III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500 > D. Africa, 500–1500
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
D. Africa, 500–1500
1. Historical Trends, 500–1000
This period was a formative one, during which processes of change and adaptation originating in local and regional African conditions accelerated in response to new forces emanating from outside the subcontinental region. Change occurred unevenly in sub-Saharan Africa. On the cultural level, the most important processes include the migration of Bantu speakers throughout the central and southern half of the continent; the widespread diffusion of iron technology, which accelerated the Bantu migrations; the domestication of new cultigens, especially varieties of banana; and the development of communities that mixed agriculture and cattle raising. On the political level, this period witnessed the burgeoning of polities and the articulation of complex political organizations. Associated with the development of polities was social stratification based on wealth and access to political and religious power. On the religious level, Islam expanded militarily up the Nile, into the region between the fourth and fifth cataracts, throughout North Africa, and into the Sahara. Most of the expansion of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, however, followed the quietest path, associated with Muslim merchants. Throughout the sahel (an Arabic term for shore) along the desert's edge and on the East African coast, Muslim communities established mutually beneficial relations with communities and political leaders practicing traditional or animist religions. These Muslim communities often developed in diasporas, dispersed communities settled along trade routes. Long-distance trade across the Sahara, up the Red Sea, and across the Indian Ocean linked Africa with the peoples of the Mediterranean, the Near East, and the Indian subcontinent. Long-distance trade was built on local and regional trade and stimulated both. Merchants imported exotic goods, which often entered complex circuits of prestige and patronage and contributed to social stratification and political centralization. The emergence of the East African Swahili communities represents a variant of this process.  1
Developing a chronology for these changes has been difficult, due in part to the paucity of archeological investigations for this period and to the absence of written documentary evidence. With very few exceptions, sub-Saharan African societies did not develop written language. As Islam spread throughout the continent, writing was widely diffused, often taking the form of vernacular uses of Arabic script, called ajami. Wider diffusion of writing took place at a later time and was largely limited to clerics and bureaucracies. To be without writing was not, however, to be without history. Instead, African societies produced oral traditions to recount the past. Historians of Africa make extensive use of oral traditions, although these traditions cover relatively short time spans and, like all historical sources, are characterized by certain distortions, especially: bias toward political events, continuous potential for revisionism, telescoping of events to occur within particular reigns, and artificial lengthening of reigns of certain rulers. Historians have developed sophisticated methodologies to control for these potential problems, and they make use of corroborating evidence from archeology, dendochronology, genetic mapping, historical linguistics, and related disciplines. Historical linguistics, in particular, has provided a method for measuring change in language, called glottochronology. Although many historians are dubious about the assumptions of a constant rate of language change, historical linguistics has yielded important evidence for cultural change, especially for the period anterior to the historical reach of oral traditions. The net result is a general chronology that illuminates relative, sequential change.  2
Three historical trends during this period warrant special attention: the spread of the Bantu, the rise of complex polities in the West African sahel, and the emergence of the Indian Ocean Swahili communities.  3
The Bantu languages are part of the larger Niger-Congo language family. Numbering some 300 languages, Bantu predominates in the central and southern half of the continent. What is remarkable about Bantu languages is their relatively close linguistic structure, which suggests to historians a fairly recent and rapid expansion. Based on historical linguistic evidence, scholars generally agree that in the late Stone Age the early Bantu speakers developed a sophisticated food-producing and fishing complex in the forested region of what is now southern Nigeria and northern Cameroon. Armed with these skills, early Bantu speakers pursued two routes, eastward and southward. Already well dispersed, they probably acquired iron technology around 500 C.E. On their route eastward, the Bantu speakers skirted the northern forest edge toward the interlacustrine region of East Africa. Along the way, they adapted livestock keeping to their agricultural skills. As cattle-keeping farmers, they were able to sustain much higher population growth, attracting both the hunter-gatherers and the livestock nomads of the region for trade. The southward-moving group penetrated the equatorial forest. Iron implements and food-producing skills permitted them to colonize this region more effectively than the autochthonous inhabitants.  4
The two groups rejoined in the eastern and southern edge of the forest, where the southward-traveling Bantu groups acquired livestock. Sustained increases in human and livestock populations contributed to the emergence of “big-men” and chiefdoms. By 1000, Bantu-speaking communities were forming polities in the more densely populated regions of eastern and central Africa, and they were expanding rapidly into southern Africa. Loans of cattle and livestock-based bridewealth payments were common means of building large followings and tying communities together. Cattle-keeping Bantu farmers predominated in central and southern Africa, and they shared economic, cultural, and political traditions. Many non-Bantu-speaking people adapted Bantu languages to participate in these dynamic communities; others moved to less hospitable regions and retained their hunting and gathering traditions.  5
Roughly contemporary with the spread of the Bantu speakers, from the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. to the middle of the first millennium of the current era, West Africans along the sahel and savanna developed an urban tradition. This urban tradition seems to have its roots in the fortified villages found along the desert's edge, which may have been the result of episodic periods of conflict in the ordinarily symbiotic relations between desert nomads and settled agriculturalists. Whatever its particular origin, the urban tradition spread along the West African sahel and savanna to Lake Chad, and supported communities as small as several hundred to some as large as several thousand. These urban communities were largely agricultural with significant occupational specialization, including artisanal castes, religious specialists, and, increasingly, military and political leaders.  6
By around 500 C.E., clearly identifiable but small-scale polities had emerged. They set the stage for the development of larger empires around 800, such as that of Ghana and Kanem. These empires were superimposed above the smaller polities and held together through powerful armies and tribute collecting. Despite their capacity to survive for many centuries, these West African empires were fragile polities, rarely able to transform daily life in their smaller, outlying communities. Nonetheless, the empires fostered military and political specialists and encouraged trade. Carried by merchants, Islam found a fertile foothold in these urban settings.  7
Islam, commerce, and an urban tradition were also emerging along the East African coast at this time. Although East Africa had been a central part of the developing world of the Indian Ocean since at least the 2nd century B.C.E., the emergence of a distinctive urban, cosmopolitan, and Muslim African culture occurred from about the 9th century. This was the beginning of the Swahili culture, which was to dominate the East African coast until the end of the 19th century.  8
East Africa's place in the Indian Ocean system was partly due to the monsoon winds, which blow consistently from the northeast from November to March (facilitating navigation from the Persian Gulf and the Indian subcontinent) and from the southwest from April to August (facilitating the return voyage). Ivory, gold, incense, building materials, and slaves were part of this Indian Ocean trading system, although the intensity of the maritime commerce increased as the Abbasid capital shifted from Syria to Iraq and as the Persian Gulf increased in importance. Already by the 9th century, large numbers of slaves were draining the swamps of southern Iraq and planting sugarcane. These slaves, referred to as Zenj, the term for East Africa, were involved in the 896 slave revolt, which lasted for 14 years before the Abbasids suppressed it.  9
Visiting Ibadi, Omani, and Indian merchants found good anchorage on the archipelago of offshore islands along the Kenyan and Somali coast. There they entered into relations with Bantu speakers who controlled the commodities the merchants wanted. To accommodate this commerce, permanent settlements were created on these islands, although the pace of urban development increased in the 9th century. The process of interaction between these foreign merchants and local Africans over the course of many centuries led to the development of Swahili, both as a cosmopolitan, urban culture and as the language of that culture. Swahili is a Bantu language with many Arabic loanwords. The development of Swahili demonstrates the processes of social and cultural synthesis that were also occurring in other regions of sub-Saharan Africa. (See Historical Trends, 1000–1500)  10
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.