Although Africa is surrounded by oceans and seas, it has few good natural harbors. Also, much of the interior is a high plateau. As rivers flow down to the coast, they cascade through a series of rapids and cataracts, or waterfalls, that hinder travel between the coast and the interior. Within the interior, though the same rivers, including the Zambezi, Congo, and Niger, serve as open highways.
Despite geographic barriers, people did migrate, both within Africa and to neighboring continents. Like the rivers, the Great Rift Valley of East Africa served as an interior corridor. People also traveled across the savanna lands. The Red Sea and Indian Ocean linked East Africa to the Middle East and other Asian lands, while North Africa formed the southern rim of the Mediterranean world.
Africa sits atop great mineral and other natural resources. Since ancient times, mineral wealth spurred trade among various regions. Salt, gold, iron, and copper were important items in early trade networks. Much later, in the 1800s, desire for gold and diamonds was one cause that led Europeans to seek control of lands in Africa.
Trade between Africa and Asia increased with the introduction of the camel. By A.D. 200, camels had been brought to North Africa from Asia. These hardy “ships of the desert” revolutionized trade across the Sahara. Although daring traders had earlier made the difficult desert crossing in horse-drawn chariots, camel caravans created new trade networks.
At first, trade in the Sahara Desert was hindered by inhospitable conditions, but new forms of transportation, including the use of the camel, revolutionized commerce in the region.
Camels could carry loads of up to 500 pounds and could plod 20 or 30 miles a day, often without water. The caravan brought great profits to merchants on both sides of the Sahara.
How did geographic features affect movement in Africa?
Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that points to the Great Rift Valley as home to some of the earliest ancestors of modern people. Gradually, their descendants migrated out of Africa and beyond to people in every corner of the Earth.
In Africa, as elsewhere, Paleolithic people developed skills as hunters and food gatherers. By 5500 B.C., Neolithic farmers had learned to cultivate the Nile Valley and to domesticate animals. As farming spread across North Africa, Neolithic villages even appeared in the Sahara, which was then a well-watered area. Scientists have found ancient rock paintings that show a Sahara covered with rich grasslands and savanna.
About 2500 B.C., a climate change slowly dried the Sahara. As the land became parched, the desert spread. This process of desertification devoured thousands of acres of cropland and pastureland. The ever-expanding desert forced many people to move, or migrate, to seek new areas in order to maintain their ways of life.
Over thousands of years, the migration of people throughout Africa contributed to the continent's rich diversity of cultures. Scholars have traced these migrations by studying language patterns. They have learned, for example, that West African farmers and herders migrated to the south and east between about 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1000. Like the Indo-European peoples of Europe and Asia, these West African peoples spoke a variety of languages deriving from a single common language. The root language is called Bantu, which gives this movement its name—the Bantu migrations.
As the Bantu-speakers migrated into southern Africa, they spread their skills in farming, ironworking, and domesticating animals.