History of Sub-Saharan Africa



Timeline of Sub-Saharan Africa
ancient Sub-Saharan Africa
2000 BC-500 AD
medieval SSA
modern SSA
1 2 3 4 5 6
1 early Nubian civilization ca. 2000-1000 BC
2 Kush ca. 1000 BC-300 AD
3 peak of Aksum ca. 300-650
4 age of pre-colonial civilization ca. 650-1880
5 colonial Africa ca. 1880-1980
6 modern Africa ca. 1980-present
Summary of Sub-Saharan History
ca. 2000-1000 BC
early Nubian civilization
Nubian civilization lives in the shadow of Egypt
ca. 1000 BC-300 AD
Nubia flourishes as the independent kingdom of Kush
ca. 300-650
peak of Aksum
the kingdom of Aksum experiences the peak of its power
(ca. 300, Aksum achieves regional dominance by destroying Kush; ca. 650,
Aksum declines as Islamic civilization spreads across northern Africa)
ca. 650-1880
age of pre-colonial civilization
three types of civilization flourish across Africa:
Christian (Ethiopia and medieval Nubia),
Islamic (kingdoms across the northern half of Africa, as well as east coast city-states),
traditional (kingdoms across the southern half of Africa)
ca. 1880-1980
colonial Africa
European powers (especially Britain and France) seize and govern Africa
ca. 1980-present
modern Africa
Sub-Saharan Africa is governed by its modern nations


Sub-Saharan Africa can be divided into six regions: West, Central, Southern, East, Sudan, and "the Horn". The southern coast of West Africa is known as Guinea.

Regions of Sub-Saharan Africa

In terms of biomes (vegetation zones), the Sub-Saharan region consists of a tropical rainforest core (at the equator), around which lie great stretches of savanna and grassland (see Climates and Biomes). Beyond these lie the vast Sahara Desert (in the north) and the relatively small Kalahari Desert (in the southwest). Note that despite its name, the region of "Sub-Saharan Africa" includes the southern half of the Sahara desert.

World Biome Map

Sub-Saharan Africa roughly constitutes black Africa, whereas the indigenous populations of North Africa are the lighter-skinned Berbers (throughout the Maghreb) and Egyptians (in Egypt). (Following the expansion of the Caliphate, North Africa was heavily settled by Arabs, who mingled with these native peoples.) The widely-shared physical trait of very dark skin is the exception rather than the rule, however, as Sub-Saharan Africa also features the world's most genetically diverse human population.21

Historical Isolation

For most of history, contact between Sub-Saharan Africa and Eurasia was sharply limited by the Sahara Desert. One major consequence of this isolation was lack of access to the innovations of Southwest Asia, where many of humanity's fundamental technologies (including agriculture, writing, smelting, and the wheel) were first achieved. While these technologies diffused over vast distances both westward (across North Africa and Europe) and eastward (across Asia), their southward journey was frustrated by the mighty Sahara.G45

Consequently, these fundamental technologies were greatly delayed from permeating the Sub-Saharan region (or had to be developed locally instead). This dramatically impacted the course of Sub-Saharan history, especially in the case of agriculture (see The Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages). Since agriculture was the key prerequisite to urbanization, most of Sub-Saharan Africa did not experience the rise of cities until the medieval or modern periods.

Main Article


Civilization in Sub-Saharan Africa began in the land of Nubia, which denotes the region around the segment of the Nile River in northern Sudan and southernmost Egypt. Nubia was the southern neighbour of ancient Egypt, whose territory also lay along the banks of the Nile (see History of the Ancient Middle East). Nubian merchants acted as middlemen in Egyptian trade with Sub-Saharan Africa, and Nubian warriors often served as mercenaries in the Egyptian army.23


Nubian civilization was born ca. 2000 BC, with the rise of the city of Kerma (the first Sub-Saharan city). For the early phase of Nubian civilization (ca. 2000-1000 BC), however, the land of Nubia was subject to Egyptian political dominance. Independence was finally achieved ca. 1000 BC, when Egyptian power fell into decline and Nubia was united as the kingdom of Kush (ca. 1000 BC-300 AD). The initial capital of this kingdom was Napata.B57,23

For a brief period, Kush actually conquered Egypt, such that its kings took on the additional role of pharaoh. Then, driven from Egypt by invading Mesopotamians, the kingdom moved its capital southward, to Meroë. Kush continued to thrive until ca. 300 AD, when Meroë was destroyed by Ethiopia.23


The region of Nubia continued to be ruled by native kingdoms until the end of the medieval period. During this time, Nubia became Christianized (via Egypt); following the expansion of the Caliphate, Nubia became an island of Christianity in an Islamic sea. The region was finally conquered and converted by neighbouring Islamic powers ca. 1500.23


The next great power of Sub-Saharan Africa was Ethiopia. This state emerged ca. 100 AD, and has remained an independent power ever since, with only one brief interruption (the fascist Italian occupation). During the first phase of its history (ca. 100-1000), Ethiopia is known as Aksum; its capital city had the same name.22,25

Aksum flourished most brilliantly in the period between the fall of Kush (which occurred when Aksum destroyed Meroë) and the rise of the Caliphate: in other words, ca. 300-650. During this period, Aksum embraced Christianity, which arrived in Ethiopia via Nubia. Aksumite wealth was based largely on control of Red Sea trade.22,25

Aksum (at its peak)

Ca. 650, the Caliphate spread rapidly across Southwest Asia and North Africa (see History of the Islamic Middle East), and Arab merchants came to dominate the Red Sea. Aksum fell into economic decline, and its population shifted southward; it thus became an inland state, perched in the temperate Ethiopian highlands. The spread of Islam across the northern half of Africa surrounded this Christian kingdom with Islamic rivals. Nonetheless, Ethiopia's resilience in the face of both external and civil conflict ensured its survival (including its majority Christian culture) up to the present day.22

Age of Pre-colonial Civilization

Throughout most of Sub-Saharan Africa, urban life did not emerge until the medieval period; Nubia and Ethiopia are the two exceptions. Setting these aside, the Sub-Saharan age of pre-colonial civilization spanned ca. 650-1880. While ancient Sub-Saharan Africa was almost bare of cities, the period ca. 650-1880 featured a rich variety of civilizations.

Pre-colonial Sub-Saharan civilization can be divided into three types: Christian, Islamic, and traditional. Christian Sub-Saharan civilization was limited to Nubia and Ethiopia. Traditional Sub-Saharan cultures ("traditional" in the sense of indigenous religion) flourished throughout the southern half of the African continent, but most were non-urban; only in a few scattered regions did civilization emerge.

Islamic civilization, on the other hand, thrived in the cities of various kingdoms throughout the northern half of Africa. The most fertile portion of Islamic Sub-Saharan Africa was West Africa, thanks to the mighty Niger River; consequently, the most powerful Sub-Saharan Islamic states (known as the "Saharan empires") flourished there, spanning both desert and grassland. Islamic civilization also took hold along much of Africa's east coast, in the form of city-states founded by Arab traders.

Sub-Saharan Africa's 'Age of Pre-colonial Civilization'

Sub-Saharan states (like states everywhere) often derived much of their wealth from trade. During the age of pre-colonial civilization, the Sub-Saharan region featured three major trade zones: north (trans-Saharan trade), east (Indian Ocean trade), and west (Atlantic trade, established by Europe in the Early Modern age). Major Sub-Saharan exports included slaves, gold, copper, and animal products (e.g. ivory, pelts, feathers, tortoise shells).

Pre-colonial Sub-Saharan Trade

Trans-Saharan trade chiefly involved the exchange of West African gold and slaves for manufactured goods and salt from North Africa. Indian Ocean trade focused on the exchange of slaves and raw materials from East and Southern Africa for the manufactured goods of the Islamic world and South Asia. In the Early Modern age, European trading settlements along the west coast added a third major commercial zone, Atlantic trade, which largely supplanted trans-Saharan trade.1

The Saharan empires produced gold and ivory for export to North Africa; they also served as intermediaries for northward flows of gold from Guinea. The largest Saharan empires were the consecutive Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires of West Africa.1 The greatest Saharan empire cities were Timbuktu and Djenné, both of which lie on the Niger.

While these empires were the most prominent Islamic states in Sub-Saharan Africa, smaller Islamic kingdoms formed to the east, such that nearly the entire northern half of the continent fell under Islamic rule. This is reflected in a modern-day religious map of Africa. (The Christianization of the southern half of Africa, which is also reflected in the map below, did not occur until the colonial age.)

Religion in Africa

The east coast city-states, the largest of which included Mogadishu and Mombasa, were founded by Arab traders. While governed by an Arab ruling class, these cities were populated by Arabs and Africans alike. In the Early Modern period, they often fell under the control of Portugal or Oman (a Caliphate splinter state), who struggled for dominance of the coast.1

As described above, Islamic states came to rule most of northern Africa. Of course, the arrival of Islam did not cause local cultures to disappear; rather these cultures blended with Islamic culture to form a unique branch of the Islamic world. Meanwhile, in the southern half of Africa, traditional African life (including indigenous religion) continued in a relatively undisturbed fashion.

The history of pre-colonial civilization in the southern half of Africa is difficult to penetrate, due largely to the lack of written records. For the most part, historical knowledge of this region only extends back to the Early Modern age. Nonetheless, the largest traditional Sub-Saharan states (some of which were urban civilizations) can be traced to four major zones.

Guinea (the southern coast of West Africa) was home to a variety of states known as the forest kingdoms, renowned for their achievements in bronze sculpture (see Sub-Saharan Art). Among the largest were Oyo, Benin, and Ashanti. In addition to gold, forest kingdom industries included palm oil and pepper.1,14

The largest kingdoms of East Africa were cattle-herding societies that thrived on the fertile shores of the Great Lakes. Among the greatest of these lake kingdoms were Bunyoro, Buganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. The latter two survived to become modern nations.1

In Southern Africa, rich quantities of gold, copper, and ivory gave rise to mighty southern kingdoms, which exported these resources to the east coast. Cattle-raising was also important.1,12 The most famous southern kingdom is Great Zimbabwe, renowned for its monumental stone ruins.

The fourth great region of traditional Sub-Saharan states lay in Central Africa, in the savanna south of the rainforest. The states of this region may be referred to as the Congo kingdoms, as they lay in the basin of the Congo River. (A basin is the entire region drained by a particular river.) Their economies were based largely on the export of copper, salt, and dried fish.7 Among the largest were Kongo and Kazembe.

In the Early Modern age, trans-Saharan commerce declined as European powers began to trade heavily along the west coast. While gold was their initial focus, this shifted to slaves with the development of plantations in European colonies (especially Brazil and the Caribbean). While slavery was a common, widely-accepted institution in pre-modern civilizations, Europe expanded it to an unprecedented scale, eventually spurring African kingdoms to wage war solely to capture and sell prisoners. By the time slavery was abolished in the West (throughout the nineteenth century), the number of Africans captured or killed by the European slave trade exceeded twenty million.1,16

The 'Triangular Trade' of the Early Modern Atlantic

Modern Age

During the Scramble for Africa (ca. 1880-WWI), nearly all of Africa was divided up between European powers (see European Colonialism). The only regions to avoid conquest were Ethiopia (which later fell to Italy during the interwar period) and Liberia (whose sovereignty was respected, though its territory was eroded). (Liberia was founded by the American Colonization Society as a home for freed slaves.18) From the Scramble onward, the history of Africa has been closely linked with that of the global superpowers.

Global Empires ca. WWI

The gradual independence of European colonies was achieved mainly in the period ca. WWII-1980 (the "age of decolonization"), with varying degrees of violence. Unfortunately, the borders of most modern Sub-Saharan nations are completely artificial, having been imposed by colonial powers without any regard for native cultures or geography. This has frequently given rise to civil conflict between cultural or racial groups (which was often purposely fostered during the colonial era, in order to weaken native resistance).1

One monumental challenge faced by postwar (post-WWII) African nations is economic development. In colonial times, African economies were shaped to provide Europe with cheap raw materials; industrialization was discouraged, as the home nations aimed to prevent the development of rival manufacturing powers.1 This legacy has hindered the industrialization of African nations, leaving them vulnerable to the often abrupt fluctuations of commodity prices.

Fraught with political, economic, and social challenges, much of postwar Africa fell to dictatorships, which were often notoriously brutal. As in Latin America and the Middle East, many dictators came to power by securing the backing of either the US or USSR (see Cold War). After the Cold War, authoritarian rule was supplanted by democracy in a few African nations, but most still face a long road to the freedom and prosperity enjoyed by the Western nations that have exploited the continent for so long.1

1 - "Africa", Encarta 2004.
2 - "Africa", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
3 - "Ghana Empire", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
4 - "Chad", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
5 - "Somalia", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
6 - "Fulani Empire", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
7 - "Central Africa", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
8 - "Oman", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
9 - "South Africa", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
10 - "Ethiopia", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
11 - "African Art and Architecture", Encarta 2004.
12 - "Southern Africa", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
13 - "Western Africa", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
14 - "Benin", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
15 - "Eastern Africa", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
16 - "Slavery", Encarta 2004.
17 - "Boer", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
18 - "Liberia", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
19 - "The Sudan", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
20 - "Ethiopia", Encarta 2004.
21 - "Africa's genetic secrets unlocked", BBC News. Accessed June 2010.
22 - "Ethiopia", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
23 - "Nubia", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
24 - "The Story of Africa: Nile Valley", BBC World Service. Accessed July 2011.
25 - "Aksum", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2011.