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oral literature, Cape of Good Hope, religion of Islam, colonial period, colonial times

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Africa was the birthplace of the human species between 8 million and 5 million years ago. Today, the vast majority of its inhabitants are of indigenous origin. People across the continent are remarkably diverse by just about any measure: They speak a vast number of different languages, practice hundreds of distinct religions, live in a variety of types of dwellings, and engage in a wide range of economic activities.

Over the centuries, peoples from other parts of the world have migrated to Africa and settled there. Historically, Arabs have been the most numerous immigrants. Starting in the 7th century ad, they crossed into North Africa from the Middle East, bringing the religion of Islam with them. A later movement of Arabs into East and Central Africa occurred in the 19th century. Europeans first settled in Africa in the mid-17th century near the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern end of the continent. More Europeans immigrated during the subsequent colonial period, particularly to present-day South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Algeria. South Asians also arrived during colonial times. Their descendants, often referred to as Indians, are found largely in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa.


Africa’s cultural traditions are extremely diverse. Traditionally, art, music, and oral literature served to reinforce existing religious and social patterns. During the colonial period, some educated city dwellers rejected traditional African cultural activities in favor of Western cultural pursuits, but a cultural revival sprang up with the rise of African nationalism and independence in the mid-20th century. Arabic written literature has a long history in North Africa, while European-language literature has developed more recently. The governments of most African nations sponsor national dance and music groups, museums, and to a lesser degree, artists and writers.


The People of Africa section of this article was contributed by James L. Newman.

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