Africa’s Lost History

The African Experience: Major Themes in African History from Earliest Times to the Present

by Roland Oliver
Harper Collins, 284 pp., $23.00

The Scramble for Africa: The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912

by Thomas Pakenham
Random House, 738 pp., $32.00

It is now sixteen years since Dr. David Western, an ecologist, threw a ball of dry elephant dung at Dr. Andrew Hill, a paleontologist. The two scientists were gamboling, as learned mammals sometimes do, on a dry riverbed in Tanzania. Dr. Western missed, but Dr. Hill fell over. Given their respective professions, this was a lucky division of functions, because while on his knees Dr. Hill noticed a series of pockings on the rock surface around him.

These turned out to be raindrops which had fallen, something over 3.6 million years before, into a quick-drying layer of volcanic ash. Soon animal tracks were found too. Two seasons later, the footprints of hominids were uncovered—that “Laetoli Trail” which has become recognized as one of the wonders of the world, and down which three somebodies or somethings ambled splashily across a mudflat. The smallest somebody or something halted and half-turned for a moment to gaze sideways. The third one came along a little later, and amused itself by putting its feet rather imprecisely in the first one’s prints. They were tiny people or creatures, probably with apelike heads, but the high arch of their insteps and the splay of their toes (the wet mud squeezing up between them) is entirely modern. No relic in paleontology is as charming and touching as the trail of the Laetoli walkers.

Because of Laetoli, because of all the archaeological toil of the Leakey dynasty in Olduvai Gorge and Turkana, because of “Lucy’s” skull in the Afar desert, the world now accepts that the human species originated in Africa. More recently still, the so-called African Eve” hypothesis indicates a single common female ancestor, located in Africa at that place where the countless ramifications of the gene tree run together.

It is not new that Africa, more than any other continent, should be used as a means of divination for the anxieties of the “developed” world. But in every generation, the omens extorted from Africa are different. Once, in the later nineteenth century, Africa appeared at the same time unspeakably rich and the place of unspeakable wickedness. Its jungle glades glittered with gold and diamonds, while Satan ruled over cannibal orgy and slave-raid. Much later, the image of Africa was of culture and constitutions, of Ife bronze heads and the anticolonial struggle of a continent. Now the “significance” of Africa has become even more desperate. On the one hand, the place which Europeans for five hundred years regarded as the stagnant backwater of human development has turned out to be the fountain-head of all human development. Man began there; Africa is Mother. On the other hand—to give those already contorted emotions a further twist—Africa is represented as the very emblem of human failure. There, on those dried-out savannahs and eroded hills, the politics of optimism and the energy of international altruism and the hope that human ingenuity will always keep one hop ahead of the population surge seem all to have come …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.