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Airs Saturday, June 6, 2020 from 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. on KPBS 2 + PBS Video App

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores the Dantokpa Market, one of the largest in th...

Credit: Courtesy of Nutopia Limited

Above: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores the Dantokpa Market, one of the largest in the city of Cotonou, located in the west African nation of Benin.

Told From an African Perspective, Series Explores How Human Civilization Traces its Roots Back to the African Continent

This series is available to stream on demand with KPBS Passport.

AFRICA’S GREAT CIVILIZATIONS is a three-part, six-hour documentary series hosted, executive produced and written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. Professor Gates travels the length and breadth of Africa to chronicle the continent’s history from a firmly African perspective.

His journey takes him from the city of Great Zimbabwe to the pyramids of the Kingdom of Kush in Sudan, from the spectacular rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia to the continent’s oldest university in Fez, from the Blombos Caves in South Africa to Ancient Mali, the empire of King Mansa Musa, still thought to be the wealthiest person ever to have lived.

In this series, Gates chronicles a sweeping 200,000-year journey of discovery, showing the complexity, grandeur and diversity of many millennia of undiscussed and unknown details about Africa’s compelling and dramatic history.

Gates presents — for the first time for a popular audience — a new vision not only of Africa’s pivotal place in world history, but also the world’s relation to Africa.

Africa's Great Civilizations | Official Trailer

In his six-hour series, AFRICA’S GREAT CIVILIZATIONS, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores the history of Africa, from the birth of humankind to the dawn of the 20th century. This is a breathtaking and personal journey through two hundred thousand years of history, from the origins, on the African continent, of art, writing and civilization itself across the millennia.

Africa’s contributions to the human community’s development of art and language, writing and religion, agriculture and government, the arts and sciences are commonly misunderstood, or even ignored.

This landmark series presents a new and comprehensive narrative about Africa and the history of the extraordinary diverse peoples of its continent, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Cape of Good Hope, from the Red Sea and down the Nile River, and from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.

The series sizzles with exciting interviews with leading historians, creative writers, art historians, paleoanthropologists, geneticists and museum curators including the Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka; Kenyan paleoanthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey; historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University; Christopher Ehret of UCLA; Ghanaian scholar Emmanuel Akyeampong of Harvard University; and art historian Cécile Fromont, along with many more.

City of Ile Ife | Africa's Great Civilizations

The origin story of Ile Ife lies at the heart of the Yoruba culture. After death, the Onis were worshiped as Gods, and the artworks called Ife Heads were likely used as icons of power.


“Africa is the ancestral home to the human community and to many of the pivotal breakthroughs in the history of civilization, yet the continent continues to be stereotyped as an isolated and underdeveloped region in the mind of outsiders, devoid of any profound historical achievements,” says Gates...

“This series will dispel these myths and other inaccuracies about Africa through a detailed and riveting examination of significant historical events, such as the rise of its powerful kingdoms, the growth of extensive trade networks with the Middle East, Europe and China, seminal technological and artistic discoveries, and its peoples’ resilience in the face of harrowing past traumas. We made this series to end this ignorance about the African past, to reveal how Africans not only shaped the history of their continent, but also how profoundly and how extensively Africa has shaped the contours of our modern world.”


Episode 1: “Origins” repeats Saturday, June 6 at 9:30 a.m. on KPBS 2 - Journey with Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to Kenya, Egypt and beyond as he discovers the origins of man, the formation of early human societies and the creation of significant cultural and scientific achievements on the African continent.

Afro Combs | Africa's Great Civilizations

Did you know that afro combs were used in ancient African civilizations? Burial pits in the Nile Valley have been the source of rare and unique artifacts, dating back more than 6,000 years.

Episode 2: “The Cross And The Crescent” repeats Saturday, June 6 at 10:30 a.m. on KPBS 2 - Gates charts the ancient rise of Christianity and Islam, whose economic and cultural influence stretched from Egypt to Ethiopia. Learn of African religious figures like King Lalibela, an Ethiopian saint, and Menelik, bringer of the Ark of the Covenant.

City of Meroe | Africa's Great Civilizations

In the middle of the fourth century, Axumite armies forged their way inland along the Nile Valley, invading new territories and heading for the Great City of Meroe, the third and last capital of the Ancient Kingdom of Kush.

Episode 3: “Empires Of Gold” repeats Saturday, June 6 at 11:45 a.m. on KPBS 2 - Henry Louis Gates, Jr. uncovers the complex trade networks and advanced educational institutions that transformed early north and west Africa from deserted lands into the continent’s wealthiest kingdoms and learning epicenters.

City of Timbuktu | Africa's Great Civilizations

The heart of Timbuktu’s intellectual life was its libraries. Between the 14th and the 17th centuries, they acquired hundreds of thousands of books, mostly written by African authors working in the city.

Episode 4: "Cities" repeats Saturday, June 6 at 1 p.m. on KPBS 2 - Gates explores the power of Africa’s greatest ancient cities, including Kilwa, Great Zimbabwe and Benin City, whose wealth, art and industrious successes attracted new European interest and interaction along the continent’s east and west coasts.

The City of Great Zimbabwe | Africa's Great Civilizations

The Great Enclosure of Great Zimbabwe is the largest pre-colonial structure in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. It was a statement of majesty, power, wealth, and architectural genius.

Episode 5: "The Atlantic Age" repeats Saturday, June 6 at 2:15 p.m. on KPBS 2 - Gates explores the impact of the Atlantic trading world, giving rise to powerful new kingdoms, but also transatlantic slave trade. Learn of the revolutionary movements of the 18th and early 19th centuries, including the advent of the Sokoto Caliphate.

The City of M'banza-Kongo | Africa's Great Civilizations

The Kingdom of Kongo was one of the largest and most powerful in the southern half Africa. At the heart of the capital in M'banza-Kongo stand the ruins of a building constructed in the middle of the 16th century. It's one of the most important architectural remains in the history of Sub-Saharan African Christianity.

Episode 6: "Commerce and the Clash of Civilizations" repeats Saturday, June 6 at 3:40 p.m. on KPBS 2 - Gates explores the dynamism of 19th century Africa, the “Scramble” by European powers for its riches, and the defiant and successful stand of uncolonized Ethiopia.

The Swahili Coast | Africa's Great Civilizations

For over a thousand years, African merchants gathered on the Swahili coast, once known as Azania, to exchange their wares with other merchants from Europe, from Persia, Arabia, even as far east as China.


This series is available to stream on demand with KPBS Passport

Extend your viewing window with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members supporting KPBS at $60 or more yearly, using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.

With the PBS Video App, you can stream your favorite and local station shows. Download it for free on your favorite device. The app allows you to catch up on recent episodes and discover award-winning shows.

The series is also available on iTunes and Amazon.

You can purchase the series DVD from All sales support PBS programming!


Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is on Facebook, Instagram, and you can follow @HenryLouisGates on Twitter. #AfricasCivilizationsPBS

Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

In his six-hour series, AFRICA’S GREAT CIVILIZATIONS, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. takes a new look at the history of Africa, from the birth of humankind to the dawn of the 20th century.


The series is produced by Inkwell Films, McGee Media, Kunhardt Films and WETA Washington, D.C., the flagship public broadcaster in the nation’s capital, in association with Nutopia. Written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Produced and directed by Virginia Quinn and Mark Bates.


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