Bruce Morrison » Societies and Empires of Africa, 800–1500

Societies and Empires of Africa, 800–1500

Empires develop in northern, western, and southern Africa. Trade helps spread Islam and makes some African empires very wealthy.


Section 1: North and Central African Societies

Section 2: West African Civilizations

Section 3: Eastern City-States and Southern Empires


Section 1: North and Central African Societies

North and central Africa develop hunting-gathering societies, stateless societies, and Muslim states.


Hunting-Gathering Societies


Hunters and Gatherers

  • Studying hunting-gathering groups today can give clues to the past


Forest Dwellers

  • Efe live in forests of Democratic Republic of Congo
  • They live in groups of 10 to 100 related people
  • Women gather vegetable foods, men hunt


Social Structure

  • An older male leads, but each family makes its own decisions
  • Problems within group are settled by discussion; no written laws


Stateless Societies



  • Some societies group people inlineages—those with common ancestor
  • Members of a lineage have strong loyalties to one another
  • In some African societies, lineage groups take the place of rulers
  • These stateless societies balance power among lineages
  • Stateless societies—no centralized system of power


Tracing Family Descent

  • Some societies arepatrilineal—trace ancestry through fathers
  • Others arematrilineal—trace ancestry through mothers
  • Lineage determines how possessions are inherited


Age-Set System

  • Age set—group of people born about same time who form close ties
  • Age sets go through life stages together, such as warrior or elder
  • Ceremonies mark the passage to each new stage


Muslim States


North Africa

  • Starting in 630s, Muslims conquer North Africa
  • Western part—Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco—calledMaghrib
  • Many Africans convert to Islam; religious scholars advise rulers

Islamic Law

  • Islamic law brings order to Muslim states, especially North Africa
  • Original inhabitants of North Africa are the Berbers
  • Berbers convert to Islam but maintain their own culture
  • The Almoravids and Almohads, two Berber groups, form empires


Almoravid Reformers

  • In 1000s, devout Berber Muslims make hajj, pilgrimage, to Mecca
  • Muslim scholar foundsAlmoravids—strict religious group
  • Around 1050, Almoravids begin to spread Islam through conquest
  • They conquer southern Ghana and Spain, where they are called Moors


Almohads Take Over

  • In mid 1100s,Almohads—group of Berber Muslims—overthrow Almoravids
  • Almohads strictly obey teachings of Qur’an and Islamic law
  • By 1148 they control most of Morocco, keep Marrakech as their capital
  • Almohad Empire lasts 100 years; unites Maghrib under one rule


African Societies, 800–1500

  • From 800 to 1500 there are a variety of African societies


-stateless societies

-Muslim states


Section 2: West African Civilizations

West Africa contains several rich and powerful states, including Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.


Empire of Ghana


Growing Trade in Ghana

  • In 200s, Berbers begin using camels to cross Sahara for trade
  • Muslims use wordghana“chief” to refer to people of that land
  • By 700, trade is making people rich in the kingdom Ghana


Gold-Salt Trade

  • Gold mined in forests south of Sahara; traded to north
  • Salt mined from Sahara and carried to West Africa
  • Ghana provides protection, taxes trade, and ensures fairness


Land of Gold

  • By 800, king of Ghana rules an empire and taxes surrounding kings
  • Only king can own gold nuggets; this keeps prices high
  • King commands army, acts as chief judge and religious leader


Islamic Influences

  • Islam spreads through region south of the Sahara through trade
  • In 1000s, Ghana’s rulers convert to Islam and take Islamic advisers
  • Ghana falls in 1076 to Almoravid conquest and never rises again



Empire of Mali


Rise of Mali

  • By 1235, Ghana replaced byMali—another kingdom based on gold trade
  • Mali becomes wealthy as the gold trade routes shift eastward


Sundiata Conquers an Empire

  • Sundiatabecomes emperor of Mali by overthrowing unpopular ruler
  • Conquers Ghana and cities of Kumbi and Walata
  • Reestablishes the gold-salt trade and encourages agriculture


Mansa Musa Expands Mali

  • Some later rulers become Muslim
  • Most famous isMansa Musa—rules Mali from 1312–1332
  • Mansa Musa was skilled military leader and fair ruler
  • After returning from hajj, he builds mosques in Timbuktu and Gao


Travels of Ibn Battuta

  • In 1352,Ibn Battuta—Muslim scholar and traveler—visits Mali
  • By 1400, Mali begins to decline


Empire of Songhai



  • Songhai—people east of Mali, control gold trade moving farther east


Sunni Ali, a Conquering Hero

  • In 1464, Sunni Ali begins rule; captures cities of Timbuktu, Djenné


Askia Muhammad Governs Well

  • Sunni Ali’s son overthrown by Askia Muhammad, devout Muslim
  • Rules for 37 years; appoints ministers and governs well
  • Songhai Empire falls in 1591 to Moroccan invaders with cannons
  • Collapse of empire ends 1,000-year period of West African empires


Other Peoples of West Africa


City-States Develop

  • As empires fall, city-states grow in West Africa


Hausa City-States Compete

  • Hausa—people named for their language—have city-states in Nigeria
  • Three powerful city-states are Kano, Katsina, and Zazzau
  • Rulers control their capitals and surrounding farming villages
  • City-states trade cloth, salt, grain, and enslaved people
  • Rulers fight so much that none can build an empire





Yoruba Kings and Artists

  • Yoruba—people sharing common language who build city-states
  • Live in Benin and Nigeria, in small farming communities
  • Yoruba communities eventually join together under strong kings
  • Yoruba kings are believed divine and king of Ife is religious leader
  • From 1100, Ife is most powerful; in 1600, Oyo grows stronger
  • Yoruba craftsmen in cities carve in wood and ivory


Kingdom of Benin

  • Another kingdom rises in 1200s inBenin—a kingdom on the Niger
  • In 1400, the oba, or ruler, of Benin raises army; builds city walls
  • Artisans work on palace; make heads and figurines in copper or brass
  • In 1480, Portuguese begin trading with people of Benin


Section 3: Eastern City-States and Southern Empires

African city-states and empires gain wealth through developing and trading resources.


East Coast Trade Cities


Trade Builds Cities

  • Seaports thrive on trade from Persia, Arabia, and India
  • New language arises—Swahili—blending Arabic and Bantu languages
  • By 1300, over 35 trading seaport cities grow wealthy


The City-State of Kilwa

  • Kilwa controls trade from southern Africa to India due to location
  • Seizes Sofala, port city that controls gold mines


Portuguese Conquest

  • Starting in 1488, Portuguese conquer Kilwa, Mombasa, and Sofala


Islamic Influences


Islam in East Africa

  • Muslim merchants spread Islam as they trade on eastern coast
  • Most cities governed by a Muslim sultan and officials
  • Most people in the region follow traditional religions


Enslavement of Africans

  • Enslaved Africans sold in Arabia, Persia, and India
  • Trade in slaves fairly small, though steady
  • Increases drastically in the 1700s


Southern Africa and Great Zimbabwe


A New City

  • Shonabuild Great Zimbabwe—southeastern empire based on gold trade




Great Zimbabwe

  • Shonafarm and raise cattle between Zambezi and Limpopo rivers
  • After 1000, Great Zimbabwe controls gold trade routes to Sofala
  • Leaders gain wealth by taxing traders, chiefs
  • Abandoned by 1450 for unknown reasons
  • Ruins of Great Zimbabwe discovered in 1871


The Mutapa Empire



  • Mutota—Shona who leaves Great Zimbabwe and founds a new state
  • Mutota’s army dominates northern Shona people, who pay him tribute


Mutapa Rulers

  • The northern Shona call their rulers mwene mutapa or “conqueror”
  • Mutapa—name for African empire that conquers Zimbabwe
  • By 1480 Matope, Mutota’s son held large area inland and along coast
  • Gained wealth by mining gold