Africa is 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.