World History 1 138 - 9.1.2 Types of Ancient African Societies

The variety of African climates directly influenced the evolution of human societies there. People adapted to these climates in many ways, developing techniques and technologies that both helped them survive and altered their surroundings. Understanding the connection between climate, geography, and humans opens the way to understanding Africa’s early history.

Before the domestication of plants and animals, life in prehistoric Africa was characterized by the hunter-gatherer stage of human civilization. Hunter-gatherers survive by hunting prey and foraging for fruits and vegetables, or by exchanging game for crops grown by others. In some regions, such as Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa and Botswana in southern Africa, hunter-gatherers followed the seasonal migrations of large game animals, such as wildebeests and elephants. Hunter-gatherers do not plant crops or build permanent shelters but rather live nomadic lifestyles guided by the seasons, limited resource availability, conflict with other groups, or a combination of these factors. They must be highly mobile so their communities tend to be small, consisting of only several dozen interrelated people. Their mobility means that they often play an important role in connecting different regions and cultures and in transmitting goods and ideas across great distances.

Hunting and gathering peoples of Africa have historically included the rainforest-dwelling Baka of Central Africa and the San people of the Kalahari Desert. The Baka, found today in Cameroon, Gabon, and northern Congo, eat wild roots, nuts, fruits, vegetables, a variety of insect species, fish, and wild game they hunt using bows, poison-tipped arrows, and traps (Figure 9.10). Baka villages are made up of small single-family huts of branches and leaves, built predominantly by women and usually dismantled after about a week so the Baka can follow the available food supply. Baka society has a well-defined structure. In addition to building the family hut, women also dam small streams to catch fish and carry material gathered while foraging with their husbands. Men hold a higher social status derived from the fact that they engage in the more hazardous task of hunting and trapping animals.

A sepia-colored picture of eight unsmiling people are shown standing in a line on dry ground. They are barefoot, dark skinned, and bare chested with short hair. They all wear rough cloth tied around their waist that goes down to their knees. Some of the cloths have frayed edges and some have ruffles. The last man wears a dark cloth that hangs down to his ankles. The first person wears a square cloth on their head, the second person wears a very dark feathery round object at the front of their head. The seventh person wears a round spray of dark and light feathers on the back of their head and the last man wears a dark bowler hat. In the background there are straw huts, a wooden fence, and trees.
Figure 9.10 Peoples such as the Baka have historically dwelled in the rainforest regions of Gabon, Cameroon, and northern Congo. This photo of Baka people was taken in 1904. (credit: modification of work “Group of Pygmies from the Department of Anthropology at the 1904 World's Fair) by Missouri History Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Like that of many other African peoples, the Baka religion was and remains centered on a belief in animism—that is, it teaches that certain objects, places, and creatures have spirits. Those who can interpret what those spirits desire have positions of leadership. Animism is also polytheistic, meaning it has numerous gods, each of whom typically personifies a natural force such as rain, wind, or lightning. Given the impact of weather on survival, it is not surprising that trying to control the natural environment was a key factor in religious observance. Among the gods of the Baka are Kamba, the creator of all things, and Jengi, the spirit of the forest. The Baka live in and rely on the forest for their survival, so they view Jengi as a parental figure and, perhaps most importantly, the protector of the forest.

Although ancient African religions were remarkably complex, and their rituals, practices, and beliefs varied greatly among the continent’s diverse populations, some commonalities can be identified in the pre-Judaic, pre-Christian, and pre-Islamic periods, including polytheism. Another typical feature of the pantheon of traditional African deities is a supreme being, like the Ngai of the Kikuyu, held to be the creator god from whom the universe originated. The supreme being was a distant deity who played no role in the ordinary affairs of Africans. Instead, management of the day-to-day fell to specialized secondary deities, such as Obatala, the Yoruba god of earth, and Makasa, the Baganda god of harvest and fertility. Other shared features of many ancient African religions include the worship of ancestors as protectors and guides and ceremonial practices to mark important life events, such as the Bantu Okuyi, a rite of passage celebrating the transition between youth and adolescence.

The San people of southwest Africa were and remain seminomadic hunter-gatherers and are polytheistic (Figure 9.11). Their diet is dictated by the arid conditions in which they live. Lack of water in the Kalahari Desert means there are fewer vegetables and fruits to forage, although seasonal nuts, plant buds, and certain roots are food staples. The San also hunt a variety of big game animals, including giraffe and antelope species such as kudu and hartebeest, using poison-tipped arrows and traps. They do not build permanent homes. Rather, their shelter types vary by season: they erect nightly rain shelters in the spring, when they move constantly in search of budding greens, and in the dry season, when water is scarce and most plants are dead or dormant, they congregate around the only permanent water holes in the area.

A photo of eight dark skinned people (three men, three women, and two small children) of varying ages are shown siting and squatting on sandy ground in a line amid green leafed trees and grass. The men are naked from the waist up and wear loincloths, the two babies wear beads around their waists while the women wear cloths on one shoulder. Two people wear cloths on their heads. One man drinks form a white jug while everyone else looks and smiles at him.
Figure 9.11 A San family in present-day South Africa. (credit: “Bushman family” by Aino Tuominen/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

The hunt is a key part of San society, and all the San gods have jobs related to it. The supreme deity Cagn ensures a successful hunt, often by protecting the San hunters from animals or people who could endanger the hunt. Hei-tusi the hero god assists Cagn in leading and protecting the hunt. To these are added a host of lesser spirits, including predators and tricksters.

The most important of the San religious rituals depends on the hunt. The curing or great trance dance is initiated by a San shaman through the hunting of a “power animal” such as an antelope, whose fat is believed to have supernatural potency and is used in different ritualistic settings, including rites of passage. The shaman enters a trance-like state after a night-long dance around a fire surrounded by clapping women. The San believe the trance dancers can be affected physiologically and mystically by the ritual, giving them powers to heal or provoking in them an out-of-body experience. The dance, often depicted on ancient San rock art, is the key source of all spiritual knowledge for the San and is often prompted at times of great social stress such as during times of settler incursion, outbreaks of disease or illness, and poverty.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax