Africa is the largest continent on earth after Asia, covering about 30 million square kilometres or 25 per cent of the world's land surface. Its name is thought to derive from the Latin aprica meaning 'sunny' or aphrike; a Greek word translating as 'without cold', although some suggest it comes from a native African tribe called the Afrigs. Africa is a continent of extraordinary diversity; home to everything from lush equatorial rainforests to sweeping savanna grasslands, high, snow-capped peaks, fiery volcanoes, deep rift valleys, the world's largest desert and its longest river. Nevertheless, it is perhaps most remarkable of all for being the birthplace of humanity; the land in which the earliest, twilight chapters of our collective past were lived and the cradle to which every living human traces their roots today. It was somewhere in the forests and grasslands of central Africa, around 7 million years ago, that a mutation occurred in a species of great ape, creating a fork that set chimpanzees and bonobos evolving on a different line to a new group of apes scientists call the hominini or just 'the human tribe'. Over millions of years up to 20 distinct species came into being within the hominini, of which our own is the sole modern survivor. Each remained present for a different period of time, often living alongside others. Some lasted 10 times longer on earth than our own species has existed so far. Innovations such as the control of fire and tool use were made by some species, then inherited and kept alive by others. Around 2 million years ago these species would already have been far closer to us than our closest living relative today, the chimpanzee. The last of these human species died out around 30,000 years ago; each was a part of our human family, making its mark on our collective story and helping to shape us into who we are.
Origins: becoming human
Our species is Homo Sapiens and the earliest fossils to match anatomically modern humans probably date from 315,000 years ago, although some scientists suggest our first remains are just 200,000 years old. It can be safely said our species evolved 400,000-200,000 years ago in Africa and by the time of our emergence millions of years of evolution had already shaped key human traits into our DNA. The habitual, upright form of walking unique to humans - known as bipedalism - had been evolving since our beginnings and was well developed in Homo Erectus, a species that walked out of Africa some 1.8 million years ago. Brain size had been getting bigger since our origins too, with a more marked, consistent increase starting in a species called Homo Habilis around 2.4 million years ago. Humans developed the vision and skill to create stone-hewn pebble choppers 2-3 million years ago, with more sophisticated hand axes and cleavers appearing 1.8 million years ago. Humans may have controlled fire as long as 1.5 million years ago, keeping it burning from natural wildfires. The first obvious hearths date from 800,000 years ago and were much more common 400,000 years ago but reliable fire-starting methods were innovated by Homo Sapiens only around 7000BC. The beginnings of language are contested; signs and sounds likely enabled some communication in early humans but complex language may have arisen only in the last 100,000 years. A capacity for the symbolic thinking underpinning art, music, ritual and religious beliefs is well documented in Homo Sapiens from 35,000 years ago and possibly 70,000 years ago. Some evidence might suggest it was present in other human species up to 450,000 years ago, but this remains debated.
The Kingdoms of Egypt
Early humans roamed large swathes of North Africa over much of the last 200,000 years. Around 5000BC, evidence show people had started to cultivate grains and herd animals in more settled communities around parts of Egypt like Faiyum, building mud-plastered pits to store harvests. A more permanent kind of settlement had become more widespread by 4000BC, with small villages appearing in the Nile Valley and its Delta. Whilst this settlement appeared a little later in Egypt than other parts of the Fertile Crescent, once it arrived it proceeded with astonishing speed. Small villages grew into bigger towns ruled by local kings across Lower and Upper Egypt until a leader known as King Narmer unified the whole of Egypt in a single political state around 3100BC. Villages and towns now answered to a central government headed by a Pharaoh, with viziers and local officials overseeing the complex administration of a new nation that depended on successful annual harvests for its survival, security and social cohesion. Egypt's bounteous harvests - the Gift of the River Nile - created a food surplus that allowed some members of its society to turn their focus to other things. Art flourished with exquisite beauty and craftsmanship in paintings, sculpture, metalwork and architecture; hieroglyphics and new timekeeping methods were innovated; technological innovations came in agriculture, transport and building, as music, magic, medicine and storytelling blossomed and a new religion emerged too. Just 1500 years after widespread settlement in Egypt the pyramids were built; a wonder of the world and the greatest of monuments to an African civilisation that reimagined and redefined our place in the universe, shaping a new world.
Our first revolution
Over the first few million years of our existence, human species remained alive mostly by scavenging kills made by bigger animals. A shift had occurred to a hunter-gatherer way of life about 2 million years ago, in which humans lived in small groups, stalking prey and foraging edible plants and nutrient-rich foodstuffs like honey. New innovations like sharp tools, weapons, clothing and the control of fire aided the quest for survival but fierce predators, natural disasters and disease made our existence ever-precarious, as the extinction of every human species except our own shows. These early modes of surviving were lived for over 95% of our collective human past on earth and make us in a very real way species of nomadic heritage shaped by the wilderness. Around 11,500 years ago a gradual shift was made from a hunter-gatherer way of life to a more settled one, based on agriculture and the rearing newly-domesticated animals like cattle, sheep and goats. This shift started in the Fertile Crescent - a well-watered tract of land between Egypt and Mesopotamia - and continued over many generations. Previous hunter gatherer ways would have been retained alongside newer modes of survival for a long period. Different parts of communities may have engaged in each and some communities may have been more devoted to one way of life or the other. This shift happened across several continents and is known as the Agricultural or Neolithic Revolution. It was perhaps the biggest cultural turning point in our collective history, re-setting the human relationship with nature, re-shaping our age old way of surviving and the make up of our communities and ultimately giving rise to the kind of urban societies that dominate the entire world today.
The Great Divide
The Pharaohs ruled Egypt for nearly 3000 years, through chapters of peace, prosperity, civil strife, war and foreign occupation, until falling to the irreversible domination of outside empires. The Persians conquered Egypt in 343BC before Alexander the Great expelled them in 332BC, laying the foundations for a new domination by Greek states. Rome defeated Cleopatra VII - Egypt's last Greek Queen - to absorb Egypt into its empire in 31BC. In 642AD the Byzantine Empire - a continuation of the Roman Empire - was defeated by the Arab armies of the Islamic Conquests, with Muslim Caliphates ruling after. Despite their power struggles, these great empires remained more similar to eachother in their settled ways than any were to the nomads of Egypt's deserts. Whilst largely invisible in history, nomads remained an ever-present part of ancient Egypt, living on the wild margins of its Nile Valley and deep in its desert interiors. They remained close to nature, adding herding and other survival strategies to their earlier hunter gathering ways over time. Nomads resisted early military expeditions the Pharaohs launched to extract mineral riches in places including the Sinai and came into conflict with the Pharaohs and other settled powers of the Nile Valley in later ages. Whilst networks of exchange and cooperation existed between nomads and settled people, most evidence suggests they saw both their own worlds and each other differently. The divide between nomadic and settled peoples is an age old one that remains present in Egypt and other parts of the world. Whilst settled civilisations have often characterised nomads as uncivilised and dangerous theirs is a culture of the greatest antiquity and resilience that reflects part of our collective human past and a living part of the present.