Ancient Africa


When I talk to people about what draws them to Africa, often time and again, they speak of the magnificent landscapes, the endless sky, and the rich wildlife that is without parallel anywhere else on earth. But when we press them further, conversation always turns to the people, the warm welcome and hospitality, the passion for their communities and environment, and the unique cultures which have been refined over centuries. It cannot be forgotten that Africa gave birth to mankind, millennia ago, and since then generations of men and women have left tangible marks across this extraordinary continent.

Guests looking at rock art, Sossusvlei Desert Lodge

In Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, you will find one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world: this is where archaeologists have discovered the secrets of human evolution. The first early human species, Homo habilisi, lived here 1.9 million years ago, and after him came Paranthropus bosisei, Homo erectus, and, finally, Homo sapiens. There have been vital discoveries here of monoliths, of tool making, and, of course, of fossils. The gorge is only a short distance away from the Ngorongoro Crater, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and so by staying at the magnificently situated Ngorongoro Crater Lodge you can explore both the archaeological sites of Olduvai, and appreciate the wildlife of the crater.

Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania

Leaving the coast of Tanzania behind and heading east to the island of Zanzibar, the human history is relatively recent: it dates back a mere 20,000 years! In cave excavations, archeologists have unearthed numerous glass beads from across the Indian Ocean, a poignant reminder of Zanzibar’s long history as a trading post. It is possible to visit these ancient sites, learn about the civilisations who made them in the Zanzibar National Museum of History and Culture (set inside an extraordinary 19th century palace), and then to reflect on how they, too, are a part of the communities you see today, as you wander through the labyrinthine streets of Stonetown.

Street in Stonetown, Zanzibar

It is estimated that South Africa has been inhabited for 3 million years, and so in between your malaria free safari, Cape Winelands tour, and Cape Town city stop, be sure to allow time to appreciate the country’s ancient past. The Bradshaw Foundation has painstakingly recorded every piece of rock art, and much of it is explained in the excellent The Origins Centre in Johannesburg. Some of the finest surviving examples of rock art are in the Drakensberg Mountains, and the so-called “Rosetta Stone” of San rock art is at the Game Pass Shelter. It depicts a dying eland and a man, himself with features like an eland, holding its tail. These are sophisticated artworks, in spite of their age, and when you see them in their natural surroundings — the same surroundings as when they were first made, thousands of years ago — you cannot but be moved.

Rosetta Stone at Game Pass Shelter

Last but not least, ancient history lovers should consider exploring Kenya, with its 6 million years of human habitation: there have probably been people here longer than anywhere else on our planet. The stone tools found at Turkana pre-date the evolution of homo sapiens, confirming our predecessors also mastered the art of making and using tools. West Turkana, where many of these discoveries have been made, is part of the Rift Valley, and so can easily be combined with a trek up a dormant volcano, flamingo watching on Lake Nakuru, and a stay in the historic Loldia House, built by early Kenyan settlers on the shores of Lake Naivasha.

Boating near Flamingo, Loldia House

Africa’s past has shaped its present, geologically and culturally. If you want to understand this extraordinary continent, look back to the dawn of human evolution, and beyond.

Laura Burdett-Munns is Managing Director at Africa Exclusive. Africa Exclusive has been creating the finest tailor-made safaris since 1990, specialising in luxurious accommodation in beautiful remote places.

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Comments (5)

  1. Tony says:

    Mankind has left very little influence on Africa without the buildings and debris he has left on other continents. I think that fools us into thinking that Africa has very little history but as this piece shows, if you know where to look, Africa has an incredible history.

  2. Traveling through Africa would be the most magnificent journey through history. It is such a large place to explore, these recommendations are truly appreciated. The Origins Centre sounds like a must see for all!

  3. Jeff G says:

    It is really shaming of modern man that only in the last few decades have we somehow managed to put life on our planet at risk. We have much to learn from the people who lived in harmony with their environment for nearly 2 million years.

  4. Bob Brown says:

    I am a great believer in travel broadening the mind so wherever I go somewhere I like to try something new. I know absolutely zilch about archaeology so starting in Africa with a tour from an expert archaeologist would really be something. Can there be any better place to start your archaeology studies?

  5. Felicity says:

    You’re right, the first thing I think of really I suppose is the landscape and wildlife. I’ve never been but I do get a warm vibe when thinking of Africa, so I do associate it with a community spirit. The artefacts and insight you can get into the past there is incredible. There’s a lot more there that’s true to the past than you can find in places like here in the UK. I like trips where you can get a feel for the history and the community, both to learn and to really engage with the place you’re staying in.

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