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History of African Art

Updated on March 31, 2013

Kuba Statues


African Art History

It is a well known and practically unshakeable fact that mankind originated in Africa. It is no surprise therefore that human beings were producing art before the first man even left Africa, long before humans started to record their own history. It is an established fact that shell beads for a necklace have been found in South Africa that date back 75,000 years.

Knowing this history allows us to understand the way in which our forefathers saw and understood the world from a spiritual and intellectual perspective. It is unfortunate that most of this heritage has been lost, however, what we have can and is being preserved.

Examples of African Art

This image was first published in the 1st (1876–1899), 2nd (1904–1926) or 3rd (1923–1937) edition of Nordisk familjebok.
This image was first published in the 1st (1876–1899), 2nd (1904–1926) or 3rd (1923–1937) edition of Nordisk familjebok. | Source
Carving from Makonde. About 1967
Carving from Makonde. About 1967 | Source
Carving from Makonde. About 1967
Carving from Makonde. About 1967 | Source
This is a carving by the Makonde tribe of East Africa, c. 1974.
This is a carving by the Makonde tribe of East Africa, c. 1974. | Source


The earliest sculptures are thought to have originated in what is now Nigeria in around 500 BC. Examples of such sculptures include the Nok heads. These are human heads made out of terracotta. The heads display hair ornaments and a very specific African style and aesthetic which shows that figural representation was in existence at this time, marking what is thought to be the beginnings of the tradition of African sculpture more than 2000 years ago.

South of the Equator, in South Africa, Lyndberg heads, thought to have been buried in around 500 BC have been discovered. This particular group of heads were buried with care and attention to detail, demonstrating that the isolated culture who made them, had a deep respect for their significance.

Archaeologists have unearthed teracotta sculptures of heads in Jenne in Mali and Ife in Nigeria dating from 1000 to 1300 BC.

Skilfully crafted ivory sculptures dating back to the 16th Century have been found in Benin. In addition, stone sculptures from the same time period have been found in the regions occupied by the Sherbro people of Sierra Leone and the Kongo people.

Rock Art

The earliest known art form is rock art. The Apollo 11 caves in Namibia contain the oldest rock art known to man. Experts think that the art in the caves dates back around 27,000 years and experts believe that rock art may go back as far as 50,000 years.

The Saharan Sands of Niger hold preserved rock carvings depicting giraffes and other animals which has been scientifically dated to 6500 BC.

Metal Sculptures

The bronze casting tradition of the Igbo tribe of Nigeria dates back to the 6th Century AD. Very detailed life sized bronze sculptures of human heads and figures with incredible realism, produced with expert skill dating back to the 12th Century AD have also been found in the Yoruba region of Nigeria. Sculptures made of pure copper have also been found.

Yoruba culture in Nigeria and Benin dictated that bronze sculptures were cast for the divine Kings or Ife's of particular tribes and regions. It is thought that the people believed the sculptures held powers and the sculptures themselves represent the political and social beliefs of the people of the time- including the divine importance of the king.

Wood Sculptures

It is thought that the earliest wooden sculptures came from the Kuba people of Central Zaire in the 17th Century, however, the earliest surviving African wooden sculpture dates back to the 9th Century BC and comes from Central Angola and is a zoomorphic head.


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    • adelaidewrites profile imageAUTHOR

      Adelaide Damoah 

      5 years ago from Kent

      Thanks much for your feedback and for sharing! Appreciate the support :-)

    • everymom profile image

      Anahi Pari-di-Monriva 

      5 years ago from Massachusetts

      I love history, art, and, as a major in Anthropology, I love everything about this Hub! Thanks so much! Voted up and interesting, and, of course, shared in the Twitterverse!


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