The Past: Pre-colonial Africa

Doing this research about our ancestors opened my eyes to many things I didn’t know and affirmed much of what I already knew. This series is about afrofuturism which might make some readers wonder why we would begin with the past. As we go through this month it will become clear that our ancestral practices and ways of being are still deeply woven into the black experience across the diaspora. With all that comes with being black in this world the beauty of our experience is within us on a cellular level. With each step we carry our ancestors with us. Now let’s get into it.
Pre-colonial African history is rich, extensive and incredibly varied. Society would have us believe that African history begins with the transatlantic slave trade. However, prior to colonizers, settlers & missionaries arriving on The Continent to pillage the people and resources, our ancestors were thriving. Our ancestors lived with their own customs, kingdoms, political systems, religions, history & academia. It is said by many that Africa is the birthplace of humanity. Smithsonian magazine states that the oldest fossil found in Africa dates back approximately 360,000 years. Many thousands of centuries before colonial times. There is evidence of human life existing on the continent for millions of years.
One of the illest connections I made about our ancestral practices came to me when I read that there is not much written history of life in pre-colonial Africa because our ancestors preferred to share knowledge and history orally. Storytelling. Very few societies had written languages. Keeping things on a need to know basis is in our dna. Protecting knowledge until certain rites of passage had been completed. Keeping it in the family. All of this to say that our traditions have always been closed, even amongst fellow Africans. Which adds insult to injury for me when I think about the way that this world thinks that black culture is for the taking. They pick it up and put it down on a whim. Then you have people inviting people to cookouts & I just *signal fail* Let me not start ranting! 😂 Back to the history.
Probably one of the most instrumental things that helped to advance early African societies was the use of iron. Our ancestors (with the help of a certain deity *wink wink*) learned the process of iron smelting using simple bellows and charcoal fires. “Iron Working demanded great proximity to supernatural powers, thus ironsmiths were both admired & feared” Ross, Emma George. “The Age of Iron in West Africa.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. The use of iron tools led to the development of one of the first ancient cities in what is now Nigeria, Ife or Ile-Ife. Originally a grouping of 13 settlements, iron tools helped these settlements to combine and become the flourishing city of Ife. Stories about Ife share a lot of similarities with origin stories of the African Traditional Religion of Ifa. However, as I am not an Ifa practitioner and am just beginning my research on the topic I won’t make any further claims beyond that. What I will say though is that in many African Diasporic Religions, the deity Ogun is the god (Orisha) of tools, weapons & war. “Ogun governs all minerals and metals, iron in particular. He is commonly associated with weapons, tools, knives, and mountains. Images of him portray a man, bare-chested, dressed in a palm skirt that is said to protect him from evil. He is often depicted as a lone blacksmith who lives in solitude deep in the forest.” Excerpt From Seven African Powers Monique Joiner Siedlak. “Iron in particular” “lone blacksmith”, you don’t say 😏. Spirituality has always been the foundation of the advancement of black people but we’ll get to that later on in the series.
Iron working resulted in enhanced weaponry and farming tools. Our ancestors were suddenly able to landscape, clear forests, plow fields, protect themselves and hunt with more precision. Iron made surviving in any environment manageable which led to community growth followed by states and kingdoms. Iron was instrumental in the rise of kingdoms such as the Dahomey, Benin & the Yoruba kingdoms of Ife & Oyo. Ancient Egypt was the first major African civilization. Due to the mostly oral traditions of our ancestors, information has had to be put together from the four African linguistic groups (Khoisan, Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo/Bantu) to track pre-colonial migration. Before colonialism, the African map would have been based on tribal lands. There were more than 10,000 states and kingdoms before the arrival of Europeans. Our ancestors had their own varied and complex government structures. Some societies were ruled by monarchs and others by government or ruling groups, age group systems, and hunter gatherer communities. Due to some parts of Africa not receiving enough rain to maintain crops and a larger population, many pre-colonial societies were mobile. Moving based on the needs of the community. Agriculture was the base of the economy. “In most African societies, all of the people were looked after and taken care of in some manner.” WORLD CIVILIZATIONS AND HISTORY OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT – African Civilizations: From The Pre-Colonial to the Modern Day - Toyin Falola and Tyler Fleming. Our ancestors were community based and mutual aid was a way of life.
There were societies and tribes that were matriarchal as well as the age old way of patriarchy. Many societies were matrilineal-traced through the maternal line. Some were polygamous and others were monogamous, mostly based on whether they were affluent or poor much like today. Our ancestors had intricate, layered gender expressions & sexual identities. Queen Njinga - who answered only to king - was born in 1582 in current day Angola. Njinga was reported to have worn male clothes and was said to have female wives, a harem of males that Njinga had dress as women, as well as heterosexual relationships. Two male bodies embracing each other as lovers were found preserved in the tombs of Egypt dating back to 2400 BC. Many, many African deities are androgynous and/or embody both feminine and masculine energies. Our ancestors used herbalism practiced by rootworkers, herbalists, midwives & diviners to maintain the health of their communities. Spiritual belief and practices worked hand in hand with physical measures to treat ailments. Our ancestors were intelligent and so deeply connected with the Divine. It has been said that some nations were even vaccinated against smallpox and other illnesses.
We are descendants of enterprising, brilliant, intensely spiritual, community based people. All of the qualities needed to be an afrofuturist. Our ancestors were committed to the well being of their societies. They were committed to expansion and advancement. The very definition of afrofuturism. Black history is now. It gives me all the feels seeing that so many of us are journeying back to the ancestral way whether it be by spirituality, getting back to the land, or by building community and taking care of each other. I hope this essay has activated your curiosity & encourages you to do your own research on our honourable ancestors. This has been a joy to put together and has moved me in ways that I’m still processing. Stay tuned for the rest of this series. There is so much more to come. If you made it to the end, thank you for reading.
- eleven.


WORLD CIVILIZATIONS AND HISTORY OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT – African Civilizations: From The Pre-Colonial to the Modern Day - Toyin Falola and Tyler Fleming AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGIONS Ross, Emma George. “The Age of Iron in West Africa.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2002) Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “Ife (from ca. 6th Century).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (originally published October 2000, last revised September 2014) Cartwright, Mark. "Ife." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 26 Mar 2019. Web. 31 Jan 2022. Seven African Powers - Monique Joiner Siedlak
Back to blog