Episode Guide

Origins | The Cross and The Crescent | Empires of Gold | Cities | The Atlantic Age | Commerce and the Clash of Civilizations


Host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. introduces viewers to the African continent through a series of expansive views and myth-busting revelations. His six-hour exploration of the African past begins at the origins of human existence. Through anthropological and scientific discoveries viewers learn that Africa is the genetic home of all currently living humanity. Only between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago did some of humanity's common ancestors leave the continent to spread across the rest of the world. These great African migrations culminated in the diverse global peoples and societies that viewers know today. Beginning with this great revelation, Gates then traces the roots of agriculture, writing, artistic expression, and iron working to their birthplaces on the continent.

Gates first arrives in present-day Ethiopia, where the 1997 discovery of fossil remains near the Omo River was the first discovered connection between modern humanity and the oldest known traces of the species to have walked the earth some 195,000 years ago. Following this ancestral thread, Gates visits Africa's most respected paleoanthropologist, Dr. Richard Leakey of the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya. His team's ground-breaking discoveries have opened our eyes to the ways our species evolved in Africa, and how the diversity observable around the world today came from the vast genetic makeup of the continent. Through this visit, viewers also meet Mitochondrial Eve, the hypothetical mother from whom 200,000 years of descendant daughters have received portions of their DNA. Gates next points us to the Blombos Cave in South Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans collide and the earliest known examples of human creative expression go back almost 80,000 years. He shows how the Sahara Desert was once a lush savannah where agricultural practices developed and the first complex societies on the continent were formed, before a changing climate shifted migratory patterns. Ancient people soon settled the fertile lands of the Nile Valley, and this region became home to the ascending, interdependent, and sometimes warring kingdoms of Egypt and Kush.

A tomb at Abydos, south of Cairo, is believed to be the final resting of the Scorpion King, the ruler who consolidated Ancient Egypt in the fourth millennium B.C. This site also reveals small ivory tags covered in precursors to Egyptian hieroglyphs, indicating that ancient Egyptian writing developed independently of writing in ancient Mesopotamia, partly as a tool for consolidating royal power. The episode also takes viewers to the Great Pyramid of Giza, for thousands of years the tallest building on Earth, and up the Nile River to present-day Sudan, where the ancient Kingdom of Kush boasted gold and copper reserves that made it an important trading power and a target for Egyptian conquest. It was the rulers of Kush, first under the conquering King Piye, who would eventually rule as the Black Pharoahs of Egypt's 25th dynasty.

Far from Egypt, in the heart of Africa, other major developments were taking place just as early. In today's Central African Republic, a birth of iron-working technology took place between 1800 and 1500 B.C., at the same time as the better-known separate development of this technology in the Middle East. Gates also presents viewers with the Nok Terracottas, captivating archaeological finds from around 900 B.C. representing the earliest ceramic sculptural art known in Africa outside of Egypt. He recounts next the Bantu Migration, which, from 3000 B.C. on, witnessed a massive shift of people and technologies that would change the face of Africa.

Gates concludes the first hour of the series in Meroë, the later capital of the independent Kingdom of Kush. After the fall of Cleopatra's Egypt to the Roman Empire, it was Meroë's Queen Amanirenas who used her military leadership skills and her kingdom's iron weaponry to lead raids against Roman Egypt that would result in the capture of a statue of the Emperor Augustus and force the Romans to the treaty table in 22 B.C. The vast spans of time and space that Gates covers in "Origins," along with those he interviews at the cutting edge of science, make clear that the African continent helped design the blueprint for civilization itself.