- Select Country/Region
- Burkina Faso
- Cape Verde
- Central Africa
- Congo, The Democratic Republic Of The
- Cote D'Iovire
- Equatorial Guinea
- Indian Ocean Territory (British)
- Saint Helena
- Sao Tome and Principe
- Sierra Leone
- South Africa
- South Sudan
- Western Sahara
Africa is the world's second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² (11.7 million sq mi) including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area. With 1.0 billion people (as of 2009, see table) in 61 territories, it accounts for about 14.72% of the world's human population.
The continent is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, both the Suez Canal and the Red Sea along the Sinai Peninsula to the northeast, the Indian Ocean to the southeast, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The continent has 56 sovereign states, which includes Madagascar and various island groups, and two unrecognised countries.
Africa, particularly central Eastern Africa, is widely regarded within the scientific community to be the origin of humans and the Hominidae clade (great apes), as evidenced by the discovery of the earliest hominids and their ancestors, as well as later ones that have been dated to around seven million years ago – including Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Australopithecus africanus, A. afarensis, Homo erectus, H. habilis and H. ergaster – with the earliest Homo sapiens (modern human) found in Ethiopia being dated to circa 200,000 years ago.
Africa straddles the equator and encompasses numerous climate areas; it is the only continent to stretch from the northern temperate to southern temperate zones. The African expected economic growth rate is at about 5.0% for 2010 and 5.5% in 2011.
At the beginning of the Mesozoic Era, Africa was joined with Earth's other continents in Pangaea. Africa shared the supercontinent's relatively uniform fauna, which was dominated by theropods, prosauropods and primitive ornithischians by the close of the Triassic period. Late Triassic fossils are found through-out Africa, but are more common in the south than north. The boundary separating the Triassic and Jurassic marks the advent of an extinction event with global impact, although African strata from this time period have not been thoroughly studied.
Early Jurassic strata are distributed in a similar fashion to Late Triassic beds, with more common outcrops in the south and less common fossil beds which are predominated by tracks to the north. As the Jurassic proceeded, larger and more iconic groups of dinosaurs like sauropods and ornithopods proliferated in Africa. Middle Jurassic strata are neither well represented nor well studied in Africa. Late Jurassic strata are also poorly represented apart from the spectacular Tendaguru fauna in Tanzania. The Late Jurassic life of Tendaguru is very similar to that found in western North America's Morrison Formation.
Midway through the Mesozoic, about 150–160 million years ago, Madagascar separated from Africa, although it remained connected to India and the rest of the Gondwanan landmasses. Fossils from Madagascar include abelisaurs and titanosaurs.
Later into the Early Cretaceous epoch, the India-Madagascar landmass separated from the rest of Gondwana. By the Late Cretaceous, Madagascar and India had permanently split ways and continued until later reaching their modern configurations.
By contrast to Madagascar, mainland Africa was relatively stable in position through-out the Mesozoic. Despite the stable position, major changes occurred to its relation to other landmasses as the remains of Pangea continued to break apart. By the beginning of the Late Cretaceous epoch South America had split off from Africa, completing the southern half of the Atlantic Ocean. This event had a profound effect on global climate by altering ocean currents.
During the Cretaceous, Africa was populated by allosauroids and spinosaurids, including the largest known carnivorous dinosaurs. Titanosaurs were significant herbivores in its ancient ecosystems. Cretaceous sites are more common than Jurassic ones, but are often unable to be dated radiometrically making it difficult to know their exact ages. Paleontologist Louis Jacobs, who spent time doing field work in Malawi, says that African beds are "in need of more field work" and will prove to be a "fertile ground ... for discovery."
Africa is considered by most paleoanthropologists to be the oldest inhabited territory on Earth, with the human species originating from the continent. During the middle of the 20th century, anthropologists discovered many fossils and evidence of human occupation perhaps as early as 7 million years ago. Fossil remains of several species of early apelike humans thought to have evolved into modern man, such as Australopithecus afarensis (radiometrically dated to approximately 3.9–3.0 million years BC), Paranthropus boisei (c. 2.3–1.4 million years BC) and Homo ergaster (c. 1.9 million–600,000 years BC) have been discovered.
Throughout humanity's prehistory, Africa (like all other continents) had no nation states, and was instead inhabited by groups of hunter-gatherers such as the Khoi and San.
At the end of the Ice Ages, estimated to have been around 10,500 BC, the Sahara had again become a green fertile valley, and its African populations returned from the interior and coastal highlands in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the warming and drying climate meant that by 5000 BC the Sahara region was becoming increasingly dry and hostile. The population trekked out of the Sahara region towards the Nile Valley below the Second Cataract where they made permanent or semi-permanent settlements. A major climatic recession occurred, lessening the heavy and persistent rains in Central and Eastern Africa. Since this time dry conditions have prevailed in Eastern Africa, and increasingly during the last 200 years, in Ethiopia.
The domestication of cattle in Africa preceded agriculture and seems to have existed alongside hunter-gathering cultures. It is speculated that by 6000 BC cattle were already domesticated in North Africa. In the Sahara-Nile complex, people domesticated many animals including the donkey, and a small screw-horned goat which was common from Algeria to Nubia. In the year 4000 BC the climate of the Sahara started to become drier at an exceedingly fast pace. This climate change caused lakes and rivers to shrink significantly and caused increasing desertification. This, in turn, decreased the amount of land conducive to settlements and helped to cause migrations of farming communities to the more tropical climate of West Africa.
By the first millennium BC ironworking had been introduced in Northern Africa and quickly spread across the Sahara into the northern parts of sub-Saharan Africa and by 500 BC metalworking began to become commonplace in West Africa. Ironworking was fully established by roughly 500 BC in many areas of East and West Africa, although other regions didn't begin ironworking until the early centuries AD. Copper objects from Egypt, North Africa, Nubia and Ethiopia dating from around 500 BC have been excavated in West Africa, suggesting that trans-saharan trade networks had been established by this date.
At about 3300 BC, the historical record opens in Northern Africa with the rise of literacy in the Pharaonic civilisation of Ancient Egypt. One of the world's earliest and longest-lasting civilizations, the Egyptian state continued, with varying levels of influence over other areas, until 343 BC. Egyptian influence reached deep into modern-day Libya, north to Crete and Canaan, and south to the kingdoms of Aksum and Nubia.
An independent centre of civilisation with trading links to Phoenicia was established by Phoenicians from Tyre on the north-west African coast at Carthage.
European exploration of Africa began with Ancient Greeks and Romans. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great was welcomed as a liberator in Persian-occupied Egypt. He founded Alexandria in Egypt, which would become the prosperous capital of the Ptolemaic dynasty after his death. Following the conquest of North Africa's Mediterranean coastline by the Roman Empire, the area was integrated economically and culturally into the Roman system. Roman settlement occurred in modern Tunisia and elsewhere along the coast. Christianity spread across these areas from Palestine via Egypt, also passing south, beyond the borders of the Roman world into Nubia and by at least the 6th century into Ethiopia.
In the early 7th century, the newly formed Arabian Islamic Caliphate expanded into Egypt, and then into North Africa. In a short while the local Berber elite had been integrated into Muslim Arab tribes. When the Ummayad capital Damascus fell in the 8th century, the Islamic center of the Mediterranean shifted from Syria to Qayrawan in North Africa. Islamic North Africa had become diverse, and a hub for mystics, scholars, jurists and philosophers. During the above mentioned period, Islam spread to sub-Saharan Africa, mainly through trade routes and migration.
Pre-colonial Africa possessed perhaps as many as 10,000 different states and polities characterised by many different sorts of political organisation and rule. These included small family groups of hunter-gatherers such as the San people of southern Africa; larger, more structured groups such as the family clan groupings of the Bantu-speaking people of central and southern Africa, heavily structured clan groups in the Horn of Africa, the large Sahelian kingdoms, and autonomous city-states and kingdoms such as those of the Akan, Yoruba and Igbo people (also misspelled as Ibo) in West Africa, and the Swahili coastal trading towns of East Africa.
By the 9th century a string of dynastic states, including the earliest Hausa states, stretched across the sub-saharan savannah from the western regions to central Sudan. The most powerful of these states were Ghana, Gao, and the Kanem-Bornu Empire. Ghana declined in the 11th century but was succeeded by the Mali Empire which consolidated much of western Sudan in the 13th century. Kanem accepted Islam in the 11th century.
In the forested regions of the West African coast, independent kingdoms grew up with little influence from the Muslim north. The Kingdom of Nri of the Igbo was established around the 9th century and was one of the first. It is also one of the oldest Kingdom in modern day Nigeria and was ruled by the Eze Nri. The Nri kingdom is famous for its elaborate bronzes, found at the town of Igbo Ukwu. The bronzes have been dated from as far back as the 9th century.
The Ife, historically the first of these Yoruba city-states or kingdoms, established government under a priestly oba (ruler), (oba means 'king' or 'ruler' in the Yoruba language), called the Ooni of Ife. Ife was noted as a major religious and cultural centre in Africa, and for its unique naturalistic tradition of bronze sculpture. The Ife model of government was adapted at Oyo, where its obas or kings, called the Alaafins of Oyo once controlled a large number of other Yoruba and non Yoruba city states and Kingdoms, the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey was one of the non Yoruba domains under Oyo control.
The Almoravids were a Berber dynasty from the Sahara that spread over a wide area of northwestern Africa and the Iberian peninsula during the 11th century. The Banu Hilal and Banu Ma'qil were a collection of Arab Bedouin tribes from the Arabian peninsula who migrated westwards via Egypt between the 11th and 13th centuries. Their migration resulted in the fusion of the Arabs and Berbers, where the locals were Arabized, and Arab culture absorbed elements of the local culture, under the unifying framework of Islam.
Following the breakup of Mali a local leader named Sonni Ali (1464–1492) founded the Songhai Empire in the region of middle Niger and the western Sudan and took control of the trans-Saharan trade. Sonni Ali seized Timbuktu in 1468 and Jenne in 1473, building his regime on trade revenues and the cooperation of Muslim merchants. His successor Askia Mohammad I (1493–1528) made Islam the official religion, built mosques, and brought Muslim scholars, including al-Maghili (d.1504), the founder of an important tradition of Sudanic African Muslim scholarship, to Gao. By the 11th century some Hausa states – such as Kano, jigawa, Katsina, and Gobir – had developed into walled towns engaging in trade, servicing caravans, and the manufacture of goods. Until the 15th century these small states were on the periphery of the major Sudanic empires of the era, paying tribute to Songhai to the west and Kanem-Borno to the east.
Height of slave trade
Slavery had long been practiced in Africa. Between the 7th and 20th centuries, Arab slave trade (also known as slavery in the East) took 18 million slaves from Africa via trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean routes. Between the 15th and the 19th centuries (500 years), the Atlantic slave trade took an estimated 7–12 million slaves to the New World.
In West Africa, the decline of the Atlantic slave trade in the 1820s caused dramatic economic shifts in local polities. The gradual decline of slave-trading, prompted by a lack of demand for slaves in the New World, increasing anti-slavery legislation in Europe and America, and the British Royal Navy's increasing presence off the West African coast, obliged African states to adopt new economies. Between 1808 and 1860, the British West Africa Squadron seized approximately 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard.
Action was also taken against African leaders who refused to agree to British treaties to outlaw the trade, for example against "the usurping King of Lagos", deposed in 1851. Anti-slavery treaties were signed with over 50 African rulers. The largest powers of West Africa (the Asante Confederacy, the Kingdom of Dahomey, and the Oyo Empire) adopted different ways of adapting to the shift. Asante and Dahomey concentrated on the development of "legitimate commerce" in the form of palm oil, cocoa, timber and gold, forming the bedrock of West Africa's modern export trade. The Oyo Empire, unable to adapt, collapsed into civil wars.
Colonialism and the "Scramble for Africa"
In the late 19th century, the European imperial powers engaged in a major territorial scramble and occupied most of the continent, creating many colonial territories, and leaving only two fully independent states: Ethiopia (known to Europeans as "Abyssinia"), and Liberia. Egypt and Sudan were never formally incorporated into any European colonial empire; however, after the British occupation of 1882, Egypt was effectively under British administration until 1922.
The Berlin Conference held in 1884–85 was an important event in the political future of African ethnic groups. It was convened by King Leopold II of Belgium, and attended by the European powers that laid claim to African territories. It sought to bring an end to the Scramble for Africa by European powers by agreeing on political division and spheres of influence. They set up the political divisions of the continent, by spheres of interest, that exist in Africa today.
Imperial rule by Europeans would continue until after the conclusion of World War II, when almost all remaining colonial territories gradually obtained formal independence. Independence movements in Africa gained momentum following World War II, which left the major European powers weakened. In 1951, Libya, a former Italian colony, gained independence. In 1956, Tunisia and Morocco won their independence from France. Ghana followed suit the next year (March 1957), becoming the first of the sub-Saharan colonies to be freed. Most of the rest of the continent became independent over the next decade.
Portugal's overseas presence in Sub-Saharan Africa (most notably in Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Príncipe) lasted from the 16th century to 1975, after the Estado Novo regime was overthrown in a military coup in Lisbon. Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1965, under the white minority government of Ian Smith, but was not internationally recognised as an independent state (as Zimbabwe) until 1980, when black nationalists gained power after a bitter guerrilla war. Although South Africa was one of the first African countries to gain independence, the state remained under the control of the country's white minority through a system of racial segregation known as apartheid until 1994.
Today, Africa contains 54 sovereign countries, most of which still have the borders drawn during the era of European colonialism. Since colonialism, African states have frequently been hampered by instability, corruption, violence, and authoritarianism. The vast majority of African states are republics that operate under some form of the presidential system of rule. However, few of them have been able to sustain democratic governments on a permanent basis, and many have instead cycled through a series of coups, producing military dictatorships.
Great instability was mainly the result of marginalization of ethnic groups, and graft under these leaders. For political gain, many leaders fanned ethnic conflicts that had been exacerbated, or even created, by colonial rule. In many countries, the military was perceived as being the only group that could effectively maintain order, and it ruled many nations in Africa during the 1970s and early 1980s. During the period from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, Africa had more than 70 coups and 13 presidential assassinations. Border and territorial disputes were also common, with the European-imposed borders of many nations being widely contested through armed conflicts.
Cold War conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the policies of the International Monetary Fund, also played a role in instability. When a country became independent for the first time, it was often expected to align with one of the two superpowers. Many countries in Northern Africa received Soviet military aid, while many in Central and Southern Africa were supported by the United States, France or both. The 1970s saw an escalation, as newly independent Angola and Mozambique aligned themselves with the Soviet Union, and the West and South Africa sought to contain Soviet influence by funding insurgency movements. There was a major famine in Ethiopia, when hundreds of thousands of people starved. Some claimed that Marxist/Soviet policies made the situation worse.
The most devastating military conflict in modern independent Africa has been the Second Congo War. By 2008, this conflict and its aftermath had killed 5.4 million people. Since 2003 there has been an ongoing conflict in Darfur which has become a humanitarian disaster. AIDS has also been a prevalent issue in post-colonial Africa.
Some aspects of traditional African cultures have become less practiced in recent years as a result of years of neglect and suppression by colonial and post-colonial regimes. There is now a resurgence in the attempts to rediscover and revalourise African traditional cultures, under such movements as the African Renaissance, led by Thabo Mbeki, Afrocentrism, led by a group of scholars, including Molefi Asante, as well as the increasing recognition of traditional spiritualism through decriminalization of Vodou and other forms of spirituality. In recent years, traditional African culture has become synonymous with rural poverty and subsistence farming.
Visual art and architecture
African art and architecture reflect the diversity of African cultures. The oldest existing examples of art from Africa are 82,000-year-old beads made from Nassarius shells that were found in the Aterian levels at Grotte des Pigeons, Taforalt, Morocco. The Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt was the world's tallest structure for 4,000 years, until the completion of Lincoln Cathedral around the year 1300. The stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe are also noteworthy for their architecture, and the complexity of monolithic churches at Lalibela, Ethiopia, of which the Church of Saint George is representative.
Music and dance
Egypt has long been a cultural focus of the Arab world, while remembrance of the rhythms of sub-Saharan Africa, in particular West Africa, was transmitted through the Atlantic slave trade to modern samba, blues, jazz, reggae, hip hop, and rock. The 1950s through the 1970s saw a conglomeration of these various styles with the popularization of Afrobeat and Highlife music. Modern music of the continent includes the highly complex choral singing of southern Africa and the dance rhythms of the musical genre of soukous, dominated by the music of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Indigenous musical and dance traditions of Africa are maintained by oral traditions, and they are distinct from the music and dance styles of North Africa and Southern Africa. Arab influences are visible in North African music and dance and, in Southern Africa, Western influences are apparent due to colonisation.
Fifty-three African countries have football (soccer) teams in the Confederation of African Football, while Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana have advanced to the knockout stage of recent FIFA World Cups. South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup tournament, becoming the first African country to do so. According to FIFA ranking, Egypt currently has the best soccer team in Africa. Their team has won the African Cup 7 times, and a record-making 3 times in a row.
Cricket is popular in some African nations. South Africa and Zimbabwe have Test status, while Kenya is the leading non-test team in One-Day International cricket and has attained permanent One-Day International status. The three countries jointly hosted the 2003 Cricket World Cup. Namibia is the other African country to have played in a World Cup. Morocco in northern Africa has also hosted the 2002 Morocco Cup, but the national team has never qualified for a major tournament. Rugby is a popular sport in South Africa and Namibia.
Africa is the largest of the three great southward projections from the largest landmass of the Earth. Separated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, it is joined to Asia at its northeast extremity by the Isthmus of Suez (transected by the Suez Canal), 163 km (101 mi) wide. (Geopolitically, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula east of the Suez Canal is often considered part of Africa, as well.)
From the most northerly point, Ras ben Sakka in Tunisia (37°21' N), to the most southerly point, Cape Agulhas in South Africa (34°51'15" S), is a distance of approximately 8,000 km (5,000 mi); from Cape Verde, 17°33'22" W, the westernmost point, to Ras Hafun in Somalia, 51°27'52" E, the most easterly projection, is a distance of approximately 7,400 km (4,600 mi). The coastline is 26,000 km (16,000 mi) long, and the absence of deep indentations of the shore is illustrated by the fact that Europe, which covers only 10,400,000 km (4,000,000 sq mi) – about a third of the surface of Africa – has a coastline of 32,000 km (20,000 mi).
Africa's largest country is Algeria, and its smallest country is the Seychelles, an archipelago off the east coast. The smallest nation on the continental mainland is The Gambia.
According to the ancient Romans, Africa lay to the west of Egypt, while "Asia" was used to refer to Anatolia and lands to the east. A definite line was drawn between the two continents by the geographer Ptolemy (85–165 AD), indicating Alexandria along the Prime Meridian and making the isthmus of Suez and the Red Sea the boundary between Asia and Africa. As Europeans came to understand the real extent of the continent, the idea of Africa expanded with their knowledge.
Geologically, Africa includes the Arabian Peninsula; the Zagros Mountains of Iran and the Anatolian Plateau of Turkey mark where the African Plate collided with Eurasia. The Afrotropic ecozone and the Saharo-Arabian desert to its north unite the region biogeographically, and the Afro-Asiatic language family unites the north linguistically.
The climate of Africa ranges from tropical to subarctic on its highest peaks. Its northern half is primarily desert or arid, while its central and southern areas contain both savanna plains and very dense jungle (rainforest) regions. In between, there is a convergence where vegetation patterns such as sahel, and steppe dominate. Africa is the hottest continent on earth; drylands and deserts comprise 60% of the entire land surface. The record for the highest temperature recorded was set in Libya in 1922 (58 °C (136 °F)).
Africa boasts perhaps the world's largest combination of density and "range of freedom" of wild animal populations and diversity, with wild populations of large carnivores (such as lions, hyenas, and cheetahs) and herbivores (such as buffalo, elephants, camels, and giraffes) ranging freely on primarily open non-private plains. It is also home to a variety of "jungle" animals including snakes and primates and aquatic life such as crocodiles and amphibians. In addition, Africa has the largest number of megafauna species, as it was least affected by the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna.
Deforestation is affecting Africa at twice the world rate, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). According to the University of Pennsylvania African Studies Center, 31% of Africa's pasture lands and 19% of its forests and woodlands are classified as degraded, and Africa is losing over four million hectares of forest every year, which is twice the average deforestation rate compared to the rest of the world. Some sources claim that deforestation has already destroyed roughly 90% of the original, virgin forests in West Africa. Since the arrival of humans 2000 years ago, Madagascar has lost more than 90% of its original forest. About 65% of Africa's agricultural land suffers from soil degradation.