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Africa (ăf´rĬkə), second largest continent (2009 est. pop. 1,010,000,000), c.11,677,240 sq mi (30,244,050 sq km) including adjacent islands. Broad to the north (c.4,600 mi/7,400 km wide), Africa straddles the equator and stretches c.5,000 mi (8,050 km) from Cape Blanc (Tunisia) in the north to Cape Agulhas (South Africa) in the south. It is connected with Asia by the Sinai Peninsula (from which it is separated by the Suez Canal) and is bounded on the N by the Mediterranean Sea, on the W and S by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the E and S by the Indian Ocean. The largest offshore island is Madagascar; other islands include St. Helena and Ascension in the S Atlantic Ocean; São Tomé, Príncipe, Annobón, and Bioko in the Gulf of Guinea; the Cape Verde, Canary, and Madeira islands in the N Atlantic Ocean; and Mauritius, Réunion, Zanzibar, Pemba, and the Comoros and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.

Geology and Geography

Most of Africa is a series of stable, ancient plateau surfaces, low in the north and west and higher (rising to more than 6,000 ft/1,830 m) in the south and east. The plateau is composed mainly of metamorphic rock that has been overlaid in places by sedimentary rock. The escarpment of the plateau is often in close proximity to the coast, thus leaving the continent with a generally narrow coastal plain; in addition, the escarpment forms barriers of falls and rapids in the lower courses of rivers that impede their use as transportation routes into the interior. Northern Africa is underlain by folded sedimentary rock and is, geologically, more closely related to Europe than to the rest of the continent of Africa; the Atlas Mts., which occupy most of the region, are a part of the Alpine mountain system of southern Europe. The entire African continent is surrounded by a narrow continental shelf. The lowest point on the continent is 509 ft (155 m) below sea level in Lake Assal in Djibouti; the highest point is Mt. Uhuru (Kibo; 19,340 ft/5,895 m), a peak of Kilimanjaro in NE Tanzania. From north to south the principal mountain ranges of Africa are the Atlas Mts. (rising to more than 13,000 ft/3,960 m), the Ethiopian Highlands (rising to more than 15,000 ft/4,570 m), the Ruwenzori Mts. (rising to more than 16,000 ft/4,880 m), and the Drakensberg Range (rising to more than 11,000 ft/3,350 m).

The continent's largest rivers are the Nile (the world's longest river), the Congo, the Niger, the Zambezi, the Orange, the Limpopo, and the Senegal. The largest lakes are Victoria (the world's second largest freshwater lake), Tanganyika, Albert, Turkana, and Nyasa (or Malawi), all in E Africa; shallow Lake Chad, the largest in W Africa, shrinks considerably during dry periods. The lakes and major rivers (most of which are navigable in stretches above the escarpment of the plateau) form an important inland transportation system.

Geologically, recent major earth disturbances have been confined to areas of NW and E Africa. Geologists have long noted the excellent fit (in shape and geology) between the coast of Africa at the Gulf of Guinea and the Brazilian coast of South America, and they have evidence that Africa formed the center of a large ancestral supercontinent known as Pangaea. Pangaea began to break apart in the Jurassic period to form Gondwanaland, which included Africa, the other southern continents, and India. South America was separated from Africa c.76 million years ago, when the floor of the S Atlantic Ocean was opened up by seafloor spreading; Madagascar was separated from it c.65 million years ago; and Arabia was separated from it c.20 million years ago, when the Red Sea was formed. There is also evidence of one-time connections between NW Africa and E North America, N Africa and Europe, Madagascar and India, and SE Africa and Antarctica.

Similar large-scale earth movements (see plate tectonics) are also believed responsible for the formation of the Great Rift Valley of E Africa, which is the continent's most spectacular land feature. From c.40 to c.60 mi (60–100 km) wide, it extends in Africa c.1,800 mi (2,900 km), from the northern end of the Jordan Rift Valley in SW Asia to near the mouth of the Zambezi River; the eastern branch of the rift valley is occupied in sections by Lakes Nyasa and Turkana, and the western branch, curving N from Lake Nyasa, is occupied by Lakes Tanganyika, Kivu, Edward, and Albert. The lava flows of the recent and subrecent epochs in the Ethiopian Highlands, and volcanoes farther south, are associated with the rift; among the principal volcanoes are Kilimanjaro, Kenya, Elgon, Meru, and the Virunga range with Mt. Karisimbi, Nyiragongo, and Nyamuragira (Nyamulagira). A less spectacular rift, the Cameroon Rift, is associated with volcanic activity in W Africa and trends NE from St. Helena Island to São Tomé, Príncipe, and Bioko to near the Tibesti Massif in the Sahara.


Africa's climatic zones are largely controlled by the continent's location astride the equator and its almost symmetrical extensions into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Thus, except where altitude exerts a moderating influence on temperature or precipitation (permanently snowcapped peaks are found near the equator), Africa may be divided into six general climatic regions. Areas near the equator and on the windward shores of SE Madagascar have a tropical rain forest climate, with heavy rain and high temperatures throughout the year. North and south of the rain forest are belts of tropical savanna climate, with high temperatures all year and a seasonal distribution of rain during the summer season. The savanna grades poleward in both hemispheres into a region of semiarid steppe (with limited summer rain) and then into the arid conditions of the extensive Sahara (north) and the Kalahari (south). Belts of semiarid steppe with limited winter rain occur on the poleward sides of the desert regions. At the northern and southern extremities of the continent are narrow belts of Mediterranean-type climate with subtropical temperatures and a concentration of rainfall mostly in the autumn and winter months.

African Peoples

African peoples, who account for over 12% of the world's population, are distributed among 55 countries and are further distinguishable in terms of linguistic (see African languages) and cultural groups, which number around 1,000. The Sahara forms a great ethnic divide. North of it, mostly Arabs predominate along the coast and Berbers (including the Tuareg) and Tibbu in the interior regions. Sub-Saharan Africa is occupied by a diverse variety of peoples including, among others, the Amhara, Mossi, Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo, Kongo (see Kongo, kingdom of), Zulu (see Zululand), Akan, Oromo, Masai, and Hausa. Europeans are concentrated in areas with subtropical climates or tropical climates modified by altitude; in the south are persons of Dutch and British descent, and in the northwest are persons of French, Italian, and Spanish descent. Lebanese make up an important minority community throughout W Africa, as do Indians in many coastal towns of S and E Africa. There are also significant Arab populations both in E Africa and more recently in W Africa. As a whole, Africa is sparsely populated; the highest densities are found in Nigeria, the Ethiopian highlands, the Nile valley, and around the Great Lakes (which include Victoria and Tanganyika). The principal cities of Africa are usually the national capitals and the major ports, and they usually contain a disproportionately large percentage of the national populations; Cairo, Lagos (Nigeria), Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Alexandria (Egypt), and Casablanca (Morocco) are the largest cities of Africa.


Most of Africa's population is rural, but, except for cash crops, such as cacao and peanuts, agricultural production is low by world standards; Africa produces three quarters of the world's cocoa beans and about one third of its peanuts. Rare and precious minerals (including much of the world's diamonds) are abundant in the continent's ancient crystalline rocks, which are found mostly to the south and east of a line from the Gulf of Guinea to the Sinai Peninsula; extensive oil, gas, and phosphate deposits occur in sedimentary rocks to the north and west of this general line. Manufacturing is concentrated in the Republic of South Africa and in N Africa (especially Egypt and Algeria). Despite Africa's enormous potential for hydroelectric power production, only a small percentage of it has been developed. Africa's fairly regular coastline affords few natural harbors, and the shallowness of coastal waters makes it difficult for large ships to approach the shore; deepwater ports, protected by breakwaters, have been built offshore to facilitate commerce and trade. Major fishing grounds are found over the wider sections of the continental shelf as off NW, SW, and S Africa and NW Madagascar.

Outline of History

Early History to 1500

Africa has the longest human history of any continent. African hominids date from at least 4 million years ago; agriculture, brought from SW Asia, appears to date from the 6th or 5th millennium BC Africa's first great civilization began in Egypt in 3400 BC; other ancient centers were Kush and Aksum. Phoenicians established Carthage in the 9th cent. BC and probably explored the northwestern coast as far as the Canary Islands by the 1st cent. BC Romans conquered Carthage in 146 BC and controlled N Africa until the 4th cent. AD Arabs began their conquest in the 7th cent. and, except in Ethiopia, Muslim traders extended the religion of Islam across N Africa and S across the Sahara into the great medieval kingdoms of the W Sudan. The earliest of these kingdoms, which drew their wealth and power from the control of a lucrative trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, and slaves, was ancient Ghana, already thriving when first recorded by Arabs in the 8th cent. In the 13th cent. Ghana was conquered and incorporated into the kingdom of ancient Mali, famous for its gold and its wealthy capital of Timbuktu. In the late 15th cent. Mali was eclipsed by the Songhai empire and lost many provinces but remained an autonomous kingdom.

There are few written accounts of the southern half of the continent before 1500, but it appears from linguistic and archaeological evidence that the older inhabitants were gradually absorbed or displaced by agricultural, iron-working peoples speaking related Bantu languages who originated from near the modern Nigeria-Cameroon border. Between the 1st cent. BC and 1500, Bantu-speaking peoples became dominant over most of the continent S of the equator, establishing small farming villages and in places powerful kingdoms, such as Kongo, Luba, and Mwememutapa. Prior to and after 1500, pastoralists moved south until they encountered the various Bantu groups and founded the kingdom of Kitara in the 16th cent. They subsequently founded the kingdoms of Bunyoro, Buganda, Rwanda, and Ankole, all of which had elaborate social structures based on a cattle-owning aristocracy.

European Domination

The period of European domination of Africa began in the 15th cent. with Portuguese exploration of the coasts of Africa in an attempt to establish a safe route to India and to tap the lucrative gold trade of Sudan and the east coast trade in gold, slaves, and ivory conducted for centuries by Arabs and Swahili. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope; in 1498 Vasco da Gama reached the east coast and, the following year, India. In the centuries that followed, coastal trading stations were established by Portugal and later by the Dutch, English, French, and other European maritime powers; under them the slave trade rapidly expanded. At the same time Ottoman Turks extended their control over N Africa and the shores of the Red Sea, and the Omani Arabs established suzerainty over the east coast as far south as Cape Delgado.

Explorations in the 18th and 19th cent. reported the great natural wealth of the continent while capturing the imagination of Europeans, who viewed Africa as the "Dark Continent." These were key factors in the ensuing wave of European imperialism; between 1880 and 1912 all of Africa except Liberia and Ethiopia fell under control of European powers, with the boundaries of the new colonies often bearing no relationship to the realities of geography or to the political and social organization of the indigenous population. In the northwest and west, France ultimately acquired regions that came to be known as French West Africa, French Equatorial Africa, and the French Cameroons, and established protectorates in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Other French territories were French Somaliland, French Togoland, Madagascar, and Réunion. The main group of British possessions was in E and S Africa; it included the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, British Somaliland, Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika (after World War I), Zanzibar, Nyasaland, Northern and Southern Rhodesia, Bechuanaland, Basutoland, and Swaziland. Following Britain's victory in the South African War (1899–1902), its South African possessions (Transvaal, Orange Free State, Cape Colony, and Natal) became a dominion within the British Empire. Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, and Nigeria were British possessions on the west coast. Portugal's African empire was made up of Portuguese Guinea, Angola, and Mozambique, in addition to various enclaves and islands on the west coast. Belgium held the Belgian Congo and, after World War I, Ruanda-Urundi. The Spanish possessions in Africa were the smallest, being composed of Spanish Guinea, Spanish Sahara, Ifni, and the protectorate of Spanish Morocco. The extensive German holdings—Togoland, the Cameroons, German South-West Africa, and German East Africa—were lost after World War I and redistributed among the Allies; Italy's empire included Libya, Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland.

Movement toward Independence

The Union of South Africa was formed and became virtually self-governing in 1910, Egypt achieved a measure of sovereignty in 1922, and in 1925 Tangier, previously attached to Morocco, was made an international zone. At the end of World War II a rise in international trade spurred renewed exploitation of Africa's resources. France and Britain began campaigns to improve conditions in their African holdings, including access to education and investment in infrastructure. Africans were also able to pressure France and Britain into a degree of self-administration. Belgium and Portugal did little in the way of colonial development and sought greater control over their colonies during this period.

In the 1950s and 1960s, in the face of rising nationalism, most of the European powers granted independence to their territories. The sequence of change included independence for Libya in 1951; independence for Eritrea in federation with Ethiopia in 1952 (later absorbed by Ethiopia, Eritrea became fully independent in 1993); in 1956 independence for Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia and the return of Tangier to Morocco; in 1957 independence for Ghana; in 1958 independence for Guinea and the return of Spanish Morocco to Morocco. In 1960 France granted independence to Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), Côte d'Ivoire, Dahomey (now Benin), Gabon, the Malagasy Republic (now Madagascar), Mali (briefly merged in 1959–60 with Senegal as the Sudanese Republic), Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso); also newly independent in 1960 were Congo (Kinshasa)—the former Belgian Congo—and Nigeria, Somalia, and Togo. In 1961 Sierra Leone and Tanganyika (now part of Tanzania) became independent, the Portuguese enclave of São João Baptista de Ajudá was seized by Dahomey, the British Cameroons were divided between Nigeria and Cameroon, and South Africa became a republic. In 1962 Algeria, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda became independent nations. Remaining British possessions after 1962 were Zanzibar, which gained independence in 1963 and joined with Tanganyika to form Tanzania in 1964; Gambia and Kenya, which became independent in 1963; Malawi (formerly Nyasaland) and Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia), independent in 1964; Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland) and Lesotho (formerly Basutoland), independent in 1966; and Mauritius and Swaziland, independent in 1968. In 1968 Spain granted independence to Equatorial Guinea, and in 1969 Spain returned Ifni to Morocco.

In 1974 Portuguese Guinea became independent as Guinea-Bissau, and the former Portuguese territories of Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Principe became independent in 1975. After Spain relinquished the Spanish Sahara (Western Sahara) to joint Moroccan-Mauritanian control in 1976, a guerrilla force undertook a struggle for independence there. Under rebel pressure, Mauritania yielded its sector of Western Sahara to Morocco in 1979; Morocco, for its part, built fortifications in the territory and resisted pressures for its independence. A cease-fire (1991) ended the fighting but did not lead to a final resolution. The Seychelles and the Comoros became independent in 1976 from Great Britain and France, respectively, and in 1977 the former French Territory of the Afars and the Issas became independent as Djibouti. When Rhodesia (formerly Southern Rhodesia) unilaterally declared itself independent in 1965, Great Britain termed the act illegal and imposed trade sanctions against the country; after a protracted civil war, however, Rhodesia gained recognized independence in 1980 as Zimbabwe. South West Africa, which had been administered by South Africa since 1922 under an old League of Nations mandate (South Africa's continued administration of the territory was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 1971), won its independence in 1990 as Namibia. Great Britain retains control of the islands of St. Helena and Ascension, and Mayotte and Réunion remain French. Spain retains the Canary Islands and Ceuta and Melilla, two small exclaves on Morocco's coast.

The Postcolonial Period

In the early postcolonial period the most pressing problems facing new African states were the need for aid to develop natural resources, provide education, and improve living standards; threats of secession and military coups; and shifting alliances among the states and with outside powers. Recognizing that unity and cooperation were needed, African nations established the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 in Addis Ababa. African nations were also forced to form alliances based on the cold war politics of the USSR, the United States, Cuba, and other countries in order to receive badly needed aid. This period saw the overthrow of democratic forms of government and numerous coups resulting in the installation of military regimes and single-party governments.

Beginning in the late 1960s and continuing through the mid-1970s, a severe drought desiccated the Sahel region S of the Sahara. The resulting famine, disease, and environmental destruction caused the death of thousands of people and forced the southward migration of additional hundreds of thousands to less affected areas.

From 1975 into the 21st cent., Africa continued to experience political, social, and economic upheaval. The postindependence era has also been marked by a rise in nationalist struggles. Wars in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia continued, and political instability in these nations continued. Civil war in Ethiopia resulted in the birth (1993) of a new country, Eritrea; in 1998–2000 the two nations fought a bloody border war. Beginning in the 1970s, Chad fought Libyan expansionist activity with help of the French military. Relations between Chad and Libya were finally normalized in 1989. Chad remained beset, however, by regional and ethnic fighting, with rebels receiving support from Sudan in the early 21st cent. while Chad supported Sudanese rebels. The conflict between N and S Sudan largely ended with a peace agreement in 2005, and in 2011 South Sudan voted to become an independent nation. Other conflicts within Sudan, most notably in Darfur but also elsewhere, continued to fester.

In the late 1980s, there was a decline of Marxist influence in Angola, from where Cuban troops began to withdraw in 1989, as well as from civil war–torn Mozambique. A UN-aided peace process in Mozambique culminated in peaceful elections there in 1994, but civil conflict continued until 2002 in Angola, as numerous peace agreements between rebels and the government were broken.

South African blacks led an enduring struggle against white domination, with frequent confrontations (such as the Soweto uprising in 1976) leading to government repression and escalating violence. Throughout the 1980s the international community applied pressure in the form of economic sanctions in order to induce the South African government to negotiate with the African National Congress (ANC). In 1989 newly elected Prime Minister F. W. de Klerk promised democratic reforms that would phase out white minority rule, and in 1992 the legal underpinnings of apartheid were largely dismantled. Consequently, South Africa's black majority participated in the country's first fully democratic elections in 1994, which brought Nelson Mandela and the ANC to power.

Other African nations began to introduce democratic reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s that included multiparty elections; transitions to democratically elected leadership have taken place in countries such as Mali, Zambia, Benin, and Malawi. Political instability and civil strife continued to plague several regions of the continent into the late 1990s, most notably Liberia and Sierra Leone in W Africa and Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi in the Great Lakes region. Peace treaties signed in Liberia (1997) and Sierra Leone (1999) between those countries' governments and insurgents promised some hope of stability.

In Rwanda in 1994 a Hutu-led government that provoked ethnic tensions leading to the genocide of nearly one million persons was overthrown by Tutsi-led forces; by 1997 there was a growing war between the Rwandan army and Hutu guerrilla bands. Also in 1997, 30 years of dictatorical rule in Zaïre were brought to an end, and the country's name was changed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The new government was soon threatened, however, by mutinous troops who assumed control of large areas of the country; a cease-fire was signed in 1999, but unrest continued in parts of Congo in subsequent years. Nigeria ushered in a new government in 1999 with the first democratically elected president since 1983. Several African countries made positive strides in managing market-oriented economic reform in the 1990s, most notably Ghana, Uganda, and Malawi.

In 1992–93, the worst African drought of the 20th cent. and numerous civil wars were the primary causes of a famine that spread across portions of sub-Saharan Africa and most severely affected the nations of Somalia and Mozambique. The scourge of AIDS has continued to pose a major health threat to many African nations, as a lack of economic resources often has prevented an effective response. Warfare, poverty, and hunger continue to present significant challenges in Africa, where ethnic tensions and political instability, along with the resulting economic disruption, still afflict many countries.

Mindful of the OAU's relative ineffectiveness in dealing with these issues and seeking an organization with greater powers to promote African economic, social, and political integration, African leaders established the African Union (AU), which superseded the OAU in 2002. The AU has proved somewhat more effective than OAU, but has had difficulty in successively confronting and resolving serious political crises (and sometimes civil war) in Somalia, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and other nations.


See P. Curtin, Precolonial African History (1974); R. Hallet, Africa since 1875 (1974); W. A. Hance, The Geography of Modern Africa (rev. ed. 1975); J. D. Fage and R. Oliver, ed., The Cambridge History of Africa (8 vol., 1975–85); A. E. Afigb et al., The Making of Modern Africa (1986); UNESCO staff, The UNESCO General History of Africa (8 vol., 1988); T. Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa (1991); H. L. Wesseling, Divide and Rule: The Partition of Africa, 1880–1914 (1991, tr. 1996); R. Oliver, The African Experience (1992); J. Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent (1998); K. A. Appiah and H. L. Gates, Jr., ed., The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (2000).

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It is often said that African children face a short, difficult, and brutish existence. Press coverage often stereotypes the sub-Saharan region as a repository of collapse and death. In news reports of civil conflict, plague, and starvation African children are portrayed simply as victims: forever abandoned, turned to fodder by warlords, or buried in endemic calamity. It is tempting to use these pervasive media descriptions to link past and present childhoods in Africa, as if nothing has changed over time. Yet the spotty records that exist from previous centuries do not support this narrow approach. Thus a comprehensive history of African childhood requires a broader analytical view and deeper appreciation of how the most biased sources illuminate the lives of children through the ages.

Rare Historical Perspectives of Childhood in Africa

Beginning in the fourteenth century, "outsider" accounts of sub-Saharan families started to reach wider audiences, offering snapshots that contradicted the images of children's static nightmare existence. In such narratives boys and girls exercised agency, defying notions that they were helpless in the grim tide of history. Even scornful European observers portrayed African children as showing assertiveness or human potential. These eclectic writings, generated by travelers, merchants, missionaries, and colonists, are encumbered by ethnocentrism or, even worse, racist ridicule. Yet on a continent steeped in oral tradition, they also provide rare details of how some adults in Africa perceived childhood, and of how African children influenced governing institutions, sexual mores, environmental sustainability, and religious and political debates.

For example, the trip diary of one fourteenth-century Arab trader, Ibn Batutta, lauded boys in the courts of Mali and Kilwa. They cleverly learned the Qur'an, Ibn Batutta remarked, before assuming posts in Islamic administrations. But he criticized noble girls for sauntering naked in the presence of Muslim suitors. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, Europeans buying slaves from central and southern Africa noted in shipping logs that drought had periodically ruined crops, compelling children orphaned by famine to sell infant siblings for grain. Nineteenth-century white missionaries wrote letters home that criticized "hea-then" girls on the "Dark Continent" for entering into polygamous marriages and obstructing the spread of Christianity.

In the early 1900s white supremacists justified their subordination of the African "heathen" by asserting they merely ruled over the black "tribal" child. Their ideas, popularized by eugenicists such as Dudley Kidd in Savage Childhood, depicted Africans as happy primitives whose development peaked at puberty. Kidd's thesis underpinned a central premise of European rule in Africa, expressed by a British colonial report published in South Africa in 1907: "The treatment of Natives in general must be of an autocratic nature [as the] masses are scarcely out of their childhood.Natives are, in a sense, but children, and should not only be protected from the inherent weaknesses of undeveloped humanity, but guided through the shoals [of] the transition stage" (Colony of Natal Report, 11, 12).

The Rise of Scholarship on African Childhood

From the 1920s through the 1960s, anthropologists (and a few missionaries) rejected the pseudoscientific racism permeating colonial administration and instead fostered critical scholarly interest in African childhood. Contrary to Kidd, they recognized Africans as fully realized adults who arrived at maturity in customary ways. For example, the anthropologists Henry Junod, Daryll Forde, and Hilda Kuper conducted fieldwork on rites of passage, marriage, and childrearing in sub-Saharan communities, while Monica Wilson (among others) distinguished between adult attitudes towards children and the children's own viewpoints. Their findings demonstrated variations between childhoods in precolonial periods (prenineteenth century) and the colonial era (nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries). From the 1970s onwards, more and more historians adopted anthropological methods and gender analyses to gauge how colonialism and capitalism affected African families, particularly mothers and their offspring.

In the 1980s, research on African childhood gathered momentum with the publication of Maidens, Meals, and Money, Claude Meillassoux's anthropological investigations into sub-Saharan relationships between elders and youths. Like Philippe Ariès's Centuries of Childhood, a milestone in historical explorations of family and childhood in the West, Meillaissoux's book developed a bold paradigm that outlined distinct age transitions in "precapitalist" domestic settings from agricultural villages to preindustrial states fused by world religion and international trade. Unlike Ariès, Meillassoux downplayed certain questions, such as: When did adults reckon that children succumbed to "original sin"? or When did parents turn childhood into a stage of indulging innocent individuals?

In sub-Saharan regions, rulers and commoners alike, from the Iron Ages through the Middle Ages and into the twentieth century, understood the role of a child differently from their European counterparts (especially the elite monogamous parents Ariès studied). Rather than being cosseted treasures, African children were valued foremost for their obedient work in families and larger communities shaped by polygyny. Meillassoux claimed that children were on the lowest rung of African society. They were part of a larger group of "juniors" that included subordinates with higher status than children, such as unmarried men and women and young wives. This age-based hierarchy rested on ideals of plural marriagea social system of reproduction sanctioned by "seniors," consisting of both male elders (patriarchs) and older mothers, who controlled the passage of "bridewealth" (cattle or other prestige goods) and brides between households.

Gerontocracy in African Society

A patriarch, or "Big Man," as the historian John Iliffe recently dubbed this figure, was the custodian of an assortment of wives, children, siblings, relations, and dependents. The "Big Man" household originated in equatorial forests and spread south of the Sahara at the start of the first millennium. e. Big Men and their families used Iron Age tools to clear land for agricultural and pastoral production, instituting polygyny to enlarge their labor force in villages, chiefdoms and, later, states. This pattern of social organization had taken root throughout the continent by 1000 c.e. in West Africa among Yoruba, Hausa, and Ibo communities; in central Africa among Kongo and Gisu peoples; in southern Africa among Pondo, Zulu, and Sotho chiefdoms; and among eastern Africa's Somali, Kikuyu, and Chewa families.

The archetypal Big Man's family depended on unequal reciprocity and the work of juniors, principally his brood of children. Over a period of many years (determined by elders), children carried out tasks according to gender division and senior privilege. A father had rights to the labor of his wives and offspring; older wives had rights to the labor of younger wives and their daughters; young women had rights to the labor of their adolescent sisters; and so forth down the domestic pecking order.

Children understood that this generational hierarchy put older adults into positions of esteem. High-placed members of a household earned reverence for leading rites of passage, sealing marriages, and allocating resources. Unmarried sons and daughters were socialized to offer filial piety in return for the meansusually bridewealth for males and garden land for femalesto start their own domestic arrangements. Older children could garner assets (a critical first step before rising in stature) only after they met their responsibilities to elders and their web of kin. Personal accumulation fulfilled certain ambitions, but group belonging superseded individual aims.

As children gained in status, not all could become senior wives and patriarchsa situation that ignited generational struggles. When thwarted aspirations, natural catastrophe, or colonial rule burdened youths with additional heavy obligations, relationships of respect between the old and young could change dramatically. Indeed, examples from sub-Saharan folklore and archival evidence tell of juveniles avenging their exploitation by elders. One Chewa legend portrays children massacring adultsthe young rebels reacted to "toiling endlessly while their elders dined and dozed." A somewhat similar struggle occurred in the modern era. In colonial South Africa in 1906, shortly after a rinderpest epidemic decimated the region's cattle (which was used as bridewealth) and colonialists imposed a tax on single males, Zulu youths attacked their patriarchs for failing to forestall the ensuing hardship.

From Birth to Infancy

Perhaps the first lesson of life learned by the very young was that communal acceptance and nurturance could mean the difference between life and death. Virulent diseases stalked children. Malaria, gastroenteritis, and respiratory infections, to name only a few, kept infant mortality high until the middle of the twentieth century, when the advent of modern medical treatments improved the health and life expectancy of newborns. The withholding of clan approval because of severe birth defects, or the arrival of twins, could also prompt infanticide, as these occurrences were considered a harbinger from ancestors that further troubles loomed. Moreover, the mother of a seriously disabled infant might be seen as suffering needlessly if she had to raise an enfeebled child, while a mother of twins might gravely weaken her capacity to survive if she simultaneously nursed two newborns.

Babies less than three years old were typically breast-fed and carried by their mother on the hip or back, with skin-to-skin contact and access to breast milk vital to building immunities. To guard against unforeseen handicaps and illnesses, infants underwent elaborate ceremonies directed by a paternal elder who could administer magical and herbal charms. These special rites strengthened the bonds between young children and their protective network, which included parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins, spiritual founders long since passed, diviners, and unrelated guardians. Indeed, a baby's name could be chosen to honor her lifelong defenders from revered ancestors to a saint of the Roman Catholic Church (in the fifteenth-century Christian Kongo kingdom).

From Weaning to Puberty

Weaning could come with unforgiving suddenness. For example, some mothers in southern Africa daubed the sap of hot chilies on their nipples when toddlers reached their second or third year. Newly weaned children were expected to contribute almost immediately to domestic upkeep. They could be assigned to teach infant siblings proper conduct, which barred defiance, jealousy, dishonesty, and unjust violence, or they could impart morals through the recitation of proverbs, such as the Sotho expression: kgotso ke nala, (peace is prosperity).

As members of a specially recognized group, some youngsters also taught one another about gender and generational expectations. For example, in Ibo communities boys of the same age and village enrolled in an "age-set" to train to be married men. In twentieth-century Kenya, mission teachers divided Kikuyu children into single-sex school grades and taught them to model themselves on monogamous Christian husbands and wives. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, boys carrying out collective male tasks took their little brothers along to learn how to build huts and fences, forge metals, carve wood, weave fishnets, hunt game, drill for battle, and tend livestock. Similarly, girls instructed their younger sisters in female duties, such as fetching wood and water, making fires, preparing food, thatching huts, making pots, and cultivating crops. In addition, some African states utilized children to fulfill national obligations. Regents in the nineteenth-century Zulu kingdom enlisted regiments of boys to lug provisions during military campaigns and recruited girls to weed the gardens of the royal family.

Children's responsibilities, of course, became more onerous under coercive labor systems. Girls were taken into millenniums-old domestic slavery to serve an African master far from their natal kin. Males were kidnapped and shipped to New World plantations from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, leaving their younger brothers to fill the void. And twentieth-century European rulers compelled adolescents to travel to find colonial employment (as house servants and commercial farm hands, for example) that brought in money for their family's tax requirements.

Yet such adversity gives an unduly bleak and one-sided picture of African childhoods. Though slavery disfigured many African communities, it scarcely touched others. In parts of central and southern Africa, boys and girls generally lived without fear of raiders, enjoying unfettered play that affirmed family security. Their recreation with peers celebrated the nurturer-mother and warrior-father. Pondo girls, for example, transformed corncobs into dolls that they toted on their backs, while boys practiced defensive combat skills by tossing sticks at a branch set upright in the ground.

Even strenuous sacrifices could lead to exploration and benefit. Labor migration, for example, emboldened boys and girls, acquainting them with new cultural possibilities and an economic conduit through which to accumulate their own resources and accelerate their own ascent to seniority. Younger, working sons who bought their own bridewealth did not have to rely on their father's contribution, eroding the generational constraints that prolonged their junior subordination.

Adolescence and Initiation

As children in Africa approached puberty, their games and diversions revealed aspirations to come of age. Not surprisingly, sexual adventuring intensified during adolescence. Various conventions tightly regulated courting, and while romantic interludes could progress to intercourse, this act drew severe censure. The litany of fines and banishments for premarital pregnancy among Yoruba, Kongo, and Zulu people suggests that sexual transgressions occurred with disconcerting regularity. A girl accused of waywardness suffered particularly harsh and lasting punishments, while her male counterpart tended to receive only a firm slap on the wrist. Patriarchal prerogatives dictated this gender discrimination. In many polygynous sub-Saharan societies, a male elder's public pledge that a first-time bride retained her virginity often paved the way for her rites of passage and eventual wedding.

Rites of passage, honored enactments that brought childhood to a close, took place between the ages of twelve and eighteen. In precolonial and colonial times they could entail temporary seclusion from the community, removal of teeth and hair, tattooing, or body incisions. Some coming-of-age ceremonies for boys (that continue to this day) focused on the painful cutting of genitalia, imparting an essential message: achieving adulthood necessitated a sharp separation from childhood and a heightened awareness of the physical and emotional endurance underlying the ancestral commitment to procreate after marriage. At times, initiation practices atrophied, such as when colonial authorities in eastern Africa campaigned to make tribal circumcision a crime; when Xhosa migrants living in congested townships of modern Johannesburg had little space to conduct their rituals; or when precolonial leaders such as Shaka Zulu forbade boys' circumcision and replaced it with two decades of military service to the king.

Girls also underwent circumcision (performed principally by their mothers and grandmothers), but this observance was not widespread in Africa and declined in the twentieth century after missionaries, colonialists, and modernizing African leaders urged its banning. However, toward the end of the twentieth century, female circumcision has apparently been revived in western and eastern Africa. Human rights campaigners have targeted the practice as cruel and unusual punishment, calling it "genital mutilation."

Other rites of passage for girls involved less invasive procedures, such as the cleansing of limbs with sacred liquid (i.e., the gall of livestock) and "coming out" feasts and dances that heralded the female initiates' ascent to a marriageable status. After initiation, boys and girls understood that they maneuvered in a society still dominated by elder authority, but one that was now open to their membership as potential seniors, with the enhanced privileges and responsibilities of young adults.


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, two intriguing questions are being explored: (1) Does childhood end at initiation or linger into young adulthood, a liminal stage before marriage and parenthood? and (2) Does childhood begin at birth, weaning, or some other phase before rites of passage? On a continent so vast, with few records (oral traditions far outweigh the keeping of documents), wide social diversity (myriad ethnic groups), and remarkable continuities (e.g., prevalence of "Big Man" families), the main concern is to devise a framework through which to examine variations in children's roles. To date, Meillassoux's model offers a crucial starting point, but like Ariès's ideas, it too will spark more debates than answers. The conceptual approaches that promise to emerge from these discussions will doubtless advance nascent scholarship on the history of childhood in Africa.

See also: Abduction in Modern Africa; Female Genital Mutiliation; Globalization; Soldier Children.


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Benedict Carton

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From the perspective of geologists and paleontologists, Africa takes center stage in the physical history and development of life on Earth. Africa is the world's second largest continent. Africa possesses the world's richest and most concentrated deposits of minerals such as gold, diamonds, uranium, chromium, cobalt, and platinum. It is also the cradle of human evolution and the birthplace of many animal and plant species, and has the earliest evidence of reptiles, dinosaurs, and mammals.

Present-day Africa, occupying one-fifth of Earth's land surface, is the central remnant of the ancient southern super-continent called Gondwanaland, a landmass once made up of South America , Australia , Antarctica , India, and Africa. This massive supercontinent broke apart between 195 million and 135 million years ago, cleaved by the same geological forces that continue to transform Earth's crust today.

Plate tectonics are responsible for the rise of mountain ranges, the gradual drift of continents, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions . The fracturing of Gondwanaland took place during the Jurassic Period , the middle segment of the Mesozoic Era when dinosaurs flourished on Earth. It was during the Jurassic that flowers made their first appearance, and dinosaurs like the carnivorous Allosaurus and plant eating Stegasaurus lived.

Geologically, Africa is 3.8 billion years old, which means that in its present form or joined with other continents as it was in the past, Africa has existed for four-fifths of Earth's 4.6 billion years. Africa's age and geological continuity are unique among continents. Structurally, Africa is composed of five cratons (structurally stable, undeformed regions of Earth's crust). These cratons, in south, central, and west Africa are mostly igneous granite , gneiss , and basalt , and formed separately between 3.6 and 2 billion years ago, during the Precambrian Era.

The Precambrian, an era which comprises more than 85% of the planet's history, was when life first evolved and the earth's atmosphere and continents developed. Geochemical analysis of undisturbed African rocks dating back 2 billion years has enabled paleoclimatologists to determine that Earth's atmosphere contained much higher levels of oxygen than today.

Africa, like other continents, "floats" on a plastic layer of Earth's upper mantle called the asthenosphere . The overlying rigid crust or lithosphere can be as thick as 150 mi (240 km) or under 10 mi (16 km), depending on location. The continent of Africa sits on the African plate, a section of the earth's crust bounded by mid-oceanic ridges in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans . The entire plate is creeping slowly toward the northwest at a rate of about 0.75 in (2 cm) per year.

The African plate is also spreading or moving outward in all directions, and therefore Africa is growing in size. Geologists state that sometime in the next 50 million years, East Africa will split off from the rest of the continent along the East African rift which stretches 4,000 mi (6,400 km) from the Red Sea in the north to Mozambique in the south.

Considering its vast size, Africa has few extensive mountain ranges and fewer high peaks than any other continent. The major ranges are the Atlas Mountains along the northwest coast and the Cape ranges in South Africa. Lowland plains are also less common than on other continents.

Geologists characterize Africa's topography as an assemblage of swells and basins. Swells are rock strata warped upward by heat and pressure, while basins are masses of lower lying crustal surfaces between swells. The swells are highest in East and central West Africa where they are capped by volcanic flows originating from the seismically active East African rift system. The continent can be visualized as an uneven tilted plateau, one that slants down toward the north and east from higher elevations in the west and south.

During much of the Cretaceous Period , from 130 million to 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs like tyrannosaurus, brontosaurus, and triceratops walked the earth, Africa's coastal areas and most of the Sahara Desert were submerged underwater. Global warming during the Cretaceous Period melted polar ice and caused ocean levels to rise. Oceanic organic sediments from this period were transformed into the petroleum and natural gas deposits now exploited by Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, and Gabon. Today, oil and natural gas drilling is conducted both on land and offshore on the continental shelf .

The continent's considerable geological age has allowed more than enough time for widespread and repeated erosion , yielding soils leached of organic nutrients but rich in iron and aluminum oxides. Such soils are high in mineral deposits such as bauxite (aluminum ore), manganese, iron, and gold, but they are very poor for agriculture. Nutrient-poor soil , along with deforestation and desertification (expansion of deserts) are just some of the daunting challenges facing African agriculture in modern times.

The most distinctive and dramatic geological feature in Africa is undoubtedly the East African rift system. The rift opened up in the Tertiary Period , approximately 65 million years ago, shortly after the dinosaurs became extinct. The same tectonic forces that formed the rift valley and which threaten to eventually split East Africa from the rest of the continent have caused the northeast drifting of the Arabian plate, the opening of the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, and the volcanic uplifting of Africa's highest peaks including its highest, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Mount Kibo, the higher of Kilimanjaro's two peaks, soars 19,320 ft (5,796 m) and is permanently snowcapped despite its location near the equator.

Both Kilimanjaro and Africa's second highest peak, Mount Kenya (17,058 ft; 5,117 m) sitting astride the equator, are actually composite volcanos, part of the vast volcanic field associated with the East African rift valley. The rift valley is also punctuated by a string of lakes , the deepest being Lake Tanganyika with a maximum depth of 4,708 ft (1,412 m). Only Lake Baikal in Eastern Russia is deeper at 5,712 ft (1,714 m).

Seismically, the rift valley is very much alive. Lava flows and volcanic eruptions occur about once a decade in the Virunga Mountains north of Lake Kivu along the western stretch of the rift valley. One volcano in the Virunga area in eastern Zaire which borders Rwanda and Uganda actually dammed a portion of the valley formerly drained by a tributary of the Nile River, forming Lake Kivu as a result.

On its northern reach, the 4,000-mi (6,400-km) long rift valley separates Africa from Asia . The rift's eastern arm can be traced from the Gulf of Aqaba separating Arabia from the Sinai Peninsula, down along the Red Sea, which divides Africa from Arabia. The East African rift's grabens (basins of crust bounded by fault lines) stretch through the extensive highlands of central Ethiopia which range up to 15,000 ft (4,500 m) and then along the Awash River. Proceeding south, the rift valley is dotted by a series of small lakes from Lake Azai to Lake Abaya and then into Kenya by way of Lake Turkana.

Slicing through Kenya, the rift's grabens are studded by another series of small lakes from Lake Baringo to Lake Magadi. The valley's trough or basin is disguised by layers of volcanic ash and other sediments as it threads through Tanzania via Lake Natron. However, the rift can be clearly discerned again in the elongated shape of Lake Malawi and the Shire River Valley, where it finally terminates along the lower Zambezi River and the Indian Ocean near Beira in Mozambique.

The rift valley also has a western arm which begins north of Lake Mobutu along the Zaire-Uganda border and continues to Lake Edward. It then curves south along Zaire's eastern borders forming that country's boundaries with Burundi as it passes through Lake Kivu and Tanzania by way of Lake Tanganyika.

The rift's western arm then extends toward Lake Nysasa (Lake Malawi). Shallow but vast, Lake Victoria sits in a trough between the rift's two arms. Although the surface altitude of the rift valley lakes like Nyasa and Tanganyika are hundreds of feet above sea level, their floors are hundreds of feet below due to their great depths.

The eastern arm of the rift valley is much more active than the western branch, volcanically and seismically. There are more volcanic eruptions in the crust of the eastern arm with intrusions of magma (subterranean molten rock) in the middle and lower crustal depths. Geologists consider the geological forces driving the eastern arm to be those associated with the origin of the entire rift valley and deem the eastern arm to be the older of the two.

It was in the great African rift valley that hominids, or human ancestors, arose. Hominid fossils of the genus Australopithicus dating 34 million years ago have been unearthed in Ethiopia and Tanzania. And the remains of a more direct ancestor of man, Homo erectus, who was using fire 500,000 years ago, have been found in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania as well as in Morocco, Algeria, and Chad.

Paleontologists, who study fossil remains, employ radioisotope dating techniques to determine the age of hominid and other species' fossil remains. This technique measures the decay of short-lived radioactive isotopes like carbon and argon to determine a fossil's age. This is based on the radioscope's atomic half-life , or the time required for half of a sample of a radioisotope to undergo radioactive decay. Dating is typically done on volcanic ash layers and charred wood associated with hominid fossils rather than the fossils themselves, which usually do not contain significant amounts of radioactive isotopes.

Present-day volcanic activity in Africa is centered in and around the East African rift valley. Volcanoes are found in Tanzania at Oldoinyo Lengai and in the Virunga range on the Zaire-Uganda border at Nyamlagira and Nyiragongo. There is also volcanism in West Africa. Mount Cameroon (13,350 ft; 4,005 m) along with smaller volcanos in its vicinity, stand on the bend of Africa's West Coast in the Gulf of Guinea, and are the exception. They are the only active volcanoes on the African mainland not in the rift valley.

However, extinct volcanoes and evidence of their activity are widespread on the continent. The Ahaggar Mountains in the central Sahara contain more than 300 volcanic necks that rise above their surroundings in vertical columns of 1,000 ft or more. Also, in the central Sahara, several hundred miles to the east in the Tibesti Mountains, there exist huge volcanic craters or calderas. The Trou au Natron is 5 mi (8 km) wide and over 3,000 ft (900 m) deep. In the rift valley, the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, surrounded by teeming wildlife and spectacular scenery, is a popular tourist attraction. Volcanism formed the diamonds found in South Africa and Zaire. The Kimberly diamond mine in South Africa is actually an ancient volcanic neck.

The only folded mountains in Africa are found at the northern and southern reaches of the continent. Folded mountains result from the deformation and uplift of the earth's crust, followed by deep erosion. Over millions of years this process built ranges like the Atlas Mountains, which stretch from Morocco to Algeria and Tunisia.

Geologically, the Atlas Mountains are the southern tangent of the European Alps, geographically separated by the Strait of Gibraltar in the west and the Strait of Sicily in the east. The Atlas are strung across northwest Africa in three parallel arrays; the coastal, central, and Saharan ranges. By trapping moisture, the Atlas Mountains carve out an oasis along a strip of northwest Africa compared with the dry and inhospitable Sahara Desert just to the south.

The Atlas Mountains are relatively complex folded mountains featuring horizontal thrust faults and ancient crystalline cores. On the other hand, the Cape ranges are older, simpler structures, analogous in age and erosion to the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States. The Cape ranges rise in a series of steps from the ocean to the interior, flattening out in plateaus and rising again to the next ripple of mountains.

For a continent of its size, Africa has very few islands lying off its coast. The major Mediterranean islands of Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Crete, and Cyprus owe their origins to the events that formed Europe's Alps, and are a part of the Eurasian plate, not Africa. Islands lying off Africa's Atlantic Coast like the Canaries, Azores, and even the Cape Verde Islands near North Africa are considered Atlantic structures. Two islands in the middle of the South Atlantic, Ascension and St. Helena, also belong to the Atlantic. Islands belonging to Equatorial Guinea as well as the island country of Sao Tome and Principe at the sharp bend of Africa off of Cameroon and Gabon are related to volcanic peaks of the Cameroon Mountains, the principal one being Mount Cameroon.

Madagascar, the world's fourth largest island after Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo, is a geological part of ancient Gondwanaland. The island's eastern two-thirds are composed of crystalline igneous rocks , while the western third is largely sedimentary. Although volcanism is now quiescent on the island, vast lava flows indicate widespread past volcanic activity. Madagascar's unique plant and animal species testify to the island's long separation from the mainland.

Marine fossils, notably tribolites dating from the Cambrian Period (505570 million years ago; the first period of the Paleozoic Era ) have been found in southern Morocco and Mauritania. Rocks from the succeeding period, the Ordovician (500425 million years ago) consist of sandstones with a variety of fossilized marine organisms; these rocks occur throughout northern and western Africa, including the Sahara.

The Ordovician Period was characterized by the development of brachiopods (shellfish similar to clams), corals, starfish, and some organisms that have no modern counterparts, called sea scorpions, conodonts, and graptolites. At the same time, the African crust was extensively deformed. The continental table of the central and western Sahara was lifted up almost a mile (1.6 km). The uplifting alternated with crustal subsidings, forming valleys that were periodically flooded.

During the Ordovician Period , Africa, then part of Gondwanaland, was situated in the southern hemisphere on or near the South Pole. It was toward the end of this period that huge glaciers formed across the present-day Sahara and the valleys were filled by sandstone and glacial deposits. Although Africa today sits astride the tropics, it was once the theater of the Earth's most spectacular glacial activity. In the next period, the Silurian (425395 million years ago), further marine sediments were deposited.

The Silurian was followed by the Devonian, Mississippian, and Pennsylvanian Periods (408286 million years ago), the time interval when insects, reptiles, amphibians, and forests first appeared. A continental collision between Africa (Gondwanaland) and the North American plate formed a super-supercontinent (Pangaea) and raised the ancient Mauritanide mountain chain that once stretched from Morocco to Senegal. During the late Pennsylvanian Period , layer upon layer of fossilized plants were deposited, forming seams of coal in Morocco and Algeria.

When Pangaea and later Gondwanaland split apart in the Cretaceous Period (14466 million years ago), a shallow sea covered much of the northern Sahara and Egypt as far south as the Sudan. Arabia, subjected to many of the same geological and climatic influences as northern Africa, was thrust northward by tectonic movements at the end of the Oligocene and beginning of the Miocene Epochs (around 30 million years ago). During the Oligocene and Miocene (535 million years ago; segments of the modern Cenozoic Era ) bears, monkeys, deer, pigs, dolphins, and early apes first appeared.

Arabia at this time nearly broke away from Africa. The Mediterranean swept into the resulting rift, forming a gulf that was plugged by an isthmus at present-day Aden on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti near Ethiopia. This gulf had the exact opposite configuration of today's Red Sea, which is filled by waters of the Indian Ocean.

As the Miocene Epoch ended about five million years ago, the isthmus of Suez was formed and the gulf (today's Red Sea) became a saline (salty) lake. During the Pliocene (1.65 million years ago) the Djibouti-Aden isthmus subsided, permitting the Indian Ocean to flow into the rift that is now the Red Sea.

In the Pleistocene Epoch (11,0001.6 million years ago), the Sahara was subjected to humid and then to dry and arid phases, spreading the Sahara desert into adjacent forests and green areas. About 5,0006,000 years ago in the post glacial period of the modern epoch, the Holocene, a further succession of dry and humid stages, further promoted desertification in the Sahara as well as the Kalahari in southern Africa.

Earth scientists state the expansion of the Sahara is still very much in evidence today, causing the desertification of farm and grazing land and presenting the omnipresent specter of famine in the Sahel (Saharan) region.

Africa has the world's richest concentration of minerals and gems. In South Africa, the Bushveld Complex, one of the largest masses of igneous rock on Earth, contains major deposits of strategic metals such as platinum, chromium, and vanadiummetals that are indispensable in tool making and high tech industrial processes. The Bushveld complex is about 2 billion years old.

Another spectacular intrusion of magmatic rocks composed of olivine , augite, and hypersthene occurred in the Archean Eon over 2.5 billion years ago in Zimbabwe. Called the Great Dyke, it contains substantial deposits of chromium, asbestos, and nickel. Almost all of the world's chromium reserves are found in Africa. Chromium is used to harden alloys, to produce stainless steels, as an industrial catalyst, and to provide corrosion resistance.

Unique eruptions that occurred during the Cretaceous in southern and central Africa formed kimberlite pipesvertical, near-cylindrical rock bodies caused by deep melting in the upper mantle. Kimberlite pipes are the main source of gem and industrial diamonds in Africa. Africa contains 40% of the world's diamond reserves, which occur in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, and Zaire.

In South Africa, uranium is found side-by-side with gold, thus decreasing costs of production. Uranium deposits are also found in Niger, Gabon, Zaire, and Namibia. South Africa alone contains half the world's gold reserves. Mineral deposits of gold also occur in Zimbabwe, Zaire, and Ghana. Alluvial gold (eroded from soils and rock strata by rivers ) can be found in Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, and Gabon.

As for other minerals, half of the world's cobalt is in Zaire and a continuation into Zimbabwe of Zairian cobalt-bearing geological formations gives the former country sizable reserves of cobalt as well. One quarter of the world's aluminum ore is found in a coastal belt of West Africa stretching 1,200 mi (1,920 km) from Guinea to Togo, with the largest reserves in Guinea.

Major coal deposits exist in southern Africa, North Africa, Zaire, and Nigeria. North Africa is awash in petroleum reserves, particularly in Libya, Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia. Nigeria is the biggest petroleum producer in West Africa, but Cameroon, Gabon, and the Congo also contain oil reserves. There are also petroleum reserves in southern Africa, chiefly in Angola.

Most of Africa's iron reserves are in western Africa, with the most significant deposits in and around Liberia, Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, and Mauritania. In West Africa as well as in South Africa where iron deposits are also found, the ore is bound up in Precambrian rock strata.

Africa, like other continents, has been subjected to gyrating swings in climate during the Quartenary Period of the last 2 million years. These climatic changes have had dramatic affects on landforms and vegetation. Some of these cyclical changes may have been driven by cosmic or astronomical phenomena including asteroid and comet collisions.

But the impact of humankind upon the African environment has been radical and undeniable. Beginning 2,000 years ago and accelerating to the present day, African woodland belts have been deforested. Such environmental degradation has been exacerbated by overgrazing, agricultural abuse, and man-made changes, including possible global warming partially caused by the buildup of man-made carbon dioxide , chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and other greenhouse gases .

Deforestation, desertification, and soil erosion pose threats to Africa's man-made lakes and thereby Africa's hydroelectric capacity. Africa's multiplying and undernourished populations exert ever greater demands on irrigated agriculture, but the continent's water resources are increasingly taxed beyond their limits. To stabilize Africa's ecology and safeguard its resources and mineral wealth, many earth scientists argue that greater use must be made of sustainable agricultural and pastoral practices. Progress in environmental and resource management, as well as population control is also vital.

See also Earth (planet)

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(Note: The north of Africa, including the Sahara and the Sudan, has been Islamic territory for many centuries. For a discussion of Islamic magic and alchemy, see the entry Arabs. Instances of Arabic sorcery are also discussed in the Semites entry.)

Beliefs and practices thought of as occult in Western society were integral to the traditional tribal religions in the southern two-thirds of Africa, especially those concerning sympathetic magic, the cult of the dead, and witchcraft. During the history of this region, the basically pantheistic and polytheistic religions have also been cross-fertilized with Islamic and Christian teachings, creating new beliefs and modifying old ones. Today a large but undetermined number of Africans follow traditional beliefs involving deities, ghosts, and spirits as well as an array of special powers in nature presided over by the supreme entity adopted from Christianity and Islam. The latter, somewhat remote from everyday problems, is believed to largely operate on humans through the many other deities.

Southern Africa

Among the Zulu and other Bantu tribes of equatorial and southern Africa, witchcraft or malevolent sorcery was traditionally practicedin secret, for the results of detection were terrible. Tribes instituted a caste of witchfinders assigned the task of tracking down witches.

The nineteenth-century writer Lady Mary Anne Barker observed,

"It is not difficult to understand, bearing in mind the superstition and cruelty which existed in remote parts of England not so very long ago; how powerful such women become among a savage people, or how tempting an opportunity they could furnish of getting rid of an enemy. Of course they are exceptional individuals; more observant, more shrewd, and more dauntless than the average fat, hard-working Kaffir women, besides possessing the contradictory mixture of great physical powers and strong hysterical tendencies. They work themselves up to a pitch of frenzy, and get to believe as firmly in their own supernatural discernment as any individual among the trembling circle of Zulus to whom a touch from the whisk they carry is a sentence of instant death."

The Zulu witchfinders were attended by a circle of girls and women who, like a Greek chorus, clapped their hands and repeated a low chant, the measure and rhythm of which changed at times with a stomp and a swing of the arm. Ceremonial dress was also an important part of the witch doctor's role, for such things appealed directly to the imagination of the crowd and prepared onlookers to be readily swayed by the necromancer's devices. One of the witchfinders, Nozinyanga, was especially impressive. Her fierce face, spotted with gouts of red paint on cheek and brow, was partly overshadowed by a helmetlike plume of the tall feathers of the sakabula bird. In her right hand she carried a light sheaf of assegais (spears), and on her left arm was slung a small and pretty shield of dappled oxhide. Her petticoat, made of a couple of large handkerchiefs, was worn kiltwise. From neck to waist she was covered with bead-necklaces, goat's-hair fringes, and the scarlet tassels. Her chest rose and fell beneath the baldric of leopard skin, fastened across with huge brazen knobs, while down her back hung a beautifully dried and flattened skin of an enormous boa constrictor.

When the community had resolved that a certain misfortune was caused by witches, the next step was to find and punish them. For this purpose the king summoned a great meeting, his subjects sitting on the ground in a ring or circle for four or five days. The witchfinders took their places in the center, and as they gradually worked themselves up to an ecstatic state, resembling possession, they lightly switched with their quagga-tail one of the trembling spectators, who was immediately dragged away and butchered, along with all of his or her relatives and livestock. Sometimes a whole kraal was exterminated in this way, so reminiscent of European witch-hunts.

Barker also described a sorceress named Nozilwane, whose wistful glance, she noticed, had in it something uncanny and uncomfortable. She was dressed beautifully in lynx skins folded over and over from waist to knee, the upper part of her body covered by strings of wild beasts' teeth and fangs, beads, skeins of gaily colored yarn, strips of snakeskin, and fringes of Angora goat fleece. Lynx tails hung like lappets on each side of her face, which was overshadowed and almost hidden by a profusion of sakabula feathers. "This bird," Barker commented, "has a very beautiful plumage, and is sufficiently rare for the natives to attach a peculiar value and charm to the tail-feathers; they are like those of a young cock, curved and slender, and of a dark chestnut color, with a white eye at the extreme tip of each feather." Among all this thick, floating plumage were interspersed small bladders and skewers or pins wrought out of tusks. Like the other witchfinders, she wore her hair highly greased and twisted up with twine until it ceased to have the appearance of hair and hung around the face like a thick fringe, dyed deep red.

Bent double and with a catlike gait, Nozilwane came forward. Every movement of her undulating body kept time to the beat of the girls' hands and their low crooning chant. Soon she pretended to find the thing she sought, and with a series of wild pirouettes leaped into the air, shaking her spears and brandishing her shield like a bacchante. Nowamso, another of the party, was determined that her companion should not get all the applause, and she too, with a yell and a leap, sprang into the dance to the sound of louder grunts and harder handclaps. Nowamso was anxious to display her back, where a magnificent snakeskin, studded in a regular pattern with brass-headed nails, floated like a stream. She was attired also in a splendid kilt of leopard skins, decorated with red rosettes, and her dress was considered more careful and artistic than any of the others'. Nozilwane, however, had youth and stamina on her side. The others, although they all joined in and hunted out an imaginary enemy, and in turn exulted over his discovery, soon became breathless and spent and were glad when their attendants led them away to be anointed and to drink water.

Central Africa

The magical beliefs of central and eastern Africa were for the most part connected with beliefs and practices concerning the dead and the honoring of images. When the ghost of a dead person was weary of staying in the bush, many believed that the spirit would come for one of the people over whom they exerted the most influence. The spirit would say to that person, "I am tired of dwelling in the bush, please to build for me in the town a little house as close as possible to your own." The spirit would also instruct him to dance and sing, and accordingly he would assemble the women at night to join in dance and song.

Then, the next day, the people would go to the grave of the obambo, or ghost, and make a crude image, after which a bamboo bier, on which a body is conveyed to the grave, and some of the dust of the ground were carried into a little hut erected near the house of the visited, and a white cloth was draped over the door. A curious element of the ritual, which seems to show that these people had a legend something like the old Greek myth of Charon and the river Styx, was a song chanted during the ceremony with the following line: "You are well dressed, but you have no canoe to carry you across to the other side."


In most preindustrial cultures, epileptic diseases were assumed to be the result of demoniac possession. In much of Africa the sufferer was supposed to be possessed by Mbwiri, and the person was relieved only by the intervention of the medicine man (priest) or a spirit or deity. In the middle of the street a hut was built for the sufferer, and there he resided, along with the priest and his disciples, until cured, or maddened. Towns-people held a continuous revel, including what seemed like unending dances to the sound of flute and drum, for ten days to two weeks, engaging in much eating and drinking all at the expense of the patient's relatives.

The patient at some point danced, usually feigning madness, until the epileptic attack came on accompanied by a frenzied stare, convulsed limbs, the gnashing of teeth. The man's actions at this point were not ascribed to himself, but to the demon that had control of him. When a cure, real or pretended, had been effected the patient built a little house for the spirit image, avoided certain kinds of food, and performed certain duties. Sometimes the process terminated in the patient's insanity; some were known to run away to the bush, hide from all human beings, and live on the roots and berries of the forest.

One European writer observed of the tribal medicine man, "[They] are priest doctors, like those of the ancient Germans. They have a profound knowledge of herbs, and also of human nature, for they always monopolise the real power in the state. But it is very doubtful whether they possess any secrets save that of extracting virtue and poison from plants. During the first trip which I made into the bush I sent for one of these doctors. At that time I was staying among the Shekani, who are celebrated for their fetish [image]. He came attended by half-a-dozen disciples. He was a tall man dressed in white, with a girdle of leopard's skin, from which hung an iron bell, of the same shape as our sheep bells. He had two chalk marks over his eyes. I took some of my own hair, frizzled it with a burning glass, and gave it to him. He popped it with alacrity into his little grass bag; for white man's hair is fetish of the first order. Then I poured out some raspberry vinegar into a glass, drank a little of it first, country fashion, and offered it to him, telling him that it was blood from the brains of great doctors. Upon this he received it with great reverence, and dipping his fingers into it as if it was snap-dragon, sprinkled with it his fore-head, both feet between the two first toes, and the ground behind his back. He then handed his glass to a disciple, who emptied it, and smacked his lips afterwards in a very secular manner. I then desired to see a little of his fetish. He drew on the ground with red chalk some hieroglyphics, among which I distinguished the circle, the cross, and the crescent. He said that if I would give him a fine 'dush,' he would tell me about it. But as he would not take anything in reason, and as I knew that he would tell me nothing of very great importance in public, negotiations were suspended."

The claims of the priest to possess supernatural powers were seldom questioned. He was not only a doctor and a priest who intervened with the spirits and deitiestwo capacities in which his influence was necessarily very powerfulhe was also a witchfinder, and this office invested him with a truly formidable authority. When a man of worth died, his death was invariably ascribed to witchcraft, and the aid of the priest was invoked to discover the witch.

When a man was sick a long time, his neighbors called Ngembi, and if she could not make him well, they called the priest. He came at night, in a white dress, with cock's feathers on his head, carrying a bell and a little glass. He called two or three of the victim's relatives together. He did not speak, but always looked in his glass. Then he told them that the sickness was not of Mbwiri, nor of a ghost, nor of God, but that it came from a witch. They would say to him, "What shall we do?" He would then go out and say, "I have told you. I have no more to say." They then gave him a dollar's worth of cloth, and every night they gathered together in the street and cried, "I know that man who bewitched my brother. It is good for you to make him well." Then the witch made him well.

If the man did not recover they called the bush doctor from the Shekani country. At night he went into the street; all the people flocked about him. With a tiger skin in his hand, he walked to and fro, until, singing all the while, he laid the tiger skin at the feet of the witch. At the conclusion of his song the people seized the witch and put him or her in chains, saying, "If you don't restore our brother to health, we will kill you."

Western Occultism in Africa

Today more than 100 million Africans follow a form of Islamic faith, and an almost equal number some form of Christianity. In addition to Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths, there are many variant forms of Christianity, and many Christian groups have become independent of the older missionary churches and reorganized as indigenous religious bodies. The religious picture has been confused in recent years as a result of the unrest attending the throwing off of colonial regimes and the establishment of autonomous governments. Another important factor in the changes surfacing on the entire continent, in addition to political reform and upheaval, has been the education of many young Africans at American and European universities. As they travel back to Africa with western ideas and the seeds for a new way of economic survival, the scene is likely to change on all frontseven regarding their own ancient superstitions and folk legends.

In the midst of these changes, Western occult, metaphysical, and mystical literature has circulated through the continent since the 1920s, especially in South Africa, the central African states, and such West African nations as Ghana and Nigeria. Since World War II there has been a noticeable popular response to such ideas. As early as 1925 the Rosicrucians were present in West Africa, and New Thought was introduced into Africa in the 1930s when several American teachers toured the country and assisted in the formation of the School of Practical Christianity in 1937 (now known as the School of Truth). Today a broad range of such groups as the Church of Religious Science, the Unity School of Christianity, Swedenborgians, and the Church Universal and Triumphant are in existence. In the last two decades, guru-oriented groups such as ECKANKAR, Subud, and the Grail Movement, and some of the new Japanese religions have appeared. Numerous gurus, including Maharishi Mehesh Yogi, Satya Sai Baba, and Guru Maharaj Ji have a following. The New Age movement has been particularly strong in South Africa, mostly among the white population, and has provoked the appearance of a reactionary anti-New Age effort.

Most interesting has been the emergence of new indigenous African metaphysical movements. Typical of these are the Spiritual Fellowship and the Esom Fraternity Company, both operating in Nigeria. The latter, for example, has established a training school specializing in the healing arts and sciences and what is called a "cosmic hospital." The Spiritual Fellowship grew out of the literary efforts of A. Peter Akpan, who has developed an eclectic program of spiritual development aimed at attaining the higher levels of consciousness. Yogi Kane is a Hindu teacher operating in the Senegal, where he teaches what he terms "Egyptian" yoga. East and West come together in these new movements in a mutual affirmation of astrology, divination, spiritual healing, and an esoteric approach to life. These indigenous have also become an avenue for the advancement of women who often must assume a secondary role in traditional African religions as well as in Christianity and Islam.


Gardiner, John. The New Age Cult in South Africa. Cape Town: Stuikhof, 1991.

Hackett, Rosalind I. J. "New Age Trends in Nigeria: Ancestral and or Alien Religion?" In Perspectives on the New Age, edited by James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

. Religion in Calabar: The Religious Life and History of a Nigerian Town. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1989.

Oosthuizen, Gehardus C. "The 'Newness' of the New Age in South Africa and Reactions to It." In Perspectives on the New Age, edited by James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Parrinder, Geoffrey. African Traditional Religion. London: Sheldon Press, 1974. Reprint, New York: Harper, 1977.

Wellard, James. Lost Worlds of Africa. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1967.

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Portuguese colonial and trading ventures in Africa, whose beginning is conventionally dated from the conquest of Ceuta in 1415, continued with the gradual exploration of the Saharan and then West African Atlantic coastline from the mid-1430s to the mid-1480s. Having reached an early peak in the first three decades of the sixteenth century, the colonial enterprise stalled for the time being, as a result of defeats in Morocco and settlement setbacks in West Africa and Angola. The latter were partially offset, however, by the prosperity of the Cape Verde Islands and of São Tomé Island, as well as by commercial breakthroughs in West and East Africa. Subsequent economic stagnation, foreign competition, and the Dutch assaults and occupation of 16201648 helped to erode Portugal's African interests. New vigorous expansion followed, however, above all in Angola and Mozambique, from 1650 onward. Portuguese adventurers, entrepreneurs, and chartered companies maintained an important role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and in Indian Ocean commerce throughout the eighteenth century, and swings in the prosperity of Brazil and in the attendant demand for slaves visibly shaped the economic fortunes of the African colonies.


Between 1415 and 1521, Portugal occupied six Moroccan coastal towns (Ceuta, 1415; Ksar as-Saghir, 1458; Arzilla and Tangier, 1471; Safi and Azemmur, 15071513), and built six new strategic forts along Morocco's Atlantic shore. Failing to tap into the trans-Saharan caravan trade, the outposts remained largely isolated, and maintaining them quickly became a serious burden. Following an era of neglect in the 1520s and 1530s, the outposts were repaired and new fortifications built by the early 1540s (particularly at Mazagan). A spirit of retrenchment nonetheless prevailed, and heavy losses between 1541 and 1550 reduced the Portuguese holdings to Ceuta, Tangier, and Mazagan. When Portugal reclaimed its independence from Spain in 1640, Ceuta pledged allegiance to Spain; Catherine of Bragança's marriage to Charles II gave Tangier to England in 1661; and Mazagan (modern El Jadida), a textbook early modern fortress town, surrendered to Morocco in 1769.


Discovered around 1460, three of the Cape Verde Islands (Santiago, Fogo, and Maio) were quickly colonized and developed an economy buttressed by trade in slaves, cattle, salt, and dyestuffs. On the African mainland, a small fort was built at Arguim (Mauritania; c. 1450), but the key Portuguese footholds were the fort of São Jorge da Mina (Ghana; 1482), nearby Axim (1490s), and another outpost near Cabo das Redes (1500). A short-lived trading post was maintained at Ughoton (Benin) (14871507). An important seasonal station sprang up at the site of the native merchant fairs held at Kantor, on the upper Gambia River. Elsewhere, in Senegal, in Gambia, in the "Guinea Rivers" region, and farther on to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ivory Coast, as well as in the Bight of Benin, the Portuguese traded intermittently, often from shipboard. African gold, slaves, ivory, civet, wax, and spicesmalaguetta (also known as "grains of paradise," the subtly pungent seeds of the West African plant Aframomum melegueta, belonging to the ginger family [Zingiberaceae]) and tailed pepper (the slightly bitter pungent seeds of so-called false cubeb pepper [Piper guinense or Piper clusii ])were exchanged for horses, European cloth, North African fabrics, Indian cottons, salt, hats, iron, brass, copper, and tin articles, beads, and cowrie shells.

Mismanagement, foreign interlopers (Spanish, French, English, and then the Dutch), policy failures, and African politics eroded trade profits after 1525. By the 1530s Arguim was in decline, and Mina's gold exports tapered off after 1550. Military penetration into the hinterland of Mina failed, as did projects to establish a full-scale colony in the 1570s and 1590s. Cape Verde experienced some prosperity, but viable local export production was limited to horses, the violet dyestuff orchil (obtained from local lichens), salt, maize, and cotton. In the 1600s, mainland trading posts between Mauritania and Sierra Leone came to depend more heavily on Cape Verde, and the Portuguese asserted themselves between the Casamance and Geba rivers. The Mina gold trade recovered in the early 1600s, but after 16181619 its decline was precipitous. In 16201641, the Portuguese forts in West Africa fell to the Dutch, Mina capitulating in 1637 and Arguim in 1638. The losses were never recovered.

In 16801706, trade between Cape Verde and the African mainland was controlled by the Company of Cape Verde and Cachéu, a privileged exporter of slaves to Spanish America. The English, however, established a stake in the island trade after 1706. From 1757 to 1786, chartered companies, notably the Company of Grão-Pará and Maranhão, once again dominated Cape Verde and the Guinea coast. Reforms brought the demise of the last donatory privileges and the creation of a new Captaincy General of Cape Verde. The authority of the captains, however, was curtailed by the power of the companies, and new trading stations replaced only partially those lost by 1641. The most conspicuous addition was the fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá (16771680) in Dahomey, which became a hub of the slave and ivory trade. Subordinate to the Captaincy of São Tomé, Ajudá was controlled by the Company of Cape Verde and Cachéu until 1706. Subsequently, exports of slaves to Brazil secured maintenance subsidies from Bahia for the Ajudá fort.


Following the discovery of the islands of São Tomé, Ano Bom, and Príncipe (originally Santo Antão) in 14701471, effective settlement was undertaken in 14861510. The already inhabited island of Fernão do Pó, by contrast, resisted colonization. São Tomé, populated by Portuguese, free Africans, and baptized Jews sent out by the crown, quickly became a slaveholding society geared toward sugar production and the reexport of African slaves. By 1529, there were some sixty sugar mills on the island, but the heyday of sugar production was over by 1600, and internal unrest, Brazilian competition, sugarcane blight, and the emigration of planters to Brazil reduced São Tomé to dire straits by 1615. The island's role as a transit point for slaves also declined, and Dutch raids (from 1612 onward) culminated in the occupation of the island's strategic port in 16411644. Although sugar continued to be produced and the cultivation of ginger was attempted, by the 1670s São Tomé was only a modest hub of regional trade. Administrative reforms in 17531770 helped to improve conditions, but maintaining Portuguese control over all four islands was a burden. The treaties of San Ildefonso and El Pardo (17771778) ceded Fernão do Pó (now Fernando Póo) and Ano Bom (now Annobón) to Spain.


Following a haphazard expansion of trade in the 1540s1560s, a doação, 'crown donation', of land south of the Kwanza River was made in 1571 to Paulo Dias de Novais. The first settlement was organized in Luanda Bay in 1575, and the colony quickly became involved in slaving (exporting c. 10,000 slaves in the 1570s). The failure to extract concessions from the kingdom of Ndongo led to a series of wars (15791590), which the colonists at first fought in alliance with King António I of Kongo. Demographic losses to disease and warfare were severe, however, and by 1590 exhaustion and defeats stalled the inland expansion. The crown assumed direct control of the colony.

In the 1600s, commerce replaced raids and warfare as a source of captives in the Luanda hinterland. As Portuguese military influence revived, permanent slave market networks stretched eastward (to the Kwango and the middle Kwanza rivers) and, in 1617, fresh conquests were launched from the new coastal outpost of Benguela in central Angola. Raids yielded cattle, sheep, and cheaper slaves than those exported through Luanda. The Dutch occupation of Luanda (16411648) partly isolated the colony from the remaining Portuguese Atlantic networks, but slaving continued, based on the (Portuguese) loyalist refuge of Massangano. The liberation of Luanda by the Brazilian fleet of Salvador Correia de Sá reaffirmed the ties between Angola and its main outlet for slaves, Brazil.

Thrusting from Benguela into central Angola's highlands, dominated by the recently formed Ovimbundu kingdoms of Imbangala warlords, the Portuguese reached the upper Katumbela River by the 1650s, and the Kunene River by c. 1720. Here too, raiding gradually yielded to organized trade in slaves, and in the 1770s many of the Ovimbundu warlords were replaced with merchant rulers. In the north, campaigns were fought in 1744 against the kingdom of Matamba. The liberalization of trade in 17551758 could not halt a relative decline during the Brazilian depression of the 1760s1770s, and attempts to stimulate settlement, agriculture, and manufacturing failed. The revival of Brazilian plantations in the 1780s and 1790s, however, brought the trade in slaves to a new high, and fresh sources of slaves were tapped by Portuguese, Luso-African, and Ovimbundu traders as far east as the sources of the Zambezi River.


Initial cautious contacts with the Muslim seaside towns of Sofala (Mozambique), Mozambique, and Malindi (Kenya), were followed in 1505 by conquest, in spite of the hostility of Mombasa (Kenya) and Kilwa (Tanzania). The Portuguese then penetrated up the Zambezi River, establishing a trading post at Sena in 1531, and reaching Tete shortly thereafter. The magnet that drew them was the gold and imaginary silver of the Karanga empire of Mwene Matapa (south of the middle and upper Zambezi River) and of its southern outliers (Manica and Butua), as well as the ivory traded in these areas and in the Malawian realm of Kalonga. The military expeditions up the Zambezi and into Manica in the 1570s secured only mixed results, but by then tiny, yet tenacious, groups of Portuguese, Luso-African, and East Indian merchants had already scattered inland. Commerce shifted from Arab networks to Portuguese-dominated ones, with Portuguese India as the focal point and Goa as the administrative pivot.

At first hampered by ill-suited policies, the crown trade failed to prosper. Subsequently, corruption, smuggling, and lack of control over private traders made the Portuguese crown oscillate between direct administration and farming out all commerce to the entrepreneur Captains of Mozambique. Monopoly companies asserted themselves later on. By the 1650s, the inability of Mwene Matapa and Malawi to control dissident regions enticed Portuguese and other adventurers to become overlords or local protectors of large territories (prazos). At the same time, however, Arab resurgence in the north led to the loss of Mombasa and its dependencies, Pate (Kenya) and Zanzibar (lost in 1698, and then briefly recaptured and definitively lost in 17281729).

The heyday of the large prazos was over by c. 1730. Internecine warfare, the twists of African politics, and low production levels spelled their doom. Trade, tribute, and surface mining of gold, iron, and copper were by far the most lucrative activities. Despite state inducements and liberal reforms in 17551761, the much smaller, successor prazo estates of 17501800 never became effective producers of cash crops. The growth of the trade in slaves during the last decades of the eighteenth century, fueled by economic pressures, resurgent Brazilian demand, and the famines of 17921796 led to abuses that undermined the legitimacy and political stability of the prazos, initiating their decline.

See also Slavery and the Slave Trade .


Birmingham, David. Central Africa to 1870: Zambezia, Zaire and the South Atlantic. Cambridge, U.K., 1981.

Cook, Weston F. The Hundred Years War for Morocco: Gunpowder and the Military Revolution in the Early Modern Muslim World. Boulder, Colo., 1994.

Garfield, Robert. A History of São Tomé Island, 14701655: The Key to Guinea. San Francisco, 1992.

Isaacman, Allen F. Mozambique: The Africanization of a European Institution: The Zambezi Prazos, 17501902. Madison, Wis., 1972.

Newitt, Malyn. A History of Mozambique. London, 1995.

Parreira, Adriano T. The Kingdom of Angola and Iberian Interference, 14831643. Uppsala, 1985.

Vogt, John. Portuguese Rule on the Gold Coast, 14691682. Athens, Ga., 1979.

Martin Malcolm Elbl

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Africa is the world's second largest continent, encompassing an area of 11,677,240 square miles (30,244,051 square kilometers), including offshore islands. Recognized as the birthplace of the human race and of many other animal and plant species, it also possesses the world's richest and most concentrated deposits of minerals such as gold, diamonds, uranium, chromium, cobalt, and platinum.

Origin of Africa

Geologically, Africa is 3.8 billion years old (Earth is 4.6 billion years old). Present-day Africa, occupying one-fifth of Earth's land surface, is the central remnant of the ancient southern supercontinent called Gondwanaland, a landmass once made up of South America, Australia, Antarctica, India, and Africa. This massive supercontinent broke apart between 195 million and 135 million years ago, split by the same geological forcescontinental drifting, earthquakes, volcanosthat continue to transform Earth's crust today.

General features

Africa has fewer high peaks than any other continent and few extensive mountain ranges. The major ranges are the Atlas Mountains along the northwest coast and the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa. The highest point on the continent is Kibo (19,340 feet/5,895 meters), a peak of Mount Kilimanjaro in northeast Tanzania. Despite its location near the equator, the peak is permanently snowcapped.

Geologists characterize Africa's topography (physical features) as a collection of swells and basins. Swells are layers of rock warped upward by Earth's internal heat and pressure. Basins are broad, lower-lying areas between swells. The continent can be visualized as an uneven tilted plateau, one that slants down toward the north and east. The swells are highest in East and central West Africa, where they are capped by volcanic flows originating from the Great Rift Valley.

Great Rift Valley

The most distinctive and dramatic geological feature in Africa is the Great Rift Valley. The rift opened up approximately 65 million years ago, shortly after the dinosaurs became extinct. It extends almost 3,000 miles (4,830 kilometers) from northern Syria down the eastern side of the African continent to central Mozambique. The ranges in elevation of the valley are great, from about 1,300 feet (395 meters) below sea level at the Dead Sea to over 6,000 feet (1,830 meters) above sea level in southern Kenya.

The Great Rift Valley has a western branch that begins north of Lake Albert (Lake Mobutu) along the Zaire-Uganda border. It then curves south along Zaire's eastern border, forming that country's boundary with Burundi. This branch is punctuated by a string of lakes, the deepest being Lake Tanganyika (on the boundary between Tanzania and Zaire), with a maximum depth of 4,710 feet (1,436 meters).

The rift valley is alive seismically, with much earthquake-related activity occurring. About once a decade lava flows and volcanic eruptions take place in the Virunga mountain range on the Zaire-Uganda border. The main or eastern branch of the rift valley experiences more volcanic and seismic activity than the western branch. Geologists consider the geological forces driving the main branch to be those associated with the origin of the entire rift valley and deem the main branch to be the older of the two.

Human evolution

Hominids, or human ancestors, arose in the Great Rift Valley. Paleontologists, scientists who study fossil remains, have unearthed in Ethiopia and Tanzania hominid fossils that have been dated from three to four million years old. Hominid remains have also been found in Morocco, Algeria, and Chad.

Volcanic activity outside the Great Rift Valley

Mount Cameroon, which stands 13,350 feet (4,005 meters), and a few smaller neighboring volcanos in Cameroon on the Gulf of Guinea are the only active volcanos on the African mainland outside of the Great Rift Valley. However, extinct volcanos and evidence of their activity are widespread on the continent. The Ahaggar Mountains in the central Sahara Desert contain more than 300 volcanic necks, massive vertical columns of volcanic rock, that rise 1,000 feet (305 meters) or more. Also in the central Sahara, several hundred miles to the east in the Tibesti Mountains, there exist huge volcanic craters or calderas. In the Great Rift Valley, the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, surrounded by teeming wildlife and spectacular scenery, is a popular tourist attraction. Volcanism formed the diamonds found in South Africa and Zaire. The Kimberly diamond mine in South Africa is actually an ancient volcanic neck.

Origin of Sahara Desert

Between 1,600,000 and 11,000 years ago, the Sahara was subjected to humid and then to arid (dry) phases, causing it to spread into adjacent forests and green areas. About 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, further humid and arid phases promoted desertification (the transformation of arid or semiarid land into desert) in the Sahara as well as the Kalahari in southern Africa. Earth scientists say the expansion of the Sahara is still occurring today, with the desertification of farm and grazing land responsible for the spread of famine in the Sahel or Saharan region.

Words to Know

Basins: Broad, lower-lying areas between swells.

Deforestation: Total clearing of trees and other plants from forest areas.

Desertification: Transformation of arid or semiarid productive land into desert.

Gondwanaland: Ancient supercontinent that was made up of present-day Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, and India.

Swells: Layers of rock warped upward by Earth's internal heat and pressure.

Volcanic neck: A massive vertical column of volcanic rock, formed in the vent of a volcano, that has been exposed by erosion of the flanks of the volcano.

Minerals and resources

Africa holds the world's richest concentration of minerals and gems. In South Africa, the two-billion-year-old Bushveld Complex, one of Earth's largest masses of igneous rock (cooled and hardened molten rock), contains major deposits of metals such as platinum, chromium, and vanadium. These metals are indispensable in toolmaking and high-tech industrial processes. Almost all of the world's chromium reserves are found in Africa. Chromium is used to harden alloys (metal mixtures), to produce stainless steels, and to provide resistance to corrosion.

As for other minerals, one-half of the world's cobalt is in Zaire. Onequarter of the world's aluminum ore is found in a coastal belt of West Africa stretching 1,200 miles (1,920 kilometers) from Guinea to Togo, with the largest reserves in Guinea. Uranium deposits are found in South Africa, Niger, Gabon, Zaire, and Namibia. South Africa alone contains one-half the world's gold reserves. Mineral deposits of gold are also found in Zimbabwe, Zaire, and Ghana.

Kimberlite pipesvertical, near-cylindrical rock bodies caused by deep melting in the upper mantle of Earth's crustare the main source of gem and industrial diamonds in Africa. Africa contains 40 percent of

the world's diamond reserves, which are located in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, and Zaire.

Major coal deposits exist across northern and southern Africa and in the central African countries of Zaire and Nigeria. Petroleum reserves are high in northern Africa, particularly in Libya, Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia. Nigeria is the biggest petroleum producer in West Africa, followed by Cameroon, Gabon, and the Congo. Angola contains the chief petroleum reserves in southern Africa.

Modern-day climatic and environmental factors

The impact of humankind upon the African environment has been far-reaching and undeniable. Beginning 2,000 years ago and accelerating to the present day, belts of African woodlands have been cleared of trees and other forest plants, a process known as deforestation. Such environmental destruction has been worsened by the overgrazing of animals and other agricultural abuses. Human-made climate changes, including possible global warming caused by the buildup of human-made carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and other greenhouse gases, have also damaged the environment.

Deforestation, desertification, and soil erosion pose threats to Africa's artificial lakes and, thereby, the continent's hydroelectric capacity, or ability to produce electricity with water power. Africa has limited water resources, and its multiplying and undernourished populations exert ever-greater demands on farmland that has to be irrigated. Many earth scientists say using more environmentally friendly farming techniques and practicing population control are vital to stabilizing Africa's ecology and protecting its resources and mineral wealth.

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Africa Second-largest continent (after Asia), straddling the Equator and lying largely within the tropics.


Africa forms a plateau between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Its highest features include the Atlas mountains and Ahaggar mountains in the nw, the Ethiopian Highlands in the e, the Drakensberg mountains in the s, and Mount Kilimanjaro. Lake Assal in the Afar Depression of Djibouti is the lowest point at −153m (−502ft). The huge sunken strip in the e is the African section of the Great Rift Valley. The Sahara stretches across the n, while the Kalahari and Namib are smaller deserts in the s and sw. Madagascar lies off the se coast.

Structure and geology

Africa is composed largely of ancient metamorphic rocks overlain with tertiary Mesozoic and Palaeozoic sediments. The mountains of the nw are folded sedimentary material, roughly contemporaneous with the Alps. The Great Rift Valley, formed by the progressive movement of the Arabian Peninsula away from Africa, is mainly igneous in the n and older pre-Cambrian in the s.

Lakes and rivers

The Rift Valley contains lakes Albert, Malawi, and Tanganyika. Lake Victoria to the e is Africa's largest lake; Lake Chad which shrinks to a salt pan in dry periods, lies in the s Sahara. Rivers include the Nile, Niger, Congo, and Zambezi.

Climate and vegetation

Much of the continent is hot and (outside the desert areas) humid. The belt along the Equator receives more than 250cm (100in) of precipitation a year and is covered by tropical rainforest. The forest gives way both in the n and s to areas of acacia and brush, and then through savanna grassland to desert. The n strip of the continent and the area around the Cape have a Mediterranean climate.


Africa is home to more than 13% of the world's population, divided into more than 700 culturally distinct tribes and groups. North of the Sahara Arabs and Berbers predominate, while to the s tribes include the Fulani, Galla, Hausa, Hottentots, Igbo, Masai, Mossi, San, Yoruba, and Zulu. Indians and Europeans also form significant minorities. Africa is relatively thinly populated and c.75% of the population is rural.


Agriculture is restricted in central Africa by the large expanse of tropical rainforest, although cash crops such as cocoa, rubber, and peanuts are grown on plantations. Along the n coast, crops such as citrus fruits, olives, and cereals are grown. The Sahara is largely unproductive, supporting only a nomadic herding community. East and s Africa are the richest agricultural areas. Apart from South Africa, the entire continent is industrially underdeveloped. Mining is the most important industry. Zambia has the world's largest deposits of copper ore. Bauxite is extracted in w Africa, and oil is produced in Nigeria, Libya, and Algeria. South Africa is extremely rich in minerals: gold, diamonds, and coal being the most important.

Recent History

Before the 1880s, Europeans were, except in South Africa, largely confined to the coastal regions. by the end of the 19th century, the whole continent, except for Liberia and Ethiopia, was under foreign domination either by European powers, or (in the n) by the Ottoman Empire. Starting in the 1950s, the colonies secured their independence within the space of 40 years, but this process of rapid decolonization brought unrest and instability to much of Africa. A major cause of unrest was (and continues to be) the artificial boundaries created by colonialism. Lasting democracy proved difficult to achieve in many countries and military rule is prevalent. Area: c.30 million sq km (11.7 million sq mi) Highest mountain Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) 5895m (19,340ft) Longest river Nile 6670km (4140mi) Population 812 million Largest cities Lagos (8,029,200); Cairo (6,789,489); Kinshasa (4,655,313); Alexandria (3,328,196); Casablanca (2,940,623); Algiers (2,561,992) See also articles on individual countries

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This entry includes four subentries:
Central Africa
East Africa
North Africa
West Africa

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"Africa." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . 26 Apr. 2017 <>.

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This entry contains two subentries:


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"Africa." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 26 Apr. 2017 <>.

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