Black History

The African Genius

by Basil Davidson
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 367 pp., $7.95

Africa to 1875: A Modern History

by Robin Hallett
History of the Modern World Series, University of Michigan, 483 pp., $8.95

Basil Davidson has long been the most effective popularizer of African history and archaeology outside Africa, and certainly the one best trusted in Black Africa itself. In The African Genius he has turned his historian’s eye to the question of what social anthropology has to add to the picture of the African past, and the result is the most serious and best integrated of all his books.

The great problem of anthropological literature is, of course, that often it lacks any sense of time at all. Until quite recently, most anthropologists deliberately cultivated the “synchronic” approach. In practice this meant that in searching for the social, moral, and ritual systems that were being heavily eroded by the outside influences of the colonial period, they reconstructed them by reference to some hypothetical point in time when it was assumed that they had been complete, integrated, and, by implication, static. As we all know, real life is not like that.

Nevertheless, anthropological literature forces the historian to think about areas of life which, in Africa at least, would otherwise escape his attention. Anthropology is concerned with the microcosm, with the life of the ordinary man in the ordinary small community. The recent descriptions by anthropologists of fifty or sixty such microcosms, spread across many and various ethnic groups and ecological backgrounds, tell the historian more than he will ever learn from other sources of what Davidson calls “the formative problems and solutions found by small groups faced with the destiny of peopling a large and physically testing continent.”

These anthropological studies show that peoples separated by vast distances have similar ideas, suggesting the same Stone Age sources—creation myths, for example. And for the Iron Age, consider the fundamental importance of lineage in a continent where even a century ago a substantial portion of each generation was engaged in opening up new lands for subsistence agriculture. The formative community of Iron Age times was a small group of related families in which a man without lineage was a man without citizenship. Lineage defined the social and economic group, and provided its history. The founding ancestors were those who in any given area had cut the bush and tested the soil and located the iron ore and the salt licks for cattle. They were those who had established “the saving rules of life,” which their descendants would ignore at their peril. Religion, too, was centered around them, for it was they who connected the living with the life force, the Creator.

The surviving examples of such lineage-based, chiefless societies are found today mainly in the less accessible areas, cut off and cut up by forests, swamps, or mountain ridges. The peoples inhabiting more accommodating terrain have mostly evolved toward statehood. States in precolonial Africa were of all sizes from a few thousand to a few million inhabitants, and there were halfway stages to statehood in which age groups or secret societies emerged to fulfill some of the functions of a central government …

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Letters

Bias? February 25, 1971