Africa is now widely recognized as the birthplace of the Hominidae, the taxonomic family to which modern humans belong. Archaeological evidence indicates that the continent has been inhabited by humans and their forebears for some 4,000,000 years or more. Anatomically modern humans are believed to have appeared as early as 200,000 years ago in the eastern region of sub-Saharan Africa. Somewhat later those early humans spread into northern Africa and the Middle East and, ultimately, to the rest of the world.
Africa is the most tropical of all the continents; the cultures and the physical variations of the peoples reflect adaptation to both hot, dry climates and hot, wet climates. Dark skin is the dominant characteristic of indigenous African peoples, but skin color is not uniform. Skin color shows a clinal variation from light or tan color in the northern fringe of the continent, which has a Mediterranean climate, to very dark skin in certain Sudanic regions in western and East Africa, where radiation from the Sun has been most intense. Africa has the most physically varied populations in the world, from the tallest peoples to the shortest; body form and facial and other morphological features also vary widely. It is the continent with the greatest human genetic variation, reflecting its evolutionary role as the source of all human DNA.
Throughout human history, there have been movements of peoples ( human migration) within, into, and out of Africa along its northern coasts, across the Sinai Peninsula, especially in the Horn of Africa and coastal areas as far south as Southern Africa. North Africa from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Nile River delta has been the site of conquests and movements of peoples for thousands of years. Along the east coast, trading cities arose and fell, cities that had overseas contacts during the past two millennia with peoples of southern Arabia and as far east as India and Indonesia. Internal movements during that time contributed to the heterogeneity and complexity of native African societies. The greatest movement of peoples out of the continent as a result of the Atlantic slave trade that lasted from the 16th to the 19th century and involved the transport of an estimated 10,000,000 people to the New World. Such a loss of people, together with the devastating warfare and raiding associated with it, was the major cause of the subsequent weakness and decline of African societies.
The vast majority of European settlers arrived after the 1885 Berlin West Africa Conference and the resulting “scramble for Africa,” during which European leaders carved out spheres of influence. Attendant, but unassociated, with the scramble, French and Italian settlers also established new communities in North Africa and, to some extent, western Africa. Much earlier, in several waves of migrations beginning in the 7th century (Arabs Slave Trade), Arabs spread across northern Africa and, to a lesser extent, into western Africa, bringing a new religion (Islam) and a new language (Arabic), along with some new cultural and political institutions. They also spread Islam southward along the east coast.
There are several thousand different societies or ethnic groups in Africa. They are identified by their recognition of a common culture, language, religion, and history. Most Africans speak more than one language, there are an estimated 900 to 1,500 different languages, but many distinct political units share a common or similar language (among the Edo, Yoruba, Hausa, and Swahili-speaking peoples). Complicating the situation in the 20th century was the creation of new “tribes” (such as the Zande [Azande] and Luo) that had not been distinct polities before the colonial era. Ethnic (cultural) identities in modern times have often been heightened, exacerbated, or muted for political reasons.
The knowledge of most of the individual languages of Africa is still very incomplete, but there are known to be in excess of 1,500 distinct languages. Many attempts to classify them have been inadequate because of the great complexity of the languages and because of confusion relating language, “race,” and economy.
The peoples of northern Africa adhere predominantly to Islam and those in Southern Africa largely to Christianity, although their distributions are not discrete. For example, the Coptic church is found in Egypt and Ethiopia, and Islam is common along the coast of eastern Africa and is expanding southward in western Africa. Many of the Sudanic peoples such as the Malinke, Hausa, Songhai, and Bornu are Islamized, and the religion has also achieved substantial gains among such Guinea Coast people as the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Temne of Sierra Leone. Many conversions to Christianity also have occurred, most notably to Roman Catholicism and in the coastal regions of sub-Saharan Africa.
In most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, the people practice a variety of traditional religions, which have certain common features. All of those known include the notion of a high or creator God, remote from humans and beyond their comprehension or control. That God typically is not attributed to gender but in some cases is male or female; often God is given an immanent and visible aspect as well. The most important “spiritual” powers are usually associated with things or beings with which people have day-to-day contact or that they know from the past. Thus, there may be many kinds and levels of spirits of the air, of the earth, of rivers, and so on. There may be ancestors and ghosts of the dead who have achieved a partial divinity, or there may be mythical heroes who led the people to their present land and founded their society as it is known today.
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