Africa's Prehistoric Roots
The first hominoid evolved in Africa, per archaeological findings. Despite the skull anatomy of early hominoids, which resembled that of the great apes, early man possessed a crucial advantage over their counterparts--he adopted bipedal locamotion and freed his hands. 10-5 million years ago he was able to roam the savanna as it encroached on the forests, expanding his natural territory and increasing his ability to sustain life.
These early predacessors (H. habilis) also made another detrimental adaptation. Using their free hands, they became the first species to use tools to hunt, cook, and survive daily life. Unlike their later descendants, they didn't make these tools, but utilized them on food they scavenged for. The tools are Oldowan Tools.
Most Oldowan sites, specially in Africa, are found near rivers or lakes, suggesting that the tool makers preferred to live near a source of water. Analysis of the tools and nearby rock formations shows that the rocks used to make the tools were often transported over distances of several kilometers. Some sites are quite extensive, containing thousands of stone tools and detritus from the process of creating them, and animal bones representing thousands of animals.
As hominoids continued to evolve, H. erectus made an appearance 1.8 million years ago, and developed a new more complex stone tool technology called the Acheulean. H. erectus mastered the art of making fire and was the first hominid to leave Africa.
The fossil record shows Homo sapiens living in southern and eastern Africa at least 100,000 years ago. Around 40,000 years ago, the species' expansion out of Africa launched the colonization of the planet by modern human beings.
As mentioned, in the earliest years, hominoids were not hunters, but scavengers. They also were great hunters and gatherers, collecting seeds, barleys, rice, nuts, tubers, and other grains that created their omnivorous diet. Between 10,000 and 8500 BCE, the expansion of H. erectus allowed North Africa to not only cultivate wheat and barley, but also raise sheep and cattle from southwest Asia. Around 7000 BCE Ethiopian highlanders domesticated donkeys, and from there people started capturing wild cattle and holding them in circular thorn hedges. Man also began to make pottery and used bone-tipped harpoons to fish.
In West Africa, man continued to evolve and create better technologies. Niger-Congo inhabitants domesticated palm trees, black-eyed peas, and African groundnuts. On the heels of those plants soon came okra and kola nuts. To combat the forest that grew around the treasured plants, polished stone axes were invented for clearing forests.
The great desert wasn't always sand and barren cliffs. About 3600 years ago, it was a much wetter place, with diverse population of both humans, plants, and animals. Prior to the desertification, the communities that developed south of Egypt (modern day Sudan) participated in the Neolithic revolution and settled to a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Many believe that the megaliths found at Nabta Playa are examples of the world's first known archaeoastronomical devices. If so, they predate Stonehenge by some 1,000 years.
More importantly, the sociocultural complexity observed at Nabta Playa and expressed by different levels of authority within the society there has been suggested as forming the basis for the structure of both the Neolithic society at Nabta and the Old Kingdom of Egypt.
As you can see, early man was evolving quickly!
Around 5000 BCE, the climate of the Sahara region began to change into what we know now. The population dispersed in all directions--to the Nile Valley below the Second Cataract where permanant settlements sprouted. Heavy rains lessened in eastern Africa, and since then dry conditions have prevailed.
In 4000 BCE, man began to smelt the first metals: lead, bronze, and copper.
Egyptian artifactual records tell us that Copper was smelted heavily during the predynastic period, and bronze came into use not long after 3000 BCE. Gold and Silver were also heavily used, and in Nubia, copper and gold were major resources.
The smelting of copper in present-day Niger, occured independantly from the Nile Valley, but also occured in the same time frame. The process, however, was raw, indicating that it initiated regionally and was not brought in from outside.
Northwest Africa, Egypt and Nubia introduced iron smelting by 1000 BCE. This technology was later used against the Nubians, who were pushed out of Egypt by Assyrians using iron weapons, in 670 BCE. After this, iron use within the Nile valley became widespread.
Interestingly, west Africa began working metals as early as 2500 BCE, and was heavily practicing iron working by 1500 BCE, long before it reached Egypt.