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BELL-RINGER:. Turn to page 163. Read “Trans-Saharan Trade” and study the map. Answer the “Thinking Critically” questions on a piece of paper. Early African Civilizations. Understand how geography affected migration, cultural development, and trade in Africa.

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early african civilizations


Turn to page 163. Read “Trans-Saharan Trade” and study the map. Answer the “Thinking Critically” questions on a piece of paper.

Early African Civilizations


Understand how geography affected migration, cultural development, and trade in Africa.

Describe the rise and decline of Nubia.

Explain how outside forces led to change in North Africa.



Sahara – the largest desert in the world, covering almost all of North Africa

savanna – a grassy plain

cataract – waterfall

desertification – the process by which a desert spreads, often caused by climate change

Terms and People

  • Bantu – the root language of a diverse group of West African people who migrated into southern Africa between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1000
  • Nubia – an ancient kingdom that flourished in present-day Sudan at the same time as the ancient Egyptians, from about 2700 B.C. to A.D. 350
  • Meroë – the Nubian capital after 500 B.C., which controlled the Nile’s north-south trade route and the east-west trade route from the Red Sea to North Africa

How did geography and natural resources affect the development of early societies throughout Africa?

The vast Sahara is one of many geographic features of Africa that have influenced its history and development.

Migrations of people and ideas contributed to the rich diversity of this continent.


The variety of climate and geography in Africa influenced its diversity of culture.

One of its most notable geographic features is the vast Sahara, the world’s largest desert.


The most populated regions are the savannas.

Deserts, rain forests, and rivers with cataracts hindered easy movement.

At the same time, the Great Rift Valley served as an interior passage.

Varied vegetation regions form wide bands across Africa.


Several things distinguish the cataracts of the Nile. The first is their shallowness. They are also studded with an assortment of rocks of various sizes, and the bottom of the river is extremely rough at the site. The area is also studded with small islets, and the water is often quite rough, making the cataracts seem like rapids.

Although the word “cataracts” is derived from the Greek word for “waterfall,” the region is not, in fact, made up of waterfalls, although there are true ones along the route of the Nile.

The characteristics of the cataracts made them extremely difficult to navigate, and limited exploration and trade in that region of Africa for many civilizations. In order to travel over these shallows, people were forced to get out of their boats and drag them along the rocky riverbed, taking care to avoid protruding boulders and islets. In some cases, the cataracts became easier to navigate during the flood season, which elevated the water level.


The Nile is the world's longest river at 4,135 miles. It has two sources, one at Lake Victoria, in Uganda (the White Nile) and one at Lake Tana, in Ethiopia (the Blue Nile).


Camels could carry heavy loads 20 or 30 miles a day.

Merchants on both sides of the Sahara profited from these “ships of the desert.”

Despite the difficulty of travel, trade across the Sahara expanded by A.D. 200 due to the introduction of camels from Asia.


The Sahara was a well-watered area at the time.

However, around 2500 B.C. climate change led todesertification of the Sahara.

As farmland was lost, people began to migrate south.

By 5500 B.C., Neolithic farmers cultivated the Nile Valley. Farming villages also appeared in the Sahara.


West Africans who migrated south and east spoke a variety of languages derived from a root language called Bantu.

This mass movement of peoples is known as the Bantu migrations.


Located south of Egypt, Nubia was under Egyptian control for many years. It regained its independence by 1100 B.C.

Around 730 B.C. the Nubian king Piankhi conquered Egypt.

Assyrians later conquered Nubia. By 500 B.C., Nubia moved its capital to Meroë.

The kingdom of Nubia took shape at the same time as the great Egyptian civilization.


People in the Nubian capitalMeroëmastered ironworking and the city became a trade center.

Nubians worshipped their own gods and developed their own form of writing.

Ultimately, the civilization declined. Nubia was invaded from the south by the kingdom of Axum in A.D. 350.


Phoenician traders built Carthage, which was powerful from 800 B.C. to 146 B.C.

  • After the Punic Wars, Rome burned Carthage.
  • Romans farmed North Africa to feed their people.
  • Under Roman rule, Christianity spread to North Africa.

Early North African civilizations

had strong ties to the Mediterranean Sea and were influenced by outsiders.


Under Arab rule, Islam replaced Christianity as the dominant religion of North Africa, and Arabic replaced Latin as the dominant language.

Muslim civilization flourished in cities such as Cairo, Fez, and Marrakesh.

Over time, Muslim traders from North Africa spread Islam into West Africa.

Islam spread to North Africa in the 690s as a result of the Arab invasions.


Understand why gold and salt were important in early Africa.

Describe how the rulers of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai built strong kingdoms.

Summarize how other West African societies developed.



surplus – more of something than is needed

commodity – valuable product

Ghana – a kingdom created around A.D.800 along the Niger and Senegal rivers

Sundiata – according to tradition, founder of the empire of Mali by 1235

Terms and People

  • Mali – an empire in Africa founded in 1235 in the upper Niger River region
  • Mansa Musa – the greatest ruler of the kingdom of Mali, who came to the throne in 1312 and led for 25 years
  • Songhai – a kingdom that developed in the 1460s at the bend in the Niger River

How did the kingdoms of West Africa develop and prosper?

As trade in Africa expanded, cities such as Gao and Timbuktu developed and became wealthy centers of commerce.

Between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1600, several kingdoms gained control of prosperous cities such as these.


When farmers began to produce surpluses, trade expanded from the savanna across the Sahara.

  • Gold and salt were two of the most traded commodities.
  • The Sahara had an abundance of salt, which people needed in their diet to replace salt lost in perspiration.
  • In the savanna, salt was scarce. A merchant might trade one pound of gold for one pound of salt.

As trade grew, cities developed on the northern edges of the savanna.

Monarchs gained control of trade routes and built powerful kingdoms.

Trade routes crisscrossed the African continent between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1600


By A.D. 800, the rulers of the Soninke people united many farming villages to create the kingdom of Ghana.

  • Ghana was located in the fertile area between the Niger and Senegal rivers.
  • Rulers of Ghana controlled gold-salt routes across West Africa.
  • Muslim merchants from North of the Sahara brought Islam to Ghana.

According to tradition, Mali was founded in 1235 by a young man named Sundiata.

The kings of Mali, or mansas,took control of gold-mining regions and the gold-salt trade.

The greatest ruler of Mali,Mansa Musa, came to power in about 1312. He conquered additional territory and converted to Islam.

Ghana fell in around 1050. In time, the new kingdom of Mali replaced Ghana.


After a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, Mansa Musa brought Muslim scholars and architects to Mali.

He built a university at Timbuktu that became a great center of learning.

This map shows Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca.


In the 1400s, Mali weakened and the new West African kingdom of Songhai arose.

The soldier-king Sonni Ali brought trade routes and cities under his control.

When he died, the emperor Askia Muhammad expanded Songhai territory,holding court at Gao.

He formed strong ties to the Muslim world.


In 1591, invaders from Morocco conquered the empire.

Though the invaders couldn’t maintain control, the glory of the Songhai kingdom was over.

The Songhai kingdom experienced disputes over succession in the late 1500s.


Explain how religion influenced the development of Axum and Ethiopia.

Understand how trade affected the city-states in East Africa.

Describe the economy of Great Zimbabwe.



Axum – trading center and powerful ancient kingdom in northern present-day Ethiopia

Adulis – an Axum port city on the Red Sea, one of two major cities in the kingdom that commanded a trade network in the region

Ethiopia – a Greek term used by Axumite kings to refer to their kingdom

Terms and People

  • King Lalibela – the ruler of Ethiopia in the early 1200s
  • Swahili – an East African language and culture that emerged by the 1000s from a combination of African, Asian, and Arabic influences
  • Great Zimbabwe – powerful East African medieval trade center and city-state between 900 and 1500. Located in southern present-day Zimbabwe

What influence did religion and trade have on the development of East Africa?

The kingdom of Axum expanded across the northern Ethiopian highlands of East Africa after 100 B.C. This civilization gained control of the Red Sea and grew rich from trade.

As East Africans traded and exchanged ideas with people from Asia and the Middle East, a new culture and language emerged.


Axum stretched from the mountains of present-day Ethiopia to the Red Sea.

The people there were descended from African farmers and Middle Easterners.

The two cultures blended and created a new language called Geez.

The kingdom of Axum flourished between 300 B.C. and A.D. 600.


One of its main cities, Adulis, was a port on the Red Sea. Here, goods such as ivory, animal hides, and gold were brought to market.

Axum controlled a triangular trade network between Africa, India, and the Mediterranean.

Axum grew very wealthy through trade.


This conversion strengthened the kingdom’s ties with North Africa and the Mediterranean.

However, when Islam spread in the 600s, Axum became isolated from many of its trading partners.

Civil war and economic weakness led to the decline of Axum.

Axum converted to Christianity in the 300s.


King Lalibelacame to power in Ethiopia in the early 1200s.

He directed the building of Christian churches, carved into solid rock.

Protected by rugged mountains, Ethiopia kept its independence for centuries.

The legacy of Axum survived in medieval Ethiopia.


Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Indian, Muslim, and Asian traders had visited since ancient times.

By the 600s, sailors learned that monsoon winds would carry them from India to Africa each year.

Foreign trade helped local rulers build strong, independent city-states, such as Kilwa.

A rich cultural mix existed along the East African coast.


Swahilideveloped as greater numbers of people began to settle in East Africa.

  • Arabic words were absorbed into the Bantu-based language to create Swahili, an Arabic word meaning “of the coast.”

This vibrant trading culture on the coast of East Africa led to the emergence of a new language.


Bantu-speaking people who lived in this region between 900 and 1500 built huge stone towers in their capital city.

The ruins left behind today are called Great Zimbabwe. Archaeologists are working now to learn more about this civilization.

South of the coastal city-states, a great inland empire existed.


It had artisans and skilled builders. The ruler was probably a god-king who presided over a large court.

Zimbabwe declined by 1500, probably due to civil war and slowing trade.

Great Zimbabwe was part of an extensive trade network. It reached its height around 1300.