The continent of Africa has the longest record of human activity of any part of the world and along with its geographical extent; it contains an enormous archaeological resource. Scholars have studied Egyptology for centuries but archaeologists have only paid serious attention to the rest of the continent in more recent times.
The earliest evidence of archaeological activity anywhere comes from the Rift Valley sites of East Africa such as Olduvai Gorge in modern-day Tanzania. It is thought that the earliest hominids evolved in Olduvai or somewhere similar around 4 million years ago. They are known as australopithecines and fossils of them include the famous Lucy.
The first, crude Oldowan stone tools produced there were made as long as 2.5 million years ago by the later homo habilis. Around a million years later, Developed Oldowan and then Acheulian industries produced more advanced handaxes made by homo erectus.
Archaeological study of this era was pioneered by people such as Louis Leakey and his family and has centered on the earliest development of tool use, fire and diet in hominid societies. Sites such as Kalambo Falls have produced well-preserved evidence of this activity.
By the beginning of the Middle Paleolithic, around 120,000 BC, African societies were hunter-gatherers proficient in exploiting the herds of large mammals that populated the continent for meat, including elephants and the fearsome African Buffalo. The area that is now the Sahara desert was open grassland and it seems that early humans preferred this plains environment to the jungles in the center. Coastal peoples also existed on seafood and numerous middens indicate their diet.
Homo sapiens appears for the first time in the archaeological record around 100,000 BC in Africa and soon developed a more advanced method of flint tool manufacture involving striking flakes from a prepared core. This permitted more control over the size and shape of finished tool and led to the development of composite tools, that is projectile points and scrapers which could be hafted onto spears, arrows or handles. In turn this technology permitted more efficient hunting such as that demonstrated by the Aterian industry.
Although still hunter-gatherers, there is evidence that these early humans also actively managed the food resource as well as simply harvesting it. The jungles of the Congo Basin were first occupied around this time; different conditions and diet there produced recognizably different behaviors and tool types.
Approximately 10,000 BC, African societies developed microlith technology which allowable level better flint tools that could be mounted in rows on a handle. Such a tool was helpful for harvesting wild grasses and also allowed fine shell and bone fish hooks, further varying diet. These effective Neolithic conditions led to eventual settlement sites being founded in parts of Africa as the nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life was replaced by an agrarian and herding humanity.
Additional parts of the continent remained in the Paleolithic however. Africa's earliest evidence for ceramics and domesticated plants and animals comes from the north of the continent, in something like 7000-6000 BC, and this different daily life is preserved in the images of Saharan rock art. As the Sahara increased in size due to global climate modify, its early farmers were forced south and eastwards, to the Niger and Nile valleys dispersion their new ideas as they moved.
Wheat and barley, sheep and goats were fast adopted from Asia by African farmers but the early use of metalworking was not broadly introduced in Africa until the Egyptians joined the Bronze Age around 4,000 BC..
Pockets of bronze usage appeared in following millennia but metal did not replace stone in the continent until around 500BC when both iron and copper spread southwards through the continent, reaching the Cape around 200AD. The extensive use of iron revolutionized the Bantu farming community who drove out the remaining hunter-gatherer societies they encountered as they expanded to farm wider areas of savanna The technologically superior Bantu spread across southern Africa and became rich and powerful, producing iron for tools and weapons in large, industrial quantities.
Skill with the Near East and Europe led to strong mercantile empires rising such as the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum. The Bantu people built the impressive site of Great Zimbabwe between the 10th and 15th centuries AD.
The north of the continent had close cultural and economic ties with the Classical and medieval Mediterranean. Cattle herding became important in East Africa and huge earthwork enclosures were built to corral the animals.
The people of Christian Ethiopia produced impressive rock-cut monolithic churches such as that of St George at Lalibela during the 13th century and the first Portuguese forts appeared soon after this, penetrating as far south as Zambia.
African Archaeology David W. Phillipson's 2005 edition (the third) of African Archaeology has become a well-thumbed staple of my nearest bookshelf. Covering everything from paleontology and well into the 20th century, African Archaeology
Digging through Darkness South African archaeologist Carmel Schrire's inventive personal memoir, subtitled, "Chronicles of an Archaeologist."
The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors I thoroughly enjoyed science writer Ann Gibbon's The First Human, even if the pettiness of the scholars made me cringe.
The Rise and Fall of Swahili States Between the 11th and 16th centuries AD, a truly cosmopolitan civilization rose and fell on the eastern coast of Africa. A thorough and very useful text by Chapurukha M. Kusimba
Making History in Banda Subtitled "Anthropological Visions of Africa's Past," this book by Ann B. Stahl applies the force of ethnohistorical research to build a history of the Banda region in western Africa.
The Berbers This book by Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentriss melds archaeology and history to provide a terrific introduction to the culture history of the Berbers of North Africa