African Voices title image


"Unless you know the road you've come down, you cannot know where you are going."

Temne proverb, Sierra Leone

Follow the timeline as it guides you through the millenia of Africa's history. Your journey begins with the origins of humankind and ends with current challenges. Learn how Africans have developed cities and empires, philosophies and religions, technology and trade. Like all people tackling life's challenges, Africans have met with failure and success, tragedy and triumph.

5 Million Years Ago Humans Arise in Africa

"All the earliest hominid species have been found in Africa, and Africa alone."

Richard Leakey, Kenyan anthropologist, 1992

The fossil trail of our origins begins in East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, where upright-walking human ancestors appeared about five million years ago. According to most evidence, by 130,000 years ago modern humans had also originated in Africa. The continent’s tremendous range of habitats—from rainforest to savanna—favored early human evolution. Climate and vegetation changed over time. New conditions posed evolutionary challenges that led to greater species diversity and, eventually, to our ancestors.

History Matters

"When Africans talk about civilization, there’s a great pride that it all started here. We are the custodians of this history."

Isiah Odhiambo Nengo, Kenyan paleontologist, 1998


About 5 million years ago: The oldest members of the human family evolve in Africa. (see fig 1. and fig 2.)

2.4 million years ago: Homo habilis, the oldest member of our lineage, appears in Africa.

1.6 million years ago: Early humans have begun to migrate frome Africa to as far as Indonesia.

800,000-600,000 years ago: Immediate predecessors to our species appear in Africa and Europe.

230,000-130,000 years ago: Our own species, Homo sapiens, emerges in Africa and begins to develop technologies, languages, and beliefs that form the basis of human culture. (see fig 3.)

900,000-25,000 years ago: Ancient Africans have begun to make bone tools and paint figures on rock.(see fig 4.)

Image Gallery

Bones of early hominid lucy

Figure 1. Lucy, an early hominid, lived about 3.2 million years ago in the area of present-day Ethiopia.

© Institute of Human Origins

Picture of Africa's Great Rift Valley. Lots of water and fertile land

Figure 2. Great Rift Valley East Africa’s Great Rift Valley is rich in fossils of early humans.

© Robert Caputo/AURORA, 1985

rock art by early africans depicting giraff and other animals

Figure 3. Early paintings and engravings on rock, depicting hunting and herding activities, have been documented from northern to southern Africa.

© Pascal Maitre/Matrix

Bone Tools used by ancient fishermen

Figure 4. Early Fishing Tools: Four barbed bone points and a fisherman’s knife (casts).

Katanda, Congo. 70,000 to 90,000 years old.

3100 B.C.E. to 350 Nile Civilizations Flourish

"From 3500 BC, at the same time as the genesis of Egyptian civilization, a parallel culture was rising in Nubia."

Dr. Ossama Abdel-Meguid,
Director, The Nubian Museum,
Aswan, Egypt, 1998

The Nile Valley gave birth to two great African civilizations: ancient Nubia to the south and Egypt to the north. All along the Nile, these African societies traded and intermarried. At times they lived in peace, at times in war.

Early in their histories, both Nubia and Egypt had divine kings, and each developed distinctive writing systems. The art, architecture, philosophy, and astronomy of the Nile Valley gained world renown and influenced peoples in distant lands.

History Matters

"Important new perspectives...assert that ancient Egyptian civilization was indebted to Africa to the South, including Nubia, for some of its formative ideas."

Edmund Barry Gaither, Director, Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, 1998


3500-3100 B.C.E: Several Nile Valley kingdoms emerge in Nubia and in Upper and Lower Egypt. (see fig 1.)

2500 1500 B.C.E: A Nubian state with its capital at Kerma emerges as a rival to Egypt.

1500 1100 B.C.E: The Egyptian New Kingdom unites the Nile Valley, including Nubia.

1069 B.C.E: An independent Nubian kingdom with its capital at Napata forms. (see fig 2.)

750-664 B.C.E: Nubian pharaohs rule the entire Nile Valley during the 25th Dynasty (see fig 3.)

332 B.C.E.-350: Greek ruler Alexander the Great conquers Egypt. In 250 B.C.E., Nubians found Meroe and rule the southern Nile for 600 years. (see fig 4.)

Image Gallery

Image of Ceremonial stone marking union of Egypt

Figure 1. This ceremonial stone marker may represent the union of Upper and Lower Egypt by King Menes in 3100 B.C.E.

©Scala/Art Resource, NY .

Image of Stone Temple of Jebel Barkal

Figure 2. The remains of a temple lie beside Jebel Barkal mountain where Egyptians and Nubians believed Amun, the Creator, resided.

© Timothy Kendall

Silver Mask of Queen Malakeye

Figure 3. This silver mask represents Nubian queen Malakaye, ruler of Thebes.

Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Alexander the Great fighting in chariot

Figure 4. Alexander the Great in his chariot, around 300 B.C.E.

Scala/Art Resource, NY

200 B.C.E. to 1400 Mali Recovers an Ancient History

"The pillage and illicit traffic of cultural property constitutes a serious menace to an understanding of the history of Mali."

Government of Mali, 1997

On the fertile banks of the Niger River, Africans built some of this region’s oldest cities. Archaeological finds in present-day Mali reveal two millennia of human occupation—but looting plagues many sites, limiting knowledge of the past.

By the dawn of the first millennium, towns such as Jenne-jeno had risen on the river’s banks. Between the 9th and 15th centuries, they formed the economic backbone of three successive empires with far-flung trade networks: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.

History Matters

Although it is illegal in Mali to export archaeological objects, criminal activity continues. To stem the tide, in 1993 the United States enacted a law that bans the import of Malian objects lacking legal certification.


200 BCE.-450: Jenne-jeno and other Niger River Valley sites are founded. (see fig 1. and fig 2.)

600-1100: The Empire of Ghana rises and at times controls both the Niger and Senegal River Valleys. (see fig 3.)

1250-1450: The Empire of Mali succeeds Ghana.

1464-1591: The Songhai Empire rises. Its city of Timbuktu becomes an Islamic center of learning. (see fig 4.)

1600s 1800s: The Segu Empire succeeds Mali and flourishes until it is conquered in the 1800s by the Tukulor Empire.

1890 1960: The French occupy Mali until its independence on September 22, 1960, when Modibo Keita becomes the first president. (see fig 5.)

Image Gallery

Drawing of city Jenne-Jeno

Figure 1. The city of Jenne-Jeno hums with life in this artist’s rendition set in the year 1000.

© Charles Santore/NGS Image Collection

Photograph of excavation of Jenne-Jeno remains

Figure 2. For several decades, archaeologists have worked to uncover Jenne-Jeno. Remains of houses, pottery, and other objects allow us to imagine the ancient city.

© Roderick McIntosh, 1997

Map of Mali

Figure 3. In 1324-25, Mansa Musa, ruler of ancient Mali, leads a pilgrimage to Mecca.

© Detail from facsimile of Catalan Atlas by Abraham Cresques

Photo of Mosque

Figure 4. Repaired weekly, this mud-brick mosque has stood for five centuries in Timbuktu.

© Eliot Elisofon, 1970, National Museum of African Art

Photo of Malian President and John F Kennedy

Figure 5. In 1961 Malian President Modibo Keita confers with US President John F. Kennedy.

© UPI, 1961

1086 to 1147 African Muslims Rule Spain

"At Malaqa [Spain]...the mosque covers a large area and has a reputation for sanctity; the court of the mosque is of unequaled beauty...."

Ibn Battuta (1304-1377), Moroccan geographer

The Almoravids, African Muslims based south of the Sahara Desert, conquered Spain and Portugal in 1086, forging an empire that spanned two continents. Although African Muslims were prominent in the Arabic conquest of Spain in 711, and in the centuries of Islamic rule that followed, the Almoravid reign marked undisputed African control.

The Almoravids’ rigorous Islamic reform movement emphasized equality and led to a period of stability in North and West Africa. In Spain, the Almoravids were succeeded by North African Muslims, the Almohads. Cultural innovators, they became known for the architecture of their glorious mosques.

History Matters

African Muslim cultures have had a strong influence in Spain ever since 711, making important contributions to Islamic law as well as to distinctive architecture, music, and decorative arts.


570-632: In his lifetime, the Prophet Mohammed founds Islam.

642-711: An Arab invasion of Egypt initiates the spread of Islam in Africa. In 711, Arabian and North African Muslims loyal to the Arabic caliphate conquer Spain and Portugal. (see fig 1.)

1000: Muslims have become a majority in North Africa. (see fig 2.)

1086-1232: The African based Almoravids rule Spain until 1147, when they are succeeded by African Muslims called Almohads. (see fig 3.)

1804: The holy war of Usuman Dan Fodio establishes an Islamic theocratic state in the Sokoto Caliphate (present day Nigeria). (see fig 4.)

1990s: One in three Africans is Muslim. (see fig 5.)

Image Gallery

Photo of a Lute

Figure 1. Beginning in the 10th century, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish musicians popularized music for lute and drums in both Spain and North Africa. This lute, or oudh from Morocco dates from the late 19th century.

Painting of 2 men playing chess

Figure 2. Echoes of Africa in Spain: Two turbaned Muslim noblemen play chess in this 13th-century Spanish painting.

© Patrimonio Nacional, Spain

Arches of Alhambra mosque

Figure 3. Construction of the Alhambra mosque in Granada, Spain, began in 1232.

© Adam Woolfitt/Woodfin Camp

Islamic vase

Figure 4. Islamic ceramic designs reflect the religious dictum that artists should not mimic Allah’s role as the Creator by representing people or animals.

Gift of George Maw

African boys studying Koran

Figure 5. Throughout Africa, Muslim boys and girls attend schools to study the Koran.

© Eliot Elisofon, 1971, National Museum of African Art

1500 to 1860s Money Drives the Slave Trade

"There exists a firm bond of sympathy between us and the Negro people of the Americas. The ancestors of so many of them come from this country."

Kwame Nkrumah,
First president of Ghana, 1957

Marched to the coast in shackles and forced aboard ships that were little more than floating coffins, millions of Africans were caught in a transatlantic trade that lasted nearly 400 years. How did this tragedy occur?

Soon after Europeans began colonizing the Americas, they turned to enslaved labor to work their plantations and mines. European slave traders negotiated with African elites to procure captives. Most were taken as prisoners in African wars, others were captured by European-led expeditions. From the moment of captivity, millions of Africans fought for freedom.

History Matters

The transatlantic slave trade drained Africa’s population and produced unprecedented wealth in the Americas, transforming American economies.


1482: The Portuguese build the first of hundreds of European trading posts along Africa's Atlantic coast. (see fig 1.)

1575: Portuguese led armies fight Angolans during a 100 year war. Their conquests expand Portuguese control farther into Central Africa. (see fig 2.)

1690s-1820s: Wars fought by the Asante Kingdom supply the slave trade with tens of thousands of captives from rival kingdoms. (see fig 3.)

1807-1808: The British, then the Americans, outlaw the slave trade, while pirate slaving continues.

1830: The rise of an Islamic holy war and the collapse of the Oyo Kingdom in Nigeria lead millions of Hausa, Fulbe, and Yoruba people into slavery. (see fig 4.)

1888: Brazil is the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish the slavery.

Image Gallery

Present day image of trading fort

Figure 1. Elmina in present-day Ghana is the site of the first Portugese trading fort in West Africa.

© Doran H. Ross, 1974

Painting of asante court

Figure 2. This early 19th century painting of the opulent Asante court reflects centuries of long power, and influence in this region.

© T.E. Bowdich, 1819/Frank Cass Publishers

Neck Irons image

Figure 3. Neck irons, branding irons, and shackles used on both sides of the Atlantic left permanent marks on the body.

Painting of european slave ship

Figure 4. This 1853 painting depicts a European slave ship captain bargaining with African dealers.

© 1833 by Francois August Briard; Wilberforce House Museum, Hull, Humberside, UK/Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York

1800s to Early 1900s Trade Transforms Africa

"I opened the trade routes...with the goal of being my own agent."

King Ekwikwi in Angola, to a Portuguese official, 1886

With the end of the Atlantic slave trade and the onset of Europe’s Industrial Revolution, a new group of African leaders and entrepreneurs emerged, leading a trade revolution that changed domestic economies. Palm oil and peanut production boomed in West Africa, as did the ivory trade in Central and East Africa and coffee production in the North. From Angola, Ovimbundu caravans carried goods, guns, letters, and newspapers between the continent’s interior and coast.

History Matters

In the 1800s, Africans began to redirect their energies from local industries to agricultural exports. This shift, later intensified during colonialism, laid the basis for future dependence on imported manufactured goods.


1624 1663: Queen Njinga rules part of Central Africa, trading with Europe while resisting Portuguese expansion. (see fig 1.)

1840s 1880s: Booming trade in manufactured goods and agricultural products replaces the export of African captives. (see fig 1. and fig 2.)

1890: The Portuguese begin their conquest of the still independent Central African kingdoms, including Ovimbundu. In 1891, Portugal obtains European recognition of its claim to Angola. (see fig 4.)

1961-1975: Angola, in Central Africa, wages a 14-year war for independence from Portugal. (see fig 5.)

1975-1990s: Following independence, Angola suffers from the loss of skilled Portuguese workers, the outbreak of civil war, and the adoption of rigid socialist economic policies.

1992: Angola holds its first universal suffrage election, but war reappears. As the economy today struggles to recover, its main exports are oil and diamonds. About 80 percent of the people farm.

Image Gallery

Drawing of Queen Njinga with bow and arrow and servents

Figure 1. Queen Njinga carries a bow and arrow, a symbol of royal power.

© Carlo Monzino, Manuscritto Araldi

Traders in imported clothing

Figure 2. Dressed in imported clothing, Ovimbundu traders pose for a photograph.

© James Johnston, 1893

Image of Ivory horn and Rubber

Figure 3. African traders sold rubber, ivory, and beeswax to Europeans on the coast. They bought rifles and manufactured goods to be resold in Africa.

Photograph of King Ekwikwi

Figure 4. In the 1890s Ovimbundu King Ekwikwi fought for better trade relations with the Portuguese.

Photograph courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum, © ROM

Angolan soldiers aim rifles over a log

Figure 5. During the war for independence Angolan patriots train in a secluded forest clearing.

© AP/Worldwide Photos, 1961

1896 Ethiopia Prevails over Italy

"I have no intention of being an indifferent onlooker if the distant powers have the idea of dividing up Africa..."

Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia, April 10, 1891

On March 2, 1896, the Ethiopian army under Emperor Menelik II overwhelmingly defeated the invading Italians at the Battle of Adwa.

Victory secured Ethiopia’s independence at a time when European powers were overrunning Africa. Ethiopia was one of two African countries that escaped European colonial rule. Its victory reverberated in the West Indies, the United States, and Africa, encouraging resistance to colonialism and racism.

History Matters

Ethiopia’s triumph inspired a later generation of young Pan-Africanists, who united Africans and African descendants in the Americas in their fight for human rights.


340s-350s: King Ezana of Aksum (Ethiopia) converts to Christianity. (see fig 1.)

1270s: Ethiopia's Solomid Dynasty is founded; it will continue until the end of Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign in 1974.

1883: The Ethiopian empire expands to encompass southern areas of the present day state. (see fig 2.)

1896: Ethiopians defeat the Italians in the Battle of Adwa. (see fig 3.)

1935-1974: In 1935, fascist Italy begins a six-year occupation of Ethiopia and Emperor Haile Selassie is crowned. He rules until deposed by an army coup in 1974. (see fig 4.)

1993: Eritrea secedes from Ethiopia following a 33 year war.

Image Gallery

Ethiopian depiction of Mary and Jesus

Figure 1. Ethiopian Christian manuscripts regularly depict Mary and Jesus.

© Smithsonian Institution

Drawing of Menelik and warriors

Figure 2. Menelik II and his cavalry prepare for battle, 1896.

© Corbis-Bettman

Painting of battle of Adwa

Figure 3. This detail of a larger painting shows Emperor Menelik II leading his army against Italian invaders.

Gift of Hoffman Philip

Portrait of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Figure 4. Emporer Haile Selassie enjoyed a long reign. He ascended the throne in 1935 and was deposed in 1974.


Late 1800s to 1990 Colonialism Yields to Independence

"Africa will tell the West that today it desires the rehabilitation of Africa, a return to the roots, a revalorization of moral values."

Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961),
First prime minister of present-day Congo

In Africa, the 1960s was the “Decade of Independence,” as country after country overthrew European colonial rule. Freedom followed nearly a century of foreign domination, a fate sealed in 1884-85 at the Berlin Conference, when European powers set rules for their division of Africa.

Colonialism denied Africans basic rights and control over their own destinies. Africans adapted their lives and cultures to colonial rule, even as generations struggled for independence.

History Matters

Newly independent African countries inherited the institutions and policies of the colonial powers. Many countries are still determining what to retain, reform, or discard from this legacy.


1919: In the aftermath of World War I, African, African American, and Caribbean leaders meet in Paris to press for the rights of colonized Africans. (see fig 1.)

1954: The eight year Algerian War of Independence from France begins.

1960: The majority of African colonies including Congo, Nigeria, and Senegal win their freedom, usually through peaceful means. (see fig 2.)

1963: Kenya wins independence; Jomo Kenyatta is elected first president.

1975: The Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea Bissau win independence after more than a decade of armed struggle.

1990: Namibia is one of the final African countries to gain independence. (see fig 3.)

Image Gallery

Photo of Kenyan pass holder or kipande

Figure 1. Under British colonial rule, papers inside this Kenyan kipande recorded its African owner’s name and work history, and listed the rules restricting movement.

Gift of Ivan Karp

Photo of Congo men celebrating independence

Figure 2. In 1960 young men celebrate the independence of Congo with shouts of joy.

© UPI/Corbis-Bettmann, 1960

Photo of Young Namibian man carrying flag

Figure 3. Young Namibians carry the flag of their new nation during independence celebrations in 1991.

© Reuters/Corbis-Bettman, 1991

1994 South Africans End Apartheid

"Never and never again shall the laws of our land rend our people apart or legalize their oppression and repression."

Nelson Mandela, South African President, April 27, 1994

In 1994, South Africans voted in their first multiracial democratic elections. Gone at last was the rule of a white minority, in place since 1910 and further entrenched under apartheid in 1948.

Apartheid legalized and enforced discrimination based on rigid racial categories, dictating where nonwhite South Africans could live, work, and attend school. Under apartheid, untold thousands of Africans were jailed and killed for asserting their human rights.

Since winning majority rule, South Africans have embraced the huge challenge of restructuring their society.

History Matters

Millions of Americans took up the cause of South African freedom, calling for U.S. corporate divestment from South Africa. In 1986, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.


1818-1828: Chaka reigns over the powerful Zulu kingdom. (see fig 1.)

1910: British and Afrikaner settlers declare the Union of South Africa and deny Africans political rights and representation.

1912: African leaders establish the organizational forerunner to the African National Congress.

1948: Election of the Afrikaner-controlled National Party establishes the apartheid system.

1960-1990: Following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, anti-apartheid organizing intensifies. (see fig 2.)

1994: African leader and former political prisoner Nelson Mandela is elected president. (see fig 3. and fig 4. and fig 5.)

Image Gallery

Drawing of King Chaka

Figure 1. King Chaka (1725-1828)

During Chaka's reign the Zulu incorporated neighboring groups expanding their nation.

Image of living and dead protestors

Figure 2. In 1960 Police killed 67 apartheid protesters in Sharpeville

© AP, 1960.

Black South Africans vote for first time

Figure 3. Black South Africans, eligible to vote for the first time in their country’s history, cast their ballots for president in April, 1994.

© Reuters/Corbis-Bettmann

Photo of president Nelson Mandela

Figure 4. Elected in 1994, Mandela served five years and was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki in 1999.

Courtesy of the Embassy of South Africa

Election ballot and ANC/Mandela commemorative plate.

Figure 5. Election ballot and ANC/Mandela commemorative plate

1994 Presidential Elections. Republic of South Africa.

Today Children’s Health Comes First

"Africa faces an increasingly serious public health crisis.... Many deaths could be prevented by vaccinations...and by investing in improved sanitation and basic health care."

Kofi Annan, from Ghana, Secretary-General of the United Nations, 1998

In countries where resources are scarce and doctors few, Africans are searching for ways to safeguard their families’ health. The challenges are formidable: Killers such as malaria and HIV take a devastating toll. If untreated, minor diarrhea and respiratory diseases often prove fatal in young children.

Health workers are teaching public health practices and working with mothers and children. Their efforts are making a difference. In Kenya, for example, the infant mortality rate has fallen some 20 percent in 20 years.

History Matters

"In many African countries, painful structural [economic] adjustment programmes have led to...reductions in the delivery of many of the most basic social services."

Kofi Annan, from Ghana, Secretary-General of the United Nations, 1998

Healthcare Matters

Communities Unite for Children’s Health

Trained as health workers, hundreds of women farmers in Kenya’s Siaya District diagnose children and adults in their Luo villages. They prescribe medications for malaria, diarrhea, and respiratory illnesses.

In partnership with the international organization CARE and the Kenyan Ministry of Health, Luo villagers have built and staffed dozens of  local pharmacies. Volunteer health workers travel on foot or bicycle to visit sick children--in addition to caring for their own families and farming their fields.

“Saving the lives of the children makes me proud,” says Jane Adhiambo, a community health worker in Kenya’s Siaya district.

These medicines bring relief to many children in Siaya, where one-in-five dies before age five. Malaria is the biggest killer

Image Gallery

Photo of Health worker Jane Adhiambo

At work in her Kenyan village pharmacy, Jane Adhiambo (standing) prescribes malaria medicine.

© Bernice Wuethrich/Smithsonian Institution, 1999

woman holding baby drinking medicine

In partnership with CARE and the Kenyan Ministry of Health, Luo villagers have built and staffed dozens of local pharmacies.

© Bernice Wuethrich/Smithsonian Institution, 1999

Average Life Expectancy (years)

African Life expectancy Graph. Description bellow

Description: In 1980 average life expectancy in Africa was 48 and in Kenya average life expectancy was 53. In 1997 average life expectancy in Africa was 54 and in Kenya was 54.

Infant (Under 1 year old) Mortality Rate:
Deaths per 1,000

Infant Mortality Graph. Description bellow

In 1980 Infant mortality rate in Africa was 119 deaths per 1,000 and in Kenya was 123 deaths per 1,000. In 1997 infant mortality rate in Africa was 84 deaths per 1,000 and in Kenya was 61 deaths per 1,000.

Child (Under 5 years old)Mortality Rate: deaths per 1,000

Child mortality graph. Description bellow

In 1980 child mortality rate in Africa was 194 deaths per 1,000 and in Kenya was 123 deaths per 1,000. In 1997 infant mortality rate in Africa was 180 deaths per 1,000 and in Kenya was 90 deaths per 1,000.