Why were there no ancient civilizations in tropical Africa?



Ozodi Osuji

     History books tell us that the most ancient civilizations began at what is today called Iraq (Mesopotamia) and Egypt. Both places are in Africa (before the construction of the Suez Canal the Middle East was part of the African land mass, besides, from Saudi Arabia to the horn of Africa is only a few miles of red sea crossing, could be done by canoes).

     Old civilizations took place in North Africa, and the Middle East, why did they not penetrate interior Africa?

     Egyptians were a curious people so why did they not use their sailing ships to try tracing the origin of their Nile River, a river that their whole civilization depended on? That would have taken them to what is now called Lake Victoria, smack in the middle of Africa. Across the lake would be plains that take them to South Africa and the South Atlantic Ocean; on the east and west side of the lake would have taken them to East Africa and Congo in West Africa.

      To the best of my knowledge, Egyptians did not do this. If they had done so, the Egyptian civilization would have extended to interior Africa and Africa would not have been cut off from the ancient world.

     Around 550/300 BC Persians and Greeks conquered Egypt. They were good navigators and could have gone to Lake Victoria in interior Africa and opened Africa’s interior to ancient civilizations, but they did not do so.

      The Mesopotamians and other Middle Eastern civilizations had sailing ships and, as such, could have explored the East Coast of Africa and established settlements on it, all the way to south Africa and beyond. Even the Indians and Chinese could have explored the east coast of Africa and had settlements there.

    The Phoenicians and Romans had sophisticated sailing ships and could have easily gone to Lake Victoria, crossed it, went to South Africa, and extended their civilizations to Interior Africa; they did not do so. Thus, Africa remained cut off from world civilizations.

     In the late 1400s of our common eras the Portuguese sailed along the coast of West Africa and eventually got to the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and got to India in 1494. They established slave trading relationships with some coastal Africans but really did not explore interior Africa. From Cape Town they could have explored all South Africa to as far North as Lake Victoria, crossed it and explored East and West Africa but they, too, did not explore interior Africa.

     The general reason given for this lack of exploration of interior Africa is mosquitoes. Well, Central America and even South America are geographically like West Africa, and they, too, had mosquitoes so those Europeans who survived the mosquito bites of the Americas could have survived the mosquito bites of Africa.

    So, why did many civilizations bypass interior Africa? The answer is that I do not know. One thing is for certain, if ancient civilizations had explored interior Africa, Africa would have been part of the ancient world and contributed to ancient civilizations and there would be no talk of Africans been primitive.

    One can ask: how come Africans did not initiate ancient civilizations? This is a good question. Did Europeans initiate ancient civilizations?

     Ancient civilizations sprouted up in the Mediterranean regions of the world and from there travelled northwards. Herodotus’ History, written about 2500 years ago, although not strictly empirical, gave us some knowledge about ancient civilizations; they were mostly Mediterranean civilizations.

    Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome were the products of the Mediterranean world; Rome took Mediterranean civilization, two thousand years ago, to Northern Europe (France, Germany, Britain etc.).

     Northern Europe had primitive civilizations before the inroad of the Roman civilization. Africa had comparable civilizations (to Northern Europe), but they were not of the sorts we talk about when we talk about great civilization.

     West Africa had Ghana, Mali, Songhai (those had their impetus in the Muslim Arab dawn in the eight century of our common era), Ashanti and Benin (these began about a thousand years ago).

      Ethiopia has two thousand or more years civilization; East Africa had some sort of civilizations, such as the Kingdom of Buganda but no one classifies those as world class civilizations.

     Jared Diamond, in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel speculated on why no outstanding civilization began in the tropical regions of the world. He conjectured that the ancient civilizations were made possible by horses or were spread by horses.

     The Land mass from North Africa to Siberia had horses and folks could travel to all the area on horses. He thinks that people on horses took their people’s civilizations to elsewhere in the Eurasian landmass and that this was responsible for the great civilizations there.

    He believes that horses did not survive in tropical Africa because of many reasons, including mosquitoes. Without horses’ people could not travel far in the ancient world and therefore cultural diffusion was very minimal in the tropics.

       Professor Diamond has a useful point. However, the Incas and Aztecs of Central and South America appear to have lived in tropical areas and had no horses so how do we account for their magnificent civilizations, their pyramids and Machu Pichu stone works in Peru?

    I have exercised my brain and could not understand why there were no ancient civilizations of note in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. I tend to believe that there must have been a reason for this situation, for, obviously, it was not because other races are superior to Africans, all people are the same and equal.

   A friend said that nature and nature’s God kept Africa last in the civilization business to have them give the world a final civilization, a love-based civilization that returns humankind to the state that God created them as, loving persons; this, he says, will happen in about two hundred years. I do not know whether he is correct or just making himself feel good.

    Many Africans, me included, feel ashamed because Africa did not have great civilizations. Some Africans try to deny their shame by trying to convince the world that Egypt was an African civilization, which it probably was, but that does not mitigate the absence of such civilizations in West, East, and South Africa.

     What I do know is that I know nothing. If you have the answer to why ancient civilizations bypassed interior Africa, please share it with me.

     Thank you.


Diamond, Jared (1999). Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: Norton.

Herodotus (1987). The History of Herodotus, Translated by David Green. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Ozodi Osuji

February 7, 2022ozodiosuji@gmail.com

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