There is quite a gap between the paleontological history of the early physical development of humans in Africa and the more recent history of African societies and civilizations. The former deals with human bodies; the latter is concerned with the social and imaginative constructs that have been made by peoples of many different appearances and periods. We can dig up traces of the former, but traces of the latter are far harder to find and to interpret. Until very recently, "African history" was mainly the study of colonial history from colonial records and was imbued with many of the underlying assumptions about the "Dark Continent" that had been held by some of the earliest writers. The development of social anthropology led to the contextual study of local tradition and myth. Many historians naively continued to accept mythical tradition as historical record, but others sided with anthropologists in recognizing that, although traditions revealed much about the past, they also portrayed African views of the past only as they are interpreted today. Archaeologists, too, have for many years offered valuable information on past societies, and modern archaeology—devoid of the implicit racism of some earlier work—is uncovering new and reliable data about both the material and the nonmaterial conditions of previous periods of history.
We may divide the history of modern Africa into three main phases: that of the precolonial past, that of the colonial period, and that of the postcolonial present. These are merely the convenient phases that have been constructed by historians: the chronologies for one part of the continent vary greatly from those that apply to others; and the length, the nature, and the depth of consequences of colonial rule have varied from one region and country to another. Evaluative historiography tends to simplify complex historical trends and developments and often to substitute myth for "objective" history, however problematic the latter may in fact be.
The earliest African civilization of which we have reliable knowledge is that of Egypt, which linked Africa and western Asia. By about 5000 B . C ., settled Neolithic communities had come into existence, based on the domestication of plants and animals, the making of pottery, and the smelting of metals. Lower and Upper Egypt were united into a single kingdom, which had knowledge of writing, by 3000 B . C ., and, by 2700 B . C ., Egypt's civilization was at its height. Its mercantile and cultural influence went as far south as Nubia and Ethiopia. By about 2000 B . C ., Egypt's power was in decline, and the center moved southward to the Nubian state of Kush. Still later, the rise and spread of iron working (to replace bronze) led to the growing importance of Meroë, which flourished for some 600 years and was probably the main center for the knowledge of ironworking that spread out through the remainder of Africa, with far-reaching social and cultural consequences. Meroë was eclipsed by the Ethiopian state of Aksum in the fourth century A . D ., and by several Christian successor states in present-day southwestern Sudan.
Although archaeologists are providing more and more information about the internal organizations and cultures of these various places and their peoples, the earliest historically known post-Egyptian societies of which we possess considerable knowledge are the "medieval" empires of the southern Saharan borderland: Ghana (not to be confused with modern Ghana), Mali, Songhay, Kanem, and others that flourished at various times after the eighth century. They were trading states, based on the exchange of gold from the south, salt from the north, and many other items between the forest region of western Africa and the northern Sahara and Mediterranean regions. The height of mercantile power in the area was from the twelfth until the sixteenth centuries. These early states were militarily powerful empires, the rulers of which accepted Islam and, therefore, literacy, as part of their mercantile roles. As middlemen in the Saharan trade, they ensured the safety of caravan routes across the desert and of markets in the western African savanna and forest zones, in return for taxes and tribute from Saharan and Mediterranean merchants. Ghana and Mali were eventually subdued by attacks from the Berbers from northwestern Africa, but the Hausa and Kanem states to the east have continued to exist until the present day, even though weakened by the raids and "holy wars" of Muslim Fulani and other groups. The "medieval" empires have otherwise long vanished, but their old traditions and myths persist and still play important parts in the construction and retention of ethnic ideologies throughout much of western Africa.
Elsewhere in Africa, most of the early "medieval" societies of which we have knowledge became prominent somewhat later. All were based upon trade, both long-distance trade within Africa and, increasingly, trade with Asia and Europe. Aksum and, later, the Swahili towns of the eastern African coast were, from the first part of the first millennium, engaged in trade with Arabia and countries to the east across the Indian Ocean, a commerce that in the Swahili case lasted until the twentieth century. Slaves, ivory, and gold were the most important items exported, in immense quantities, over almost 2,000 years. In southern Africa lay the gold-producing empire of Monomatapa, with its citadel of Zimbabwe, which exported its gold through the southern Swahili ports. In the region of the great lakes were the powerful states of Nyoro, Ganda, and Rwanda, among others; farther south, the several trading states of the Angola-Congo region, as well as the kingdom of Kongo, which was early Christianized by the Portuguese. In western Africa, the domination of the Saharan borderland states was supplanted by the rise of successor states along the forest belt: Asante, Benin, the Yoruba states of Nigeria and Dahomey, and others. Although these states flourished during the colonial period as providers of ivory, slaves, gold, palm oil, and other commodities to Europeans, they had been established much earlier. They were not mere petty and short-lived kingdoms, but large, powerful, and long-lasting trading states whose commerce linked most of the lesser societies of the continent into a single mercantile network, one that was destroyed only by the advent of European colonial powers.
Every part of Africa has at one time or another come under the imperialist and colonialist overrule of Asia and the West (even Liberia was long a de facto colony of the United States). Today every part of the continent except for one or two small and remote islands has become politically, even if not in all cases economically, independent. The brutality of colonial rule may have been exaggerated and mythologized, but there is no doubt that the colonial period had deep-seated consequences for the development of the African peoples. Even if in the long run it may be seen as merely an interlude in "la longue durée" of African history, the colonial rule of Europe and Asia served to "underdevelop" Africa, leading to the continent's relatively long economic and political stagnation.
Apart from the early colonial incursions by Rome along the coast of northern Africa and those by Arabian states in the Horn and along the eastern African coast, the first colonial rulers were the Portuguese, who, from the twelfth century onward, set up small colonial trading settlements southward down the western African coastline from present-day Senegal, the Cape Verde Islands, and Guinea-Bissau (which had 500 years of Portuguese presence), to Benin, Kongo, and Angola. At the end of the fifteenth century, they rounded the Cape and reached eastern Africa. Other countries—Holland, France, Britain, Brandenberg, Denmark, Sweden, Oman, Belgium, Germany—sent colonial expeditions to Africa in the wake of the Portuguese. All established trading outposts and then moved inland to take over the remainder of the continent. They could rarely take over internal kingdoms and other societies without force, however, and during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Africa was the scene of continual warfare and economic exploitation. The most obvious series of events was that involving the trade in slaves to the Americas from western and south-central Africa (figures vary from 30 million to 100 million) and from eastern Africa to Arabia, Persia, and India (figures certainly run into many millions). Slaves were captured by indigenous African rulers themselves and sold to Europeans and Arabs. That trade was conducted alongside commerce in ivory, gold, and other items, the collection of which required people to be diverted from farming and their settled peasant livelihoods.
The third phase of African history is the contemporary era—a period of some thirty years in the middle of the twentieth century during which political independence was taken by, and in some cases rather grudgingly given to, the present African nation-states. It is still too early to evaluate the post-colonial history of Africa, which has been characterized by a series of attempts to construct new democracies that have in most cases failed (or at least been uncertain), combined with a few examples of destructive dictatorship. In addition, this period has been marked by the process of neocolonialism and "development," of the continued exploitation of Africa by the outside world—not in the form of the taking of human beings but of the taking of material resources in return for manufactures. The African elites have flourished, but the lot of most of the ordinary people has been impoverishment.