Precolonial Africa - Art, Architecture and Wealth

Have you wondered how Africa was like in the years before colonialism? What Africans did and how they lived? You probably have all sorts of ideas but here's an insight on how things were.


By: Izehi Amadasu

Before colonialism and the scramble for Africa. It is estimated that about 10,000 states existed in Africa. Yup,10,000 consisting of empires and kingdoms. These kingdoms had their own languages, customs, religious beliefs and way of doing things.

Although much information about precolonial Africa has been destroyed, here's what we do know:

Mining: Precolonial Africans were great miners. They mined gold, iron and copper making Africa one of the first places for the birth of the Iron Age. Take for Instance, the Haya group in Tanzania have been forging steel for 2000 years!

Also, gold was very abundant in much of the empires in precolonial Africa.Thousands of gold mines dating back centuries have been found all over Africa. Gold was used for trading, making jewelry and for decorations. African empires like: Ghana Empire, Mali Empire, Bonoman, Carthage and Axum were strengthened due to the trade in Gold. It is said that the emperor of Ghana had to monitor the amount of gold in circulation so that it would not lose it's value. Amazing right? A historian visited the Ghana Empire (located in modern day Mauritania, Mali and Senegal) in 1067AD, in his description, the emperor of Ghana had ten pages with shields and gold mounted swords. He went further to say that the princes of the empire had gold plaited into their hair and that the dogs had collars of gold and silver. That is awesome!


Ghana Empire (9th Century-13th Century)

Benin Empire

Trading: Precolonial Africa was a hub of trading activities. Africans traded in domesticated beef, iron, ivory, gold, copper and spices. They traded both locally and internationally. Major trading cities include Ife, Djene, Timbuktu and Gao. Gold was mainly used as the currency for international trade. Ancient Axum and the Bantu speaking people of Southern Africa traded with lands as far back as India.

Timbuktu, a city in the Songhai Empire was a renowned cultural and economic center where Arab, Italian and Jewish merchants gathered for trade.


Marketplace at kumasi, Asante Empire 1873.

Trade also went on at a local level, in small towns on market days. The Yoruba people traded clothes, vegetables, meat and other goods using cowries or shells. Cities like Kano, Kuka, Gando, Timbuktu also made use of cowries. In certain parts of Africa, copper and iron were produced into shapes and called Manillas to be used as currency.


An Okphoho-type Manilla from south-eastern Nigeria.

Artworks: Many African kingdoms made very elaborate artworks. They used very sophisticated techniques to make artworks depicting people and objects. These artworks were usually made of bronze, copper, brass, wood, ivory, clay and terracotta. Many of them have been praised by experts and leave archaeologists in awe. These artworks give us an insight to what life was like in these kingdoms including the customs and mode of dressing.


Artwork from Ife, 16th century, National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria.

Structures: Africans built many beautiful and elaborate structures including pyramids, walls, palaces and towers.

Pyramids: The Great Pyramid found in Egypt was the tallest man made structure for 3,800 years. Sudan has the highest number of identified pyramids in the world with over 200 pyramids.


Meroe City in the Kingdom of Kush. Located in modern day Sudan.

City Walls: Kingdoms like Benin and Kano had large walls surrounding it. The great walls of Benin have been estimated to cover over 16,000 kilometers. The Guinness Book of Records in 1974 described the walls of Benin and it's surrounding kingdoms as the world's largest earth works carried out prior to the mechanical era.


●  Palaces: These Empires had magnificent palaces. Olfert Dapper, a Dutch writer described the king's palace in Benin in 1668. In his description, he stated that the king's court was divided into palaces, there were long squares that had galleries. He also stated that the buildings rest on wooden pillars from top to bottom, lined with copper casts and engraved with pictures of the war exploits and battles of the Benin people. Most of the houses were covered with palm fronds and on the roofs was a small tower with a casted copper bird on top of it, it's wings artfully sculpted.


●  Towers: Numerous stone towers have been found in the Kingdom of Zimbabwe dating back centuries.


Stone Towers of Great Zimbabwe founded 11th Century A.D

City Planning: The ancient Egyptian city of Kahun was the world's first planned city. The city was divided into two parts, the western section had a stone gutter, one meter wide running through the center of every street. Cities like Ife, Benin and Kano were becoming more and more urbanised. Benin Kingdom planned and designed it's city using careful rules of symmetry, proportionality and repetition known as fractal design. Benin Kingdom is also one of the first kingdoms in the world to have semblance of street lighting. Metal lamps fueled with palm oil were placed on walls along the street. The kingdom was described as a place free of crime and hunger with wide streets and houses kept clean. Other Empires had well planned irrigation system to supply water to their farms.

The kingdom of Zimbabwe had centuries old drainage systems that collected water from the houses into the valley.

Sketch of Benin, 1897

Timbuktu, Mali Empire, Heinrich Barth 1858

Although precolonial Africans did a lot of wonderful things that are not mentioned in this article, I hope that when you think of precolonial Africa, you think of gold, of elaborate artworks and beautiful architecture and somehow all these will awaken a feeling of pride in you and a determination to build a better Africa.

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