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Africa is the world's second-largest continent and second most populous after Asia. At about 30,244,050 km² (11,677,240 mi²) including its adjacent islands, it covers 20.3 percent of the total land area on Earth. With over 800 million human inhabitants in 54 countries, it accounts for about one seventh of the world human population.

A satellite composite image of Africa
A satellite composite image of Africa



World map showing Africa (geographically)
World map showing Africa (geographically)

The name Africa came into Western use through the Romans, who used the name Africa terra — "land of the Afri" (plural, or "Afer" singular) — for the northern part of the continent, as the province of Africa with its capital Carthage, corresponding to modern-day Tunisia.

The origin of Afer may either come from:

The historian Leo Africanus (1495-1554) attributed the origin to the Greek word phrike (φρικε, meaning "cold and horror"), combined with the negating prefix a-, so meaning a land free of cold and horror. However, the change of sound from ph to f in Greek is datable to about the first century, so this cannot really be the origin of the name.

Egypt was considered part of Asia by the ancients, and first assigned to Africa by the geographer Ptolemy (85 - 165 AD), who accepted Alexandria as Prime Meridian and made the isthmus of Suez and the Red Sea the boundary between Asia and Africa. As Europeans came to understand the real extent of the continent, the idea of Africa expanded with their knowledge.


Main article: Geography of Africa

Africa in the Blue marble picture, with Antarctica to the south, and the Sahara and Arabian peninsula at the top of the globe
Africa in the Blue marble picture, with Antarctica to the south, and the Sahara and Arabian peninsula at the top of the globe

Africa is the largest of the three great southward projections from the main mass of the Earth's surface. It includes within its remarkably regular outline an area, of c. 30,244,050 km² (11,677,240 mi²), including the islands.

Separated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, it is joined to Asia at its northeast extremity by the Isthmus of Suez (transected by the Suez Canal), 130 km (80 miles) wide. (Geopolitically, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula east of the Suez Canal is often considered part of Africa, as well.) From the most northerly point, Cape Spartel in Morocco, a little west of Cape Blanc, in 37°21′ N, to the most southerly point, Cape Agulhas in South Africa, 34°51′15″ S, is a distance approximately of 8,000 km (5,000 miles); from Cape Verde, 17°33′22″ W, the westernmost point, to Ras Hafun in Somalia, 51°27′52″ E, the most easterly projection, is a distance (also approximately) of 7,400 km (4,600 miles). The length of coast-line is 26,000 km (16,100 miles) and the absence of deep indentations of the shore is shown by the fact that Europe, which covers only 9,700,000 km² (3,760,000 square miles), has a coast-line of 32,000 km (19,800 miles).

The main structural lines of the continent show both the east-to-west direction characteristic, at least in the eastern hemisphere, of the more northern parts of the world, and the north-to-south direction seen in the southern peninsulas. Africa is thus composed of two segments at right angles, the northern running from east to west, the southern from north to south, the subordinate lines corresponding in the main to these two directions.


Main article: History of Africa

Map of Africa 1890
Map of Africa 1890

Africa is home to the oldest inhabited territory on earth, with the human race originating from this continent. The Ishango Bone, carbon-dated to c. 25,000 years ago, shows tallies in mathematical notation.

Throughout humanity's prehistory, Africa (like all other continents) had no nation states, and was instead inhabited by groups of hunter-gatherers. Around 3300 B.C. the nation state of Egypt developed, which existed with various levels of influence until 343 B.C. Other civilizations include Ethiopia, the Nubian kingdom, the kingdoms of the Sahel (Ghana, Mali, and Songhai) and Great Zimbabwe.

In 1482, the Portuguese established the first of many trading stations along the Guinea coast at Elmina. The chief commodities dealt in were slaves, gold, ivory and spices. The discovery of America in 1492 was followed by a great development of the slave trade, which, before the Portuguese era, had been an overland trade almost exclusively.

But at the same time that serfdom was ending in Europe, in the early 19th century the European imperial powers staged a massive "scramble for Africa" and occupied most of the continent, creating many colonial nation states, and leaving only two independent nations: Liberia, the Black American colony, and Ethiopia. This occupation continued until after the conclusion of the Second World War, when all colonial states gradually obtained formal independence.

Today, Africa is home to over 50 independent countries, all but 2 of which still have the borders drawn up during the era of European colonialism.


Map showing European claimants to the African continent at the beginning of World War I
Map showing European claimants to the African continent at the beginning of World War I

Colonial Africa

Colonialism had a destabilizing effect on what had been a number of ethnic groups that is still being felt in African politics. Prior to European influence, national borders were not much of a concern, with Africans generally following the practice of other areas of the world, such as the Arabian peninsula, where a group's territory was congruent with its military or trade influence. The European insistence of drawing borders around territories to isolate them from those of other colonial powers often had the effect of separating otherwise contiguous political groups, or forcing traditional enemies to live side by side with no buffer between them. For example, the Congo River, although it appears to be a natural geographic boundary, had groups that otherwise shared a language, culture or other similarity who resided on both sides. The division of the land between Belgium and France along the river isolated these groups from each other. Those who lived in Saharan or Sub-Saharan Africa and traded across the continent for centuries often found themselves crossing "borders" that often existed only on European maps.

In nations that had substantial European populations, for example Rhodesia and South Africa, systems of second-class citizenship were often set up in order to give Europeans political power far in excess of their numbers. However, the lines were not often drawn strictly across racial lines. In Liberia, the citizens who were descendants of American slaves managed to have a political system for over 100 years that gave ex-slaves and natives to the area roughly equal legislative power despite the fact the ex-slaves were outnumbered ten to one in the general population. The inspiration for this system was the United States Senate, which ironically balanced the power of free and slave states despite the much larger population of the former.

Europeans often changed the balance of power, created ethnic divides where they did not previously exist, and introduced a cultural dichotomy detrimental to the native inhabitants in the areas they controlled. For example, in what is now Rwanda and Burundi, two tribes Hutus and Tutsis had merged into one culture by the time Belgian colonists had taken control of the region in the 19th century. No longer divided by ethnicity as intermingling, inter-marriage, and merging of cultural practices over the centuries had long since erased visible signs of a culture divide, the Belgians instituted a policy of racial categorization, upon taking control of the region, as racial based categorization and philosophies was a fixture of the European culture of that time. The term Hutu originally referred to the agricultural-based Bantu speaking tribes that moved into present day Rwandan and Burundi from the West, and the term Tutsi referred to North Eastern cattle-based tribes that migrated into the region later. The terms to the indigenous peoples eventually came to describe a person's economic class. Those individuals who owned roughly 10 or more cattle were considered Tutsi, and those with fewer were considered Hutu, regardless of ancestral history. This was not a strict line but a general rule of thumb, and one could move from Hutu to Tutsi and vice versa.

The Belgians introduced a racialised system. Those individuals who had characteristics the Europeans admired — fairer skin, ample height, narrow noses, etc. — were given power amongst the colonized peoples. The Belgians determined these features were more ideally Hamitic, Hamitic in turn being more ideally European and belonged to those people closest to Tutsi in ancestry. They instituted a policy of issuing identity cards based on this philosophy. Those closest to this ideal were proclaimed Tutsi and those not were proclaimed Hutu.

Post-colonial Africa

Since independence, African states have frequently been hampered by instability, corruption, violence, and authoritarianism. The vast majority of African nations are republics that operate under some form of the presidential system of rule. Few nations in Africa have been able to sustain democratic governments, instead cycling through a series of brutal coups and military dictatorships.

A number of Africa's post-colonial political leaders were poorly educated and ignorant on matters of governance; great instability, however, was mainly the result of marginalization of other ethnic groups and graft under these leaders.

As well, many used the positions of power to ignite ethnic conflicts that had been exacerbated, or even created, under colonial rule. In many countries, the military was perceived as being the only group that could effectively maintain order and ruled most nations in Africa during the 70s and early 80s.

During the period from the early 1960s to the late 1980s Africa had over 70 coups and 13 presidential assassinations.

Cold War conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union also played a role in the instability. When a country became independent for the first time, it was often expected to align with one of the two superpowers. Many countries in Northern Africa received Soviet military aid, while many in Central and Southern Africa were supported by the United States and/or France. The 1970s saw an escalation as newly independent Angola and Mozambique aligned themselves with the Soviet Union and the West and South Africa sought to contain Soviet influence.

Border and territorial disputes have also been common, with the European-imposed borders of many nations being widely contested through armed conflicts.

Failed government policies and political corruption have also resulted in many widespread famines, and significant portions of Africa remain with distribution systems unable to disseminate enough food or water for the population to survive. The spread of disease is also rampant, especially the spread of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and the associated Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which has become a deadly epidemic on the continent.

Despite numerous hardships, there have been some signs the continent has hope for the future. Democratic governments seem to be spreading, though are not yet the majority (National Geographic claims 13 African nations can be considered truly democratic). As well, many nations have at least nominally recognized basic human rights for all citizens, though in practice these are not always recognized, and have created reasonably independent judiciaries.

There are clear signs of increased networking among African organisations and states. In the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire), rather than rich, non-African countries intervening, about half-a-dozen neighbouring African countries got involved (see also Second Congo War). The death toll has been estimated by some to be 3.5 million since the conflict began in 1998. This might play a role similar to that of World War II for Europe, after which the people in the neighbouring countries decide to integrate their societies in such a way that war between them becomes as unthinkable as a war between, say, France and Germany would be today.

Political associations such as the African Union are also offering hope for greater co-operation and peace between the continent's many countries.

Extensive human rights abuses still occur in several parts of Africa, often under the oversight of the state. Most of such violations occur for political reasons, often times as a 'side-effect' of civil war. Notable countries with reported major violations include, but are not limited to, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Cote d'Ivoire. Reported violations include cannibalism, mutilation, and rape.

Modern Africa

Most western countries place limitations on aid to African nations. These limitations are often used to control the governments of these African nations; as a result, these nations are turning to non-traditional sources of financial aid. China has increasingly provided financial aid to Africa in order to secure contracts on natural resources. There usually is no political prescription.


Main article: Economy of Africa

Africa is the world's poorest inhabited continent: the United Nations' Human Development Report 2003 (of 175 countries) found that positions 151 (Gambia) to 175 (Sierra Leone) were taken up entirely by African nations.

It has had (and in some ways is still having) a shaky and uncertain transition from colonialism, with increases in corruption and despotism being major contributing factors to its poor economic situation. While rapid growth in China and now India, and moderate growth in South America, has lifted millions beyond subsistence living, Africa has gone backwards in terms of foreign trade, investment, and per capita income. This poverty has widespread effects, including lower life expectancy, violence, and instability - factors intertwined with the continent's poverty.

The major economic success is South Africa, which is developed to the extent that it has its own mature stock exchange. This is partly due to its wealth of natural resources, being the world's leading producer of both gold and diamonds, and partly due to its well-established legal system. South Africa also has access to capital, markets and know how.

Nigeria sits on one of the largest proven oil reserves in the world and has the highest population among nations in Africa, with one of the fastest growing. However, most of the oil industry is foreign owned, and the industry is rife with corruption at the national level so that very little oil money stays in the country, and what does goes to a very small percentage of the population.


Africans may be grouped according to whether they live north or south of the Sahara Desert; these groups are called North Africans and Sub-Saharan Africans, respectively. Arabic-speaking Arab-Berber peoples predominate in North Africa, while Sub-Saharan Africa is dominated by a number of disparate populations. There is a great diversity of physical types among Sub-Saharan African peoples -- ranging from the Masai and Tutsi, known for their tall stature, to Pygmies who are among the world's shortest adults.

Aside from the Nilotic groups of southern Sudan, some Nilotic groups in Ethiopia, and a Bantu African minority in Somalia, Africans from the Northeast parts of the continent typically have a different appearance from those in other regions. Speakers of Bantu languages are the majority in southern, central and east Africa proper; but there are also several Nilotic groups in East Africa, and a few remaining indigenous Khoisan ('San' or 'Busmmen') and Pygmy peoples in southern and central Africa, respectively. Bantu-speaking Africans also predominate in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and are found in parts of southern Cameroon and southern Somalia. In the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa, the distinct people known as the Bushmen (also "San", closely related to, but distinct from "Hottentots") have long been present. The San are physically distinct from other Africans and are the indigenous people of southern Africa. "Pygmies" are the indigenous people of central Africa.

The peoples of North Africa are primarily Arab-Berber; the Arabs who arrived in the 7th century have assimilated the indigenous Berber people. The Semitic Phoenicians, and the European Greeks and Romans settled in North Africa as well. Berber peoples remain a significant minority within Morocco and Algeria, and are present in Tunisia and Libya. The Tuareg and other often-nomadic peoples are the principal inhabitants of the Saharan interior of North Africa. Nubians also developed civilizations in North Africa during ancient times.

Some Ethiopian and Eritrean groups (like the Amhara and Tigray, collectively known as "Habesha") have Semitic (Sabaean) ancestry. The Somalis as a people originated in the Ethiopian highlands, but most Somali clans can trace Arab ancestry as well. Sudan and Mauritania are divided between a mostly Arab north and a native African south (although many of the "Arabs" of Sudan clearly have African ancestry, and are far off in appearance from Arabs in Iraq or Algeria). Some areas of East Africa, particularly the island of Zanzibar and the Kenyan island of Lamu, received Arab and Asian Muslim settlers and merchants throughout the Middle Ages.

Beginning in the 16th century, Europeans such as the Portuguese and Dutch began to establish trading posts and forts along the coasts of western and southern Africa. Eventually, a large number of Dutch, augmented by French Huguenots and Germans settled in what is today South Africa. Their descendants, the Afrikaners, are the largest European-descended group in South Africa today. In the 19th century, a second phase of colonization brought a large number of French and British settlers to Africa. The French settled in large numbers in Algeria, and on a smaller scale in other areas of North and West Africa. The British settled in South Africa as well as the colony of Rhodesia, and in the highlands of what is now Kenya. Smaller numbers of European soldiers, businessmen, and officials also established themselves in administrative centers such as Nairobi and Dakar. Decolonization during the 1960s often resulted in the mass exodus of European-descended settlers out of Africa — especially in Algeria, Kenya, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). However, in South Africa, the colonial minority (10% of the population) has largely remained in the country after the end of European rule in 1994.

European colonization also brought sizeable groups of Asians, particularly people from the Indian subcontinent, to British colonies. Large Indian communities are found in South Africa, and smaller ones are present in Kenya, Tanzania, and some other southern and east African countries. A fairly large Indian community in Uganda was expelled by the dictator Idi Amin in 1972, though many have since returned.


Map showing the distribution of African language families and some major African languages. Afro-Asiatic extends into the Sahel and Southwest Asia. Niger-Congo is divided to show the size of the Bantu sub-family.
Map showing the distribution of African language families and some major African languages. Afro-Asiatic extends into the Sahel and Southwest Asia. Niger-Congo is divided to show the size of the Bantu sub-family.

Main article: African languages

By most estimates Africa contains well over a thousand languages. There are four major language families native to Africa.

  • The Afro-Asiatic languages are a language family of about 240 languages and 285 million people widespread throughout North Africa, East Africa, the Sahel, and Southwest Asia.
  • The Nilo-Saharan language family consists of more than a hundred languages spoken by 30 million people. Nilo-Saharan languages are mainly spoken in Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and northern Tanzania.
  • The Niger-Congo language family covers much of Sub-Saharan Africa and is probably the largest language family in the world in terms of different languages. A substantial number of them are the Bantu languages spoken in much of sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The Khoisan languages number about 50 and are spoken in Southern Africa by approximately 120 000 people. Many of the Khoisan languages are endangered. The Khoi and San peoples are considered the original inhabitants of this part of Africa.

Languages of Europe have also acquired prominence; English, French,Portuguese, and Spanish, are official languages in several countries as a result of colonization. In South Africa, which was unique in having a significant number of European settlers, English and Afrikaans are the native languages of a significant portion of the population.


Rather than one culture, Africa has a number of cultures that overlap. The most conventional distinction is that between sub-Saharan Africa and the northern countries from Egypt to Morocco, who largely associate themselves with Arabic culture. In this comparison, the nations to the south of the Sahara are considered to consist of many cultural areas, in particular that of the Bantu linguistic group.

Divisions may also be made between Francophone Africa and the rest of Africa, in particular the former British colonies of southern and East Africa. Another cultural fault-line is that between those Africans living traditional lifestyles and those who are essentially modern. The traditionalists are sometimes subdivided into pastoralists and agriculturalists.

African art reflects the diversity of African cultures. The oldest existing art from Africa are 6000-year old carvings found in Niger, while the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt was the world's tallest architectural accomplishment for four thousand years until the creation of the Eiffel Tower. The Ethiopian complex of monolithic churches at Lalibela, of which the Church of St. George is representative, is regarded as another marvel of engineering.

The music of Africa is one of its most dynamic art forms. Egypt has long been a cultural focus of the Arab world, while remembrance of the rhythms of sub-Saharan Africa, in particular west Africa, was transmitted through the Atlantic slave trade to modern blues, jazz, reggae, rap, and rock and roll. Modern music of the continent includes the highly complex choral singing of southern Africa and the dance rhythms of soukous, dominated by the music of the Democratic Republic of Congo. A recent development of the 21st century is the emergence of African hip hop, in particular a form from Senegal is blended with traditional mbalax. Recently in South Africa, a form of music related to house music known under the name Kwaito has developed, although the country has been home to its own form of South African jazz for some time, while Afrikaans music is completely distinct and comprised mostly of traditional Boere musiek, and forms of Folk and Rock.


Africans profess a wide variety of religious beliefs, with Christianity and Islam being the most widespread. Approximately 40% of all Africans are Christians and another 40% Muslims. Roughly 20% of Africans primarily follow indigenous African religions. A small number of Africans also have beliefs from the Judaic tradition, such as the Beta Israel and Lemba tribes.

The indigenous African religions tend to revolve around animism and ancestor worship. A common thread in traditional belief systems was the division of the spiritual world into "helpful" and "harmful". Helpful spirits are usually deemed to include ancestor spirits that help their descendants, and powerful spirits that protected entire communities from natural disaster or attacks from enemies; whereas harmful spirits include the souls of murdered victims who were buried without the proper funeral rites, and spirits used by hostile spirit mediums to cause illness among their enemies. While the effect of these early forms of worship continues to have a profound influence, belief systems have evolved as they interact with other religions.

The formation of the Old Kingdom of Egypt in the third millennium BCE marked the first known complex religious system on the continent. Around the ninth century BCE, Carthage (in present-day Tunisia) was founded by the Phoenicians, and went on to become a major cosmopolitan center of the ancient world in which deities from neighboring Egypt, Rome and the Etruscan city-states were worshipped.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church officially dates from the fourth century, and is thus one of the first established Christian churches anywhere. At first Christian Orthodoxy made gains in modern-day Sudan and other neighbouring regions; however following the spread of Islam, growth was slow and restricted to the highlands.

Islam entered Africa as Muslims conquered North Africa between 640 and 710, beginning with Egypt. They established Mogadishu, Melinde, Mombasa, Kilwa, and Sofala, following the sea trade down the coast of East Africa, and diffusing through the Sahara desert into the interior of Africa -- following in particular the paths of Muslim traders. Muslims were also among the Asian peoples who later settled in British-ruled Africa.

Many Africans were converted to West European forms of Christianity during the colonial period. In the last decades of the twentieth century, various sects of Charismatic Christianity rapidly grew. A number of Roman Catholic African bishops have even been mentioned as possible papal candidates. African Christians appear to be more socially conservative than their co-religionists in much of the industrialized world, which has quite recently led to tensions within denominations such as the Anglican and Methodist Churches.


Political Map of Africa
Political Map of Africa
Physical map of Africa
Physical map of Africa

Independent states

East Africa

East Africa proper

North East Africa

Central Africa

North Africa

Southern Africa

West Africa

African Island Nations

Territories, possessions, départements

Disputed territories

See also

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External links

African studies resources
Photos and Information

Countries in Africa

Algeria | Angola | Benin | Botswana | Burkina Faso | Burundi | Cameroon | Cape Verde | Central African Republic | Chad | Comoros | Democratic Republic of the Congo | Republic of the Congo | Côte d'Ivoire | Djibouti | Egypt | Equatorial Guinea | Eritrea | Ethiopia | Gabon | The Gambia | Ghana | Guinea | Guinea-Bissau | Kenya | Lesotho | Liberia | Libya | Madagascar | Malawi | Mali | Mauritania | Mauritius | Morocco | Mozambique | Namibia | Niger | Nigeria | Rwanda | São Tomé and Príncipe | Senegal | Seychelles | Sierra Leone | Somalia/Somaliland | South Africa | Sudan | Swaziland | Tanzania | Togo | Tunisia | Uganda | Western Sahara/SADR | Zambia | Zimbabwe

Dependencies: British Indian Ocean Territory | Canary Islands | Ceuta and Melilla | Madeira Islands | Mayotte | Réunion | Saint Helena and dependencies

Continents and regions of the World







North America




South America
Geological supercontinents :
Gondwana • Laurasia • Pangea • Rodinia

Regions of the World
Africa: Central Africa | East Africa | Great Lakes | Guinea | Horn of Africa | North Africa | Maghreb / Northwest Africa | Sahel | Southern Africa | Sub-Saharan Africa | Sudan | West Africa
Americas: Andean states | Caribbean | Central America | Great Lakes | Great Plains | Guianas | Latin America | North America | Patagonia | South America | Southern Cone
Asia: Central Asia | East Asia | East Indies | Far East | Indian subcontinent | North Asia | Southeast Asia | Southwest Asia (Middle East / Near East, Levant, Anatolia, Arabia)
Europe: Balkans | Baltic region | Benelux | British Isles | Central Europe | Eastern Europe | Northern Europe | Scandinavia | Southern Europe | Western Europe
Eurasia: Caucasus | Mediterranean | Post-Soviet states
Oceania: Australasia | Melanesia | Micronesia | Polynesia | Aleutian Islands | Pacific Rim
Polar: Arctic | Antarctic

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