A plateau is a section of land that is relatively flat, due to various reasons. Some plateaus have been formed by erosion and others by volcanic activity. In ancient Africa, these areas would, for the most part, have been ideal settling options for colonialists as well as the native hunter-gatherers as they would present few challenges in the way of travelling across them or establishing homes and farms. Mountainous regions or those pitted with deep valleys, on the other hand, present many more challenges.
Africa boasts many such plateaus, making it one of the most ideal lands to travel and cultivate. Even in the times of earliest human civilisations, it is believed to have been the Cradle of Humankind, albeit in different areas of the continent. These plateaus would have provided ample room for the establishment of villages, the farming of plants and animals as well as the moving around of the more nomadic of ancient Africans.
Africa has high plateaus in the east and south. These are elevated approximately 3 300 feet above sea level, and have a minimum elevation of 2000 feet. The whole of the country of South Africa is a plateau, with high ground on all but its northern border. This high land drops steeply towards the coast. It was these mountainous areas with which the first settlers had to contend in order to colonise a land that was so familiar to the local inhabitants. These mountains and the caves they house are also the sites of many of the rock paintings, tools and implements once used by prehistoric man. As the South African plateau heads south, three parallel steps form the rim, each separated by a strip of level ground between them. The Great Karoo makes up the largest of these gaps between steps. The Karoo and the Kalahari Desert (perched on the plateau) are dry and arid.
The East African plateau is higher than that of South Africa. The eastern axis has widened and split into several zones that run in northerly and southerly directions. This split has meant mountains ranges, flat land and deep depressions in this region. There are two significant depressions in the earth’s surface and these have become the sites of huge lakes. Where they converge, Lake Nyasa lies.
In the north, the depressions in the plateaus have formed the Great Rift Valley and its many impressive lakes (Great Lakes of Tanganyika, Kivu, Lake Edward and Lake Albert). This plateau is also peppered with volcanic peaks. The East African Trough contains far fewer depressions and, therefore, lakes. These sources of water would have sustained ancient man and their crops and animals.
To the east, Mount Kilimanjaro towers over the plateau. This mountain peaks at almost 20 000 feet, and has always proved to be one of man’s greatest challenges to conquer. In this region of Africa, there remain active volcanoes, some of which actually lie on the floor of valleys and depressions, rather than on the plateau itself.
Another significant plateau region is the Ethiopian Highlands. This is Africa’s largest continuous plateau. This may account for its popularity in times past, testified to by the abundance of remains and fossils found here. In the centre of this plateau is a round dent, where Lake Tsana resides.
The African continent is flanked on both sides by plateaus that run in strips along the coastline. In some places, these are higher and broader and in others narrow and low, but still part of the continuous plateau.
Evidently, this aspect of Africa’s geography has impacted significantly on settlements and travel routes. They had an integral part to play in the movements and developments of ancient African civilisations and, therefore, are still a key part in the research being undertaken to establish certain parts of Africa as the Cradle of Mankind.