The Story of Africa


- Origins of the human race


- From hunting to farming


- Skills and tools


- People on the move

From hunting to farming


Prehistoric painting
One of the more immediate ancestors of modern humans, Homo erectus, lived between 500 thousand and 1.5 million years ago and it is with this species that we see the first signs of organised hunting activity based around communities. They tended to live near water sources - along the banks of rivers or lakes.

On the basis of evidence found at one of Africa's most important geological sites, Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, we know they constructed small structures made out of tree branches as shelter.

Everyday life
"The size of the shelters would suggest they lived in small family groups, and that each family would have its own residential unit.

The men would go out to hunt, and the women would have gone out to collect vegetable foods - roots, fruits, nuts and insects - that formed an important component of the diet. We know that boys were taught to become hunters and the girls gatherers."- Simiyu Wandibba, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nairobi
Click here to listen

Much of the evidence of the likely way of life in these early settlements comes from the study of communities such as the Khoisan of Botswana who still retain some elements of the hunting and gathering lifestyle.

Click here to listen

When it came to hunting, early humans tended to seek out smaller animals such as rodents, and use clubs to kill them. They would avoid actually attacking larger animals such as giraffe, zebra or elephants, waiting for them to be killed by other beasts or die of natural causes.

By the middle and later stone age - between 150 and 40 thousand years ago - humans had developed more sophisticated tools, shaping stone points to use as spearheads and developing the bow and arrow. The spears could be tipped with a vegetable poison. They also used a wide range of implements made of bone that were used as needles or fish hooks.

The rise of farming

Social organisation and food sources
"After long periods of hunting and gathering we assume that these people did some experimentation with some of the plants and some of the animals. They found some animals - like the ancestor of the cow - were more friendly than others and so they brought them home and looked after them. With plants, they might try a fruit and someone dies, so they say, 'No, that's not a good fruit' and finally they would strike on the right plants and animals.

"Once they have enough food, societies become more secure. Now people have time for each other. Men and women, the father and mother, have more time and one sees population explosion coming into being.

"With more people you get more social stratification and specialisation. People become full-time craftsmen and experts in different fields. This gives rise to trade and the first markets begin to emerge." - Henry Mutoro, Associate Professor of Archaeology, University of Nairobi
We do not know how exactly it happened but around 10,000 years ago humans took a hugely important step that revolutionised life. They began to domesticate animals and cultivate crops.

However dramatic it may seem from our standpoint, it is likely that these developments occurred very gradually and over a long period of time.

The main crops to be developed were cereals such as wheat, barley, sorghum and millet. Some areas produced their own distinctive grains such as the Ethiopian highlands where the staple food 'tef' is still used to make the spongy traditional bread, 'injera'.

Domestication of animals such as sheep and goats as well as the cultivation of plants meant that early humans were able to settle for longer periods of time in one area so they could oversee the sowing and reaping of crops. This meant that shelters became more permanent constructions made of mud or brick. The communities also needed more implements such as stones for grinding and pots for storage.

However, one of the main results of domestication was a rapid increase in population.

Food surplus could now be traded with other communities such as those who had retained a hunting and gathering tradition. Maize, for example, might be traded for a supply of wild honey.


A more settled lifestyle also prompted people to express themselves through arts and crafts. Of all the continents, Africa is one of the richest in rock art. Images painted with vegetable dye adorn caves in the Sahara, Tanzania and South Africa. Such art gives us a unique glimpse into the life of these people, showing them not only at work - hunting and fishing - but also at play, dancing and socialising.
^^ Back to top Back to Index >>