Africa was the birthplace of the human species between 8 million and 5 million years ago. Today, the vast majority of its inhabitants are of indigenous origin. People across the continent are remarkably diverse by just about any measure: They speak a vast number of different languages, practice hundreds of distinct religions, live in a variety of types of dwellings, and engage in a wide range of economic activities.
Over the centuries, peoples from other parts of the world have migrated to Africa and settled there. Historically, Arabs have been the most numerous immigrants. Starting in the 7th century ad, they crossed into North Africa from the Middle East, bringing the religion of Islam with them. A later movement of Arabs into East and Central Africa occurred in the 19th century. Europeans first settled in Africa in the mid-17th century near the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern end of the continent. More Europeans immigrated during the subsequent colonial period, particularly to present-day South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Algeria. South Asians also arrived during colonial times. Their descendants, often referred to as Indians, are found largely in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa.
In 2000, 797 million people-or about 13 percent of the world's population-lived in Africa. The most populous countries are Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Distribution of the population is highly uneven. Some parts of the continent, particularly the vast Sahara, have few permanent residents. Others rank among the world's most densely populated areas, notably the Nile Valley of Egypt; the Atlantic coastal stretch from Côte d'Ivoire to Cameroon; Rwanda; Burundi; and South Africa's province of KwaZulu-Natal. Overall, Africa's population density was 27 persons per sq km (69 persons per sq mi) in 2000.
Until the mid-20th century census-taking was rare in Africa. Although most African countries have by now conducted at least several counts of their populations, reliable data on vital statistics are limited. Nonetheless, it is clear that Africa's population has grown rapidly in recent decades. The continent-wide population growth rate peaked at 3.43 percent in 1979 and remained relatively high through the 1980s, averaging 2.69 percent. Rates have lowered since. In 2000 Africa's growth rate was 2.37 percent, which is still high compared to other continents. In general, West, East, and Central Africa have experienced the fastest growth and North and southern Africa the slowest.
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