Ancient African Societies

Africa is a huge continent, and there were many societies that popped up. While each one was unique and different, they shared some important qualities, including shared jobs, gender roles, and diet.

Over time, each one would develop a unique religion or adopt one because of trade routes or eventual colonization.

The Civilizations

Almost everyone has heard of the ancient Egyptians, perhaps the most famous African civilization.

The Egyptians lived in northeast Africa and perfected the arts of pyramid building and trading along the Nile River. Society flourished here because of irrigation and crop growth on the flood plains around the Nile.

As a society in North Africa, the Egyptians were influenced by their Mediterranean neighbors and adopted many technologies and religious beliefs, including Islam in the 7th century CE.

The Kingdom of Kush was a neighbor of the Egyptians. Kush was another major state rather than a tribe, although most of its population had the same ethnicity, or background.

The people here controlled part of the Nile River and also built magnificent pyramids. They worshipped some of the Egyptian gods and mummified their dead too.

Few here about the Kingdom of Aksum. This was a huge state in the area of modern Ethiopia. The people here formed a massive trading empire that relied on the sale of gold and ivory.

They made a written script known as Ge’ez, one of the first in Africa. They were also one of the first African groups to adopt Christianity as a major religion.


In all of these societies, men and women held similar jobs. Each one tended to be divided into social groups called castes. People were born into one of these, and the position and profession of their parents controlled what an individual would be.

So, some men could be warriors and priests, but the majority were poor farmers and laborers. A few could become rich by being traders, but this was rare. Most were just farmers.

Women worked too while also taking care of children. Women could not be warriors, priests, architects, engineers, or doctors.

Instead, they were farmers and laborers like their husband. Education was rare, so people could not get better jobs unless they were born in the right caste.

The lowest people were slaves, who had been captured from nearby tribes or groups.

Gender Roles

There were many tribes in ancient Africa that had different rules. While some were matriarchal, or had women in charge, most were patriarchal. This meant men were considered more important, and that children belonged to their father’s family.

Men and women performed hard labor to survive. Most were farmers, but only men could be warriors, traders, and craftspeople. Women were expected to be mothers and take care of children and the sick.

Both male and female children were considered adults at twelve years old, but only women married young. Boys would learn a trade and girls were married off to an older man.

A group of women from Limuru in central Kenya, 2010

The girl’s husband was chosen by her father. She then left her home and lived with her husband and his family.

Some cultures were monogamous, some were polygamous, and some didn’t have the concept of marriage.

This meant people either had one spouse, many spouses, or none at all. Most tribes made families out of one man and one woman, but it wasn’t uncommon for a rich man to have multiple wives.


Throughout Africa, many cultures and societies ate similar foods. Fish was popular along the coast while different groups hunted for meat and raised animals.

The biggest source of food came from crops that farmers grew along rivers or from foraging.


There were also staple crops like wheat, yams, maize, and rice. Some of the most common foods were:

  • Figs
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Millet
  • Sorghum
  • Chickpeas
  • Yams
  • Barley
  • Wheat
  • Lentils

These were often cooked over fires and processed by women. Most African societies drank beer instead of plain water to stop people from being sick.


  • What were ancient African staple crops?
    Wheat, yams, maize, and rice.
  • What was the most common profession?
    Most people were farmers.
  • Where did ancient Africans get their slaves?
    Slaves were captured from enemy tribes.
  • When did girls get married?
    Girls married at 12 years old.
  • When was a child considered an adult?
    Most children became adults at 12 years old.