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A satellite composite image of Africa

Africa is the world's second-largest continent in both area and population, after Asia. At about 30,244,050 km² (11,677,240 mi²) including its adjacent islands, it covers 20.3 percent of the total land area on Earth. With over 800 million human inhabitants in 54 countries, it accounts for about one seventh of the world human population.



World map showing location of Africa
World map showing location of Africa

The name Africa came into Western use through the Romans, who used the name Africa terra — "land of the Afri" (plural, or "Afer" singular) — for the northern part of the continent, as the province of Africa with its capital Carthage, corresponding to modern-day Tunisia.

The origin of Afer may either come from:

  • the Phoenician `afar, dust;
  • the Afri, a tribe—possibly Berber—who dwelt in North Africa in the Carthage area;
  • the Greek word aphrike, meaning without cold;
  • or the Latin word aprica, meaning sunny.

The historian Leo Africanus (1495-1554) attributed the origin to the Greek word phrike (φρικε, meaning "cold and horror"), combined with the negating prefix a-, so meaning a land free of cold and horror. But the change of sound from ph to f in Greek is datable to about the first century, so this cannot really be the origin of the name.

Egypt was considered part of Asia by the ancients, and first assigned to Africa by the geographer Ptolemy (85 - 165 AD), who accepted Alexandria as Prime Meridian and made the isthmus of Suez and the Red Sea the boundary between Asia and Africa. As Europeans came to understand the real extent of the continent, the idea of Africa expanded with their knowledge.


Main article: Geography of Africa

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Africa in the Blue marble picture, with Antarctica to the south, and the Sahara and Arabian peninsula at the top of the globe

Africa is the largest of the three great southward projections from the main mass of the Earth's surface. It includes within its remarkably regular outline an area, of c. 30,244,050 km2 (11,677,240 mi2), including the islands.

Separated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, it is joined to Asia at its northeast extremity by the Isthmus of Suez, 130 km (80 miles) wide. From the most northerly point, Ras ben Sakka in Morocco, a little west of Cape Blanc, in 37°21′ N, to the most southerly point, Cape Agulhas in South Africa, 34°51′15″ S, is a distance approximately of 8,000 km (5,000 miles); from Cape Verde, 17°33′22″ W, the westernmost point, to Ras Hafun in Somalia, 51°27′52″ E, the most easterly projection, is a distance (also approximately) of 7,400 km (4,600 miles). The length of coast-line is 26,000 km (16,100 miles) and the absence of deep indentations of the shore is shown by the fact that Europe, which covers only 9,700,000 km2 (3,760,000 square miles), has a coast-line of 32,000 km (19,800 miles).

The main structural lines of the continent show both the east-to-west direction characteristic, at least in the eastern hemisphere, of the more northern parts of the world, and the north-to-south direction seen in the southern peninsulas. Africa is thus composed of two segments at right angles, the northern running from east to west, the southern from north to south, the subordinate lines corresponding in the main to these two directions.


Main article: History of Africa

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Map of Africa 1890

Africa is home to the oldest inhabited territory on earth, with the human race originating from this continent. The Ishango Bone, dated 25,000 years ago, shows tallies in mathematical notation.

Throughout humanity's prehistory, Africa (and all other continents) had no nation states, and were instead inhabited by groups of hunter-gatherers. Later, agriculture was used in Egypt along the Nile river. Egypt was one of the earliest nation states ever formed. Other civilizations include Ethiopia, the Nubian kingdom, and the kingdoms of the Sahel (Ghana, Mali, and Sanghay). In the search for the kingdom of Prester John, 14th century European explorers arrived in Africa.

In the millennia before the nineteenth century, indentured servants and slaves could be had for capture by bargaining with local warlords or tribal leaders. This practice was spread across continents. Arabians and Europeans were able to capture millions of Africans, and export them for labour around the world in what became known as the global slave trade, which ceased by law by the nineteenth century in most European countries.

But at the same time that serfdom was ending in Europe, in the early 19th century the European imperial powers staged a massive "scramble for Africa" and occupied most of the continent, creating many colonial nation states, leaving only two independent nations (Liberia and Ethiopia). This occupation continued until the conclusion of the Second World War, after which all colonial nation states gradually obtained formal independence.

Today, Africa is home to over 50 independent countries, many of which still have borders drawn during the era of European colonialism.


Map showing European claimants to the African continent at the beginning of
Map showing European claimants to the African continent at the beginning of World War I

The vast majority of African nations are republics that operate under some form of the presidential system of rule.

Colonialism had a destabilizing effect on what had been a number of ethnic groups that is still being felt in African politics. Prior to European influence, national borders were not much of a concern, with Africans generally following the practice of other areas of the world, such as the Arabian peninsula, where a group's territory was congruent with its military or trade influence. The European insistence of drawing borders around territories to isolate them from those of other colonial powers often had the effect of separating otherwise contiguous political groups, or forcing traditional enemies to live side by side with no buffer between them. For example, the Congo River, although it appears to be a natural geographic boundary, had groups that otherwise shared a language, culture or other similarity who resided on both sides. The division of the land between Belgium and France along the river isolated these groups from each other. Those who lived in Saharan or Sub-Saharan Africa who had traded across the continent for centuries, often found themselves crossing "borders" that often existed only on European maps.

In nations that had substantial European populations, for example Rhodesia and South Africa, systems of second-class citizenship were often set up in order to give Europeans political power far in excess of their numbers. However, the lines were not often drawn strictly across racial lines. In Liberia, the citizens who were descendants of American slaves managed to have a political system for over 100 years that gave ex-slaves and natives to the area roughly equal legislative power despite the fact the ex-slaves were outnumbered ten to one in the general population. The inspiration for this system was the United States Senate, which ironically balanced the power of free and slave states despite the much larger population of the former.

Europeans often changed the balance of power, created ethnic divides where they did not previously exist, and introduced a cultural dichotomy detrimental to the native inhabitants in the areas they controlled. For example, in what is now Rwanda and Burundi, two tribes Hutus and Tutsis had merged into one culture by the time Belgium colonists had taken control of the region in the 19th century. No longer divided by ethnicity as intermingling, inter-marriage, and merging of cultural practises over the centuries had long since erased visible signs of a culture divide, the Belgians instituted a policy of racial categorization, upon taking control of the region, as racial based categorization and philosophies was a fixture of the European culture of that time. The term Hutu originally refered to the agricultural based Bantu speaking tribes that moved into present day Rwandan and Burundi from the West, and the term Tutsi refered to North Eastern cattle based tribes that migrated into the region later. The terms to the indigenous peoples eventually came to describe a persons economic class, those individuals who roughly held 10 or more cattle were considered Tutsi, and those with less were considered Hutu regardless of ancestral history this was not a strict line but a general rule of thumb, and one could move from Hutu to Tutsi and vice versa.

The Belgiums introduced a racial system, essentially, those individuals who had charateristics the Europeans admired, i.e. fairer skin, ample height, narrow noses, etc ... were given power amongst the colonized peoples. The Belgium determined these features were more ideally European and belonged to those people closest to Tutsi in ancestory and instituted a policy of issuing identity cards based on this philosophy. Those closest to this ideal were proclaimed Tutsi and those not were proclaimed Hutu. The reality was ethnically Tutsi and Hutu were at this point one people and determining ones ancestoral past based on superficial features was highly innaccurate.

The Belgium gave privilege to those they identified as Tutsi allowing Tutsi males to be educated and hold governmental positions. Upon independence from the Belgians those classified as Hutu, the majority of the population, gained control of the republic of Rwanda. As a consequence, 40 years after independance and decades of civil strife, this divide initiated by the Belgiums created civil war and unrest between those identified as Hutu and Tutsi which culminated with the Rwandan genocide of 1994, where nearly 1 million Tutsi and Hutu moderates were murdered in a mere 3 months. Although, traditionally depicted as a centuries long strife between two African tribes the reality was different. Belgian colonization introduced an imbalance of power, created a "pseudo" ethnic divide, and introduced a practice of racial based culture that devestated the people of the Rwandan and Burundi region- the irony at the time the Belgians took power, Hutu and Tutsi were economic distinctions and the people of Rwanda and Burundi had long morphed into one ethnic tribe and culture.

Since independence, African states have frequently been hampered by instability, corruption, violence, and authoritarianism. Until recently, few nations in Africa were able to sustain democratic governments, instead cycling through a series of brutal coups and military dictatorships.

Many of Africa's post-colonial political leaders were very poorly educated or ignorant on matters of governance, which led to great instability. Others were corrupt and dictatorial, outlawing opposition immediately upon assuming office, and suppressing the European-made constitutions and parliaments.

As well, many used the positions of power to re-ignite old tribal conflicts which had been suppressed under colonial rule. In many countries, the military was perceived as being the only group that could effectively maintain order and ruled most nations in Africa during the 70s and early 80s.

During the period from the early 1960s to the late 1980s Africa had over 70 coups and 13 presidential assassinations.

Cold War conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union also played a role in the instability. When a country became independent for the first time, it was often expected to align with one of the two superpowers. Many countries in Northern Africa received Soviet military aid, while many in Central and Southern Africa were supported by the United States or France. The 1970s saw an escalation as newly independent Angola and Mozambique aligned themselves with the Soviet Union and the West and South Africa sought to contain Soviet influence.

Border and territorial disputes have also been common, with the European-imposed borders of many nations being widely contested through armed conflicts.

Failed government policies and political corruption have also resulted in many widespread famines, and significant portions of Africa remain with distribution systems unable to disseminate enough food or water for the population to survive. The spread of disease is also rampant, especially the spread of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and the associated Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which has become a deadly epidemic on the continent.

Despite numerous hardships, there have been some signs the continent has hope for the future. Democratic governments seem to be spreading, though are not yet the majority. As well, many nations have at least nominally recognized basic human rights for all citizens, and have created reasonably independent judiciaries.

There are clear signs of increased networking among African organisations and states. In the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire), rather than rich, non-African countries intervening, about half-a-dozen neighbouring African countries got involved (see also Second Congo War). The death toll has been estimated by some to be 3.5 million since the conflict began in 1998. This might play a role similar to that of World War II for Europe, after which the people in the neighbouring countries decide to integrate their societies in such a way that war between them becomes as unthinkable as a war between, say, France and Germany would be today.

Political associations such as the African Union are also offering hope for greater co-operation and peace between the continent's many countries.


Main article: Economy of Africa

Africa is by far the world's poorest inhabited continent, and more saliently it is on average poorer than it was 25 years ago.

The United Nations' Human Development Report 2003 (of 175 countries) found that positions 151 (Gambia) to 175 (Sierra Leone) were taken up entirely by African nations.

It has had (and in some ways is still having) a shaky and uncertain transition from colonialism, with the ensuing Cold War and increases in corruption and despotism being major contributing factors to its poor economic situation. While rapid growth in China and now India, and moderate growth in South America, has lifted millions beyond subsistence living, Africa has stagnated, even going backwards in terms of foreign trade, investment, and per capita income. This poverty has widespread effects, including low life expectancy, violence, and instability - factors intertwined with the continent's poverty. Over the decades a number of solutions have been proposed and many attempted, but no improvement scheme has shown much success.

Part of the problem is that foreign aid has generally been used to encourage the cultivation of cash crops such as cotton, cocoa and coffee in place of subsistence farming. However, at the same time, industrialized nations have pursued policies that drive down the prices of those commodities. For example, the real cost of producing cotton in West Africa is far less than half of that of producing it in the United States, thanks to lower labor costs. However, American cotton sells for less than African cotton as the cultivation of cotton is heavily subsidized in the United States. As a result, the prices of these commodities is about the same now as they were in the 1960s.

Africa also suffers from sustained capital flight. Generally, any income coming into African nations goes right out again, either because the assets sold were foreign owned (oil being a good example) and the money coming in is sent to the foreign owners, or the money is used to repay loans to industrial nations or the World Bank. It has been estimated that Africa could cease its dependence on foreign aid merely by insisting that all profits earned in an African country be invested in the region for at least twelve months.

Botswana, which is the one poor nation in Africa that has not submitted to controls suggested by the World Bank or the IMF, has been one of the exceptions to the general rule of African economic stagnation, and has sustained healthy growth over recent years despite the lack of foreign investment, free flow of capital or trade liberalization.

The major economic success is South Africa, which is as industrially and economically developed as any industrialized European or American nation, to the extent that it has its own mature stock exchange. This is partly due to its amazing wealth of natural resources, being the world's leading producer of both gold and diamonds. It is also due to its relatively large settler European population, giving South Africa access to capital, markets and know how and relatively little capital flight.

Although Nigeria sits on one of the largest proven oil reserves in the world, it also has the highest population of any nation in Africa, and one of the fastest growing. Moreover, most of the oil industry is foreign owned, and the industry is rife with corruption at the national level so that very little oil money stays in the country, and what does goes to a very small percentage of the population.


Approximately 80% of Africans live south of the Sahara Desert. There is a wide variety of physical types found amongst the sub-Saharan African peoples (two particular extremes are the Masai who are known for their tall stature, and Pygmies who are among the world's shortest adults). While "African" and "black" are often viewed as synonymous in much of the West, a large minority of Africans, especially in the northern and southern portions of the continent, are not dark-skinned. The physical differences of sub-Saharan Africans from their neighbors to the north and the Western countries made, and continue to make, stereotyping easy. The dehumanization required for slavery and apartheid was made easier by racial stereotyping, and physical differences have been offered to explain why much of the world treats the modern troubles of Africa as being alien from their own experience.

Africans from the eastern part of the continent have a different appearance from those on the West coast, which supplied the vast majority of those blacks who were transported to the Americas as slaves. Speakers of Bantu languages predominate in much of western, central, and southern Africa. In the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa, a distinct people known as the Bushmen (also "San", closely related but distinct from "Hottentots") have long been present. The San are physically distinct from other Africans.

The peoples of North Africa are primarily descended from the speakers of Afro-Asiatic languages. These peoples include the ancient Egyptians, the Berbers, and Nubians who developed civilizations in North Africa during ancient times. The semitic Phoenicians, and the European Greeks and Romans settled in North Africa as well. In the 600s, Muslim Arabs swept across North Africa from the east and conquered the entire region within a hundred years. The North Africans today are descended from indigenous North Africans such as the Berbers, ancient Europeans, Arabs, and black Africans from south of the Sahara. Berber peoples remain a significant minority within Morocco and Algeria, and are also present in Tunisia and Libya. The Tuareg and other often nomadic peoples are the principal inhabitants of the Saharan interior of North Africa.

Peoples such as Ethiopians and Somalis have links to both North African and sub-Saharan cultures. Several African nations, such as Sudan and Mauritania are divided between a mostly Arab north and a black African south (though many of the "Arabs" are Arabized blacks of Arab culture). Some areas of Eastern Africa, particularly the island of Zanzibar, received Arab and Asian Muslim settlers and merchants during the Middle Ages.

Beginning in the 1500s, Europeans such as the Portuguese and Dutch began to establish trading posts and forts along the coasts of western and southern Africa. Eventually a large number of Dutch, augmented by French Huguenots and Germans settled in what is today South Africa. Their descendants, the Afrikaners, are the largest white group in South Africa today. In the 1800s, a second phase of colonization brought a large number of French and British settlers to Africa. The French settled in large numbers in Algeria and on a smaller scale in other areas of North and West Africa. The British settled in South Africa as well as the colony of Rhodesia and in the highlands of what is now Kenya. Smaller numbers of European soldiers, businessmen, and officials also established themselves in administrative centers such as Nairobi and Dakar. Decolonization during the 1960s often resulted in the mass exodus of European-descended settlers out of Africa, especially in Algeria, Kenya, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). However in South Africa, the white minority (10% of the population) largely remained in the country after the end of white rule in 1994. This is partly due to the political identity of Afrikaners, which describes them as indigenous Africans, and not Dutch or any other European identity. South Africa also has a community of mixed-race people (Coloured people).

European colonization also brought sizeable groups of Asians, particularly people from the Indian subcontinent to British colonies. Large Indo-African communities are found in South Africa, and smaller ones are present in Kenya and Tanzania. A fairly large Indian community in Uganda was expelled by the dictator Idi Amin in 1972, though many have since returned.


Map showing the distribution of African language families and some major African languages.  extends into the  and .  is divided to show the size of the .
Map showing the distribution of African language families and some major African languages. Afro-Asiatic extends into the Sahel and Southwest Asia. Niger-Congo is divided to show the size of the Bantu sub-family.

Main article: African languages

By most estimates Africa contains well over a thousand languages. There are four major language families native to Africa.

  • The Afro-Asiatic languages are a language family of about 240 languages and 285 million people widespread throughout North Africa, East Africa, the Sahel, and Southwest Asia.
  • The Nilo-Saharan language family consists of more than a hundred languages spoken by 30 million people. Nilo-Saharan languages are mainly spoken in Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and northern Tanzania.
  • The Niger-Congo language family covers much of Sub-Saharan Africa and is probably the largest language family in the world in terms of different languages. A substantial number of them are the Bantu languages spoken in much of sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The Khoisan languages number about 50 and are spoken in Southern Africa by approximately 120 000 people. Many of the Khoisan languages are endangered. The Khoi and San peoples are considered the original inhabitants of this part of Africa.

Languages of Europe have also acquired prominence; English, French, and Portuguese for example, are official languages in several countries.


Rather than one culture, Africa has a number of cultures that overlap. The most conventional distinction is that between sub-Saharan Africa and the northern countries from Egypt to Morocco, who largely associate themselves with Arabic culture. In this comparison, the nations to the south of the Sahara, are considered to consist of many cultural areas, in particular that of the Bantu linguistic group.

Divisions may also be made between Francophone Africa and the rest of Africa, in particular the former British colonies of southern and East Africa. Another cultural fault-line is that between those Africans living traditional lifestyles and those who are essentially modern. The traditionalists are sometimes subdivided into pastoralists and agriculturalists.

African art reflects the diversity of African cultures. The oldest existing art from Africa are 6000-year old carvings found in Niger, while the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt was the world's tallest architectural accomplishment for four thousand years until the creation of the Eiffel Tower. The Ethiopian complex of monolithic churches at Lalibela, of which the Church of St. George is representative, is regarded as another marvel of engineering.

The music of Africa is one of its most dynamic art forms. Egypt has long been a cultural focus of the Arab world, while remembrance of the rhythms of sub-Saharan Africa, in particular west Africa, were transmitted through the Atlantic slave trade to modern blues, jazz, reggae and rock and roll. Modern music of the continent includes the highly complex choral singing of southern Africa and the dance rhythms of soukous, dominated by the music of the Democratic Republic of Congo. A recent development of the 21st century is the emergence of African hip hop, in particular a form from Senegal is blended with traditional mbalax. Recently in South Africa, a form of House music known as Kwaito has developed, although it has been home to its own form of South African jazz for some time. While Afrikaans music is completly distinct and comprises mostly of traditional Boere musiek, and forms of Folk and Rock.


Africa is home to a wide variety of different religious groups. As with the rest of the world, many early religions revolved around animism and ancestor worship. A common thread in traditional belief systems was the division of the spiritual world into helpful and harmful. Helpful spirits include ancestor spirits that help their descendants and powerful spirits that protected entire communities from natural disaster or attacks from enemies. Harmful spirits include the souls of murdered victims who were buried without the proper funeral rites and spirits used by hostile spirit mediums to cause illness among their enemies. While the effect of these early forms of worship continues to have a profound influence, belief systems evolved as they interacted with other religions.

The formation of the Old Kingdom of Egypt in the third millennium BCE marked the first complex religious system on the continent. Around the ninth century BCE, Carthage (in present-day Tunisia) was founded by the Phoenicians. Carthage went on to become a major cosmopolitan center of the ancient world in which deities from neighboring Egypt, Rome and the Etruscan city-states were worshipped.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church dates from the fourth century CE and was thus one of the first Christian churches. The expansion of Islam in the seventh century was more far-reaching as Muslims conquered the whole of Africa north of the Sahara Desert. Between 640 and 710, the Arabs conquered North Africa. Beginning with Egypt, they established Mogdishu, Melinde, Mombaza, Kilwa, and Sofala. Islam followed the sea trade down the coast of East Africa, while Islam diffused through the Sahara desert into the interior of Africa, following in particular the paths of Muslim traders. Muslims were also among the Asian peoples who settled in British-ruled Africa.The even greater disruption of the European slave trade that accompanied the colonial Scramble for Africa was followed by attempts to convert the colonized populations to Western Christianity.

Many Africans today subscribe to a syncretic belief system that mixes both traditional religion and either Christianity or Islam. Muslims form the majority of the population north of the Sahara, and significant minorities in sub-Saharan countries such as Nigeria and Kenya. In the last decades of the twentieth century, various sects of Charismatic Christianity rapidly grew. A number of Africans have even been mentioned as possible papal candidates. African Christians appear to be more socially conservative than their co-religionists in much of the industrialized world, which has led to tension within denominations such as the Anglican and Methodist Churches.

Africans profess a wide variety of religious beliefs. The two most widespread religious groups of Africa, Christianity and Islam, have their roots in Southwest Asia. Approximately 40% of all Africans are Christians and another 40% Muslims. Roughly 20% of Africans primarily follow indigenous African religions. A small number of Africans also have beliefs from the Judaic tradition, such as the Beta Israel and Lemba.

Independent states

Political Map of Africa
Political Map of Africa

East Africa

Central Africa

Northern Africa

Altitude map of Africa
Altitude map of Africa

Southern Africa

West Africa

Pictures of Africa

Pictures and Photographs of Africa (

See also

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African studies resources



Continents and regions of the World
Africa | Antarctica | Australia | Eurasia | North America | South America

Africa-Eurasia | the Americas | Asia | Europe | Oceania


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