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African history

Bronze sculpture from the Benin Kingdom, late 15th century–middle 16th century. For millennia, Africa has been home to a wide variety of peoples and cultures. In the Middle Ages, some African civilizations, such as those of Benin and Mali, in west Africa, rivalled anything known in medieval Europe. Our knowledge of African history from this period is limited, because there are so few written records. Much of what we do know comes from archaeological records—the physical remains, such as ruins and pottery, left behind by ancient peoples.

A 13th-century illustration of a slave market, in which Arab traders are seen buying African people for slavery.

Trade in the
Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, African peoples mined gold and other metals. They traded with China and Arabia. Many peoples, such as the west African empires of Ghana and Mali and the southern empire of Zimbabwe, grew rich and powerful. Many other kingdoms flourished in the grasslands and forests of central and south Africa, especially in places with fertile soils and sources of salt and metals. The capital cities of these kingdoms were protected by immense walls. Their lands were ruled with the help of powerful armies and by making alliances with other local leaders.
A 24-m (79 ft) stele, called the Obelisk of Aksum


Because there was no good building stone in West Africa, people used bricks made from hardened mud instead. The largest mudbrick building in the world, the Djenné Mosque, still stands in Mali.

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