What was the most advanced African nation to have existed?

Sub-Saharan, pre-European colonisation, what was the most advanced nation in Africa, using social, political and technological standards as measurement.

And, what was the written culture like?
Are there any African equivalents of Plato, Aristotle etc?

Recent thread got me wondering.

I’ll offer the Mali Empire as a starting point.

The empire of Mali would be a contender.


The Empire is famous for its centre of learning in Timbuktu:


Including the famous university of Sankore:


Never mind


OP specified sub-Saharan.

The OP specified sub-Saharan.

Egypt’s out for not being sub-saharan, but what about Meroë?



I was in Meroë not too long ago. It is most certainly Saharan rather than sub-Saharan. Four of us camped among the pyramids and there is almost zero vegetation… only sand, and near-zero humidity as well. Sub-Saharan starts a few hundred km south of Khartoum at best.

Map of pre-colonial African civilizations to consider:

Meroë is the north end of Sudan. I don’t think that qualifies as “sub-Saharan” either. It depends on whether you define the region using modern political boundaries, or climatic zones:


I’d rather prefer something like the first two, since we are talking about an era prior to modern boundaries.

Excellent user name/post combo. :smiley:

Usually Sudan is sorta counted in with the rest of “sub Sahran Africa”, but it is, now, part of the Sahara around Meroë; however, it wasn’t when Meroë was an active civilization.

The Sahara has of course moved since - which is what makes this an interesting question.

Interestingly, Merotic is described in this BBC article as the “first sub-saharan language”.


I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned Ethiopia (Kush), one of the first officially Christian nations in the world, and one that successfully resisted colonization centuries later.

I would assume Ethiopia.

I find pre-colonial African history fascinating simply because the average person knows so little about it. Africa’s medieval period was not that dissimilar to Europe’s. While we think of sub-Saharan Africa as a bunch of unorganized and isolated tribes, in reality there were great and long-lived empires engaging in intercontinental trade and exchanges of ideas. Early explorers were impressed with how well ordered West African cities were. Indeed, the medieval architecture of Timbuktu is still impressive, although it’s a bit of an exception- much of Africa builds with mud, which is not given to the kinds of durable monumental architecture we associate with glory.

Even today, the legacy of these empires live on and in many areas the pre-colonial political organizations are equally or even more powerful than the modern states. You can still see these empires in action today.

The Mali empire was probably the most recognizably advanced empire in west Africa. It had control of massive amounts of gold and salt, and more exotic commodities like slaves, ivory and the like were close at hand. They were well positioned to trade with Europe and the Middle East. There have been times that Timbuktu was easily among the richest cities on the planet. Famously, when Mansa Musa went to Mecca he gave away so much gold that it depressed gold prices in Egypt for more than a decade.

Culturally, several empires were instrumental to bringing Islam to West Africa, but the Mali empire probably advanced it the most, opening universities and libraries. Even today Timbuktu is one of the world’s greatest repositories of ancient manuscripts. The treasures there are absolutely mind-boggling, especially given how little money modern Mali has to preserve them.

My favorite pre-colonial empire, though, is the Bornu Empire. It arose from the Kanem empire, which emerged in Sudan in the 800s. Their cultural imprint is still strong. They were displaced by the Sokoto Caliphate, which I would argue still maintains it’s political organization and power today, even across modern state boundaries. Many people in the area still see themselves primarily as subjects of their Hausa/Fulani kings, with the modern political state being a secondary and often irrelevant influence.

I might nominate the Empire of Benin. If we’re talking technological and organizational sophistication, they were as advanced as any of the other empires mentioned, though they weren’t as large.

As to written culture, you have to look among the Sahelian kingdoms (Mali, etc.), where Arabic script was used since the early middle ages. Otherwise in sub-Saharan Africa (leaving aside the Horn of Africa), there’s not much there. The OP makes me wonder, though, how much Plato and Aristotle were known in Africa through the Arabs. If there’s an answer, it’s probably buried in the manuscripts of Timbuktu.

Can you elaborate further on that, or point me somewhere to find more information for myself?

If you want to go really sub-Saharan, the how about Zimbabwe? There’s some massively impressive remains.