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The Origins Of The Continent’s Name – Africa

The history of Africa is rich, especially her political voyages to Europe and the Americas – the Age of the Moors and the disputed Olmec Civilization, respectively. Her wonders are unimaginable from the Great Zimbabwe ruins, the majestic Dogons (skywatchers who first identified the star, Sirius B) of West Africa, and the Ishango Bone (calendar) from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Egyptian Civilization that still awe historians up to this day. As the world slowly bows to the majesty of this tropical climate region with dark-pigmented children of former slaves (colonialism), the origin of the name Africa, like most of her rich history, is still in dispute.

In his introduction to the UNESCO’s General History of Africa I, Methodology and African Prehistory 1981, Editor of the journal, J. Ki-Zerbo says, “The origin of the word ‘Africa’ has been difficult to elucidate. It became the accepted term from Roman times onwards in the form ‘Africa,’ replacing the originally Greek or Egyptian word ‘Libya,’ the land of the Lebu or the Lubins in Genesis. From designating the North African coast, the word ‘Africa’ came to be applied to the whole continent from the end of the first century before our era.”

Archaeologists, mathematicians and many people in the sciences have a certain fascination with Latin and Greek languages, which is why, even the universe including Mars where we are foraging for evidence of life, names of locations are either from the ancient Greek mythologies or Latin. Could the name Africa also be from a Roman god/goddess or Latin? Here are eight hypothesized origins of this intriguing name.

young African girl

African girls

Phoenician origins

Some historians postulate that the name Africa was coined from the Phoenician word ‘afar,’ which means dust. It is difficult to tell whether dust could be attributed to the desert pervading the northern part of Africa. Phoenicians were the early inhabitants of the present-day Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Their highly enterprising demeanour could have led them to interact with the people of northern Africa.

It is also hypothesized that the name could be a derivative of Phoenician words ‘friqi’ or ‘pharika,’ which means land of corn or fruit. This is a very interesting twist for it brings in the historical agrarian revolution in Egypt. Some historians postulate that ‘Pharika/pharikia’ could mean an ear of corn- a symbol of fertility in Northern Africa at the time.

Finally, J. Ki-Zerbo avers that the name Africa could be credited to the Phoenician word ‘faraqa’ or ‘faraq,’ which suggests the idea of separation, or in other words, diaspora. There is scanty information to illustrate what the Phoenicians meant by separation; however, diaspora could posit the position of Africa in relation to Phoenicia. Ki-Zerbo quickly points out that Faraq – the root word – can be found in some African languages like the Bambara – a Malian lingua franca.

The Roman Origins

Roman interest in Africa can be traced back to the three Punic wars that ended in 146 BC when the Carthage (present day Tunisia) – a city that had gained significant success due to her interaction with Phoenicia – was destroyed. After the occupations of Northern Africa, the Romans are believed to be behind the popularization of the name Africa in Europe. The Romans used the name ‘Afri terra,’ which means the land of ‘Afri,’ singular for ‘Afer’ – the name of a tribe that occupied the upper part of Africa.

In another hypothesis, some historians believe the more plausible origin can be traced to the Romans through the addition of the suffix ‘ica’ to the root word ‘Afri.’ This creates a more believable theory based on Julius Caesar’s reference of Celtica from Celtae. The suffix ‘ica,’ in this case, refers to land.

It is further averred by historians that Roman Africa could have been drawn from the name of General Scipio Africanus. According to historian Joshua J. Mark, in his article on punic wars, Scipio was a Roman general who defeated Hannibal, a Carthaginian general in the second Punic War. Formerly known as Publius Cornelius Scipio, the powerful general would allow Carthage to retain her colonies in Africa, but she had to surrender her navy and was not allowed to make war under any circumstances without Rome’s approval among other reparations.

One last straw in the Roman heritage is the Latin adjective ‘aprica,’ which means sunny, or the Greek word ‘aprike,’ which means free from cold.

African map

Africa Origins

The African origins have been postulated by many historians, a key historian among them being late Dr. Ivan Van Sertima of the Journal of African Civilizations in the USA. According to William D. Wright in his book Black History and Black Identity: A Call For A New Historiography, Van Sertima advanced the idea that Africa came from the Egyptian word ‘Afru-ika,’ which means birthplace or motherland, or to turn towards the opening of ka, womb or birthplace. Van Sertima was a scholar of the ancient civilizations and a strong proponent of the theory that all civilizations begun in ancient Egypt. He further believed that the earliest civilizations, such as the Olmec Civilization in America, was a result of early African immigrants (they came before Columbus). It is that such belief that made him consider that the name Africa has African roots. Nevertheless, Van Sertima’s theory has faced opposition with some historians arguing that Egyptians would not have known that they occupied such a land mass. Historian and Anthropologist, Yosef Ben-Jochannan further adds, “The name is neither Egyptian in the hieratic (or demotic) language that I’m quite familiar with in my research.” He, however, points to a more appropriate word, ‘afriaeka.’ Dr. Ben, as he was mostly called, has traced the confusion between Afru-ika and Africa to the 20th Century Egyptologist, Gerald Massey, who, in his book titled A Book of the Beginnings Volume I (1881), pointed out that Afru-ika was an Egyptian word which meant ‘the inner land,’ ‘born of’’ or ‘birthplace.’ Although Massey did not show the relationship between the two words, he left the door open for such conjecture. We cannot put Massey on the spot here, for he pointed out the origin of the name Africa. He says, ‘The name of Africa is derived from this root ‘af’ or ‘au.’ The tongue of Egypt tells us that Af-rui-ka is the inner land, born of, literally the birth-place.” ‘Au,’ according to Massey, meant the primordial or the oldest, and when modified to ‘Af,’ it meant born.

In his book Afuraka/Afuraitkait; The Origin of the Term Africa, Odwirafo Kwesi Ra Nehem Ptah Akhan dismisses all other suggestions by putting it out there that the name Africa has Kemetic (Egyptian) origins. According to Odwirafo, a comparative study of the Kamitic language and the Twi language of the Akan would show the root of the name Africa. He argues from the lens that many historians have taken to understand the diffusion of language and cultures. It is useless to argue otherwise when, in true sense, the origins of Africa pre-dates the earliest civilizations known to the western world. He says the terms Afu, Ra, Rait,  Ka, and Kait are over 40,000 years old, hence they predate the earliest white existence on the planet. It is further put that the name Africa may have come from the Berber community, Aourigha, otherwise written as Afarik. Historians believe that the Romans may have adopted this name for the region, and given its use, could have been generalized to encompass the entire continent – an unlikely situation.


African wildlife

African sunset

Greek Origins

Some historians have dwelled on the Greek historian, Leo Africanus’ (1495-1554) hypothesis that Africa is from the Greek word ‘aprike’ or ‘aphrike.’ In Greek, the root word Phrike means cold and horror, but when the prefix a- is added to it, it means free of. This hypothesis, however, fails to meet the standards raised by Odwirafo, who argues that in the metutu of Kamit (Egypt), the word ‘Afer’ means to burn or to be hot, while ‘Afri’ means smoke or hot vapour, making the Greek origin questionable.

There is the name ‘Afriaeka,’ which was suggested by Dr. Ben in his rebuttal of Van Sertima’s theory. The name is originally Greek, but not spelled as such. Dr. Ben suggested, however, that it is ‘Afrui-ika’ that comes from the word Afrik added with ‘ae’ and ‘ika,’ the name became ‘afriaeka,’ which meant the ‘land to the South’ of Greece. This is the name that became Africa. This hypothesis by Dr. Ben falls short of expectations according to William D. Wright in his book, where he argues that the name was not for the landmass South of Greece and did not refer the land to the south. Secondly, the Greeks referred to continental Africa as Libya or Lebu, as seen in the works of Herodotus, although Libya, too, has various references in relation to Africa as far as the Greeks are concerned.

Ancient Africa

Jewish Origins

Reading the bible, the new King James Version, Genesis 25:1-4, one of Abraham’s concubines gave him several sons, one of whom was Midian, who begot five sons; among them Epher- from whom, according to Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, Africa  is named after his descendants who invaded Egypt.

Another biblical reference is the name Ophir, land known for its gold. Ophir is the biblical reference to the Jewish name for the continent, Auphirah, which historians in some circles believe was Africa. Massey says, “Max Muller I has shown how the fleets of Solomon must have been to India to obtain the monkeys, on account of the name, which is QoPH, because in Sanskrit the ape is Kapi.” “Qoph,” he says, is foreign in Hebrew, and the land in which that word is indigenous must be the Ophir of the Bible; therefore, it was India. “Kafi” is the original word, and it is Egyptian; Kepi in Persian; Kapi in Sanskrit; Kepos in Greek; Ape in English. The Kafi, a monkey of a peculiar kind, appears in the tombs of the Fourth Dynasty as early as the time of Kufu, with the name of Kafi written over it, about 3733 BC.

Egypt, Africa

Arabic Origins

Some historians trace Africa origins to Ifriqiya, an Arabic name that means a sunny place. Ifriqiya, or el-Maghrib el-Adna, was an area that comprised of present-day Tunisia, some parts of Libya, and Algeria. This name has been disputed because it is a re-rendering of the Latin version.

Furthermore, the Arabs referred to continental Africa as Bilad el-Sudan, land of the Blacks, which included the whole area of black Africa, including the land South of the Sahara.

Indian Origins

Back to J. Ki-Zerbo. Africa may have come from ‘Apara,’ which denotes that, which, in geographical terms, comes after; in other words, the West. Africa is the western continent. However, Massey, in the Book of Beginnings, points out that ‘Apara’ from Sanskrit means womb. Massey is, in no way, pointing out the origin of the name Africa, but the name belly or womb, and how different languages share its origin.

African hut

Yemen Origins  

One final etymology points to the historical defeat of  North Africa by Chief Africus, who founded the town ‘Afrikyah.’ This is one of the suggestions by historian, Leo Africanus. However, according to Jessica MacDonald of, the events that led to such hypotheses happened too long ago to be proven.

Like the great pyramids of Egypt, the origin of the name Africa will remain an enigma and a point of historical discourse for the foreseeable future. One thing that remains a constant factor is that with Africa came the name Africans, a name that has been adopted to unify all people living one’s ‘dark continent,’ and those outside. The name has sired pan-Africanism, African-American, Africans in diaspora, the prefix ‘afro,’ among many. The modern-day African appreciates the name and the adjectives that come with it, but according to William D. Wright, those living in ancient Africa had no idea that they were called Africans and their continent Africa. The name Africa, therefore, must have been brought into the continent by early visitors. However, this should not be construed that the name isn’t native to Africans, especially the northern part, which had wide interactions with Europe.

As scholars suggest theories, it should be noted that, despite the conflicting arguments, the name Africa may have its origin in Africa. The point being, linguists and anthropologists have, in the past, shown the relationship between world languages which point towards common ancestry.

African nature


Written by PH

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