Ancient African Traditions

Africa is a massive continent and the first place humans started to develop. There are thus many different cultures, tribes, and traditions that historians have written about.

It’s difficult to determine what could be described as ancient African traditions since there were dozens if not hundreds of unique tribes. Some of the biggest included the:

  • The Berbers
  • The Nguni
  • The Hausa
  • The Senegalese
  • The Betsileo
  • The Maasai
  • The Xhosa
  • The Yoruba

Each tribe possessed its own culture, music, dancing, storytelling, food, religion, and other important elements.

However, they also had some significant similarities, like the peoples of many continents such as Europe and Asia.

In general, ancient African traditions could be boiled down to relating to three separate categories: oral storytelling, music and dancing, and artwork.

african traditions

The Oral Tradition

The ancient Africans passed down their traditions, culture, and wisdom through oral storytelling. In this practice, older members of a tribe would tell stories to the younger generations.

Parents would tell their children and elders would tell anyone who listened. This way, the knowledge and ideas of the older members of a culture would be able to keep their wisdom available to those that were younger.

Storytelling could be used to keep certain myths and legends alive. Before reading and writing became common skills, listening and telling stories was the only way ancient Africans could ensure their children continued the traditions of the tribe.

Some examples of oral storytelling in practice would be the relation of famous myths. Modern audiences might be familiar with stories like the Greek Odyssey, which was told by word of mouth and recited by professional storytellers.

A famous ancient African myth would be the story of Mami Wata, a motherly water spirit worshipped in West African culture.

Music and Dancing

Other important ancient African traditions were music and dancing. Different instruments, songs, and dances would be played and performed at holidays and festivals.

chipala dancer

They could be done for luck, fortune, to counteract misfortune, or to celebrate special events.

Music and dancing occurred in almost every known ancient African tribe. Singing and drumming were especially popular because they were skills almost anyone could learn.

Some events were followed by great parties and significant songs and dances, including weddings and funerals. In a few cultures, such as those of West Africa, singing could be a profession.

An individual called a griot would be required to know all of the traditional songs and to create new ones about important recent events.

Traditional dances could be used to celebrate events or express emotions like joy and sorrow. Dancers often wore elaborate masks, body paint, and costumes while performing.

Spectators would often be encouraged to join in after more experienced or professional individuals started.

Many songs and dances were also related to religion. Some could be used to get in touch with the natural spirits that ancient Africans believed inhabited the world around them.

They might also be used to contact the ancestors and the dead. Later on, ancient traditions would be added to religions like Christianity and Islam to create unique African religious cultures.



Many of the ancient tribes also practiced traditional forms of artwork. These could be the making of significant masks, shields, weaponry, or jewelry. One well-known example is Zulu beadwork.

Each colored bead had a different meaning. Often, a young girl would make a bracelet for a boy she liked. They would court each other and the boy would eventually ask what the bracelet meant.

Sculpture was another tradition. The most common symbols were either a man and a woman or a woman and a child.

The man and woman represented honor instead of love. This was because the family unit was seen as honorable and necessary.

A woman and a child represented mother earth and the importance of the natural world.


  • What were the three categories of traditions?
    Oral storytelling, music and dancing, and artwork were found in almost every culture and tribe.
  • Who is a famous African mythological figure?
    Mami Wata,a water spirit in West African cultures.
  • Which tribe practiced the art of beadwork?
    The Zulu.
  • What individual in West African culture knew all of the traditional songs and made up new ones?
    A griot.