Africa is the world's second-largest continent. Its landscape includes rain forests, savannas, and deserts. Nearly all of Africa sits on a plateau. The Berbers of North Africa were the first people to cross the Sahara to trade with the people of West Africa. As trade increased, cities and rain forest kingdoms grew into powerful empires. These empires included Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Axum, and Zimbabwe. Arab traders invented boats called dhows that allowed them to travel along Africa's coast. Many of these traders settled in East African city-states, where Africans and Muslims exchanged ideas.
The growth of West African empires created a need for an organized system of government. This led to the creation of centralized governments ruled by kings. The kingdoms were divided into provinces and people were organized by clan.
Most Africans believed in one supreme god. Although practices varied from place to place, traditional African religions shared certain beliefs and provided a guide for living together. Islam played an important role in medieval Africa. In East Africa, Muslim and African influences blended together, creating a unique culture and language called Swahili. Islam advanced learning and influenced African art and architecture.
Bantu migrations helped shape many cultures in Africa south of the Sahara. As they migrated, the Bantu took their culture with them. They are the main reason people all across the continent of Africa share common ideas and traditions today. The family was the foundation of African society, and many people lived in extended families. For the most part, villages were matrilineal. Children were a very important part of the family and village. Griots preserved the oral history through teaching and storytelling. Art, music, and dance played important roles in the lives of Africans.
In Africa, Bantu chiefs raided neighboring villages for captives. Criminals and prisoners of war were also enslaved. These slaves remained in Africa with some sense of hope that they could be freed. The African slave trade changed when Muslims and Europeans began taking captives from the continent. Enslaved Africans transported their cultures with them in the African Diaspora. These rich cultures influenced many others, including our own.
Interactive Map - The Atlantic slave trade, 1500-1800