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The Origin of the name Africa

by Abbey

Africa is the world’s second largest continent, both by size and number, after Asia. Its land mass hold 54 countries and 9 territories. Over 1.11 billion people call Africa home and call themselves African. Africa and being African has become a core part of the identity of millions of the continent’s inhabitants. But where does this world, to which so many have such an emotional connection, come from?

The exact origins of the word Africa are contentious, but there is much about its history that is known. We know that the word Africa was first used by the Romans to describe that part of the Carthaginian Empire which lies in present-day Tunisia. When the Romans conquered Carthage in the 2nd century BCE, giving them jurisdiction over most of North Africa, they divided North Africa into multiple provinces. Among these, there were Africa Pre-Consularis, Northern Tunisia, and Africa Nova, much of present-day Algeria, also called Numidia.

The name Africa and the Romans

All historians agree that it was the Roman use of the term Africa for part of Tunisia and Northern Algeria which ultimately, almost 2,000 years later, gave the continent its name. There is, however, no consensus amongst scholars as to why the Romans decided to call this province Africa. Over the years, a small number of theories have gained traction. One of the most popular subjections for the origins of the name Africa is that it is derived from the Roman’s name for a tribe living in the northern reaches of Tunisia believed to possibly be the Babel people.

The Romans variously named these people Afri, Afra, and Ifa. Some believe that Africa is a contraction of Afrika Terra, meaning the land of the Afri. There is, however, no evidence in the primary sources that the term Africa Terra was used to describe the region, nor is there direct evidence that it is from the name Afri that the Romans derived the term Africa. In the early 16th century, the famous Medevian traveller and scholar, Johannes Leo Africanus, who had travelled across most of North Africa giving detailed account of all what he saw there, suggested that the name Africa was derived from the Greek word Afriki, meaning without code or without oral.

In a similar line of thought, other historians have suggested that the Romans may have derived the name from the Latin word for sun or earth, namely, Africa. Where exactly the Romans got the name Africa from is, however, still in dispute. For most of its history, the Roman word Africa was not used to describe the continent as a whole, but rather only a very small section of North Africa, what today constitutes the northern part of Tunisia.

Were the Greeks responsible for naming Africa?

Prior to the late 16th century, there were a variety of names used to describe the various constituent parts of the north half of Africa, with Libya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Guinea being by far the most common names used. For the ancient Greeks, almost everything south of the Mediterranean Sea and west of the Nile was referred to as Libya. This was also the name given by the ancient Greeks to the Babylon people who occupied most of that land. The ancient Greeks believed their world was divided into three greater regions, Europa, Asia, and Libya, all centered around the Aegean Sea.

They also believed that the dividing line between Libya and Asia was the Nile River, placing half of Egypt in Asia and the other half in Libya. For many centuries, even into the late medieval period, cartographers followed the Greek example, placing the Nile as the dividing line between the land masses. Early Arabic cartographers tended to follow the Greeks in the usage of their time Libya for vast swathes of North Africa beyond Egypt. Later Arabic cartographers began to call the areas south of the Sahara extending from the Senegal River to the Red Sea, billared as Sudan, the land of the blacks which is where the contemporary nation of Sudan gets its name from. Some European cartographers who tended to privilege Latinate derivations above others preferred the Roman term for the region, using the word Africa to designate the northern land mass rather than the Greek term Libya, although Libya was still used by many. During the Middle Ages, Christian cartographers adopted the Greek division of the word into three greater regions surrounding the Aegean Sea. The medieval cartographers, however, moved this understanding away from the geographical conception of the word into a more metaphorical understanding. They aligned each region to one of the Abraham’s descendants, giving Asia to shame, Europe to jab at and Africa to arm. This tripartite conception of the word was represented in extremely abstract and symbolic rather than geographical form as is shown in the image above.

In the 15th century, after the Portuguese had rounded the Cape and made contact with the Christian Empire of Abyssinia, the Greek term Ethiopia, meaning land of the dark-skinned or burnt, which was used by the Greek cartographers to designate the land below Egypt and the Saharan, was revived again to loosely describe all of the tropical area of the continent below the Sahara. At roughly the same time, the Portuguese began to refer to all of West Africa below the Sahara as Guine, the land inhabited by the Guinnes people. Guinnes was a generic term used for black people in contrast to the more brown people of much of North Africa. The term Guina became ever more popular to describe the region of West Africa accessible from the Gulf of Guinea. Until the mid 17th century, the terms Guine and Ethiopia were popularly used to describe the land south of the Sahara.

Libya was commonly used for the north-west of Africa above the Sahara. Africa was used sometime east of Libya to denote the north-west of Africa and sometimes along the Libya to denote the central and northern region of Africa which today is predominantly occupied by Tunisia. Before the late 16th century, Africa was used only to denote part of the larger landmass that makes up the continent primarily that area occupied by Tunisia and Morocco. For most of its history, the continent of Africa as we know it today had many names for all its various constituents, none of which was used to describe the landmass as a whole.

The European Exploration

It was only in the 16th and 17th centuries with the European Age of Exploration that the concept of continent as contiguous landmasses bordered as separated by oceans began to take shape. As European exploration opened up the idea of the continent, so cartographers began to give single geographical names to an entire continent.

By the end of the 17th century, the name Africa had worn out over the others, beating names such as Jini, Libya or Ethiopia to become the name for the entire continent as we know it today. While Africa worn out over all the other, often more popular names is unclear although some historians have argued that it is due to the 17th and 18th-century preference for Latinate terms above all others. The word Africa has been a marker on the continent for millennia but its dominance over the continent and its place as a name for the people who live on it is only a very recent phenomenon.


  • Abbey

    Abbey Johnson has a Masters degree as an engineer and has over 3 years of teaching and research experience. He is happiest when on a bike and is also interested in electric energy and computer Science.

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