What comes into your mind when “Africa” is mentioned? Some people think about the food. Some people think of the food. Most people don’t want to know more about Africa, and they have little knowledge of the continent prior to slavery. The result is a great deal of ignorance about the history of Africa. However, there is a much longer timeline for the Africans than just the one of colonialism. Great Zimbabwe and Timbuktu, two African civilizations that were rich in education and innovation prior to European intervention, are great examples.

Africa was not an exception. In the past, each continent had its own special resource. Africa was not only resourceful in terms of the resources it offered, but also for the inventions and innovations that the continent produced. Many of these inventions are still in use, including the oven and a variety of medicines. The history of Africa before 1500 is a hidden treasure that should be explored more in historical contexts when discussing innovation.

San are the oldest known Africans. They have existed for about 20,000 years. They lived in a nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life. The Khoi also lived around this time. Their lifestyle focused more on herding. After migrating and settling for a while, they established kingdoms such Great Zimbabwe or Mapungubwe. Iron smelting was taught by them and led to more than just Great Zimbabwe or Mapungubwe. It is called “The Iron Age”. Bantu culture is so widely spread because Bantu people traveled across Africa in this period. Iron Age was not an event that happened on every continent, but a chronological timeline.

Iron Age in Africa began earlier than any other continent, with the 6th century. It spread to Ethiopia, Great Lakes region and Tanzania. Iron was discovered and used to create furnaces, tools that made smelting more efficient, and equipment. The iron was used for pots and plates, but it could lead to lead poisoning. Metal swords, better body armor and catapults became a reality because of these innovative ideals.

Due to the high demand for metals, mining knowledge developed rapidly. Pumps were built to stop mines flooding. Iron Age in Africa was a crucial period, and the timing couldn’t have been better. The Bantu people were responsible for all of this.

More people settled in villages and towns during the Iron Age due to its knowledge and spread on topics which made life easier. This eventually led to towns, cities and cultures. As ideas spread, cultures became more complex. Sub-Saharan Africans became less nomadic as a result. As people began to settle more, their societies became increasingly organized.

Timbuktu was a unique place that offered a great deal of learning. In the midst of all this, African politics, economics, and trade were created. In part because of the increased efficiency, goods were produced in greater quantities, especially on an agricultural level. Africa couldn’t receive goods without trade. Gold was so plentiful in Africa, it was almost worthless. This led to the famous trade of salt for gold. People in the region lacked vitamins essential to their health and required salt to preserve foods. After colonization, trade began to shift from gold towards humans.

After preservation techniques for food were developed, potteries were further improved to accommodate them. The need to keep track of trade and production/productivity resulted in an increase in literacy and numeracy, which was also taught in a more evolved form in Timbuktu. As transport and communication grew, so did the population. Africa flourished. We have talked about the growth and complexity of civilizations so far but we haven’t really looked at individual examples. It is important to establish the right tone.

Great Zimbabwe began around 400 CE. We know very little about Great Zimbabwe, despite its importance as a model of ancient African civilisations. We don’t have any evidence to help us understand its construction and organization, or what led to its collapse in the 1600s. It’s not known if the Great Zimbabweans had a written or spoken history. Ruins are the only source that is considered credible. Great Zimbabwe is the only place in the Kalahari Desert where we can be certain that Iron Age innovations were centered. In 500CE, Bantu speakers, the Shona people’s ancestors, arrived at the site of what was to become Africa’s largest civilization. It is true that “Zimbabwe”, in Shona means “house or stone”, “venerated house”, etc.

The elite ruled the class system of Great Zimbabwe. The elite controlled wealth by managing the cattle in the area. The civilization was thought to have had between 10,00 and 20,000 members. Great Zimbabwe’s walls are one of its most recognizable features. The walls were home to 200 – 300 ruling elites. According to some, the walls were constructed to keep elites separate and above commoners and preserve their privacy. Even though the houses were bigger, they were still small huts. The only information we could find in primary sources was this. After this, only records outside the government can be located.

Carl Mauch’s diary from Sept. 5, 1871 states that Mauch believed Great Zimbabwe was the ruins Ophir. Ophir is a biblical region. Mauch was led to the site by Karanga tribesmen and a single German. European travelers from the 1870s as well British colonists were also secondary sources. The clever craftsmanship and the grand scale of the building astonished them, but they were still ignorant about Africans. They believed that it was impossible that African “savages”, or locals, could build a building of such grandeur. They assumed that foreign powers like the Egyptians and Phoenicians had built it. David Randall MacIver & Gertrude Caton Thompson, in the early 1900s, confirmed that Africa had built these ruins. It is only logical that the collapse of Great Zimbabwe would be the same, since so much information has been theorized about the structure. Theoretical explanations include weather-related changes and the depletion of land, gold, water, etc. One of the most likely scenarios is a drop in gold trading.

The sudden collapse of the African economy can be explained by the rapid switch from gold to slavery. The Portuguese were responsible for the disruption of Zimbabwean industry and trade. Contrary the popular belief that Africans traded across oceans prior to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, this was not the case.

Ancient Africans actually sailed from Africa to Asia, South America and the Caribbean hundreds of centuries before Europeans. Mali (formerly Songhai) and Mali (now Mali) are the most responsible. The kingdoms of Mali and Songhai are responsible for the construction of boats up to 100 feet in length, 13 feet in width, and 80 tons. Trading between East Africa and Asia has led to the growth of African coastal city-states including Kilwa, Sofala and other Swahili speaking cities. Swahili trade with Arabs was the first to spread, followed by cowryshells, fabric, beads for Gold, rhinoceros Horns, Iron, and ivory. But the trade was not limited to physical goods. Arab traders helped spread Islam in Africa. Swahili was also developed by Arab traders. Atlantic Ocean currents are also flowing from West Africa toward South America. Therefore, it is likely that Africans arrived on the East coast South America. This theory is supported by evidence from genetic plants and animals. This is supported by the art of these South American cultures. This is one of the best examples that shows how trade can be so much more. South Americans who have African roots are proof that people tend to follow trade routes. Swahili is another example, as it was created by merchants who married East Africans and settled in East Africa. Swahili originated from the mixing of these cultures. Swahili Cities became the richest cities in the 1500s.

In retrospect Mapungubwe & Great Zimbabwe’s economies were based primarily on the sale and purchase of goods along rivers. Swahili-speaking coastal cities would trade with Great Zimbabwe and other inland kingdoms to obtain ivory, gold and iron. These resources were all sold in India and Southeast Asia. These resources are rare in Asian markets, so they can be sold for high prices. East Africa received high-priced cotton, silk, porcelain, and other goods from East Asia. Trade between the two regions made both areas richer. It’s also important to keep in mind the Trans-Saharan Trade when talking about African trade back in the 1400s. The Arabs and Berbers expanded the trade route, allowing West Sudanese to be formed. We have already discussed how the Iron Age was a time of great innovation and complexity for civilizations.

As civilizations developed, they needed specialized people. Timbuktu is a city that plays a role in this. Timbuktu served as a West African education center and was located specifically in Mali. It was not only a centre for learning, but also an important place to spread Islam. Timbuktu was a hub for scholars from Rome and beyond. There is enough information about Timbuktu. It is because Timbuktu scholars preserved ancient documents. Timbuktu was at its peak between 1493 and 1591. It started to fall around the end the 1500s. The Moroccans defeated the Songhai empire after a 1591 attack, marking the end of trade in the region. The French captured the city in 1893 after being attacked by several other places. Ancient Africans were not just traders. They also had a wealth of knowledge.

The whole continent of Africa was quite knowledgeable in science and technology. The “African Stonehenge”, situated in Kenya in present day, was built around 300 BC. It was praised for being a “remarkably precise calendar”. In Africa, metallurgy, tools, and nails are some of the oldest known inventions.

Medicinal science was also widespread, with Egypt and Nigeria being the most advanced countries at the time. Africans used plants that contained salicylic acids for pain relief, kaolin to treat diarrhea and anticancer properties. Salicylic Acid is now known as Aspirin and Kaopectate. A medicine that was discovered at the time could be used for malaria treatment and to induce abortion. Ancient African treatments for malaria are actually as effective and efficient as those used today! Africa’s daily life was filled with maths, geometry, numbers, and algebra.

Ancient African art was diverse. Metalworking, terracotta and other mediums were used. The first terracotta has been found in Nigeria today. It spans the period from 500 BCE until 200 CE. Nok is the name given to art created by this people group. The first terracotta discovered in the same village was called Nok. Nok Terracottas continue being found, even though little is known about the culture and people behind them. They haven’t been found by any organized excavations. Similar sculptures made from terracotta of human heads were found in South Africa. These two heads were buried in the year 500 CE. In southern Nigeria at Igbo-Ukwu the metalwork was evident in greater quantities. However, art flourished there as early the 9th Century. There were hundreds of castings made from copper alloys. They are incredibly intricate. It is a sign of a culture that was highly regarded and possessed incredibly sophisticated artistic skills.


  • owenbarrett

    I'm Owen Barrett, a 31-year-old educational blogger and traveler. I enjoy writing about the places I've visited and sharing educational content about travel and culture. When I'm not writing or traveling, I like spending time with my family and friends.