Social Structures of Ancient Africa

Africa is a large continent and is home to a variety of kinds of people. Considered as the oldest civilization in the world, ancient Africa had a hierarchal society which primarily determined the positions of people in society.

The most popular social structure of ancient Africa is known as the caste system which is consist of town leaders, religious chiefs, merchants, free citizens and slaves.

In most cases, leaders are people who are considered to have discovered the settlement or community. Naturally, their lineage became the new chiefs of the communities as the years went by. Religious leaders, on the other hand, are also important members of the society who were believed to be chosen by divine intervention.

Merchants, meanwhile, are primarily consisting of successful traders and wealthy businessmen as well as farmers who are often considered to have an influence in the decision-making process of the leaders in the community.

Free citizens were known as the ordinary people of the land who lived middle-class lives and did not rely on anyone to survive. It is, however, the exact different for slaves and laborers who were sometimes classified in the same category and were the least respected members of the community. The typically depend on others to survive and worked for people who are normally chiefs and merchants of the community.

Senegalese Wolof griot

Other than that, ancient Africans also had social structures known as stateless societies which are smaller than city-states but are larger compared to communities of hunters and gatherers.

Dissimilar to the one mentioned above, stateless societies do not have any form of governance and leadership. More often than not, it is consists of slaves that are seeking refuge after being exiled from other communities.

Interestingly enough, stateless societies lasted longer as opposed to city-states thanks to their strategic routes which were continuously used by people around the world for trade and negotiations. A significant amount of citizens that were living in stateless societies were explorers and middlemen who have initially gained contact with people from other parts of the world especially Europe.

Interesting Facts about Ancient African Social Structures

  • The Wolof system is one of the most popular social structures in the world. It is divided into three different classes specifically the Jeers, Neno and Jaams.
  • The Tuareg social structure is based in North Africa. All adults of the social structure are members of a political group.
  • The Mande system is a social structure which traces its origins in East Africa. It is made up of three classes of pople specifically the Horons, the Griots and the Jonow.
  • The social structure in Ancient Africa varies from one society to another. It is important to note that some communities in Africa have stringent hierarchal order.
  • City-states in Ancient Africa are smaller but independent cities that had their own rulers. The rulers made use of government structures to lead their cities.
  • Dissimilar to stateless societies, city-states were unable to withstand as a kingdom due to lack military support.
  • Kingdoms and empires started to rise in the 4th century. Normally, social structure of kingdoms are divided into classes specifically rulers, free citizens, hunters and gatherers.
  • Kings had the highest power of government in the social structure of the ancient African empire.

What are caste systems?

Caste systems are societies that had no appropriate organization of governance but are considered to be organized around social classes.

Where did the Mande system originate?

The Mande social structure originated in East Africa.

Where did the Wolof social structure emerge?

The Wolof social structure emerged in Senegal.

Who are the Griots?

Griots are people from the Mande social structure who wrote exquisite poetries and poems for their respective patrons.