Ancient African Society: Hunters and Gathers to Great Empires

African huts main

Africa was the cradle of humankind. The first people arose on the African continent. The first societies were hunters and gathers. Societies grew into city-states and kingdoms. Africans believed in spirits (animism) and many gods (polytheism). Priests and shamans performed rituals and controlled magic. Oral tradition was the way knowledge spread. Griots were West African storytellers. The family was a basic unit of society, led by the father. Polygamy was common. Some staple foods were millet, rice, and yams.  

Ancient Africa 

Africa is the second largest continent. It stretches for over eleven million square miles with diverse climates and terrains. 

The Sahara Desert separates Northern Africa from the rest of the continent. Ancient Egypt and Carthage (who competed with Ancient Rome for control) are examples of Northern African societies.  Their importance in ancient history leads them to be studied separately. 

Africa is the cradle of humankind. The first people arose in the African continent over a million years ago. The basics of civilization, including tools, culture, and trade networks developed. 

Four Types of Societies

The four societies that arose were hunters and gathers, stateless societies, city-states, and kingdoms. Each society has common aspects while having significant differences. 

  1.  Hunters and Gathers 

Hunters and gathers had to go out to hunt animals and gather food. 

They lived in areas that were not suitable for farming. They lived in small extended family units (tribes). They had few possessions. The result was that there was little inequality. 

The first humans (the real-life Flintstones) were hunters and gathers. Plants provided food and medicine. Parents passed down knowledge to their children. Life revolved around rites of passage (birth, puberty, marriage, death).  

  1.  Stateless Societies 

Some places in sub-Saharan Africa were more suitable for settlement. Africans began to form communities where they grew crops (agriculture) and raised animals. 

People formed small communities. Different roles developed. Most people were farmers and herders. Artisans developed special skills, including weaving, tool making, and knowledge of medical herbs. Trade developed. Artisans and merchants grew into a separate class in society. 

Society was still small and egalitarian. A community only had a few thousand people. People settled disputes by talking and finding a solution. 

  1.  City-States 

A city-state is an extended community that develops around a powerful city. 

Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece had many famous city-states, including Athens and Sparta. Africa also developed city-states as populations expanded and power centers developed.

City-states had more diversified populations. Farmers, artisans, traders, and government officials had separate roles. Slavery developed. Warfare brought booty and slaves. 

Society had a more complex government. A small segment of the population had the most power and wealth. Social stratification had begun to kick in.  

  1.  Kingdoms 

Some Ancient African societies became extended powerful kingdoms. 

The most famous is Ancient Egypt. The Kingdom of Kush flourished in present-day Sudan from around 800 BCE to 350 CE. The Sao lived in Cameroon and Chad from the 6th century BCE to the 16th century CE. The Kingdom of Aksum arose in East Africa around 100 CE.

Kingdoms had a strong central government, control of trade routes, and large militaries. Ancient African kingdoms forged iron, created intricate glass, and used coins for trade. 

This type of society was the most diversified. A small group had the most wealth and power. 

Religious Beliefs 

Hunters and gathers believed spirits filled the world. Their religion was a form of animism

Many Africans believed a supreme god created and ruled over the world. For instance, the people of Nigeria will tell you that Oludmare (Olorun) is the king of the gods. Polytheism is the belief in many gods. People believe gods, often with human-like aspects, rule the universe. 

People performed rituals and sacrifices to honor the gods. People respected the spirits of their ancestors, who had the power to intervene on our behalf in the spirit world.  

Certain people could communicate with the spirit world. Priests and shamans could control magic and tell the future. Religious rituals often involved chanting, dancing, drums, and masks.  


Ancient Egypt developed hieroglyphics, a form of picture writing. Written languages developed much later in many African societies. Oral tradition was the way knowledge developed.

Storytellers played a fundamental role in African societies. They were the first historians. Griots were Western African storytellers. They told tales of battles, gods and goddesses, and the history of the society. Griots often played an instrument as they spoke.  

Storytellers entertained and taught lessons. Their knowledge and wisdom also made them good advisors and diplomats. Griots could be men or women.  


The warm temperatures of Africa made it unnecessary to wear much clothing. 

Some Africans wore very little clothing, only covering up sensitive areas. People made clothing from animal skins, fur, cotton, and tree bark. 

People decorated their bodies with shells, feathers, and stones. Body art was popular. They wore special clothes for religious and other ceremonies.

Daily Life 

An ordinary person’s home was a one-room clay and straw dwelling. Royalty lived in wood and stone houses. Their houses were often many rooms and quite impressive looking. 

Different regions provided different staple foods. These are foods that make up a large part of our diet. Some staple foods were millet, rice, and yams. People added the meat, fish, and vegetables available. 

The family was the basic unit of society. Extended families lived together. Fathers were the head of the family. People respected their elders as sources of knowledge and experience.  

Puberty was the entrance to adulthood. Fathers chose suitable marriage partners for their daughters. Many societies practiced polygamy, with wealthy men having more than one wife. 

Final Thoughts 

Archeologists have found art and sculptures from these communities. We can see how people looked by human sculptures made of wood, terracotta (clay), and bronze. 

While looking at these sculptures, imagine how an ordinary African farmer would have lived. There are enough details to put yourselves in their place. Isn’t history amazing?


1. Comparison of Societies: How did the lifestyles and social structures of hunters and gatherers compare to those of people in stateless societies in ancient Africa? Consider aspects such as social equality, roles, and economic activities.

2. Impact of Geography: Discuss how the geography of Africa, including the Sahara Desert, influenced the development of distinct societies such as Ancient Egypt and Carthage compared to sub-Saharan African societies.

3. Role of Religion: How did religious beliefs and practices, like animism and polytheism, influence the daily life and governance in different types of African societies described in the passage?

4. Evolution of Government: Trace the evolution of governance from small, egalitarian communities to complex kingdoms in ancient Africa. What factors contributed to this transformation?

5. Cultural Transmission: Evaluate the role of oral tradition and griots in maintaining and transmitting culture and history in West Africa. How did this method compare to written records like hieroglyphics in Ancient Egypt?

6. Social Stratification: Analyze how social stratification emerged and developed in African city-states and kingdoms. What were the consequences of this stratification for different groups within those societies?

7. Economic Development: How did the development of trade and artisan skills impact the economic and social structures of ancient African societies? Consider the transition from subsistence living to more economically diverse societies.

8. Cultural Artifacts: What do the art and sculptures discovered by archaeologists tell us about the values, beliefs, and daily life of ancient Africans? How do these artifacts help us understand the diversity of African societies?

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.