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largest desert, Sinai Peninsula, grassy plains, Black Africa, colonizers

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Africa, second largest of Earth’s seven continents, covering 23 percent of the world’s total land area and containing 13 percent of the world’s population. Africa straddles the equator and most of its area lies within the tropics. It is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, the Indian Ocean and Red Sea on the east, and the Mediterranean Sea on the north. In the northeastern corner of the continent, Africa is connected with Asia by the Sinai Peninsula.

Africa is a land of great diversity. If you were to trek across the continent, you would pass through lush, green forests and wander vast, grassy plains. You would cross barren deserts, climb tall mountains, and ford some of the mightiest rivers on Earth. You would meet diverse people with a wide range of cultures and backgrounds and hear hundreds of different languages. You would pass through small villages where daily life remains largely the same as it has been for hundreds of years, as well as sprawling cities with skyscrapers, modern economies, and a mix of international cultural influences.

Africa is the birthplace of the human race. Here, early humans evolved from apes between 8 million and 5 million years ago. Modern human beings evolved between 130,000 and 90,000 years ago, and subsequently spread out of Africa. Ancient Egypt, one of the world’s first great civilizations, arose in northeastern Africa more than 5,000 years ago. Over time many other cultures and states rose and fell in Africa, and by 500 years ago there were prosperous cities, markets, and centers of learning scattered across the continent.

During the last 500 years, however, Africa became increasingly dominated by European traders and colonizers. European traders sent millions of Africans to work as slaves on colonial plantations in North America, South America, and the Caribbean. Europeans also sought Africa’s wealth of raw materials to fuel their industries. In the late 19th century, European powers seized and colonized virtually all of Africa.

Through slow reform or violent struggle, most of Africa won independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Independent Africa inherited from colonization a weak position in the global economy, underdeveloped communication and transportation systems, and arbitrarily drawn national boundaries. The citizens of these new nations generally had little in terms of history or culture to bind them together.

There are 53 different African countries, including the 47 nations of the mainland and the 6 surrounding island nations. The continent is commonly divided along the lines of the Sahara, the world’s largest desert, which cuts a huge swath through the northern half of the continent. The countries north of the Sahara make up the region of North Africa, while the region south of the desert is known as sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is sometimes referred to as “Black Africa,” but this designation is not very helpful, given the ethnic diversity of the entire continent. North Africa consists of the countries of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia. Sub-Saharan Africa is generally subdivided into the regions of West Africa, East Africa, Central Africa, and southern Africa. For the purposes of this article, West Africa consists of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, and Togo. East Africa consists of Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda. Central Africa consists of Angola, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, and Zambia. Southern Africa consists of Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. The island nations located off the coast of Africa are Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe in the Atlantic Ocean; and Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.


Ayo, Yvonne. Africa. Knopf, 1995. Introduction to the continent. For readers in grades 4 to 8.

Bingham, Jane. African Art and Culture. Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 2003. For readers in grades 5 to 9.

Finley, Carol. The Art of African Masks. Lerner, 1999. For readers in grades 5 and up.

Harrison, Peter, ed. African Nations and Leaders. Facts on File, 2003. Reference work for grades 7 and up.

Sayre, April Pulley. Africa. Twenty-First Century, 1999. An overview of the continent for readers in grades 4 to 6.

Wepman, Dennis. Africa: The Struggle for Independence. Facts on File, 1993. For middle school and high school readers.

Beckwith, Carol, and Angela Fisher. African Ceremonies. Abrams, 2000. A visual record of African religious rituals.

Glazier, Stephen D. Encyclopedia of African and African-American Religions. Routledge, 2001. A well-illustrated reference to black religious movements worldwide.

Lugira, Aloysius Muzzanganda. African Religion. Facts on File, 1999. A summary for readers in grade 7 and up.

Ray, Benjamin C. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community. 2nd ed. Prentice Hall, 1999. A standard textbook.

Sundkler, Bengt, and Christopher Stead. History of the Church in Africa. Cambridge University Press, 1999. A respected interpretation of the development of Christianity throughout Africa.

Beckwith, Carol, and Angela Fisher. African Ceremonies. Abrams, 2000. Photographs highlighting the diversity of African culture.

Fisher, Angela. Africa Adorned. Abrams, 1984. Photographs of dress, jewelry, regalia, body adornment, and hairstyles.

Giles, Bridget, ed. Peoples of Africa. 6 vols. Facts on File, 1997. Examines people of Africa by ethnic group, geographic region, and other categories.

Haskins, Jim, and Joann Biondi. From Afar to Zulu: A Dictionary of African Cultures. Walker, 1995. Handbook of African peoples for younger readers.

Martin, Phyllis M., and Patrick O'Meara, eds. Africa. 3rd ed. University of Indiana Press, 1995. Introductory essays on African history, society, culture, economics, and politics.

Matthiessen, Peter. The Tree Where Man Was Born. 2nd ed. University of Indiana Press, 1986. Reprint, Penguin, 1995. East Africa in photographs and words.

Olson, James S. The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Greenwood, 1996. Comprehensive information on 1,800 ethnic groups in Africa today.

Saitoti, Tepilit, and Ole Saitoti. Maasai. Abrams, 1980. Anthropological portrayal of this East African tribe, with photographs.

Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. The Harmless People. Random House, 1965, 1989. Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert.

Davidson, Basil. Africa in History: Themes and Outlines. Rev. ed. Scribner, 1995. Concise overview of African history.

Diop, Cheikh Anta. Pre-Colonial Black Africa. Africa World Press, 1990. Reconstructs African history and black contributions to Western civilization. Strong Afrocentrist view.

Freund, Bill. The Making of Contemporary Africa: The Development of African Society Since 1800. 2nd ed. Lynne Rienner, 1998. Examines the social and economic development of Africa through the colonial period to independence.

Jones, Constance. Africa, 1500-1900. Facts on File, 1993. African history from 1500 to 1900; for middle school through adult readers.

July, Robert W. A History of the African People. 5th rev. ed. Waveland, 1997. Societies, religions, and politics from an African perspective.

Mazrui, Ali A., and Toby Kleban, eds. The Africans: A Reader. Praeger, 1986. Short historical and literary writings by Africans and other observers of Africa, with essays.

McEvedy, Colin. The Penguin Atlas of African History. Penguin, 1996. Graphic depiction of the changing continent from prehistoric times.

Oliver, Roland Anthony, and Anthony Atmore. Africa since 1800. 4th ed. Cambridge University Press, 1994. Well-regarded history of Africa, updated to reflect events since the end of the Cold War.

Reader, John. Africa: A Biography of the Continent. Vintage Books, 1999. A broad overview of African history starting with human evolution on that continent and following developments to the present.

UNESCO. General History of Africa. 8 vols. University of California Press, 1981-1993. History of ideas, societies, institutions, culture, and values.

Vogel, Joseph O., and Jean Vogel, eds. Encyclopedia of Precolonial Africa: Archaeology, History, Languages, Cultures and Environments. AltaMira, 1997. Emphasis on prehistory.

Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa. Thames & Hudson, 1998. A survey of the artistic achievements of African artists south of the Sahara.

Berman, Esme. Berman's Art and Artists of South Africa. Southern, 1993. Menasha Ridge, 1999. Historical survey of painting and graphic art.

Blier, Suzanne Preston. The Royal Arts of Africa: The Majesty of Form. Abrams, 1998. Multifaceted consideration of the art of the royal kingdoms of west and central Africa.

Elleh, Nnamdi. African Architecture: Evolution and Transformation. McGraw-Hill, 1996. Surveys the developments across the whole continent; well illustrated.

Garlake, Peter. Early Art & Architecture of Africa. Oxford University Press, 2002. A new history of more than 5,000 years of African art and architecture that reveals its true diversity.

Meyer, Laure. Black Africa: Masks, Sculpture, Jewelry. Terrail, 1995. Well-illustrated introduction and overview of the role of the arts in various African cultures.

Pivin, Jean Loup, and N'Gone Fall, eds. An Anthology of African Art: The Twentieth Century. Editions Revue Noire, 2002. Well-illustrated survey of contemporary African art.

Prussin, Labelle. African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place, and Gender. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997. Handsomely illustrated study of the portable shelters that house the nomadic peoples of northern Africa.

Visona, Monica Blackmun, and others, eds. A History of Art in Africa. Abrams, 2000. Groundbreaking coverage of the entire continent of Africa.

Willett, Frank. African Art: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Thames & Hudson, 2003. Broad discussion of history, geography, culture, aesthetics.

Bender, Wolfgang.Trans. Wolfgang Freis. Sweet Mother: Modern African Music. University of Chicago Press, 1991, 1997. Traditional, neotraditional, and popular music in the context of social and political change.

Huet, Michel, and Claude Savary.Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. The Dances of Africa. Abrams, 1996. Photographs of traditional African ceremonies and rituals.

Kebede, Ashenafi. Roots of Black Music. Africa World, 1995, 1996. The vocal, instrumental, and dance heritage of Africa and black America.

Stone, Ruth M. The Garland Handbook of African Music. Taylor & Francis, 1999. An introduction to the continent and its many musical forms.

Waterman, Christopher Alan. Juju: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music. University of Chicago Press, 1990. Analysis of Nigerian juju music from the 1930s to the modern styles. Also available in audio version.

Attridge, Derek, and Rosemary Jane Jolly, eds. Writing South Africa:Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995. Cambridge University Press, 1998. On the significance of South Africa's most distinguished writers of the apartheid era.

Cox, Brian C., ed. African Writers. 2 vols. Scribner, 1997.

Ibnlfassi, Laila, and Nicki Hitchcott, eds. African Francophone Writing: A Critical Introduction. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Irele, Abiola. The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora. Oxford University Press, 2001. An intriguing study of the universality of African literature.

Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge University Press, 1978, 1990. Penetrating essays on aspects of African literature and culture.

Valestuk, Lorraine. African Literature and Its Times. Gale, 1999. An anthology of 50 literary works by notable African writers.

Adams, William M.; A. S. Goudie; and A. R. Orme, eds. The Physical Geography of Africa. Oxford University Press, 1996, 1999. The physical environment of Africa.

Alden, Peter, ed. National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife. Knopf, 1995. Guide designed to broaden outsiders' appreciation of African fauna.

Anderson, David S., and David R. Bridge. Focus on Africa: Wildlife, Conservation and Man. Bridgewood, 1994. Photographs and text from eight African countries designed to promote ecotourism and environmental awareness.

Arnold, Caroline. African Animals. Morrow, 1997. Examines 20 African animals through text and color photographs. For younger readers.

Aryeetey-Attoh, Samuel, ed. Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa. Prentice Hall, 1997. Comprehensive text covering sub-Saharan Africa, its physical setting, economic makeup, human geography, and culture.

Brown, Leslie H.; Kenneth Newman; Emil K. Urban; C. Hilary Fry; and Stuart Keith, eds. The Birds of Africa. 6 vols. Academic Press, 1982-2000. Texts and color plates.

Grove, Alfred Thomas. The Changing Geography of Africa. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1993. Good introductory geography of the African continent.

Stock, Robert F. Africa South of the Sahara: A Geographical Interpretation. Guilford, 1995, 1998. An introductory text on African geography that focuses on contemporary issues challenging Africans.

Stuart, Chris, and Tilde Stuart. Africa's Vanishing Wildlife. Smithsonian, 1996. Description, statistics, and maps for extinct, endangered, and vulnerable African species.

Tingay, Paul. Wildest Africa. St. Martin's, 1996. The diverse landscapes of Africa in photographs and text.

Berkeley, Bill. The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe, and Power in the Heart of Africa. Basic Books, 2001, 2002. A journalist's view of ethnic conflicts in Africa over the last 50 years and the forces behind these conflicts.

Davidson, Basil. The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State. Random House, 1993. Argues that the 20th-century imposition of the European nation-state on Africa ignores that continent's long history and long-standing traditions.

Gordon, April A., and Donald L. Gordon, eds. Understanding Contemporary Africa. 3rd ed. Rienner, 2001. Textbook overview of Africa in the 20th century.

Middleton, John, ed. Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara. 4 vols. Scribner, 1997. Includes biographies, country information, historical events, political systems, chronology, and general topics.

Thompson, Leonard M. A History of South Africa. Rev. ed. Yale University Press, 1995. Emphasizes political history, especially in regard to the development of race relations.

Tordoff, William. Government and Politics in Africa. 3rd ed. University of Indiana Press, 1997. Popular text addresses issues such as women, South Africa, ethnicity, state declines, Francophone Africa, and French relations.


Newman, James L., B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Professor of Geography, Syracuse University. Author of The Peopling of Africa and other books.

Mehretu, Assefa, B.A., Ph.D. Professor of Geography, Michigan State University. Author of Regional Disparity in Sub-Saharan Africa: Structural Readjustment of Uneven Development and other publications.

Shillington, Kevin, B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Historian of Africa. Editor of Encyclopedia of African History and author of History of Africa, Independence in Africa, and other books.

Stock, Robert, B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Liaison Officer, International Programs, College of Arts and Science, University of Saskatchewan. Author of Africa South of the Sahara: A Geographical Interpretation and other books.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation.

Article key phrases:

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