The peoples of Africa may be classified according to several criteria, probably the oldest of which is race. Africa is occupied by members of the Negroid race, the most numerous; then by members of the Caucasoid race, mainly in northern and southern Africa; the Mongoloid race (in Madagascar); and by the so-called Bushmanoid and Pygmoid races or subraces. Previous work in this field has shown the difficulties and contradictions that result from using the concept of "race," and it is clear that this criterion does not contribute to an understanding of the cultures and identities of African societies.
Most attempts at physical or racial classification refer back to earlier efforts to understand the origins and development of humans in various parts of Africa. Paleontological search for the origins of humankind in Africa has a long history, over the course of which it has become virtually certain that the first humans originated in Africa. Paleontologists have discovered skeletal remains (often the merest fragments) of ever-earlier apes and hominids. Remains of various types of apes date back to about 25 million years ago, mainly in southern and eastern Africa, where the limestone deposits are ideal sites for preservation of this material. A primate in the hominid line of descent, known as Ramapithecus, has been found in eastern Africa dating back perhaps 14 million years, and even earlier types are being discovered in Ethiopia. Tool-making species of hominids have been found in South Africa and at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania that date back about 5 million years. One of these, a slender form, has been named Australopithecus africanus; the other, a larger and later form, is called Australopithecus robustus (a variant species from Olduvai is known as Zinjanthropus). The more modern types, Homo habilis and Homo erectus, developed in East Africa by about a million years ago, by which time the Australopithecus types had become extinct. Neanderthal forms in northeastern Africa evolved about 60,000 years ago. Many other modern forms that developed since then have been found, merging into modern hominids. About 35,000 years ago, the African Middle Stone Age marked the spread of modern humans throughout Africa.
Despite efforts to portray the hunting and gathering Bushmen of southwestern Africa as the living representatives of earlier types, little direct evidence has been derived from tracing of Bushmanoid ancestors. It had been assumed that the contemporary Bushman economy is the same as that of prehistory, but these rather simplistic and at times racist evolutionist views have little foundation. It is reasonable to suppose that there must have been some kind of ancestral linkages, both in physical development over countless generations and also in cultural development. However, the immensely long periods of slow human development—during which variations in climate and the availability of resources occurred, resulting in continual migrations of people throughout the continent—imply so many changes that any direct descendance can hardly be proved.
A more meaningful classification is based on language. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was surmised that African languages, of which some knowledge had been percolating to Europe since at least the sixteenth century, were among the most "primitive," an expectation that was never supported by evidence. Philologists were the first Europeans to try to classify African peoples by "tribe" (or similar terms), which they defined as a "territorially limited language group."
Most of the linguistic hypotheses were based not only on language but also on the kind of diffusionist hypotheses that confused language affiliation, economy, and forms of government. The most influential was the so-called Hamitic Theory, according to which there was a link between pastoralism, divine or sacred kingship, and the Hamitic languages. The "tribes" that had all three were thought to to be of common ancient-Egyptian ancestry. Similar diffusionist theories are continually being presented, the most influential today being that associated with a Senegalese scholar, Cheikh Anta Diop, who claims that ancient-Egyptian civilization was "Black" African and that it was the source of Mediterranean and Greek civilization. There is no supporting evidence for these suggestions.
After many increasingly sophisticated attempts to classify African languages had been made, Joseph H. Greenberg ( 1963) offered a classification that, with a few minor revisions, has generally been accepted. This classification is based solely on linguistic criteria and comprises the following groups:
Niger-Kordofanian, which is divided into Niger-Congo and Kordofanian. The Niger-Congo languages (comprising the largest African language cluster) are spoken from Senegal to the Congo region and throughout central, eastern, and southern Africa, dispersed through the Bantu languages. They include, from west to east, the subgroups known as West Atlantic, Mande, Voltaic, Kwa, Benue-Congo, and Adamawa-Eastern. Kordofanian comprises fifteen languages that are spoken only in a small area of southwestern Sudan.
Nilo-Saharan, stretching along the savannas from the Middle Niger to the Nile. These languages include several that are spoken in the Upper Niger-Lake Chad region.
Hamito-Semitic, or Afro-Asiatic, including Ancient Egyptian, Berber, Chadic, the Hamitic languages of northern and Saharan Africa, and the Semitic and Cushitic languages of northeastern Africa.
Khoisan, or Click, spoken by the Bushmen and Khoi of southwestern Africa and by a few peoples in East Africa proper. They are known as "Click" languages because of their extensive use of clicks as gutturals.
Malayo-Polynesian, represented by the languages of Madagascar.
Some 2,500 languages and dialects have been recorded throughout Africa. It has been customary to use them as indicators of distinct cultures and social systems, and, in general, this criterion has been a useful one. Care must be taken, however, not to rigidify any such correlation: languages and dialects, like other elements of culture, can be learned, adopted, and then forgotten. Today the persistence of many of the less widely spoken languages is threatened by governmental educational policies as well as by the near-extinction of many groups and their cultures.
Various pidgin and creole languages are spoken in the areas that have had long histories of trade with European colonial enterprises. Most are found along the western African coast, especially in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea-Bissau (known as Krio); in the Niger Delta (known as pidgin); and on outlying islands such as Cape Verde, Mauritius, and the Seychelles. Many languages, in particular Hausa in Nigeria and Swahili in eastern Africa, have become both trade languages and modern lingua francas over wide areas: they remain, however, distinct languages in their own rights, with their own native speakers. In addition, the former colonial languages (especially English, French, and Portuguese) are spoken widely by people in government, commerce, education, and popular culture. In South Africa, a minority of the population has for centuries spoken a form of Dutch (Afrikaans).
Almost all African languages have been committed to writing within the past hundred years, usually through Christian missionary endeavors, using Roman script. The Semitic and some of the Hamitic languages, however, have for centuries been written: examples include Ancient Egyptian, Arabic, Amharic (Ge'ez), and other related languages. Still others—languages of Muslim peoples, such as Hausa and Swahili—have long been written in Arabic script, although in recent years Roman script has proved to be more useful. A few African languages have been written in their own indigenous scripts, such as Berber and Tuareg of the Sahara, Vai of Sierra Leone, and Bamum of Cameroon. The latter two (and some others) were invented by local nineteenth-century scholars.
It should be emphasized that the fact that a language belongs to a particular language group does not necessarily mean that it and its fellows in that group are mutually intelligible, although they will usually share certain characteristics, such as the use (or nonuse) of semantic tones, grammatical rules, and word roots. All African languages include regional dialects, and these may often be mutually intelligible over small localities. The pattern of historical dispersal of a set of related languages—such as the Bantu languages that are today spoken over most of eastern, central, and southern Africa—may be ascertained through glottochronology, the study of the differences in variation from a surmised original language form.