Early Warfare and Weapons in Africa

In ancient Africa peoples or rulers went to war for many reasons. They may have sought to add to their land or wanted a protective barrier from a neighbor’s attacks. They may have desired to gain wealth by collecting taxes and tribute from subject peoples, as ALEXANDER THE GREAT (356-323 BCE) did when he attacked the Persian Empire in 334 BCE. They also used warfare to increase their power in a region and dominate or destroy a rival, as was the case when ROME fought the three PUNIC WARS (264-241 BCE, 218-201 BCE, and 149-146 BCE) against CARTHAGE.

Early Warfare

A few types of weapons, notably spears, stones, and clubs, are known to have been in use for many thousands of years, and it is probable that weapons used for hunting were used at times to kill other human beings during conflict.

The earliest archaeological evidence of warfare was discovered in the 1960s near Wadi Halfa in the present-day Republic of the SUDAN. A large burial plot, dating from c. 12,000 BCE, was found to contain 59 skeletons and a variety of stone projectiles. Projectile points located in the skulls, spines, pelvises, and limb bones of the skeletons indicated violent deaths. Scholars suggest this massacre was the result of an unstable agricultural system in the NILE VALLEY, where crop output varied. As a result, when any population increased or when crop yields decreased, there would be competition for FOOD. Thus the violence that led to the graves in the burial plot was probably the result of intense competition for the limited resources of the area. Whether the deaths were the result of an organized military campaign or a brutal skirmish between neighbors is unknown.

There is a difference between fighting and organized warfare. When groups of warriors fight, they often engage each other in individual combat with minimal regard for long-term strategy and tactics. Campaigns can end in a day or a few days once some goal has been met or vengeance taken. When larger groups of warriors band together, they may fight as an undisciplined hoard, swarming over and capturing or destroying whatever is in their way. True war requires a disciplined army of soldiers that can march in columns, take orders, and fight in line. A truism of military science says that a disciplined army always has the advantage over one that lacks military training and teamwork. When primitive societies began to transform themselves into states, armies became important organs of the state.

Early Weapons

The first spears were made of fire-hardened wood and played an important role in both hunting and conflict between peoples. During the Late STONE AGE (c. 40,000-3200 BCE) stone spearheads were attached to the ends of spears, increasing their durability and lethality. The earliest spears were short-shorter, in fact, than the hunters and warriors who carried them. As the body armor of soldiers grew heavier, however, spears grew in size. By the time Alexander conquered EGYPT in the fourth century BCE, the spears carried by his soldiers had reached 18 feet (5.5 m) in length.

Evidence found near the MEDITERRANEAN SEA indicates that by 10,000 BCE the bow and arrow had been invented. The bow represented a major innovation in weaponry. It held an advantage over the throwing spear in both the distance it could cover and in the volume of fire an archer could produce as compared to a spear thrower.

Early hunting bows gave people the ability to surprise their prey and strike from a relatively safe distance. The first war bows did much the same, allowing archers to shoot high-velocity missiles with deadly accuracy and force. As time passed, more sophisticated bows were produced. The reflex curved bow, for example, concentrated the strength of the bow in its curved center. Later bows added a layer of bone or horn to the belly of the bone, reinforcing it and giving it even greater strength. The front of the bow was then overlaid with sinew to make it even more powerful. Bows like these were so highly stressed that, when unstrung, they unbowed and reversed their curvature.

By 7000 BCE the sling, a weapon more accurate than the early simple bow, had been devised. Projectiles from a sling were especially deadly when the stones used were the size of fists. The bow and sling were the weapons of choice in many parts of the ancient world even during the BRONZE AGE (c. 3500 BCE), until the mace was developed. This heavy weapon, which was of little or no use in the hunt, became the first tool designed exclusively for war.

The Size of Armies

Despite the ancient world’s significantly smaller populations, ancient armies could sometimes be quite large. The Egyptian army in the times of RAMESSES II (c. 1300 BCE) numbered about 100,000 men, mostly conscripts. At the battle of KADESH in 1303 BCE, the first battle for which historians have reliable troop-strength figures, an Egyptian force of 20,000 soldiers faced an army of HITTITES numbering about 17,000. The ASSYRIAN army of 800 BCE, the first in history to be entirely armed with iron weapons, numbered between 150,000 and 200,000 infantry and cavalrymen. At the battle of Cannae in Italy in 218 BCE, the Roman consuls Lucius Aemilius Paulus and Gaius Terentius Varro faced HANNIBAL (c. 247-183 BCE) of CARTHAGE with an army of 80,000 soldiers. Hannibal’s victorious troops killed or wounded more than 50,000 Roman legionnaires in a single day of fighting.

The Bronze Age and the Chariot

The Bronze Age (c. 3500-1000 BCE) saw the development of cast bronze weapons, which featured sharper cutting edges than earlier STONE AGE weapons had, and a limited introduction of body armor. At the same time, cities began to build defensive walls behind which the populace could protect themselves from marauders. Up to that time most combat took place at a sword’s, spear’s, or axe’s length from one’s opponent. During the third millennium BCE, on the plains between ancient Egypt and its Mesopotamian neighbors, a major advance in weaponry changed the face of combat when the bow and arrow, the wheel, and the domesticated horse were combined to create the war chariot. For the first time soldiers could advance on a position in a surprise attack, deliver a deadly javelin or arrow attack from a mobile platform, and quickly race away to regroup or engage in lethal pursuit of a terrified and broken foe. Chariot-borne warriors became the elite strike force of the Egyptian army and gave Egypt a tactical advantage over its opponents.

The first chariots were four-wheeled carts with solid wooden wheels without pivoting front axles and pulled by onagers, fast-running relatives of DONKEYS. Over time the war chariot evolved into a lightweight car with spoked wheels and metal axles and pulled by three or four HORSES. The Persian army of Cyrus the Great used deadly scythed chariots, with sharp blades extending from the axles, in battle with Alexander the Great in the sixth century BCE.

The breeding of horses with sufficient strength and stamina to carry armed riders into battle led to the decline of the chariot as a weapon of war, starting at the end of the second millennium BCE. The Assyrians were responsible for the development of cavalry in the ancient world. Riders used their legs to control the animal, maintaining their seats on the backs of their horses with the aid of neck and belly straps. The stirrup, which allowed riders to stay in the saddle and deliver a strong blow from a lance or sword without being unseated by the movement, had not yet been invented. It would reach Europe from India by way of China during the Middle Ages and shift the balance in battle from infantry to mounted men, very often knights.

Iron Age Advances

Bronze weaponry prevailed for centuries in much of the known ancient world until it was displaced by the superior edges and strength of iron weaponry. Not surprisingly, it was iron weaponry-as well as such new, sophisticated war machines as the catapult-that helped the Romans transform northern Africa into a Roman province.

The IRON AGE came to Africa at different times and in different places. In northeast Africa, by 750 BCE the Kushite kingdom of MEROE produced iron tools and weapons that contributed to that kingdom’s regional dominance. The NOK CULTURE on the JOS PLATEAU of present-day NIGERIA was one of the first cultures in sub-Saharan Africa to produce and use iron. Evidence shows that these people used iron tools and weapons as early as 400 BCE.

The discovery of iron had an important impact on warfare. Iron weapons were forged, not cast like bronze, so that they were less brittle and more reliable than earlier weapons made from bronze. Furthermore, unlike bronze, which required hard-to-find tin to produce, iron was widely available, allowing armies to obtain a plentiful supply of inexpensive weapons. The Hittites were the first to make iron weapons, doing so about 1300 BCE. Within 100 years the technique had spread into Egypt and Mesopotamia. Elsewhere, iron weapons aided the Bantu-speaking peoples as they expanded into sparsely populated parts of Africa during the last half-millennium before the common era.

Whereas for centuries the common people had been conscripted into the army only in time of war, the IRON AGE saw the growth of standing armies in peacetime and the resulting permanent corps of professional soldiers needed to train and lead them. Egypt was among the first to practice wartime conscription. In the Iron Age, conscription gave birth to the standing peacetime army.

Other Advances

Perhaps the greatest advance in warfare in the ancient world was the Roman legion, which Hannibal faced in Italy and which was instrumental in the destruction of Carthage in North Africa. A legion was made up of ten 360-man units called cohorts, each of which contained up to three 120-man companies called maniples. A maniple, in turn, contained two centuries, each led by a centurion. (The 100-man century was eventually reduced to 60 men because it was judged easier to command.) The basic battle formation of the Roman legion had three lines. The first two were javelin-armed heavy infantry; the third was a mixture of light and heavy infantry and cavalry. The lines were staggered to allow for great flexibility and movement. Roman generals relied on massive frontal assaults that took full advantage of the soldiers’ discipline and the power of the Roman short sword, or gladius, to inflict severe wounds in close, hand-to-hand combat. Legions were powerful but not invincible. At Cannae in 218 BCE, Hannibal capitalized on his cavalry and encircled the Roman legions from behind, annihilating them.

Warfare in Ancient Sub-Saharan Africa

Very little is known of warfare in sub-Saharan Africa prior to 500 CE. Although foreign accounts and oral histories indicate that there were episodes of military strife prior to colonialism, virtually no archaeological evidence exists.

At the same time, a warrior tradition was part of many cultures. After growing up and gaining strength and skills, a young male often underwent INITIATION RITES, becoming an adult and a warrior. Ready to fight when the elders commanded, warriors were expected to protect their people and CATTLE from predators and neighbors as well as engage in cattle raids on other villages. The MAASAI have traditionally valued the stoic endurance of pain. In earlier times it was a custom for the warrior in training, armed only with a dagger, to prove his manhood by killing a lion.

The newly initiated warrior was given a sword and spear. He wore a special garment and let his hair grow long, braiding it and decorating it with ochre and sheep fat. His life was strictly governed by Maasai law and custom. A warrior drank no alcoholic beverages and ate only in the company of his age set. He also avoided sexual relations until 10 or more years after his initiation into manhood, whereupon he was then promoted to senior warrior and allowed to marry. Throughout his term of service, until he became an elder, he served his people with honor. Little is recorded about the strategy and tactics that these warriors used or about the duration and the ferocity of the battles they fought.

Although the details of early African warfare are vague, by 1200 distinct military tactics had emerged throughout the continent. The severity of warfare depended largely on the size, government structure, and location of the communities involved.

The earliest known conflicts occurred between loosely organized peoples like the DINKA, Nuer, MAASAI, and San. Although their villages, with their elder-dominated SOCIAL STRUCTURE, usually lacked a clear hierarchical system, these communities were able to organize into bands during warfare. Bands (groups of related nomadic or foraging peoples) and groups of agriculturalists often raided neighboring villages, but they seldom engaged in long battles. Few people died in these conflicts because of the limited killing power of their weapons, which were generally just modified hunting and farming tools. This early warfare tended to center on domestic disputes, such as conflicts over cattle, land, LABOR, or social status. Opponents were never really defeated; rather they were simply kept at bay for a period of time.

In the seventh century Arab Muslim armies from Saudi Arabia advanced westward across the Red Sea and into EGYPT, first establishing a base of operations at CAIRO. Mounted on horseback and armed with strong iron swords-as well as religious fervor-they quickly conquered weakly defended agricultural villages in the hinterland. Along the coast they faced stiff Byzantine opposition, which included naval ships, but even the Byzantines eventually fell to the overwhelming Arab forces. Although they also faced fierce resistance from indigenous BERBERS in present-day ALGERIA and MOROCCO, by the beginning of the eighth century Muslim ARABS had conquered nearly all of North Africa. They also crossed the Straight of Gibraltar and conquered the southern part of Spain. In the west the Muslim expansion southward was limited only by the forbidding environment of the SAHARA DESERT. In the east, however, the expansion was forestalled by the armies of MAQURRAH, in Christian NUBIA. In addition to fighting with as much religious fervor as the invading Muslim armies, Nubia’s Christian armies were made up of highly skilled archers who had a tactical advantage over their sword-wielding, horse-mounted enemies.

From the eighth through the 10th centuries Abbasid dynasty rulers in North Africa maintained armies of well-trained MAMLUKS, who were used for protection as well as to enforce Islamic law throughout the realm. By the 13th century, however, the Mamluks had established their own Islamic state, spread over most of Egypt and parts of present-day LIBYA.

In the northern parts of SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA horses were used extensively in the cavalries of the Ghana, Mali, and SONGHAI empires as early as the ninth century because they could survive in the savanna climate. CAVALRY forces could be large; Ghana, for example, could field as many as 200,000 armed horsemen. To the west only smaller horses could survive, so the cavalries were dependent on hand-to-hand combat with sabers and attacks with javelins and bows. Coastal areas of West Africa, such as Senegambia and the Gold Coast, organized armies that used handheld weapons in combination with tactical support from archers. In present-day ANGOLA loosely organized infantries were made up of soldiers highly skilled in hand-to-hand combat who relied on their ability to dodge weapons rather than utilize shields.

At GREAT ZIMBABWE (c. 1200-1450 CE), an Iron Age empire that flourished in the southeastern part of modern ZIMBABWE, archaeologists have found iron tools, but these could be ceremonial or hunting implements. Because communities south of the Sahara were generally small and scattered, it is likely that any disagreement led to the dispersal of peoples rather than to conflict.


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