Source Book for African Anthropology




Outlines of Africa





Although the primary aim is a description of the cultures of Africa it is impossible to understand the great migrations and the modes of life, together with the distribution of languages and physical types, without a preliminary survey of the continent itself. The size, shape, and position of the land mass, the mountains and valleys, the river systems and lakes, and the distribution of minerals and types of soils have profoundly affected the history and development of Africans and Europeans.


Since theories of continental connection (Wegener, 1922, trans. by Skerl, 1924; and Perrier, 1925) relate to periods before the advent of man, they may be omitted. But the question of African-European land bridges in the early Pleistocene is of importance to anthropological study of Africa. Sollas (1924, p. 132) describes bridges by way of Malta and Sicily in the Chellean culture period of the Pleistocene, but these assumptions have been challenged recently (Woodward, 1935, p. 130). Students of African archaeology will therefore have to reserve their final judgments respecting human migrations in the early Pleistocene.

Unless the geological time of subsidence of a land bridge is ascertained, a hypothesis for explaining the wanderings of people is extremely unreliable, but fortunately some land connection between Africa and Asia is known. The peninsula of Sinai in northeast Africa connects that continent with Arabia and farther Asia; and the justifiable assumption is that this land bridge has existed throughout the whole development and wanderings of man. At the southern end of the Red Sea the narrow strait of Bab-el-Mandeb separates Arabia from Africa, and ready transit between Arabia and Africa at this point was no doubt possible during a long prehistoric period even without a land bridge.

The probability of such communication will be seen when we make a comparative study of the physical measurements of Arabs of southwest Arabia with anthropometric data for inhabitants of the opposite coast.

The latest discoveries of fossil mammals in the caves of Palestine and Syria, as interpreted by Miss Dorothea M. A. Bate, show that during the early half of the Pleistocene period, Asia and North Africa were much more closely connected than they have been since. The country was comparatively well watered, with luxuriant vegetation and forests, and mammals could readily migrate both east and west. Even an animal so characteristic of Africa as the warthog (Phacochoerus) was then living in Palestine. The connection of Asia with Africa was thus as definite as the connection of Asia with Europe; and the explanation of the partial identity between the Pleistocene mammals of Africa and Europe is probably that they had a common source in Asia and diverged west in two different directions, one southwards, the other northwards (Woodward, 1935, p. 131).


The area of Africa is twelve million square miles, four times that of the United States of America. The distance from north to south is about five thousand miles, and the breadth a few hundred miles less. Such great dimensions are best appreciated by remembering that the distance from New York to San Francisco is about three thousand miles. Africa is situated on the hottest part of the earth’s surface. The continent is almost bisected by the equator; hence, the greater part of the land lies within the tropics.

Africa has a coast line that is short and unbroken in relation to the great surface, and this fact is important in relation to climate, exploration, and commerce. The sea always has a moderating effect on land temperatures because water is more constant in temperature than a large mass of land. Consequently, proximity of the ocean tends to warm the land in winter and to cool it in summer. But the coast of Africa has inlets which are small in size and number compared with the surface area; hence the moderating effect of the sea on inland temperatures is not appreciable. In early days of exploration, journeys were made more difficult by the absence of inlets, and even as late as 1870 Stanley’s name of the "Dark Continent" was well chosen, since most of the interior was at that time unexplored.

In addition to retarding exploration, the absence of natural harbors is an obstacle to commerce. At some ports on the west coast vessels anchor almost a mile from the shore to discharge passengers and cargoes into surf boats which are paddled ashore by native crews. But this natural disadvantage of the west coast is yielding to engineering skill, which has been directed toward building breakwaters and dredging natural inlets.


In addition to location, shape, and coast line the biological importance of internal features should be considered. Deep depressions and high mountains affect climate, natural products, and the culture of the inhabitants. Mountains form barriers to communication, while depressions like that of the Rift Valley in northeast Africa have determined the direction of migratory peoples.

Volcanic disturbances have affected the survival and distribution of human and animal life, though doubtless many great cataclysms occurred before man had established himself in Africa. Yet Leakey (1936a, pp. 25–26) offers the hypothesis that a convulsion resulting in the formation of the Rift Valley led to the extinction of a very large number of species of animals that formerly flourished in Kenya, and he adds, "If my view is correct, it is not impossible that man too was wiped out in the regions round the Great Rift Valley. Certainly we know that whereas four distinct culture groups were in existence in Kenya before the formation of the Great Rift Valley, only two are present in the deposits which represent the period immediately following it."

Africa is a plateau with an average height of two thousand feet above sea level. In east Africa the mountains Ruwenzori, Kenya, and Kilimanjaro are the principal elevations. Kilimanjaro, which is capped with snow throughout the year, attains a height of 19,321 feet, while Ruwenzori (16,800 feet) is an important elevation between lakes Albert and Albert Edward Nyanza; but Ruwenzori, unlike some adjacent mountains, is not an ancient volcano.

Traveling from low to high altitudes gives a convincing demonstration of the effects of elevation on temperatures. In a few hours the heat of the coast region of Portuguese West Africa can be exchanged for cold winds of a high plateau four thousand feet above the sea, where nightly temperatures fall almost to the freezing point.

In Nigeria a journey northward from the coastal belt of dense, moist forests having a high temperature combined with great humidity leads to a plateau region whose nightly cold approaches freezing point. When the journey northward is continued for a few hundred miles the dry heat of the desert forms a sharp contrast with the moist heat of the forest belt. In flat, open desert great extremes of temperature are experienced between day and night, especially in the period from October to December when the Harmattan wind is blowing. This wind causes an exceptionally rapid fall of temperature after midnight.

Before studying human life the basic fact has to be grasped that Africa, owing to vast area and differences in elevation, has many and varied ranges of temperature and moisture, with consequent diversity of plant and animal life. There exist, however, definite climatic zones which will be described later.

Geological formation has affected climate, not only by determining elevation but by the formation of great lakes. Victoria Nyanza, which is twenty-six thousand square miles in area, also Mwero and Bangweolo, do not belong to the Rift Valley system, but occupy depressions in the general level of the plateau.

On the contrary, lakes Tanganyika and Nyasa, both of which are valuable aids to communication, lie in the Rift Valley. Lake Tanganyika is of particular interest because of a rich fauna. Animal life includes many fish and mollusks peculiar to this lake, a fact which proves long isolation from other fresh-water systems. Geological factors have been responsible for the formation of lakes with their riverine connections, and these lacustrine features have influenced climate, communication, and food supply (J. W. Gregory: 1896; 1920, pp. 13–47; 1921. E. B. and S. Worthington, 1933).

Willis (1936) in a section "Historical Retrospect" has surveyed theories of rift formation advanced since 1825. He compares the views of Beaumont, Suess, Gregory, Wayland, Krenkel, and others who have attempted to explain the way in which force may be exerted to cause a parting of the earth’s crust, in such a manner that two or more adjacent strips become displaced and a rift valley is formed. The bearing of these geological arguments on human life will be fully realized in reading chapter III, which deals with culture sequences of the stone age.


Formative influences which determined the height of the plateau regions, the position of valleys, and the direction of inclines also marked out the courses of four principal rivers, the Nile, Niger, Congo, and Zambezi, for the details of which Fitzgerald (1934) should be consulted.

Of these the Nile is the most familiar because of its Biblical connection and the mystery which surrounded its source and annual rise.So far back as A.D. 60 the Roman Emperor Nero sent two centurions on a journey of discovery, and their record shows that the expedition penetrated the marshes of the upper Nile, where live the tall Nilotic Negroes, Dinkas, Shilluks, Nuers, and Anuak. The impressive stature of these tribes was described, and in addition to this the centurions mentioned their difficulty in cutting a way through the floating vegetation of the marshes.

In the year 400 B.C. the Greek philosopher Aristotle guessed at the cause of floods along the course of the Nile, when he stated that the annual rise of the river was due to the melting of snow combined with summer rains in Ethiopia (Abyssinia), where the tributaries Blue Nile and Atbara have their origin. Usually the Nile rises at the end of June and continues in flood until the end of September, when a height of twenty-five feet above low level is generally recorded at Cairo. Should the rise exceed this there is danger to life and property, but an abnormally low rise means famine and poverty.

The civilization of Egypt, which is one of the most impressive instances of the growth of a complex culture, has depended on this annual overflow of the river, which left a deposit of mud and a surplus of water that could be conducted for long distances through irrigation canals. Modern engineering, especially the dam at Assuan, is an apt instance of man’s successful effort to make himself less dependent on natural phenomena, for the waters can now be impounded and released at will.

That the Egyptians themselves fully realized their dependence on the flooding of the Nile Valley is clear from their mythology and sacred texts. The old Egyptian word quem refers to the deposit of black mud left by the receding waters, and the ta-mera of ancient Egyptian literature describes the inundation. The following brief paragraph will serve to illustrate the influence of geographical conditions on economic welfare and spiritual beliefs.

Egyptians of 3500 B.C. had certainly no accurate knowledge of the true source of the river and the cause of its floods. Sacred texts refer to the Nile god as the "hidden one" whose "secret places" were a matter for conjecture. Mythology taught that the Nile surrounded the whole world, and that the river was part of a celestial ocean on which sailed the boats of the Sun god. Egyptian pictures show the source of the Nile as a cavern guarded by a hippopotamus-headed goddess who is armed with a large knife. Another illustration portrays two gods wearing papyrus and lotus blossoms respectively; one of the deities represents the northern and the other the southern part of the river. One picture shows a Nile god in his cavern pouring out the waters of the White and Blue Niles. A hymn to the Nile god has been translated from a papyrus in the British Museum.

Thou waterest the fields which Ra hath created. Thou givest life unto all animals. Thou art the friend of bread and drink. Thou fillest the storehouse and makest the granaries to overflow.

The River Congo, though shorter than the Nile by a thousand miles, has a greater volume of water than any other African river. The length of the Congo is three thousand miles—about the breadth of the United States. The river is not straight, however, but makes a large northward curve which acts as a drainage system for the forested area of central Africa. The wide estuary is situated about the middle of the west coast. Far from the shore the sea is yellow in color, and at the point where the incoming tide clashes with the outward rush of the river a bar of foam, seaweed, and driftwood has been formed.

The Niger, with a length of 2,600 miles, makes a great horseshoe formation in west Africa. For more than two thousand years the location of the estuary was unknown, and no river, with the exception of the Nile, has been of such great historic interest. The Niger and its tributary Benue are the principal water highways for the whole of west Africa. The Zambezi, 1,600 miles long, drains a large area in the southeast of the continent.

The process of differential erosion is of importance in connection with a study of river systems, because the unequal hardness of the strata has led to formation of cataracts that have impeded exploration and commercial development. On the Nile are four cataracts. The Niger is obstructed by the Busa Rapids. The Yalala Falls obstruct the Congo. Narrowing of the River Zambezi at the Victoria Falls provided crossings above and below the cataract, and over these constrictions of the river passed human migrations from the east side of the continent.


The early geological processes, including tilting of strata, have been responsible for the outcropping of mineral deposits that have affected human activities both ancient and modern, from the time when stone-age man sought beds of flint, until the recent rush for gold and diamonds.

The oasis of Kharga is situated a hundred miles west-by-south of Abydos on the River Nile. Airplane photographs taken by Lady Bailey indicate that the part of the Libyan desert in which the oasis is situated is a scene of complete desolation, though the oasis itself contains wells and the remains of conduits cut by Romans and Persians.

Miss Caton-Thompson (1931a, 1931b, 1932) states that Kharga shows one of the most remarkable flint-chipping areas that it can ever have been the lot of man to see. Here are querns and hand-rubbers for grinding grain, flint flakes, and chipped axes. A more advanced technique is illustrated by translucent flint arrowheads, and there is evidence of a stone-age industry which in some of its aspects antedated the historical period (4000 B.C.) by thousands of years. Evidently the early sites of stone-age man were geologically determined by the presence of suitable material.

During millions of years the mineral wealth of Africa lay untouched, until at last man discovered the economic importance of metals and made them play a part in his culture. The mining and forging of iron by Negroes has given rise to several hypotheses respecting the origin and dispersal of these industries. But, whatever the history may be, the fact remains that iron ore is abundant near the surface, and the blacksmith’s art was well developed among Negroes before the arrival of Europeans.

The origin of the bronze-casting industry of west Africa is unknown, but the art flourished before the European period began, and the making of the alloy depended on the occurrence of tin and copper. Again, the copper mines of Katanga in the southern Belgian Congo have been important in human affairs in both ancient and modern times. The eagerness of Europeans to exploit these mines has led to the development of new railways and river-boat services. Before the use of European currencies became general, copper from Katanga was made into large units of exchange shaped like a letter X, and this currency was carried far and wide by native caravans.

Mungo Park (1799, p. 285) described native methods of washing the soil for gold in west Africa. Some of the valuable metal was fashioned into personal ornaments, but much of it in the form of gold dust was traded across the western Sahara to Teghaza in exchange for salt from that region. The native gold industry lured Europeans, who finally explored and annexed the country.

History of the Union of South Africa is concerned with the cupidity of prospectors and company promoters who have coveted the gold and diamond mines. In this scramble for wealth the interests of native Africans have generally been neglected. Negroes have gathered from long distances in response to demands for labor in the mines, and not infrequently they have failed to understand the nature of the labor contracts to which they agreed. Moreover, work underground and the life in compounds have proved physically and morally injurious, while native social organization has been disrupted at its source by withdrawal of the male population. For a time Chinese labor was introduced into the mines, but the resulting complications of a social and political kind led to the discontinuance of this practice. Clearly, the presence of gold and diamonds, a geological factor, has determined the course of south African history, and in Lunda, northeast Angola, the social conditions of Africans are deeply affected by the presence of diamond mines.

Although Gautier (1928) doubts the maritime formation of the Sahara (p. 5) he rightly insists on the biological and historical importance of salt deposits. Teghaza in the northwest Sahara has throughout historical times been important for production of salt, an industry which has proved a stimulus to caravan trade, and a cause of commercial rivalry and warfare. From Bilma in the southern Sahara salt cakes are traded east, west, and south, and the supplies are still responsible for annual caravan trade on a large scale between Bilma and the southeast side of the Air Mountains. Buchanan (1926, p. 73) describes the concourse from the great trade centers of Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, and Zinder, until a caravan of seven thousand camels was assembled at Air. Another valuable deposit that influences human activities is the beds of natron on the shores of Lake Chad. The oval cakes are traded for long distances since the potash is a valuable ingredient in the drinking water of domestic animals (Vischer, 1910, p. 301). Fig. 1 shows the unloading of cakes of natron at Baya Seyarum on the western shore of Lake Chad. Trade in minerals resulting directly from geological factors, has been responsible for great physical, cultural, and linguistic interchanges.

Without dogmatic acceptance of a theory of geographic determinism the control of geographic factors over human life can clearly be demonstrated for the continent of Africa. Our future studies of culture areas will illustrate the adaptability of man, but the data will likewise stress his limitations. Advances in engineering and biological science will profoundly affect the present status of human communities in Africa, solving old problems of adjustment and creating new ones. But throughout this flux nature will play a part, perhaps capriciously by climatic changes, and the picture is One of unending battle to secure a series of temporary adjustments between man and his environment.

Fig. 1. Unloading natron, Baya Seyarum, Lake Chad.


To prepare the way for future anthropological study better maps of Africa are needed. I thought when traveling in Angola in the year 1929 that available maps were astonishingly incomplete and inaccurate, For many parts of Africa revision of the spelling of place and tribal names is urgent. The confusion and difficulty likely to arise from preparing a gazetteer of tribal names will be realized by consulting J. Maes and O. Boone (1935), whose excellent summary of Belgian Congo tribes shows that certain tribal names may be spelled in a dozen different ways. Sometimes the names are entirely different though they designate the same people.

In topographical research there is need of great endeavor; for example, on the subject of soil erosion (Hobley, 1933; Champion, 1933), and the utilization of underground supplies of water (A. B. Thompson, 1933). The local geological researches of E. J. Wayland (1934) in Uganda are typical of the concentrated surveys necessary to explain human prehistory in geological terms. E. B. and S. Worthington (1933) have directed attention to the geological and biological importance of the lake systems of east Africa, but many more studies of this type are required.

To expand these introductory remarks and to prepare the way for intelligent comprehension of Africa as a whole several types of literature are available.


For one beginning a course on Africa I would recommend as preliminary general reading a few of the older books (Drummond, 1899; W. Reade, 1864, 1872), outmoded, perhaps, yet of human qualities, humor, and insight that preserve their value.

The summary of E. W. Smith (1935) should be carefully read, and as elementary textbooks C. G. Seligman (1930) and Hambly (1930a) will provide useful introductions. In German, Buschan (1922) has provided a digest of African ethnology. Both Hambly and Buschan are concerned principally with the material cultures of geographical zones. Huxley (1931a) has given in "Africa View" a general survey of the geological and biological factors entering into human life in east Africa, together with an appraisal of educational and social problems. R. R. Marett’s "Anthropology" (1912) is a bright and stimulating introduction, touching on the antiquity of man, race, environment, language, social organization, law, religion, and morality.

The general theory of geographic determinism is expounded by Huntington (1907, 1914, 1915, 1926), Semple (1914), C. E. P. Brooks (1925), Forde (1934), Pomfret (1935), and Bowman (1934). The most comprehensive modern work in French is "La géographie humaine" in three volumes by Brunhes (1925). W.M. Davis (1911) has contributed a helpful discussion showing the rôle of geographical factors in the development of South Africa. Dixon (1928) has provided valuable summaries of the geographical and many other important factors that are instrumental in building a culture pattern. Dixon is not specifically concerned with Africa but with general principles that can be applied to African study. As an example of the detailed study of local conditions in relation to human life Hudson’s (1935) survey of a district in Northern Rhodesia is recommended.

Among works of reference of an encyclopedic kind various handbooks are available. The "South and East African Year Book," with atlas (S. and G. G. Brown, 1935), also "Uganda" (Thomas and Scott, 1935), are typical source books available in preparation for regional research. Other thesaurian works of value in African research are Keane (1907), Gsell (1913), Krenkel (1925, 1928), and Haughton (1935). E. Torday’s revision (1930) of Herbert Spencer’s "Descriptive Sociology of African Races" contains a map with tribal locations designated by numbers, a key to which is provided. Roome (1925) has published a tribal map that will prove of service, though great improvement is necessary when further study has given tribal taxonomy a sure foundation on somatic, linguistic, and cultural grounds. We need some logical tribal grouping.

A large folding orographical map published by the National Geographic Magazine, Washington (1935), gives political divisions, railways, and motor roads. Sources of information respecting maps are the National Geographic Society, South Kensington, London; E. Stanford, 43 Whitehall, London; H. M. Stationery Office, Kings-way, London; the Royal Anthropological Institute; and the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, London. Fitzgerald’s compendium of African geography (1934) contains ninety maps, and the work is an indispensable companion for African study. Of these sources for cartography perhaps Stanford is the most valuable, since his catalogue contains lists and specimens of maps in great variety. Use also the Times Atlas.

With this equipment a beginning may be made in the study of climatic and biological conditions in relation to human development.


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Chicago: "Physical Features," Source Book for African Anthropology in Source Book for African Anthropology, ed. Hambly, Wilfrid D., 1886- 19–29. Original Sources, accessed July 21, 2024,

MLA: . "Physical Features." Source Book for African Anthropology, in Source Book for African Anthropology, edited by Hambly, Wilfrid D., 1886-, pp. 19–29. Original Sources. 21 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: , 'Physical Features' in Source Book for African Anthropology. cited in , Source Book for African Anthropology, ed. , pp.19–29. Original Sources, retrieved 21 July 2024, from