As with many aspects of Ancient African history, it’s difficult to give a precise account of how housing developed in the continent, considering that accounts span over the past 200,000 years.
Because the continent is so vast, and the weather conditions so diverse, there have been many different housing styles and architectural approaches taken by tribes, empires, and modern settlers, all in an attempt to survive the harsh conditions of the climate. However, historians do have a good picture of how some African tribes constructed their homes.
This is important because, in historical research, understanding why people live where they do and why they chose those kinds of homes is crucial because it shows us how they would have spent the majority of their time. Oftentimes, it also gives an insight into their religious practices, gender expectations, and the kind of food they ate.
Houses in Ancient Africa
Most people of Ancient Africa lived in basic clay huts with thatched roofs – that is to say, a roof made of dry grass and straw. Most Ancient African clay huts were built in a circular shape and had just one room. The entire family would sleep in this room – sometimes up to 10 or 12 people – and any cooking/cleaning of clothes would be done here too.
In regions with less vegetation (grass/plants), the people would tend towards a nomadic lifestyle instead, meaning that they would move from place to place. These nomads would live in tents of woven animal skins and hair. The materials used to build a person’s house depended greatly on the kind of environment they lived in – if you lived somewhere with moist ground, you’d be able to use clay.
But if you didn’t, soil, stone, leaves, or even sticks may be used instead. In regards to the nomads’ homes, it was often the case that animal skin was the only resource they had access to.
Different Types of Housing in Ancient Africa
One specific tribe whose architecture we know a lot about is the Kababish tribe of central Sudan. The Kababish nomads were camel herders and would live in temporary “Bedouin” tents. Bedouin tents were built from a rectangular block of strips of woven camel hair, that were attached to leather straps, and then secured on wooden poles.
A pillar of four poles would support the arch of the tent to reduce the risk of collapse. Many other tribes followed a similar blueprint – for example, in Niger, another group of nomads built tents of similar shape, though instead of camel hair, they would use goatskin.
In most African tent-based settlements (i.e., settlements which consisted mostly of nomads) the pole frame is the most consistent feature across all types, and was clearly used to strengthen the otherwise weak tent walls.
However, in the savannah and desert regions of Sudan in Western Africa, cylindrical houses made of mud were the norm. These houses were assembled in a traditional “coiled pottery” pattern. This meant that the mud would be shaped in a narrowing spiral, gradually rising up to form a domed roof to give shelter to the family inside.
In general, African settlers favored round settlements. This is because it was easier to build a round house than square or rectangular – round houses were most common for peasants because they were cheaper to build, and easier to make safe without having to use stone.
Other shapes of homes in Ancient Africa included oblong or even triangular, but circular mud-huts were the most common housing type and were nearly identical from tribe to tribe.
Of course, as time progressed, African architecture began to develop – in particular, the architecture of northern Africa was strongly influenced by European architecture. Many of the Christian settlers in Northern Africa taught the indigenous (native) people how to build stone houses.
However, it was not until relatively recently that the traditional mud hut began to die out, and they are still sometimes seen in some remote points of Africa today.
Facts about Ancient African Housing:
- Most people of Ancient Africa lived in basic clay huts with thatched roofs.
- Most Ancient African clay huts were built in a circular shape, and had just one room.
- In general, African settlers favored round settlements. This is because it was easier to build a round house than square or rectangular.
- The materials used to build a person’s house depended greatly on the kind of environment they lived in – if you lived somewhere with moist ground, you’d be able to use clay. But if you didn’t, soil, stone, leaves, or even sticks may be used instead.
- The entire family would sleep in one room – sometimes up to 10 or 12 people, including grandparents!
- In regions with poor soil, people would become nomads, meaning that they would move from place to place. Nomads would live in temporary tents made with animal skin.
- Houses were most commonly made of mud in Ancient Africa, as stone and wood were hard to build with cheaply.
What kind of roofs did Ancient African homes have?
– Thatched roofs.
What were most Ancient African homes made out of?
– Mud, clay, soil, stone, leaves, or sticks.
Why were round houses favored by African settlers?
– Easier to build securely than square or rectangular.
What was a nomad?
– A person without a permanent home, who moved from place to place.
When nomads made temporary settlements, what style of shelter would they build?
– Tents, made of animal skin.
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