mean “innovation”. Africa is hardly a place where new inventions are birthed.) Most (if not all the countries in Africa) are third world countries, which means that we are “in the past”.
But did you know that things were not always like this?
Scientists believe that by 200,000 years ago, some group of humans crossed into the continent of Asia, colonized it and eventually spread out to Europe and eventually the Americas.
The African continent has seen a lot of things, from having a large number of its inhabitants shipped off to slavery, to having the descendants of the people who left the continent colonize its citizens, it has seen it all.
Africa has also been home to some of the most amazing civilizations on the planet. Of course we all know about the Egyptian civilization, but there are many others that testify to the greatness of this continent and its inhabitants.
Here are seven of the lesser known civilizations of ancient Africa:
1. The Kingdom of Kush:
Though often overshadowed by its Egyptian neighbors to the north, the Kingdom of Kush stood as a regional power in Africa for over a thousand years. This ancient Nubian empire reached its peak in the second millennium B.C., when it ruled over a vast swath of territory along the Nile River in what is now Sudan. Almost all that is known about Kush comes from Egyptian sources, which indicate that it was an economic center that operated a lucrative market in ivory, incense, iron and especially gold. The kingdom was both a trading partner and a military rival of Egypt—it even ruled Egypt as the 25th Dynasty—and it adopted many of its neighbor’s customs. The Kushites worshipped some of the Egyptian gods, mummified their dead and built their own types of pyramids. The area surrounding the ancient Kushite capital of Meroe is now home to the ruins of over 200 pyramids—more than in all of Egypt. (1)
2. The Land of Punt:
Few African civilizations are as mysterious as Punt. Historical accounts of the kingdom date to around 2500 B.C., when it appears in Egyptian records as a “Land of the Gods” rich in ebony, gold, myrrh and exotic animals such as apes and leopards. The Egyptians are known to have sent huge caravans and flotillas on trade missions to Punt—most notably during the 15th century B.C. reign of Queen Hatshepsut—yet they never identified where it was located. The site of the fabled kingdom is now a hotly debated topic among scholars. The Arabian Peninsula and the Levant have both been proposed as potential candidates, but most believe it existed somewhere on the Red Sea coast of East Africa. In 2010, a team of researchers tried to zero in on Punt by analyzing a mummified baboon that its rulers once gifted to the Egyptian pharaohs. While their results showed that the remains most closely matched animals found in modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea, the precise location of the Land of Punt has still yet to be confirmed. (2)
Best known as ancient Rome’s rival in the Punic Wars, Carthage was a North African commercial hub that flourished for over 500 years. The city-state began its life in the 8th or 9th century B.C. as a Phoenician settlement in what is now Tunisia, but it later grew into a sprawling seafaring empire that dominated trade in textiles, gold, silver and copper. At its peak, its capital city boasted nearly half a million inhabitants and included a protected harbor outfitted with docking bays for 220 ships. Carthage’s influence eventually extended from North Africa to Spain and parts of the Mediterranean, but its thirst for expansion led to increased friction with the burgeoning Roman Republic. Beginning in 264 B.C., the ancient superpowers clashed in the three bloody Punic Wars, the last of which ended in 146 B.C. with the near-total destruction of Carthage. Today, almost all that remains of the once-mighty empire is a series of ruins in the city of Tunis. (3)
4. The Kingdom of Aksum:
During the same period that the Roman Empire rose and fell, the influential Kingdom of Aksum held sway over parts of what are now Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Surprisingly little is known about Aksum’s origins, but by the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. it was a trading juggernaut whose gold and ivory made it a vital link between ancient Europe and the Far East. The kingdom had a written script known as Ge’ez—one of the first to emerge in Africa—and it developed a distinctive architectural style that involved the building of massive stone obelisks, some of which stood over 100 feet tall. In the fourth century, Aksum became one of the first empires in the world to adopt Christianity, which led to a political and military alliance with the Byzantines. The empire later went into decline sometime around the 7th or 8th century, but its religious legacy still exists today in the form of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. (4)
5. The Mali Empire:
The founding of the Mali Empire dates to the 1200s, when a ruler named Sundiata Keita—sometimes called the “Lion King”—led a revolt against a Sosso king and united his subjects into a new state. Under Keita and his successors, the empire tightened its grip over a large portion of West Africa and grew rich on trade. Its most important cities were Djenné and Timbuktu, both of which were renowned for their elaborate adobe mosques and Islamic schools. One such institution, Timbuktu’s Sankore University, included a library with an estimated 700,000 manuscripts. The Mali Empire eventually disintegrated in the 16th century, but at its peak it was one of the jewels of the African continent and was known the world over for its wealth and luxury. One legendary tale about the kingdom’s riches concerns the ruler Mansa Musa, who made a stopover in Egypt during a 14th century pilgrimage to Mecca. According to contemporary sources, Musa dished out so much gold during the visit that he caused its value to plummet in Egyptian markets for several years. Mansa Musa is historically the richest man to ever walk the Earth. (5)
6. The Songhai Empire:
For sheer size, few states in African history can compare to the Songhai Empire. Formed in the 15th century from some of the former regions of the Mali Empire, this West African kingdom was larger than Western Europe and comprised parts of a dozen modern day nations. The empire enjoyed a period of prosperity thanks to vigorous trade policies and a sophisticated bureaucratic system that separated its vast holdings into different provinces, each ruled by its own governor. It reached its zenith in the early 16th century under the rule of the devout King Muhammad I Askia, who conquered new lands, forged an alliance with Egypt’s Muslim Caliph and established hundreds of Islamic schools in Timbuktu. While the Songhai Empire was once among the most powerful states in the world, it later crumbled in the late 1500s after a period of civil war and internal strife left it open to an invasion by the Sultan of Morocco. (6)
7. The Great Zimbabwe:
One of the most impressive monuments in sub-Saharan Africa is the Great Zimbabwe, an imposing collection of stacked boulders, stone towers and defensive walls assembled from cut granite blocks. The rock citadel has long been the subject of myths and legends—it was once thought to be the residence of the Biblical Queen of Sheba—but historians now know it as the capital city of an indigenous empire that thrived in the region between the 13th and 15th centuries. This kingdom ruled over a large chunk of modern day Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It was particularly rich in cattle and precious metals, and stood astride a trade route that connected the region’s gold fields with ports on the Indian Ocean coast. Though little is known about its history, the remains of artifacts such as Chinese pottery, Arabian glass and European textiles indicate that it was once a well-connected mercantile center. The fortress city at the Great Zimbabwe was mysteriously abandoned sometime in the 15th century after the kingdom went into decline, but in its heyday it was home to an estimated 20,000 people. (7)
The Nok Civilization:
The remarkable civilization of the Nok was first discovered in 1928 when a wealth of unique terracotta artefacts was unearthed by tin miners in the southern part of Kaduna state in central Nigeria. Since then, extensive archaeological excavations and research into the Nok have revealed that they may have been the first complex civilization in West Africa, existing from at least 900 BC until their mysterious disappearance in around 200 AD.
The Nok were an extremely advanced society, with one of the most complex judicial systems of the time, and the earliest producers of life-sized terracotta in the Sub-Sahara. Archaeologists have also found stone tools, rock paintings and iron implements, including fearsome spear points, bracelets, and small knives.
Terracotta Statues: But by far the most enigmatic and intriguing aspect of the Nok Culture were their terracotta statues, described by the mémoire d’afrique, which houses a gallery of the statues , as “extraordinary, astonishing, ageless, timeless and almost extraterrestrial”.
The figures, which date back to at least 500 BC, are almost always people with large, mostly elongated heads with almond-shaped hollow looking eyes are parted lips. These unusual features are particularly perplexing considering that the statues have been constructed accurately with relative proportions of the head, body and feet, leading some to use the term ‘extraterrestrial-looking’ when describing them.
Microscopic inspection of the clay used in the terracotta shows it to be remarkably uniform over the whole Nok area, suggesting that the clay came from a single, yet-undiscovered source. Not much is known about the purposes of these peculiar sculptures but some theories have suggested they were used as charms to prevent crop failure, illness and infertility, while others have suggested that they represent high status individuals who were worshipped by the people.
However, the construction of life-sized statues isn’t the only evidence of the advancement of their society. Research has revealed that the Nok people had a highly developed system of administration to ensure law and order.
Judicial System: It is a known fact that the Nok’s judicial system pre-dates the western judicial system. The Nok people created classes of courts used for adjudicating cases from minor civil cases, such as family disputes and false allegations, to criminal cases such as stealing, murder and adultery. The people believed that every crime attracts a curse which was capable of destroying whole family and therefore must be uncovered to avoid the consequences.
The suspect was brought before an open court for traditional oath taking, which involved standing between two monoliths facing the sun, the most supreme god called Nom. The suspect then swore to tell the truth. Cases that cannot be resolved in the open court are taken to the high court which sits within an enclosed shrine.
The court was presided over by the Chief Priest and various clan heads. Anyone found guilty was fined goats and chicken for sacrifice to the gods and local wine for the chief priest. The town would then declare a day of celebration on which the people would thank the gods for their graces in successfully resolving the issue and averting doom for the people.
Disappearance: A sharp drop in the volume of pottery and terracotta in soil layers suggests that the once-thriving Nok population declined fairly rapidly and no evidence can be found of their existence after 200 AD, nor has any evidence been found which suggests a reason for their disappearance. Some have suggested that overexploitation of natural resources and a heavy reliance on charcoal may have played a role, while others have said it could have been any number of different possibilities including climate change, a pandemic, invasion, epidemic or famine.
The Nok civilization left a remarkable cultural legacy for the people that followed after them, but there are still many unanswered questions about the Nok, from why they disappeared to the true purpose and nature of the unique and mysterious terracotta statues. (8)
Believe me, there are many other marvelous civilizations that have graced the African continent; they all attest to the fact that Africa was once a wondrous place, full of ingenious minds that helped to shape the course of human history.
But then I ask myself this question: WHAT HAPPENED TO US? What happened to this continent that was at the forefront of technology, commerce and education? What happened to this continent that saw the dawn of human evolution, witnessed the birth of the first university on the planet, and had so many riches that it was a hub of commerce?
We have surely come a long way from being the head to being the tail. Our ancestors are wailing in their graves, asking us this simple question:
WHEN ARE WE GOING TO LEAD THE WORLD AGAIN?