Environmental Factors Shaped the Development of Societies in Africa
Africa’s north/south alignment and lack of domesticable animals prevented the development of transcontinental political powers and limited the development of trade networks.
During this historical period, African state and cultural systems were some of the most varied and diverse in the world. They ranged from expansive trading empires to stateless tribal societies. This diversity resulted from environmental factors that made contact and communication between African peoples difficult. Like in the Americas, climatic features created natural barriers between communities.
Two important environmental features that shaped Africa included the following.
The environmental conditions in Africa and their effects on social and state formation are most similar to the Americas.
Impacts of environmental factors on African state formation
While there are exceptions and variations, the following were common features of African state systems. Notice how the environmental factors above resulted in smaller governments and less economic exchange.
Large African Trading Empires
West Africa developed large Islamic empires that gained wealth and power by controlling trade along the Trans-Saharan trade network.
West Africa contained a series of large trading empires that gained wealth through access to trade along the Trans-Saharan trade network.
The Mali Empire emerged in 1235 and built its wealth on control of the West African gold fields and taxation of the gold and salt trade.
As Mali declined, the Songhai people gained power along Mali’s eastern borders. They captured the trade routes under Mali’s control and used the tax revenue to expand their military.
Smaller State-Based Kingdoms
Smaller kingdoms also developed that benefited from global trade connections.
Regional kingdoms were smaller monarchies that had significant influence and control within their regions. However, they did not develop expansive empires like Mali or Songhai. Regional state-based powers were present in all areas of Africa.
Great Zimbabwe was a powerful South African kingdom between the 12th and 15th centuries. Great Zimbabwe’s built its success on its connections to the Swahili trading cities on the East African coast.
- Great Zimbabwe had vast reserves of gold that they exported through Swahili (see below).
- Merchants traded great Zimbabwe’s products in Persia, India, and China.
- The center of Great Zimbabwe was near the modern city of Masvingo in Central Zimbabwe.
- In Great Zimbabwe, a person’s wealth was measured by how many cattle and wives they owned.
The area around modern Ethiopia remained Christian and independent following the expansion of Islam into North Africa. During the 14th century, Ethiopia partnered with Rome and the Catholic church to fight against the growth of Islam in Ethiopia and the holy lands. Ethiopia’s rulers gained wealth through the taxation of trade that moved through the area. Agriculture, gold mining, and ivory were Ethiopia’s most significant exports.
City-states developed that shared similar cultures with their neighbors but maintained independent leadership. Like other African state systems, these city-states gained wealth through trade connections.
Several significant societies in Africa were city-states. City-states are independent governments that are no bigger than large cities. African city-states during this historical era often shared a common language and culture but lived under different leaders and governments.
The Hausa city-states
The Hausa are an ethnic group that shares a common language and culture in West Africa. Modern Hausa people live in the countries of Nigeria and Niger to the east of the Mali and Songhai empires’ old borders. The Hausa people are modern Africa’s largest ethnic minority group.
The Swahili city-states
Indian Ocean trading connections transformed Africa’s east coast from an agriculture and fishing economy to a vital hub on global trading networks. Over time, many of these small villages along the Indian Ocean coast developed into powerful trading city-states. Islam transformed Swahili civilization and became the city-states’ dominant belief system as Islamic traders interacted and settled within the region.
Africa also had many tribal socities that were stateless and did not use formal state structures like a monarchy.
Africa also contained stateless societies that lacked a formal, organized government.
One of the largest stateless groups was the Efe ethnic group in Central Africa. The ancestors of the Efe had inhabited their lands for tens of thousands of thousands of years.
- The Efe were semi-nomadic and lived in groups of between 10 and 100 related members.
- Each group consisted of different branches of the family.
- Women were responsible for gathering food, and men were responsible for hunting.
- Respected male elders held leadership roles. However, this elder did not function as a chief or final decision-maker.
- The group made decisions through consensus. If one family within the tribe disagreed, they could make their own choices or leave the group. The Efe did not have a formalized and recorded legal system.
The Igbo lived in modern Southern Nigeria southeast of the old Mali and Songhai trading empires.
- Power in Igbo society was a complex interaction between lineage (family) groups.
- If a dispute arose, the oldest members of family groups would gather to negotiate a resolution to the conflict. If children were in dispute, parents would decide; grandparents might decide if parents were in dispute.
- The key to maintaining order was to balance power between the families so that no one family would become too powerful and dominate the whole group.
Stateless societies existed in many areas during this period in history. Many tribal governments in North America did not have formal governments. The Mongols, who in the 13th century created the largest land empire in history (see unit 2), were stateless when they started conquering and building their empire.