Ancient African Ships

Building and sailing in boats is one of the most ancient human behaviors. As far back as 40,000 years ago, ancient Africans were building ships.

Just a few years ago, scientists discovered the third oldest boat in the world in Africa called the Dufuna Canoe.

It was rowed by one or two people and made of mahogany. The first known pictures appeared on rocks around 6,000 years ago in 4,000 BCE.

While archaeologists don’t know exactly how the boats were built, they can make educated guesses.

7 Influential African Empires

In general, ancient Africans built the following styles of ships:

  • Rafts
  • Single tree trunk canoes
  • Sailboats
  • Triremes
  • Quadriremes
  • Quinqueremes
  • Warships

The Nile Valley

Some of the first ancient African ships were built in Egypt. The oldest boats in the world have been found here. They were made by “sewing” planks together.

The Egyptians would wrap planks in linen and then stuck cracks with reeds to make them waterproof.

After thousands of years, the Egyptians realized they needed something better. They used new technologies and built a different style of ship.

The Nile Valley

This model used cedar wood and had sails. Sailors needed to learn how to navigate down the Nile River for trade.

When Egypt was an economic center, there were dozens of ships traveling across the region looking for goods to trade.

North Africa

When Egypt started to lose money, Carthage became the new port for ships. Carthage was in North Africa on the Mediterranean Sea and the enemy of Rome.

Carthage built ships called quadriremes and quinqueremes. These were massive warships that had either four or five rows of rowers that pushed the ship across the Mediterranean Sea.

While Egypt used boats to trade, the people of Carthage used them to transport soldiers for conquest.

Carthage became one of the most feared kingdoms in the world until it was defeated by Rome.

West Africa

In West Africa, civilizations did not start to use ships until the 10th century CE. By the 14th century, the kingdom of Mali had a giant armada of warships that patrolled the coast.

These used sails and slaves who rowed the ships. The sailors could tell each other messages by beating war drums. The noise told the boats where to go.

Meanwhile, West Africans also used canoes to sail down inland waterways. An ancient African canoe was built out of a single tree trunk to be waterproof. Most did not have sails, and people had to row themselves.

South Africa

In South Africa, ancient Africans did not use boats often. Some built canoes, but people would not create ships until the 14th century CE.

whaling industry in South Africa

This was when places like Swahili and the Horn of Africa started to trade with armadas from China. The Africans wanted to sail to India for spices and started to copy Chinese boats.


  • How long ago did ancient Africans build ships?
    Over 40,000 years ago.
  • Which kingdom was the enemy of Rome?
  • What is the third oldest boat in the world called?
    The Dufana Canoe
  • Why did Egypt build boats?
    To trade on the Nile River
  • Which kingdom had an armada of warships?
    The kingdom of Mali
  • Who did South Africans trade with?