Some African peoples believed, like the Chinese, that the spirits of their ancestors could help, warn, or punish their descendants on Earth. To honor and please their ancestors, they said prayers or performed rituals.

Like the followers of traditional religions in other parts of the world, many African peoples believed that every object on Earth is filled with a living spirit. They respected nature because they believed that the supreme being had created all things.

In some African societies, diviners and healers held places of honor. These men and women were well educated in the traditions of their societies. Diviners served as interpreters between people and the divine world. They might explain the cause of misfortune such as illness. The healer might then help a person find a solution to a problem. Diviners and healers also had knowledge of herbal medicines.

Christianity and Islam Spread

By A.D. 1000, both Christianity and Islam had spread into Africa. African converts often associated the God of Christians and Muslims with their traditional supreme being. In this way, Christianity and Islam absorbed many local African practices and beliefs.

Over time, Islam played a dominant role in commerce, education, and government in large parts of Africa. Jewish communities had existed in North Africa since ancient times. Later, many Jews moved to North Africa after they were expelled from Spain in 1492. As you have read, a community of Ethiopian Jews lasted for centuries, while Ethiopian Christian communities also survived for more than 1,500 years. In areas where Islam was dominant, Christians and Jews continued to practice their faiths as protected “people of the Book.” Christians and Jews developed their own institutions within the context of the Islamic community, in some cases acting as advisors in the courts of the early caliphs.

Art and Literature

African artistic traditions extend far back in time to the ancient rock paintings of the Sahara, which were created by about 1000 B.C., and the over-4,000-year-old pyramids of Egypt and Nubia. More recently, but still about 1,000 years ago, the rock churches of Ethiopia and the palace of Great Zimbabwe were built. These accomplishments bear lasting witness to the creative power of these early and medieval civilizations.

Photo of atwo story building in desert setting with grand stained glass window entrance.

Jews in many communities in Africa lived side by side with Muslims and Christians and worshiped in temples such as this one in Egypt.

Visual Arts

African artists worked in many materials, including gold, ivory, wood, bronze, and cloth. They created many decorative items such as woven cloth, inscribed jugs and bowls, or jewelry simply for their beauty. Even so, art usually served social and religious purposes as well.

Art strengthened bonds within the community and linked the makers and the users of the work. Patterns used to decorate textiles, baskets, swords, and other objects had important meanings or special messages that the artisan or owner wanted to convey. Often, they identified an object as the work of a particular clan or the possession of royalty. One example is kente cloth, a traditional West African textile woven of silk and cotton. When it was made in bright gold and blue colors, the symbols of power, only the ruling elite and the wealthy were allowed to wear it.

In Africa, as elsewhere, much art was closely tied to religion. Statues and other objects were used in religious rites and ceremonies. In some rituals, for example, leaders wore elaborately carved masks decorated with cowrie shells or grass. Once the mask was in place, both the wearer and the viewers could feel the presence of the spiritual force it represented.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments