Chapter 11 Section 1
The vast and perilous Sahara, the largest desert in the world, is just one geographic feature in the great variety of African landscapes. For thousands of years, the geographic features of this huge continent have played a major role in its development.
The Influence of Geography
Africa is the second largest continent. Its size and location contribute to its wide range of climates, vegetation, and terrains. This variety has greatly influenced the diversity of culture found in Africa.
As shown on this section’s map, Africa’s vegetation regions create wide bands that stretch across the continent. Along the Equator is a band of tropical rain forest. Moving north and south from this band are the continent’s largest and most populated regions, the savannas, or grassy plains. Beyond the savannas lie the great African deserts. These vegetation regions affect how people live and how they make a living.
Africa’s geographic features also influenced cultural development by acting as barriers or highways to easy movement of people, goods, and ideas. In addition to the deserts and rain forests, Africa’s high plateau interior and rivers with cataracts, or waterfalls, hindered easy movement. While on the other hand, the Great Rift Valley served as an interior passageway and the Mediterranean and Red seas provided overseas trade routes to regions in southwest Asia and present-day Europe.
Resources Spur Trade
Since ancient times, Africa’s mineral wealth has spurred trade across the continent. Salt, gold, iron, and copper were particularly valuable items to early trade and brought great wealth and power to African trading cities. Trade also linked Africa to other continents.
Initially hindered by the vast deserts, early trade greatly expanded with the introduction of a new form of transportation from Asia—the camel. By A.D. 200, these “ships of the desert” had revolutionized trade across the Sahara. Although early traders had made the difficult desert crossing in horse-drawn chariots, camel caravans created new trade networks. Camels could carry heavy loads and plod 20 or 30 miles a day, often without water. The caravans brought great profits to merchants on both sides of the Sahara
People and Ideas Migrate
Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that Africa was the home of the earliest ancestors of modern people. In spite of geographic barriers, various members of these groups migrated all over Africa and beyond.
The Sahara Dries Out
In Africa, as elsewhere, Paleolithic people developed skills as hunters and food gatherers. By 5500 B.C., Neolithic farmers had learned to cultivate the Nile Valley and to domesticate animals. As farming spread across North Africa, Neolithic villages even appeared in the Sahara, which was then a well-watered area. Ancient rock paintings have been found that show a Sahara that was full of forests and rivers.
About 2500 B.C., a climate change slowly dried out the Sahara. As the land became parched, the desert spread. This process of desertification devoured thousands of acres of cropland and pastureland. The Sahara’s desertification prompted migration, as people were forced to seek new areas to maintain their ways of life.
The Bantu Migrations
Over thousands of years, migrations contributed to the rich diversity of cultures in Africa. Scholars have traced these migrations by studying language patterns. They have learned, for example, that West African farmers and herders migrated to the south and east between about 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1000. Like the Indo-European peoples of Europe and Asia, these West African peoples spoke a variety of languages deriving from a single common language. The root language is called Bantu, which gives this movement its name—the Bantu migrations.
As they migrated into southern Africa, the Bantu-speakers spread their skills in farming, ironworking, and domesticating animals. Some existing cultures merged with those of the Bantu-speakers wherever they settled. The influence of the Bantu-speakers is still found in the languages of the region today.