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Early History

ole timer Jan 31, 2015

  1. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    So far the evidence that we have in the world points to Africa as the Cradle of Humankind."
    George Abungu, Director-General of the National Museums of Kenya.

    Most of the available scientific evidence suggests Africa was the continent in which human life began.

    We can however never be absolutely sure. There is always the possibility of fossil discoveries being made in another part of the world, which could make us believe otherwise.

    Listen to Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, on the contribution of the continent towards the development of humanity

    It is in Africa that the oldest fossils of the early ancestors of humankind have been found, and it is the only continent that shows evidence of humans through the key stages of evolution.

    Scientific techniques, ranging from fossil identification, radiocarbon dating and analysis of DNA - the human genetic blueprint passed down from one generation to the next - all support the notion that Africa, and in particular the eastern and southern regions, is the cradle of humankind
  2. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    Origins of the Human Race

    Researchers believe that members of the human family - hominids - and African apes once had a common ancestor, perhaps as recently as 5 to 10 million years ago. At some stage the hominids split off from the apes and began to develop one of the first and perhaps most important human characteristics - the ability to walk upright.

    The earliest ancestors of humankind are known as Australopithecines - commonly known as 'ape men'.

    The first example of Australopithecus was found in 1925 in a limestone cave near Taung, in South Africa, by the anthropologist Raymond Dart. He found the skull of a six year old creature with an ape-like appearance but human characteristics. Australopithecines were small, with long arms, prominent skulls and small brains and retained the ability to climb trees.

    Since 1925 there have been numerous finds of Australopithecus fossils in East and Southern Africa, mainly based around the Great Rift Valley - a fracture in the earth's surfaces that runs 3,500 kilometres from the Red Sea to Mozambique. The non-acidic nature of the Rift Valley soil and sediment has made it the ideal environment for the preservation of specimens.

    In 1997 an Australopithecus skull and skeleton was found in a cave in Sterkfontein north of Johannesburg. It is thought to be around 3.5 million years old. The bones are likely to be of a hominid, who fell through a shaft and died while trapped underground.

    One of the most famous finds was in Ethiopia's Omo Valley in 1974. It was the skeleton, about 40% complete, of a young girl known to the outside world as Lucy and to Ethiopians as Dinqnish - the wonderful or precious one. She was about the same age as Sterkfontein man.

    Australopithecus split into several different species. Some developed powerful teeth and jaws and became known as 'robust' while others were more lightly built and dubbed 'gracile'.

    By around 2.5 million years ago a more recent ancestor - Homo habilis or 'man, the toolmaker' appears to have evolved. It is not clear whether Homo habilis developed directly from Australopithecus, but if so, it is likely to have been from one of the gracile, rather than robust species.

    Homo habilis was an individual whose larger brain size enabled it to manufacture simple stone tools, usually pebbles which were split and then chipped to give a cutting edge.

    Such technology is most clearly on display in the excavations at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania - one of Africa's most extraordinary geological sites. The gorge cuts through five colourful volcanic layers, each representing a different period in time, ranging from two million to 500 thousand years ago.

    Listen to an expert at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania explaining the use of lava and chert rock tools

    With this species, which evolved around 1.5 million years ago, we encounter an ancestor who looked a good deal like a modern human. Homo erectus was taller than Homo habilis, more robust and had a larger brain. They developed tool-making further, producing a characteristic hand axe known as the 'Acheulian'.

    Fossils of Australopithecus and Homo habilis have been found only in Africa, but examples of Homo erectus have been found in the Far East and China while the hand axe has been found in Asia and Europe.

    The widely held belief is that these other parts of the world were populated by Homo erectus who left Africa.

    "There is no question that Africans contributed towards the development of human beings as we know them today. They were the first to use their physical capabilities to enlarge their brains.

    They were able to develop the technology of stone tools…they were the first ones to move out of trees and walk upright…and they were the first ones to explore….crossing the seas and going out to Asia and Europe….and to me this is the greatest achievement that humanity has ever done
  3. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    From Hunting to Farming

    One of the more immediate ancestors of modern humans, Homo erectus, lived between 500 thousand and 1.5 million years ago and it is with this species that we see the first signs of organised hunting activity based around communities. They tended to live near water sources - along the banks of rivers or lakes.

    On the basis of evidence found at one of Africa's most important geological sites, Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, we know they constructed small structures made out of tree branches as shelter.

    "The size of the shelters would suggest they lived in small family groups, and that each family would have its own residential unit.

    The men would go out to hunt, and the women would have gone out to collect vegetable foods - roots, fruits, nuts and insects - that formed an important component of the diet. We know that boys were taught to become hunters and the girls gatherers."
    Simiyu Wandibba, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nairobi.

    Listen to Professor Simiyu Wandibba on the early division of labour

    Much of the evidence of the likely way of life in these early settlements comes from the study of communities such as the Khoisan of Botswana who still retain some elements of the hunting and gathering lifestyle.

    Listen to a Khoisan community in Northern Botswana sing

    When it came to hunting, early humans tended to seek out smaller animals such as rodents, and use clubs to kill them. They would avoid actually attacking larger animals such as giraffe, zebra or elephants, waiting for them to be killed by other beasts or die of natural causes.

    By the middle and later stone age - between 150 and 40 thousand years ago - humans had developed more sophisticated tools, shaping stone points to use as spearheads and developing the bow and arrow. The spears could be tipped with a vegetable poison. They also used a wide range of implements made of bone that were used as needles or fish hooks.

    We do not know how exactly it happened but around 10,000 years ago humans took a hugely important step that revolutionised life. They began to domesticate animals and cultivate crops.

    However dramatic it may seem from our standpoint, it is likely that these developments occurred very gradually and over a long period of time.

    "After long periods of hunting and gathering we assume that these people did some experimentation with some of the plants and some of the animals. They found some animals - like the ancestor of the cow - were more friendly than others and so they brought them home and looked after them. With plants, they might try a fruit and someone dies, so they say, 'No, that's not a good fruit' and finally they would strike on the right plants and animals.

    Once they have enough food, societies become more secure. Now people have time for each other. Men and women, the father and mother, have more time and one sees population explosion coming into being.

    With more people you get more social stratification and specialisation. People become full time craftsmen and experts in different fields. This gives rise to trade and the first markets begin to emerge."
    Henry Mutoro, Associate Professor of Archaeology, University of Nairobi.

    The main crops to be developed were cereals such as wheat, barley, sorghum and millet. Some areas produced their own distinctive grains such as the Ethiopian highlands where the staple food 'tef' is still used to make the spongy traditional bread, injera.

    Domestication of animals such as sheep and goats as well as the cultivation of plants meant that early humans were able to settle for longer periods of time in one area so they could oversee the sowing and reaping of crops. This meant that shelters became more permanent constructions made of mud or brick. The communities also needed more implements such as stones for grinding and pots for storage.

    However, one of the main results of domestication was a rapid increase in population.

    Food surplus could now be traded with other communities such as those who had retained a hunting and gathering tradition. Maize, for example, might be traded for a supply of wild honey.

    A more settled lifestyle also prompted people to express themselves through arts and crafts. Of all the continents, Africa is one of the richest in rock art. Images painted with vegetable dye adorn caves in the Sahara, Tanzania and South Africa. Such art gives us a unique glimpse into the life of these people, showing them not only at work - hunting and fishing - but also at play, dancing and socialising
  4. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    Skills and Tools

    We know from archaeological data that by about the fifth century after the birth of Christ the skills and technology required for iron working had spread throughout much of central, eastern and southern Africa.

    It is not known exactly how this transmission of knowledge and expertise took place, but it is believed to be linked to a mass movement of people across the continent, known as the 'Bantu migration.' This episode in Africa's past has often been ignored but its implications for the future development of the continent is crucial.

    Bantu is the word widely used as a description of a body of people originally based in west or central Africa who, over the course of three thousand years, moved to populate east and southern regions.

    It's not clear how the Bantu gained their skills in iron working. The great smelting tradition of the Kushite Kingdom of Meroe (around 500 BC) did not spread either further west or towards the south, although we do not know this for sure.

    Listen to a dramatisation of geographer Strabo describing Meroe

    In West Africa, the knowledge of iron working may have come from the Phoenicians who in 800 BC founded the colony of Carthage on the North African coast. The skills may have crossed the Sahara desert with the Berber nomads who dominated much of the North African plains.

    It has also been suggested that iron smelting may have started in Africa itself, without any outside influences, but so far none of the theories are conclusive. What we do know is that iron smelting was established in Nigeria, central Niger and southern Mali by around 500-400 BC, spreading to other parts of West Africa by 1000 AD.

    Iron smelting is a difficult process because the extraction of iron from rock involves a chemical process. Crushed iron ore and charcoal were placed in furnaces and lime was added. After several hours of heating, the crude iron was taken from the furnace and forged into weapons.

    Iron Ore is widely available in much of tropical Africa but because iron rusts easily few examples of implements have survived from the pre-historic period.

    Armed with this technology the Bantu then dispersed across Africa
  5. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    People on the Move

    Armed with iron smelting technology the Bantu of west and central Africa dispersed across the continent, changing its linguistic and cultural landscape. A number of theories have been put forward to explain this migration.

    "When people move they move for a reason. They move because the population has expanded. They move because the resources which support the population in the settlements have become more or less inadequate. They move because there are changes to the climate and they move for the sake of finding better areas in which to live."
    Professor Leonard Ngcongco, University of Botswana.

    Listen to Professor Leonard Ngcongco's view on migration

    One theory is that there were waves of migration, one moving through the east of Africa and another making its way through the centre of the continent. In Zambia, there is evidence of at least three routes of migration - from the great lakes, from the Congo forest and from Angola.

    There is evidence that the Bantu ancestors of the modern Swahili peoples mastered sailing technology and possessed canoes and boats so they could make their way along the Zambezi river.

    "Chief among the reasons for migration is environmental stress and population increase in West Africa, forcing people to move. It is important to realise that these people are not moving across the landscape like bugs bunny or the energiser bunny, but essentially they are moving slowly, gradually inhabiting areas that were good for farming and livestock raising."
    Dr Chapirukha Kusimba, Field Museum, Chicago.

    Most historians appear to believe that rather than arriving en masse like a conquering horde, the migrations were more sporadic with small pockets of people moving from one point to another.

    It is not entirely clear how the Bantu reacted when they came upon existing communities but it is likely that there was considerable absorption, assimilation and displacement of other peoples during the migration period. The Bantu were armed with superior weapons and their iron implements allowed them to cultivate land and clear forests efficiently.

    If they came as colonisers, then it is unlikely to be in the sense we understand the term today.

    Historians believe there was social interaction and intermarrying and trade.

    The evidence for migration is based on three main areas of research. They are:

    A comparative study of languages spoken in some parts of eastern, central and southern Africa show similarities with the mother tongues originally spoken in West Africa. There are some 450 known languages in the Bantu family from Gikuyu in the north to Setswana in the south.

    There is evidence of similar pottery technology in eastern, southern and western Africa. Iron Age farmers were skilled pot makers and decorated their pots with grooves and patterns. Related groups of peoples used similar styles of decoration.

    There is little or no evidence of iron working in east and southern Africa before the arrival of the Bantu suggesting that new technology was spread by the migrants.
    The Bantu proved enormously successful at adapting to their new environments and it has been argued by some historians that they brought not only new methods of survival but the development of the system of statehood that we still find today.

    "In some areas they brought notions of government, controlling people, development of leadership, chieftaincy, state-craft and organising people for campaigns for battles and also maybe a kind of advanced religion."
    Professor Leonard Ngcongco.

    But as with most areas of early African history there is a note of caution to be sounded when discussing the Bantu migration. There is even an argument for saying that it did not happen at all.

    Listen here to singing by the Kalahari people, descendants of the early communities displaced by the Bantu

    "The question concerning whether or not the Bantu migration actually occurred will await further research. It's very easy to assume that we know so much. Actually we know so little because very little research has been done. So far there is a huge area in DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda where no field work has been done and these are areas that the Bantu peoples would have passed through
  6. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    Forces For Change

    To find out what happened millions of years ago archaeologists have to recover, analyse and date ancient fossils and tools.

    Fossils are formed when animal or plant remains are trapped between layers of rock. When the rock is broken open, an imprint is revealed.

    Since the 1940's researchers have used radiocarbon (Carbon-14) techniques to date fossils. What happens is the following: living animals and plants absorb tiny amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. When they die, the carbon declines at a slow, measurable rate. By finding out how much carbon there is in the fossil, researchers can make an approximate guess of the age.

    However, radio carbon dating is only accurate when testing fossils less than 100,000 years old. For anything older, tests need to be done on the surrounding rock and assumptions made about fossil ageing. Assessments can also be made by measuring the rate of potassium and uranium decay. Basically the deeper something is found, the older it is.

    The study of DNA - the genetic blueprint found in all cells - has made a huge impact on the analysis of African history. Study of DNA and in particular mitochondria DNA (mtDNA), which is passed down the female line, has allowed scientists to reconstruct the past history of human populations. Each molecule of mtDNA carries a history of its lineage.

    It is through this genetic analysis that most scientists have concluded that modern man evolved in Africa and then spread throughout the rest of the world. Some geneticists have even argued that every woman alive today carries the mtDNA of just one African woman who lived 10,000 generations ago
  7. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    Early History Timeline

    5-3 Million BC - First hominids walk East and Southern Africa, known as Australopithecines or "Ape-Men"

    3-1.5 Million BC - Early Stone Age
    Emergence of Homo habilis "the toolmaker", using flaked stone scrapers.

    1.75-1 Million BC - Evolution of Homo erectus
    used of hand axes and shaped stone scrapers

    1 million-40,000 BC - Middle Stone Age
    Evolution of early form of Homo sapiens - modern man. Shaped stone points used for spearheads.

    40,000-10,000 BC - Later Stone Age
    Rise of Homo sapiens.
    Development of bow and arrow
    Evidence of rock paintings.
    Hunter gathering lifestyle.

    9,000-3,000 BC - Last major wet period in Africa. The Sahara is habitable with savannah, grassland and rivers.
    Baked clay pottery found in African stone age communities.
    Beginnings of agriculture and domestication of animals

    500 BC - Evidence of iron smelting in Nigeria and central Niger. Spreads to rest of West Africa by 1000 AD

    200-500 AD - Movement of Bantu peoples to east and southern Africa, "The Bantu Migrations."

    1925 - Discovery of Australopithecus near Taung, South Africa.

    1960's - Homo habilis skulls found in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania and Lake Turkana, Kenya

    1974 - Semi-complete skeleton of "Lucy" found in Omo Valley, Ethiopia

    1975 - Thirteen Australopithecus remains found in Hadar, Ethiopia.
    - Homo Erectus skull found Lake Turkana

    1976 - Australopithecus footprints found in Laetoli, Tanzania.

    1997 - Discovery of Australopithecus in Sterkfontein, South Africa