Ancient Africa

Africa's history and culture is rich, vast and prehistoric - from early hominids and the first human footsteps to ancient kingdoms and enduring civilisations.

With the Cradle of Humankind situated in modern-day South Africa and many early hominid discoveries all across the continent, Africa is the origin of human civilisation. As societies were formed and homo sapiens colonised the globe, Africa's kingdoms and empires spread out across the continent. Ancient Egypt is perhaps the most famous but its pyramids are just the tip of the iceberg as Africa is home to other magnificent civilisations.

Cradle of Humankind

Africa is the birthplace of humankind. Hominids – the ancestors of modern humans – first emerged around seven million years ago in Africa. The first stone tools were made and used in Africa over two million years ago and our African ancestors likely managed to harness and control fire not too long after. Homo sapiens evolved in Africa approximately 300,000 years ago, and all of humanity share an African heritage – one diverse species across the globe, with our collective roots in Africa.

Many of the most important human evolution discovery sites can be visited throughout Africa:
Maropeng and Sterkfontein Caves, South AfricaJust an hour north of Johannesburg are the famous caves where over 4-million-year-old hominid fossils were discovered. Visitors get to see the caves where both the Australopithecus skull, Mrs. Ples, and the ape-man skeleton, Little Foot, were discovered.
Olduvai Gorge, TanzaniaLocated between the Ngorongoro highlands and the Serengeti plains, Olduvai Gorge is the site of the earliest evidence of our ancestors. Hundreds of fossilised bones and stone tools have been found in the area dating back millions of years, ultimately leading to the groundbreaking discovery that humans originated in Africa.
Hadar, EthiopiaLucy is the 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus Afarensis skeleton found in Ethiopia's inhospitable Afar region, one of the important evolutionary forms between ape-like creatures and our modern human-like ancestors. Lucy got her name from the song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ by the Beatles, which was played loudly and repeatedly in the camp all evening after the discovery. Lucy’s Ethiopian name is Dinkinesh, which translates to “you are marvelous". She is on display in the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa.
Rift Valley, KenyaTurkana Boy is the 1.6-million-year-old skeleton of a boy found in northern Kenya's Lake Turkana. He is one of many other human fossils found in the area that span 4 million years of human evolution. His remains will be housed in the Ngaren Museum of Humankind when it opens in 2024. Commissioned by Dr. Richard Leakey, the museum will present over two million years of human history in a building inspired by the forms of ancient hand axes and other primitive tools.

African Kingdoms

African history is oftentimes viewed through a European lens, beginning from the colonial times. But before the arrival of the imperialists, a long and rich history of powerful civilisations and empires to rival those of Europe and Latin America existed across the continent.

The incredible civilisation of ancient Egypt in North Africa is well documented; however, there were many other notable African kingdoms that existed and flourished before the arrival of the Europeans. Most notable is the impressive Nubian kingdom of Kush in modern-day Sudan, with its ancient capital of Meroe and its rich legacy of pyramids. The West African kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, Songhai and Benin were all impressive as well.

Here are some of the more notable and powerful civilisations that existed and flourished in ancient East, Central and Southern Africa:

The ancient Aksumite EmpireCentred around modern-day Ethiopia, this powerful kingdom was ruled by the Queen of Sheba. The most famous remnant of this impressive civilisation is the Obelisk of Aksum, approximately 1,700 years old and found in present-day Ethiopia.  Aksum is also rumoured to be the resting place of Christianity and Judaism's Ark of the Covenant.

The Abyssinian Empire and its long-ruling dynastiesThe Abyssinian Empire, said to have been established by the descendants of the biblical King Solomon, is the longest lasting of all the African kingdoms, stretching for over 800 years from the middle ages to the 20th century. During this period, the awe-inspiring rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were built to be the New Jerusalem.

Fondly called Africa's Camelot, Gondar was Ethiopia's capital from the 17th to 19th centuries, and it has the remains of its medieval castles and palaces within a walled imperial enclosure. The most impressive castle is King Fasiladas’ Castle, built in 1640, made of stone and a unique combination of Portuguese, Askumite and even Indian influences.

The medieval Kingdom of ZimbabweThe Kingdom of Zimbabwe and its capital city Lusvingo was home to around 18,000 people, and it was the largest stone city in southern Africa. Today, the stone ruins of this ancient city, which is located near modern-day Masvingo in southeastern Zimbabwe, are known as Great Zimbabwe. Comprising several sections - the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure and the Valley Ruins, this archaeological site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

The rulers of the ancient Kushite kingdoms and their tombsSudan's pyramids were influenced by the Egyptians as Nubian kings built their own pyramids a thousand years after Egyptian burial methods had changed. With more than 250 tombs, Sudan’s pyramids far outnumber their Egyptian cousins – and for now, you can wander among the untouched ruins without another tourist in sight. 

The skilful traders of the Swahili CivilisationMade up of a string of city-states along the coast of East Africa, this civilisation was built by trade between Africans and Arabs. Unlike the Egyptians and Nubians, the Swahili did not build a single kingdom or empire to rule all its territories and subjects. The ruins of Gede on the Kenyan coast is only one of many medieval Swahili-Arab coastal settlements that stretch from Somalia to Mozambique. The civilisation's biggest legacy is Swahili becoming the official language of Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, and used as a lingua franca throughout East Africa.

The turbulent Kingdom of KongoBefore European powers divided the continent during the ‘Scramble for Africa’, the modern-day countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Republic of the Congo and Angola formed the Kingdom of Kongo. The kingdom was a major trading empire which unfortunately perpetuated the slave trade. Many of the African slaves shipped to America were sold from the Kingdom of Kongo. Today, the Congo Basin is one of the last strongholds for great apes and primates in Africa, such as the western lowland gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo, mandrill and many other species of monkeys.

Africa is unanimously recognised as the birthplace of humanity and the cradle of civilisation, and most visitors feel a special spiritual connection every time they set foot on African soil. Add our closest living relatives - chimpanzees and gorillas - to the equation, while we marvel at the achievements of the great ancient African civilisations, and a journey to Africa feels like a homecoming for visitors.


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