By Dr Michelina Andreucci
EXCEPT for the history of ancient Egypt, Western academics have always portrayed the continent of Africa as terra incognita — with no past or history; often viewed as one vast ‘country’ with uncivilised inhabitants.
These generalisations underrated the continent’s diversity and African civilisations.
African environments are extremely diverse; from dry deserts to dense rain forests. As a result of this vast diversity, indigenous peoples and civilisations adapted to suit these environments accordingly.
The continuous and erroneous apportionment of knowledge, skill and trade, to the first people encountered by the early explorers has deprived African history of much of its inventions and innovations. Yet, as the saying in Shona ontology goes: ‘The ground is the one that has the knowledge of its inhabitants’. In other words, land holds and reveals the correct history – Africa is the genesis of knowledge.
The Pharaonic civilisation of ancient Egypt is the first major African civilisation and one of the world’s earliest and longest-lasting civilisations. It profoundly shaped other world civilisations; from the building of massive pyramids, that still stand today, to the development of hieroglyphics (a complex written language), the rise of literacy, the creation of the plough and the first evidence of long distance trade in the ancient world which connected Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran and Afghanistan.
Egyptians had begun cultivating crops by 8000 BC; and by 4 000 BC, farming was entrenched on the banks of the River Nile. Irrigation canals led from the rivers, permitting the cultivation of cereals in quantities large enough to support cities.
The major irrigated cereal crops being emmer; an ancestral variety of wheat, barley and cotton.
In 3200 BC, Lower and Upper Egypt were unified into the early Egyptian states which formed the great Egyptian civilisation.
Just as MaDzimbahwe in sub-Saharan Africa, this North African Egyptian state, with its complex society, had varying levels of influence over vast areas, including Nubia and Ancient Libya as well as far north Crete, until 343 BC.
In 332 BC, Alexander the Great (356-323BC) liberated Egypt (through conquest) from Persian occupation and founded Alexandria, which, after his death, became the prosperous capital of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.
Egypt, Cyprus, Phoenicia and Cyrenaica all fell under the Ptolemaic Empire’s control.
These were all major grain-producing regions on which mainland Greeks depended for subsistence. The grain market from the region also played a critical role in the rise of the Roman Republic.
North Africa’s Mediterranean coastline was conquered by the Roman Empire and was integrated, economically and culturally, into the Roman system. Emperor Septimius Severus was the first indigenous Roman Emperor in North Africa.
Indigenous Africans were skilled agriculturalists and metalworkers; the use of iron tools marked a significant moment in African civilisation.
Iron tools advance everyday lives; enhanced weaponry allowed groups to clear and manage dense forests and plough fields for farming; thus develop a number of agricultural systems, including irrigation systems.
Similarly, iron tools ultimately enabled African communities to flourish in every environment; promoting larger communities which led to the formation of states and kingdoms. Among prominent pre-colonial African civilisations beyond Egypt were Nubia, Ghana, Mali, Carthage, Kongo and Zimbabwe.
In West Africa, the empires of Sudan, Ghana, Mali and Songhai also flourished.
Early in the 7th Century, the newly-formed Arabian Islamic Caliphate expanded into Egypt, then further into North Africa. In a short while, the local Berber elite were integrated into Muslim Arab ethnic groups.
In the 8th Century, after the fall of its capital in Damascus, the Islamic center of this Mediterranean region moved from Syria to North Africa, which soon became a diversified Islamic centre for scholars, jurists, mystics and philosophers; during which time Islam spread to sub-Saharan Africa, mainly through trade routes and migration.
Until the 19th Century, trade networks were more extensive than either cultural or political spheres.
By the 9th Century, a number of dynastic African states, including the earliest Hausa Kingdom states, stretched across sub-Sahara from the Western regions to Central Sudan. The most powerful of these states were Ghana, Gao and the Kanem-Bornu Empires.
In the 11th Century, Ghana refused/declined Islam and was succeeded by the Mali Empire which consolidated most of western Sudan in the 13th Century.
The extensive movement of people which began soon after the Islamic conquest of North Africa, together with the gradual drying of the area, resulted in the Bantu Migration.
From Cameroon, Eastern Nigeria and elsewhere, people moved towards the forest regions of the Congo River basin where they established communities.
Besides being active hunters and fishermen, they cultivated yams and palms for oil.
Approximately 1 000 years BC, the southern savannah grasslands of Angola were reached. At the same time, permanent communities settled along the shores of the Great Lakes (now Lake Victoria), in East Africa and on the foothills of high mountains like Mount Kenya and areas close to the Rift Valley and Western Tanzania; from where the nucleus of Zimbabwe’s inhabitants also originated, prior to their continued migration.
During this period, communities moved freely around the continent, sharing their knowledge between them. The people were skilled iron workers and learned the skills needed to plant, grow grains and maintain large herds of cattle.
By 500 AD, much of eastern and southern Africa was occupied by Iron Age cultivators.
People settled in small groups in fertile valleys and highvelds of southern Africa, in areas close to good water sources on the edge of forests, valleys and along coastal and lake shores; bringing with them their skills and knowledge.
They took the skills involved in agriculture, working with iron, herding livestock and making pottery and moved in small groups across much of east, central and southern Africa where they integrated with the indigenous Khoisan people, absorbing and sharing their knowledge.
Dependant for their survival on agriculture, hunting, keeping livestock and fishing, an array of agricultural systems were developed by the people and spread across the whole of the African continent.
These included irrigation methods and a complex system of crop rotation that helped to maintain the sustainability of soil and prevent it from becoming exhausted of minerals; as was a form of terraced cultivation to prevent soil erosion that is also practiced in Nyanga.
Indigenous skilled agriculturalists developed a complex agro-pastoral culture where crops and animals worked in partnership to create a sustainable agricultural system. Agro-pastoral system was an opportunistic method of cereal cropping developed alongside cattle herding.
European incursions onto the African continent could have resulted in their gain of indigenous agricultural skills and practices which in turn helped to fuel the 18th Century Agricultural Revolution in England.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org