Anton Lawrendra, Tin Do
AP Art History
South of the Sahara: Early African Art
Africa is a vast continent comprising more than one-fifth of the world’s land mass
and many distinct topographical and ecological zones.
Parched deserts occupy northern and southern regions, high mountains rise in the
east, and three great rivers – the Niger, the Congo, and the Nile – and their lush
valleys support agriculture and large settled populations.
It is not yet possible to present a coherent, continent-wide history of early African
A few areas have been fairly well surveyed archaeologically, but most of the
continent remains little known in periods prior to European contact, which began
along the seacoasts in the late 15th century.
Many inland areas were virtually unknown to outsiders between 1850 and 1900.
Hundreds of distinct ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups, often but inaccurately
called “tribes,” long have inhabited this enormous continent.
Currently comprising more than 52 nations, such population groups historically
have ranged in size from a few hundred, in hunting and gathering bands, to
several million, in kingdoms and empires.
Councils of elders often governed smaller groups, whereas larger populations
sometimes have joined with other ethnic groups within a centralized state under a
Kingdoms and empires headed by sacred rulers are known from several parts of
Africa from about 1000 CE onward.
Within this great variety of African peoples are many shared core beliefs and
These include honoring ancestors and worshipping nature deities, often with
blood sacrifices, and a tendency to elevate rulers to sacred status.
Most peoples also consult diviners or fortune tellers.
These beliefs have given rise to many richly expressive art traditions: rock
engraving and painting, personal decoration, masquerades and other lavish
festivals, the display of court arts and regalia, figural sculpture (often in shrines),
elaborate architecture, and domestic arts, among other forms.
All the hundreds of ethnic groups in Africa, speaking as many mutually
unintelligible languages, made visual arts that differ according to economy,
lifestyle, ideology, and the materials available to them.