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Early African Culture


Title: History and Geography of Africa Author: ccoe Last modified by: Kim Barben Created Date: 1/19/2007 2:10:59 PM Document presentation format: On-screen Show (4:3) – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Early African Culture

Early African Culture
  • Africa Unit

1. Look at the graphic to help organize your
thoughts. List characteristics of stateless
Lineages share power
Elders negotiate conflict
No centralized authority
Age-set system
continued . . .
African Societies
  • Africa so vast and diverse neither universal
    states or religions characterize it history
  • Stateless Societies these are societies that
    organize authority around kinship or other
  • Sometimes these stateless societies were quite
    large while others were small.
  • No need to tax people if you dont have a large
  • Authority only affected small parts of peoples
  • Secret Societies West Africa, group controlled
    customs and beliefs and were able to limit the
    authority of rulers. Maintained stability within
    the community.
  • Problems outside pressure, mobilizing troops,
    organizing building projects, and long term
    stability to support trade

Stateless Societies
  • Function of mobile population, underpopulation,
    and land as resource
  • Even when dense population, there was no state
  • Hunters valued over warriors
  • Ideal was the large complex household with Big
    Man surrounded by 10-40 people
  • Control happened laterally, not hierarchically
    (secret societies, age-grade societies, ritual
    experts as mediators)

North and Central African Societies
Hunting-Gathering Societies
Hunters and Gatherers Studying
hunting-gathering groups today can give clues
to the past
Forest Dwellers Efe live in forests of
Democratic Republic of Congo They live in
groups of 10 to 100 related people Women gather
vegetable foods, men hunt
Social Structure An older male leads, but each
family makes its own decisions Problems within
group are settled by discussion no written laws
Stateless Societies
Lineages Some societies group people in
lineagesthose with common ancestor Members
of a lineage have strong loyalties to one
another In some African societies, lineage
groups take the place of rulers These
stateless societies balance power among
lineages Stateless societiesno centralized
system of power
Continued . . .
Early Societies in Africa
Societies Organized by Family Groups Extended
families made up of several generations Famili
es with common ancestors form groups known as
Local Religions Early religions usually include
elements of animismbelief in spirits
Keeping a History Few African societies have
written languages History, literature, culture
passed on by storytellers called
griots Cultures in West Africa are advanced
long before outsiders arrive
Family Ties
  • Farming and herding societies consisted of
    extended families
  • Kinships created strong bonds and a sense of

Social Hierarchy Kinship Groups
  • Extended families and clans served as the main
    foundation of social and economic organization
  • Villagers functioned in society first as members
    of a family or clan
  • Notion of private property ownership did not
    exist in sub-Sahara Africa
  • Communities claimed rights to land and used it in
  • Villages consisted of several extended family
  • Male heads of families jointly governed the

On your Left Side
  • Draw the following pyramid on the next slide and
    add the information to the diagram.

Structure of African Society
(No Transcript)
Patterns of Government
continued Stateless Societies
Tracing Family Descent Some societies are
patrilinealtrace ancestry through
fathers Others are matrilinealtrace ancestry
through mothers Lineage determines how
possessions are inherited
Age-Set System Age setgroup of people born
about same time who form close ties Age sets
go through life stages together, such as
warrior or elder Ceremonies mark the passage
to each new stage
The Age Grade System
Social Hierarchy Age Grades
  • Members of age grades performed tasks appropriate
    for their development and bonded with one another
    socially and politically
  • Age grades offered some integration to a society
    otherwise organized based on family and kinship

Economic Organization
  • Most villagers were subsistence farmers They
    produced only enough food for their own needs
    with little or no surplus
  • Fallow allowing the land to regenerate
    important minerals needed to grow crops
  • Land was community property

(No Transcript)
Inheritance and Descent
Social Hierarchy Sex and Gender Relations
  • Sex largely determined work roles
  • Men usually did the heavy labor
  • Both sexes participated in planting and
  • Women tended to domestic chores and child rearing
  • Men largely monopolized public authority but
    women in sub-Sahara Africa generally had more
    opportunities than their counterparts elsewhere
  • Women enjoyed high honor as the sources of life
  • Women acted as merchants
  • Some women engaged in combat and formed
    all-female military units
  • Even the arrival of Islam did not drastically
    curtail opportunities for women

Status of Women
Roles of Women
  • An African woman's roles are as life bearer,
    nurturer, and source of generations.
  • For an African woman in a traditional rural
    community, the chief measure of success in life
    is her ability to bear many children.
  • The very existence of the family and clan depends
    on women's ability to bear children, who will
    provide security for their parents in old age and
    who will continue to nourish the spirits of the
    ancestors through sacrificial offerings.
  • As a result, much African art is directed toward
    encouraging the fertility of women.
  • Many shrines are devoted to spirits that provide
    the blessings of fertility, and these frequently
    contain sculpture and other objects devoted to
    the concept of fertility.

On your Left Side
  • If you were a women in a African society at the
    time, how would you react to the treatment and
    roles placed upon you by the society? Why?

Little Girls Dolls-Preparing for Role of Adult
  • Like children everywhere, African children play
    with toys that help them visualize their roles as
    adults and teach them the skills of parenting,
    hunting, and farming.
  • At the end of a day of trading and shopping a
    parent may stop at the blacksmith's stall in the
    market to buy a small carved doll with which his
    daughter can play.
  • She may dress the doll in new clothes she has
    made, feed it, and tuck it to bed under a tiny
    blanket in the corner of her room at night.
  • The carved figure is called biiga ("child"), but
    it represents a mature women with developed
    breasts, an elaborate hairstyle, and the
    scarification patterns that mark passages in
  • The doll represents the child, as she hopes one
    day to be.
  • In the same way American girls play with dolls
    such as "Barbie" that represent an ideal or a
    stereotype to which the child hopes to conform.

Initiation into Adulthood
  • Both young men and young women pass through
  • For Mende women, this life passage prepares them
    for life as adult women in Mende society,
    teaching them the skills of child rearing,
    cooking, trading, sex education, and much more.
  • It is especially important as a means of
    communicating knowledge of healing medicines and
    the spirit world from one generation of women to
    the next.
  • At the end of the initiation period the young
    women are ritually bathed, their bodies are oiled
    with cosmetics, they are dressed in their best
    clothing and are presented to the community,
    ready to receive the gifts of potential suitors.
  • Their reintegration into community life is
    accompanied by the appearance of masks such as
    this one, worn by the middle aged women who
    supervise the initiation, and which represent the
    ideals of feminine beauty among the Mende.
  • The Mende are very conscious of personal
    appearance and value a glossy black skin,
    beautiful hairstyles, and a well-fed and
    prosperous physical condition.

  • Marriage is a key moment that follows immediately
    after initiation among many peoples because both
    events serve to break the bonds of the individual
    with childhood and the unmarried state and to
    reintegrate the individual into the adult
  • Among the Woyo people a young woman is given a
    set of carved pot lids by her mother when she
    marries and moves to her husband's home.
  • Each of the lids is carved with images that
    illustrate proverbs about relations between
    husband and wife.
  • If a husband abuses his wife in some way or if
    the wife is unhappy, she serves the husband's
    supper in a bowl that is covered with a lid
    decorated with the appropriate proverb.
  • She can make her complaints public by using such
    a lid when her husband brings his friends home
    for dinner.
  • The carved figure on this lid represents a
    cooking hearth with a pot on three stones.
  • Divorce requires only the scattering of the
    stones, and it takes three to support the pot.

Bride Wealth
  • It has been argued that such a system commodifies
    the bride and thus dehumanizes her, but others
    also make the argument that the system defines
    her value to the marriage in a concrete way and
    that it contributes to the stability of the
    marriage, because were the marriage to end in
    divorce the "bride-wealth" must be returned to
    the groom's family, and if it has already been
    invested in "bride-wealth" for the bride's own
    brothers this can be difficult indeed.
  • The "bride-wealth" creates a bond between the
    families which forces them to invest in the
    success of the marriage.
  • When there is trouble between husband and wife
    the relatives on both sides intervene to find a
  • The male-female couple from the Dogon people of
    Mali represents the ideal of pairing that is
    necessary for procreation.
  • The linking of the male arm around the woman's
    neck emphasizes the bond that is created by

Becoming a Parent
  • For an adult in Africa success in a traditional
    community is measured by his or her ability to
    find a partner, raise a family, and provide for
    the children that guarantee that the family will
    survive through the generations.
  • Every adult is beset by concerns about the health
    of her children, his ability to secure and hold a
    means to earn a living, about his own health and
    that of his partner, and about the many
    uncertainties that we must confront throughout
    our lives.
  • For a Baule man or woman to fail to marry, bear
    numerous children, and provide for his family is
    considered a serious problem.
  • She may visit a diviner who may prescribe the
    carving of a figure that represents the spouse
    s/he had in the spirit world before birth.
  • The spirit spouse takes possession of the figure,
    and care and attention as well as prayers and
    offerings are lavished on it to please it, so
    that it will permit its real-world spouse to
    fulfill his gender role.
  • This figure pair represents the female larger
    than the male, and so it may have belonged to a
    Baule man.

On your Left Side
  • What is the following primary source saying about
    women in traditional African society?

No marryd Women, after they are brought to Bed,
lie with their Husbands till three Years are
expired, if the Child lives so long, at which
Time they wean their Children, and go to Bed to
their Husbands. They say that if a Woman lies
with her Husband during the Time she has a Child
sucking at her Breast, it spoils the Childs
Milk, and makes it liable to a great many
Distempers. Nevertheless, I believe, not one
Woman in twenty stays till they wean their
Children before they lie with a Man and indeed I
have very often seen Women much censurd, and
judged to be false to their Husbands Bed, upon
Account only of their suckling Child being
ill.--F. Moore (European trader) on the River
Gambia in the 1730s, Travels into the Inland
Parts of Africa (London, 1738), pp. 132-3.
Becoming an Elder
  • The respect that is accorded both men and women
    who have attained positions of authority and
    honor is made visible among the Dan people
    (Liberia) by the large wooden ladles known as
  • The spoon bears an idealized portrait of the
    owner as a young woman, at the moment she began
    her role as mother and wife.
  • The spoons are carved for women who are
    recognized by other women of a town as the most
    hospitable persons in a community.
  • The spoons serve as symbol of that status and
    are used as a kind of dance wand when the honored
    women dances through the town accompanied by her
    own entourage of women.

African Culture
  • Painting and Sculpture
  • Rock paintings, wood carving, pottery, metalwork
  • Music and Dance
  • Often served religious purposes
  • Wide variety of instruments
  • Integration of voice and instrument
  • Music produced for social rituals and educational
  • Architecture
  • Pyramid
  • Stone pillars
  • Stone buildings
  • Sometimes reflected Moorish styles
  • Literature
  • Written works did not exist in the early
    traditional period
  • Professional storytellers, bards
  • Importance of women in passing down oral

West Africans have preserved their history
through storytelling and the written accounts of
Writing was not common in West Africa. People
passed along information through oral histories,
a spoken record of past events.
West African storytellers were called griots.
They helped keep the history of their ancestors
alive for each new generation.
In addition to stories, they recited proverbs.
These were short sayings of wisdom or truth. They
were used to teach lessons to the people.
Some of the griot poems are epics that are
collected in the Dausi and the Sundiata.
(No Transcript)
Visitors Written Accounts
  • The people of West Africa left no written
    histories of their own.
  • Much of what we know about early West Africa
    comes from the writings of travelers and scholars
    from Muslim lands such as Spain and Arabia.
  • Ibn Battutah was the most famous Muslim visitor
    to write about West Africa.
  • His accounts describe the political and cultural
    lives of West Africans in great detail.

Through art, music, and dance, West Africans
have expressed their creativity and kept alive
their cultural traditions.
  • Of all the visual forms, the sculpture of West
    Africa is probably the best known.
  • The sculpture is mostly of people.
  • It was made for religious rituals.
  • Artists were deeply respected.
  • Artists carved elaborate masks, which were used
    mostly for rituals as they danced around fires.
  • They wove cloth such as kente, a handwoven,
    brightly colored fabric.
  • Music and dancing were important.
  • These activities helped people honor their
    history and were central to many celebrations.

On your Left Side with your partner
  • In a T-Chart, compare and contrast the role of
    the arts in traditional African society to that
    of American society.

Native Religion
  • Many African recognized a creator god as the
    single divine force responsible for setting the
    world in motion and providing it with order
  • Beneath him were many lesser gods associated with
    the sun, wind, rain, trees, rivers, and other
    natural features
  • Unlike the supreme creator god, these lesser gods
    actively participated in the workings of the
  • Diviners were religious specialists who had the
    power to mediate between humanity and
    supernatural beings

African Religions
  • Supreme being had created everything
  • Supreme being was a distant figure
  • Many are monotheistic
  • Oral traditions and myths
  • Ancestors could help or harm them
  • Every object on earth was filled with a living
    spirit (Animism)


Animism is the belief that all living and
nonliving things in nature have a spirit.
Animism was the belief system of many early

Animism in early civilizations was often combined
with ancestor worship.
The Roots of Religion
  • Animism (Shamanism) - the belief that all
    objects, animals, and beings are animated or
    possess a spirit and a conscious life. Also
    called shamanism because of the prominence of a
  • Such beliefs are common among hunter-gatherers.
  • 10 of Africans follow such traditional ethnic
  • These beliefs are losing ground to Christianity
    and Islam throughout Africa.

Nigerian Shaman

  • Animism dates back to earliest humans and still
  • It can be practiced by anyone who believes in
    spirituality, but does not proscribe to an
    organized religion.
  • Animist gods and beliefs often explain natural
    earthly things.
  • The presence of holy men or women, visions,
    trances, dancing, sacred items and places are
    often characteristic of animist societies.
  • Animism exists in traditional African, Asian,
    American and Aboriginal cultures.

  • The term animism is derived from the Latin word
    anima meaning breath or soul.
  • The belief of animism is probably one of man's
    oldest beliefs, with its origin most likely
    dating to the Paleolithic age.
  • From its earliest beginnings it was a belief
    that a soul or spirit existed in every object,
    even if it was inanimate.
  • In a future state this soul or spirit would
    exist as part of an immaterial soul.
  • The spirit, therefore, was thought to be

  • Most of worlds remaining Animists
  • But missionaries spreading Christianity and Islam

Diviners and Healers
  • Rooted in Tradition
  • Their purpose was to explain the cause of
  • Experts in herbal medicine
  • Today, doctors study the roots and herbs used in
    traditional African healing

Islam and Christianity in Africa
Muslim Influence in West Africa
  • Muslim traders came on land routes which allowed
    Islam to spread wherever they traveled
  • Rulers like Mansa Musa supported Islamic scholars
    which spread the religion through religious
    schools and education

Mosque at Djenne
  • Cities and territories in N. Africa had been an
    important part of the classical world Carthage
    and Egypt
  • 640-700 followers of Muhammad swept across N.
  • 670 Muslims ruled (Tunisia) Ifriqiya
  • 711 Berbers into Spain. Stopped in 732 by Charles
    Martel in Poitiers (battle of Tours)
  • Many N.Africans converted to Islam b/c of message
    of equality umma
  • Abbasid unified territory for a while
  • Almoravids (11th century) reform movement in
    Islam grew among Berbers. They launched a jihad
    or holy war to purify and spread Islam. They
    moved south to the African kingdoms and also
    north into Spain
  • Almohadis (1130) reformist group

The Coming of Islam
  • African Religious Beliefs before Islam
  • Common beliefs
  • Single creator god
  • Sometimes accompanied by a pantheon of lesser
  • Most believed in an afterlife in which ancestral
    souls floated in the atmosphere through eternity
  • Closely connected to importance of ancestors and
  • Rituals very important
  • Challenge by Islam but not always replaced

The Coming of Islam (cont.d)
  • North Africa
  • Arab forces seized the Nile delta of Egypt in 641
  • New capital at Cairo
  • Arabs welcome due to high taxes and periodic
    persecution of Coptic Christians by Byzantines
  • Arabs seize Carthage in 690, called Al Maghrib
  • Berbers resisted for many years
  • The Kingdom of Ethiopia A Christian Island in a
    Muslim Sea
  • Axum began to decline
  • Shift in trade routes and overexploited
  • Muslim trading states on the African coast of the
    Red Sea transforming Axum into an isolated
    agricultural society
  • Source of ivory, resins, and slaves
  • Attacked by Muslim state of Adal in early 14th
  • Became a Christian state in mid-twelfth century

Muslim Influence of the Swahili Coast
  • Islam arrived on the African coast in many waves,
    at different times, rather than in one great
  • Because Muslim traders came via ship,
    penetrations were very localized compared to in
    west Africa
  • The Great Mosque at Kilwa built in the 12th
    Century is the oldest remaining mosque on the
    east African coast

Great Mosque at Kilwa
Islamic Invasions
  • Islam brought large areas of Africa into more
    intensive contact with the global community
  • Although Islam was to bring equality to the
    people it brought more stark divisions
  • Many locals retained their beliefs or mix Islam
    with local traditions like in India
  • Royals were Muslim
  • Muslims controlled trade and were very wealthy
    and becoming a Muslim opened up doors for
    individuals involved in merchant activities.
  • Kongo and Great Zimbabwe were examples of
    state-building that development independently!
  • In the 15th century, the Portuguese found well
    development and powerful kingdoms
  • European advances to seek alternative routes to
    Asia due to Ottoman Turk advanced shutting down
    Constantinople/ Istanbul

Religion Christianity
  • Around the middle of the 4th Century,
    Christianity established a foothold in the
    Kingdom of Axum, in the highlands of modern
  • Missionaries later established monasteries
  • From the 12th through the 16th Century,
    Christianity was especially strong in Ethiopia
  • As Islam spread, Ethiopian Christians became
    isolated from other Christian lands and therefore
    retained much of the original theology and
  • Not until the 16th Century did visiting
    Portuguese mariners expose Ethiopian Christians
    to Christians from other lands

Church of St. George at Lalibela, Ethiopia
Christian Kingdoms Nubia and Ethiopia
  • Developed in Africa along the Nile prior to the
    Romans making it their official religion
  • Egypt (Coptic-language of ancient Egypt) connect
    to Byzantine empire
  • Copts able to maintain religion in Egypt after
    Arabs conquered b/c they were dhimmi
  • Muslim tried to penetrate Nubia/ Kush and were
    met with resistance. Remained an independent
    Christian state until the 13th century
  • They were cut off from Byzantium due to Arab
  • 13-14th centuries dynasty in Ethiopia traced it
    roots back to Solomon and Sheba. Continued being

On your Left Side
  • What effects did the Islam culture have on the
    African societies?
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