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Naivasha Virtual Fieldcourse


All available evidence converges towards the conclusion that Africa is the continent with the longest human history. Yet most of it is still a mistery to us. Ancient remains have been worn out by the action of atmospheric agents, such that sites testifying human presence are scarce. Recent history is also poorly known, apart from the Ancient Egyptian civilisation that established frequent contacts with Asia Minor and across the Mediterranean. Sub-Saharan Africa evolved in recent isolation in relation to the rest of the world up to relatively recent times.

About one million years ago, the first group of australopithecine hominds migrated north-eastwards towards Asia Minor, leaving behind the African continent, the motherland of early hominids. Several other migrations of this kind took place in the course of history untill, sometime around 60,000 years ago, also Homo sapiens travelled through the eastern corridor on a trip that would have led our species to progressively spread throughout the globe. It is believed that, similarly to his ancestors, H. sapiens evolved in Africa and thrived in the eastern portion of the continent. It is likely that the Great Rift Valley and its chain of lakes played a significant role in our early evolution by providing refuge and sources of water at times of drought and a natural corridor for longitudinal migration. Seasonal use of lake water and seasonal migrations are adaptations to periodic climatic vagaries that are practiced by modern mammals and birds in East Africa today.

Stone tools and bones are all that remains from these very early origins apart from few examples of prehistoric art recently discovered in Blombos Cave on the southern Cape coast, dating to at least 77,000 years ago -the first work of art performed by modern H. sapiens in the world's history-, and painted stone slabs created nearly 30,000 years ago, found in the Goachanas-Apollo 11 Cave in Namibia. More recent signs or early settlements come from the Sahara that in ancient times had a moist climate, hosted a rich flora and fauna and a consistent human population.

Sometimes around 3000 BC, the Sahara started turing into a desert that since then created a formidable barrier separating the Mediterranean coast from the rest of Africa. By that time, human populations living across the continent had formed 3 major centres of congregation that developed into great civilisations: the Lower Nile River, the Ethiopian highlands and the lowland forests of equatorial west Africa. The first two developed handwriting, left behind a wealth of artefacts, and established strong cultural and trading ties with Asian populations, respectively from Asia Minor and from the Arabic peninsula.

From the early VIII century, north Africa progressivey came under the dominon of the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate. While this was happening, the equatorial bantu speaking tribes that developed along the mid Niger, the Senegal and the Gambia rivers were still in isolation from the rest of the world. Eventually their culture gave origin to the great Mali Empire (XII-XVI century)  whose Emperor Mansa Mousa became famous throughout the world in occasion of his grand pilgrimage to Mecca in Arabia, conducted in 1324. Two centuries later, before its disgregation, the Mali Empire created a military alliance with the Portuguese that had started circumnavigating the African continent. Portuguese accounts of that period testified their great admiration for the wealth, the military skills and the organisation of the great Mali Empire that at the time ruled over 20 million people.

Southern and eastern Africa remained isolated and little developed (apart from harbours on the coast) for a very long time. During the last millennium, the settlements of their original tribes became progressively occupied by bantu people coming from the central African forests. Historical accounts are scanty due to the lack of written documents and to the fact that researches in modern African history are relatively recent in comparison to the strong tradition in historical research carried out in the Mediterranean and in Asia Minor.