© 2016 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.

African History

So much more than just mummies

Africa is big. Really big. So this course seeks to do the impossible: teach the whole of African history from its Paleolithic beginnings to the present day.

Africa's role in world history is often overlooked in favor of the "glorious" narratives of European conquest. But Africa is more than a wilderness to be conquered by its northern neighbors—from unique ancient societies, to proud medieval kingdoms, to diverse cultures destroyed by the slave trade, Africa's history is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.

So, in this history course, we're giving Africa its due. We'll use critical reading (including primary sources), critical thinking, and a mess of critical writing activities to help you understand Africa in a deep and nuanced way.

Our course will cover the highlights of African history (and by "highlights" we mean "extremely depressing events which cannot and should not be forgotten"), including

  • Africa as the birthplace of humanity.
  • the ancient societies of Egypt, Kush, Jenne-Jeno, and more.
  • the Bantu migration, Africa's medieval kingdoms such as Aksum and Great Zimbabwe, and the effect of Islam on Africa.
  • the introduction to the slave trade to Africa and how Africans responded to it.
  • European colonialism in Africa and its legacy.
  • the process of decolonization and the conflicts that arose afterward.
  • Africa's attempts to heal and develop as autonomous African countries.

Course Breakdown

Unit 1. Meet Africa

This short unit is an introduction to the geography, people, wildlife, and resources of Africa. We'll end by planning a guided tour of an African country.

Unit 2. Ancient Africa

This unit covers a lot of ground, from the beginnings of the human species in Africa to the grand civilizations of Egypt, Carthage, and Ghana. We'll also crack open the myth that nothing interesting ever happened in Africa. Boy is that wrong.

Unit 3. Africa's Kingdoms

Medieval Africa was a hot place to be. The Bantu were migrating, Aksum was rising and falling, Islam entered Africa, and a whole host of powerful and diverse kingdoms called the continent home. We'll take the tour in this unit.

Unit 4. The Slave Trade

In this unit, we cover the introduction of the slave trade to Africa, how the slave trade impacted Africa, and its eventual abolition. We'll go in deep with some case studies on the Kongo and the Dahomey too.

Unit 5. Colonialism

This unit covers a dark period in the history of Africa, colonialism, otherwise known as Slavery, Take 2. We'll take a wide-angle look how European colonization of Africa happened, the governments and economies instituted, and how Africans fought back.

Unit 6. Decolonization and Post-Colonial Conflict

Rounding out our trio of depressing units is our study of decolonization and post-colonial conflict. We'll tackle topics like genocide in Rwanda and Sudan, the impact of the Cold War on African politics, and how Africa is healing (including the formation of the African Union).

Unit 7. Development

In our final unit, we study how Africa is developing now that all its states are independent. Besides studying the various roads to development, capitalism, and international aid, we'll tip our toes into public health in Africa and women's rights.

Sample Lesson - Introduction

Lesson 10: Ancient Ghana and the Trans-Saharan Trade

What has two thumbs and helped create the Ghanian Empire? Well…not camels, because of the thumbs thing.


Back to the good ol' fashioned kingdoms, huh? The kind with, you know, kings? In this lesson, we're going to hang out a little longer in West Africa, but jump a few hundred years into the future. And land in a powerful, important kingdom called Ghana.

Which is not to be confused with the Republic of Ghana (a former British colony on the coast of Africa with a population of over 25 million). Not that Ghana. This Ghana was founded on the southern edge of the Sahara desert in about 300 CE. It was one of the earliest and richest kingdoms of West Africa and provided the foundation for a bunch of powerful kingdoms that came afterward, like Mali and Songhai. You'll hear more about those dudes in the next unit in the context of the spread of Islam in medieval Africa.

But for now, we're going to focus on the ancient roots of those great civilizations, and early Ghana. Why was this such a prime spot for empire building (dude, that's a giant desert—how great could it possibly be?)? And why did Ghana emerge in the 300s? And what made it so rich and powerful? And what animal can run as fast as a horse, can go six months without food, and spits on people for fun?

  • Course Length: 18 weeks
  • Grade Levels: 9, 10, 11, 12, College
  • Course Type: Elective
  • Category:
    • History and Social Science
    • High School

Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?

Courses Tutorial