Some thirty-five years ago, H.R. Trevor- Roper—in a moment of condescension that quickly became notorious—declared to an audience on the BBC: “Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But, at present there is none: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness….”1 Trevor-Roper had not then been ennobled as Lord Dacre of Glanton; but if he spoke without the authority of the peerage, his pronouncement still came, as it were, ex cathedra, from the podium of the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford.
Professor Trevor-Roper’s argument was not, as he insisted immediately, that nothing had happened in Africa. It was (to use an old distinction) African history as disciplina that he was declining to acknowledge, not the goings-on—the res gestae—of the African past. “I do not deny that men existed in dark countries and dark centuries, nor that they had political life and culture, interesting to sociologists and anthropologists,” he hastened to add. No, the reason that the African past had nothing to teach us was that the discipline of history had “a purpose. We study it… to discover how we have come to be where we are.” In a world entirely dominated by “European techniques, European examples, European ideas,” this high purpose could best be achieved by the study of the European past. History, he seemed to say, is the story of the winners: and we have won.2
Hugh Trevor-Roper is an uncommon historian, but in his remarks on African history he was thinking with the crowd. Even the implicit exclusion from Africa of the great civilizations of the Nile is part of a long-entrenched European common attitude. Africa was tropical Africa, black Africa, tribal Africa, Africa without written records: it was the Africa that Hegel, in the Philosophy of History, had said was not a “historical continent” because it showed no development, no progress. So Professor Trevor-Roper was echoing here in plain Anglo-Saxon the idea that Hegel had expressed in high Teutonic when he asserted that real history was the story of the Idea, the progressive unfolding of the meaning of Being. In Africa, societies come and go, there are (in the Regius Professor’s phrase) “battles and conquests, dynasties and usurpations,” but it is all meaningless because it has no direction.
Yet even Herodotus, the father of Trevor-Roper’s disciplina, would have challenged these easy certainties. In fact, there are more written sources than were dreamt of in Hegel’s philosophy. Herodotus traveled as far south as present-day Aswan and told us something of Meroë (whose own language has still not been deciphered), a city whose glory days were not to come for another two centuries. Then there is a vast quantity of Egyptian records, many of them older than any European texts.3 There are also scraps of information about Africa in Hebrew in the Book of Kings; and the range of Greek and Latin sources increases rapidly.
Starting about halfway through the first millennium of the common era, there is an increasing cascade of documents in Coptic, Ge’ez, and Arabic. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), for example, combines a great deal of information about Africa with an all-encompassing theory of the dynamics of history.4 Then, in the age of European exploration, there is a growing body of writing in modern European languages, beginning with a Spanish “Moor” who wrote under the name Leo Africanus and published an account of his West African travels in Italian in 1550.
More importantly, the sixteenth century also produced the first histories written in Africa south of the Sahara, in Arabic, Hausa, Swahili, and eventually in other local languages. So there is a large corpus of written material to study in trying to construct the African past. Nevertheless, Hugh Trevor-Roper would have been right to insist that, by comparison with the materials available for his own work on English Reformation history, the sources were thin.
A younger generation of African historians took this relative paucity of written sources as a challenge. Over the last four decades modern African historians have developed an astonishing armory of new techniques.
To circumvent the limitations of the archival material, they had first to break the usual conventions of professional European and American historiography. Most Western scholars in the early Sixties, for example, doubted that there were any actual facts in the narratives that had been collected by anthropologists in the period beginning in 1890. Indeed it was an Africanist, G. P. Murdock, who wrote in 1959 that “indigenous oral traditions are completely undependable.”5 But starting in the early Sixties, with Jan Vansina’s pioneering Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology,6 African historiography developed techniques for interpreting what Vansina carefully called “testimony transmitted orally from one generation to another.”7 By a meticulous study of the forms of oral culture, its narrative and poetic conventions, and by checking, where possible, against external written sources, or archaeological or linguistic evidence, Vansina showed how oral sources could be used to extend our knowledge of the African past back for at least several centuries.
In order to go further, however, it was necessary for them to cross frontiers more substantial than those between written and spoken word. Africanists brought together techniques from archaeology, anthropology, botany, chemistry, ecology, economics, genetics, linguistics, sociology, and physics, assembling a hodgepodge of techniques to push back the boundaries of our historical understanding.
Dendrochronology and carbon-dating are now commonplace techniques. But many of the methods are less familiar. Historical linguistics, for example, has been combined with the study of genetics to tease out the broad history of African migrations, as Luca Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues have done in their monumental The History and Geography of Human Genes.8 Paleobotanists have been able to take plugs of the silt from the bottom of Lake Bosumtwi in Asante and work out, by looking at the pollen in the different layers, the patterns of climate and ecological change in that part of West Africa, as the boundary between savanna and forest shifts back and forth with changes in rainfall.9 Since agriculture and political organization are profoundly shaped by climate and ecology, information of this sort can be used in reconstructing aspects of social life.
These new kinds of evidence deepen our knowledge of the “historical” civilizations whose existence has been acknowledged in European historical writing since Herodotus; but we can also explore a human past before writing, before cities, before agriculture. The new work has pushed back the boundaries of our knowledge of the human past in Africa, not by centuries, or even by millennia, but by tens of thousands of years.
John Reader’s Africa: A Biography of the Continent exemplifies brilliantly the kind of understanding that the new work has made possible. (The elegance and humaneness of its style are his own happy contribution.) And if it is a loose, baggy monster of a book—with its fifty-five chapters, eight parts, and a bibliography of forty pages—it is, after all, about a loose, baggy continent. Africa’s outlines emerged in a process that started three and a half billion years ago, and it now contains 22 percent of the Earth’s land surface. “[T]he United States, China, India, and New Zealand could all fit within the African coastline, together with Europe from the Atlantic to Moscow and much of South America.” (Mr. Reader is very good at giving us an imaginative feel for his numbers.)
The book begins with a brisk but informative survey of the evidence about the geological formation of the continent, drawing attention to the distribution of minerals, and the geological forces that determine its current distribution of mountains, hills, and plains. As he pauses over each notable object, we can be sure that it will assume a significance in the later plot. The geological history explains, for example, the distribution of the continent’s famously rich reserves of gold and diamonds that have been so crucial in the recent economic history of southern Africa.
Similarly, as Mr. Reader sketches the early history of life and the development of our primate ancestors, he introduces us to evolutionary principles and, in particular, to the role of climate in evolution. The major force in shaping primate evolution has been competition; and because climate shapes the environment and determines the resources available within it, it alters the balance of forces both within and between species.
Mr. Reader, who is the author of an earlier work, Missing Links: The Hunt for Earliest Man, is well equipped to trace the development first of hominids, then of our own species Homo sapiens. The story includes an explanation of why, unlike all the other primates, we walk on two legs. Darwin had suggested that our bipedalism was the result of the adaptive advantages of freeing our hands to use tools, in general, and weapons, in particular. But the last few decades of fossil collection in Africa have established that bipedalism and tool-use have separate beginnings.10
Our unique two-legged gait, Mr. Reader suggests, may have been an evolutionary response to the need to travel large distances to keep up with migrating herds on Africa’s plains. To make his case, he starts with the story of Laetoli, in Tanzania, where paleontologists have found the earliest footprints of a bipedal hominid, produced some three and a half million years ago by the deposition of volcanic ash in an impression in the mud. He draws attention to the energetic inefficiency of our gait and to the very substantial reorganization of muscle and bone required to achieve it. And he informs us that there are physiological reasons why the transition from four- to two-legged motion must have been relatively fast. If the transition was both costly and difficult but still occurred swiftly, it follows from the logic of evolution that “the selection pressure which provoked the adaptation must have been intense.”
Only after he has set the argument up in this way does he go on to report on the results of the work of ecologists in the Serengeti (in Tanzania) who observed the availability of fresh carcasses along the migratory paths of the great herbivorous herds that travel across the plain in search of food, and concluded that the ecological situation was similar in the region of Laetoli. This allows him to reach the conclusion that there was a substantial advantage available to colonizing the niche of nomadic carcass-chaser at a place where and a time when the footprints of early bipeds have been found.
But there is more: for Reader then shows that what is nutritionally important about these carcasses, for physiological reasons, is not the lean meat but the marrow bones and braincases, which are precisely “the items most often left unconsumed when predators and scavengers have had their fill….” From experimental models we learn that bipedalism had another benefit: when our ancestors roamed the tropical savanna, less of their surface was exposed to the sun than would have been had they been quadrupeds. Our upright gait helps us stay cool when we wander during the daylight away from the shade of the forest.
Notice how diverse a range of considerations have been mobilized in this argument: the paleontological evidence for the onset of bipedalism, comparative anatomy, physiology, the physics of solar radiation, contemporary ecology and zoology, and the interpretation of archaeological evidence about landscape millions of years ago. And all are brought together within the frame of an encompassing evolutionary narrative.
The evolutionary account Mr. Reader provides is extremely diverting; and in charting a clear course through the murky waters of paleontological hypothesis he has done us a great service. Occasionally, the story is so persuasively told that one loses track of his own regular admissions that much of this account is speculation. Opinion is divided; others think otherwise. (I had forgotten, for example, until I looked back carefully, that the explanation of the association of bipedalism with nomadism is preceded, ten pages earlier, by the observation that “it could be that the bipedal gait evolved in the forest….”) What he does brilliantly, however, whatever the status of his conclusions, is to lay out the complex interaction between the different kinds of evidence that are needed to develop these hypotheses.
The earliest fossils of Homo sapiens are all African, and analyses of mitochondrial DNA and of the relations among human languages, along with the fossil record, all now point to a similar conclusion: until about 100,000 years ago the ancestors of all modern humans lived in Africa.
Then, in an event that was to be of enormous significance for the species, a small band of Homo sapiens—“possibly as few as fifty,” Mr. Reader suggests—crossed the isthmus at Suez and began the human population of the rest of the globe. Mr. Reader supports the estimate (numbers of this sort are all highly contestable) that the total population of Homo sapiens at the time of this momentous crossing was probably about a million. Yet within 90,000 years of the crossing there were human beings on every continent save Antarctica. The bipedalism that had adapted them to their nomadic life as scavengers and the large brain that allowed them to plan, develop tools, and adapt “culturally” to new environments allowed these wanderers to spread into new environments. While humans may not have left the Middle East for the next 50,000 years, once the outward movement began humans were well established in Europe by 40,000 years ago, in Australia 5,000 years later, and in China within another 5,000 years. 11 When, at the end of the nineteenth century, Italians arrived in Somalia, Englishmen in South Africa, or Frenchmen in Togo, they were meeting five-thousandth cousins!
As significant as this spread of population, Mr. Reader suggests, is the lopsidedness of its patterns of growth. While the human population has fluctuated widely in Africa in the last hundred millennia—often in response to long-term changes in rainfall—by the turn of the first millennium there were probably about 20 million Africans, fewer than half of whom lived in tropical Africa, while the population of the rest of the world was at least 200 million. Mr. Reader asks the obvious question: “Why did the migrant population grow so much faster?” The answer he gives reflects the evolutionary frame of his narrative.
He argues that population was held down in Africa precisely because Africa was the environment in which our species had evolved. That is, it was the place where the species that prey on us—our parasites and diseases—had evolved as well. Sleeping sickness, bilharzia, hookworms, and malaria have all had an important effect in constraining population and, equally important, in discouraging the growth of cities, whose high concentrations of population allow human diseases to spread best.
Throughout their evolutionary history humans have been opportunists, whose numbers were kept low by environmental factors for much of the time, but whose potential for population growth ensured they would multiply rapidly whenever circumstances permitted. In short, humans are adapted to maximize numbers and colonize new territory. In Africa this adaptation was dampened by debility and disease. Out of Africa, beyond the reach of the insects and organisms which had reinfected generation after generation, the multiplication of human numbers quickly assumed a hitherto unprecedented scale.
Of course, new human diseases evolved outside Africa, but their initial absence in the new environments gave the nomads a numerical head start. Outside Africa humans spread like kudzu in the American South, and for the same reason.
There are other obstacles to the growth of human population in Africa. The vagaries of the climate, for one thing, which has more than once led to the rise and fall of cultures. In the Nile valley, there was a great agricultural society that was inundated in an extended period of high rainfall between 12,000 and 11,500 years ago. In the Sahara, in a period of plentiful rain between 9,000 and 7,000 years ago, a cattle- and goat-herding culture developed, only to be pushed east to the Nile when the rains decreased and the desert returned. The general point is that climate, disease, and a host of other environmental difficulties make Africa, in the longue durée, a hard place to flourish.
Still, adversity has sometimes spawned technological advances. During the last major ice age, which reached its climax at the so-called glacial maximum about 18,000 years ago, there is evidence (in the form of polished bone points that could be used as needles) that suggests that Africans now, for the first time, began to make clothes. When the earth warmed again, as it did relatively swiftly, rainfall and vegetation returned and the human population bounced back.
Its members came out of the Ice Age with some ideas that went beyond the sartorial. They had developed a new tool, the digging stick, a sort of primitive hoe, and moved beyond older tool-making to create the arrow and the spearhead. Challenged by the enormous difficulties of their environment, human beings used their brains to develop new technologies. Mr. Reader sees these two new tools as emblematic. “The digging-stick represents the beginnings of agriculture and the trend towards a sedentary way of life.” More importantly, it shows human beings no longer simply enmeshed in the ecological web but living “at a stage removed from the web, still attached but able to modify the environment according to their perceptions of what was necessary.”
As for those arrows or spearheads—the “projectile points”—they represent “a refinement of the human capacity for taking life.” As conditions in the Sahara became more and more arid over the next few thousand years—the driest period was about 14,000 years ago—we find for the first time in the archaeological record the remains of a large number of people killed by such projectiles. The skeletons of men, women, and children—fifty-nine people in all—were found in a graveyard near Wadi Halfa (which now lies under the water of the lake created by the Aswan Dam); and many had projectile points embedded in their bones.
Violence on this scale, at this period, is not known from anywhere else in the world. It was almost certainly the consequence of a collapse in the proto-agricultural system which people had developed in that section of the Nile valley during the last glacial maximum.
With warfare and settlements we are recognizably close to our own side of history’s dawn.
The Bantu migrations throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, beginning perhaps 2,500 years ago, are also, in Mr. Reader’s account, inextricably bound up with a technological advance: namely, iron-smelting. He argues that iron and the hoe gave them agricultural superiority—not, as you might anticipate, military superiority.
More iron, more people, more food—this self-perpetuating cycle of supply and demand was in itself enough to revolutionize the economy of a continent. Surprisingly perhaps, it appears to have been a revolution in which weapons played little or no part. None have been found at archaeological sites from the period.
But the widespread adoption of iron-smelting was not without its costs: the process requires very high temperatures and lots of charcoal. This consumes so many trees that “it has been claimed that the development of centralized states in the Sahelian region of West Africa was, in fact, aborted by ecological deterioration resulting directly from deforestation by iron-smelters.”
Mr. Reader’s reconstruction of the continent’s “pre-historical” past is, then, an interdisciplinary tour de force, torn from a resisting past by imaginative students of everything from the ancient climate to human skeletal remains. But his book is, inevitably, more than a disinterested exercise. If, in its methods, the new African historiography is an implicit response to the challenge of those who said it could not be done, it responds politically to those who thought it was not worth doing.
As a result, even the most scholarly of the new African historiography sets itself against a tradition of disparagement—a tradition that has coalesced into a sort of bill of indictment. The prosecution alleged that there were no African civilizations that did not derive from outside Africa (“there is only the history of Europeans in Africa”); that Africans did not resist the slave trade; that they were too weak to resist the imposition upon them of empire. Against that background it is not surprising that much African historical writing amounts to a motion for the defense.
Finding the truth and defending your client do not always push you in the same direction. At its worst, the zeal to defend has led to the science-fiction fantasies of vulgar Afrocentrism. At its best, though, it has led to a sort of revisionist clarity.
In his fascinating intellectual memoir, Combats pour le sens,12 the Beninois philosopher Paulin Hountondji reports a conversation in August 1967 in Copenhagen with the doyen of African prehistorians, Cheikh Antah Diop (who is also the tutelary figure of American Afrocentrism). Professor Hountondji jocularly asked the great man how, in the context of the then vogue for “cultural revolution” à la Mao, he could justify his insistence on the Egyptian origin of Africa’s civilizations. And, anyway, what use was history, if what really mattered was the future?13
The response was luminously clear. The Chinese could…bracket their past. They would recover it in any case, when the time came. Who had questioned the antiquity, the historical depth, the splendors of their civilization? We others, Africans, by contrast, could not afford this luxury. After several centuries of the slave trade and of colonial lies, we had to rehabilitate our past. The role of history, in these conditions, is to make our peoples conscious of their continuity in time.14
At this point Trevor-Roper’s historiographical vision might be thought to be on Dr. Diop’s side: both assume that the practice of history requires a purpose. The best historians of Africa have taken pains, however, to make their scholarship convincing even to those who do not share their purpose. Their Case for the Defense is usually, so far as we can now tell, the Honest Truth.
Indeed, Mr. Reader’s book mounts a careful answer to the initial article of the indictment. First, it goes, Africans did not actually develop, as the prosecution has supposed, so little and so late. Settlement, agriculture, and the domestication of animals occurred early in Africa, as did monumental architecture in Egypt and Nubia; if writing came to Africa from the Fertile Crescent, that is probably also how it got to almost everywhere else. And, at any rate (here is the lawyerly step) to the extent that things that developed elsewhere did not develop in Africa, the African environment—the ecological web of climate and disease—was to blame.
It is perhaps worth observing that, as a matter of method, telling Africa’s story is not the ideal way to answer the continent’s sternest critics. For that purpose you need more than a proper accounting of what Africans did and didn’t do and of the resources—the plants, animals, and climate—available to them. You need also to compare these achievements and resources with parallel information from other zones of the world, other populations.
That, of course, is exactly what Jared Diamond did a couple of years ago with considerable ingenuity in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, which he neatly summarizes in a single sentence in his prologue: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”15 Mr. Reader’s account of African prehistory applies the same general principle of environmental causality without ever quite announcing so explicit a claim.
Once we enter “history” proper, with the rise of the great civilizations of the Nile, in Egypt and then in Nubia, the Case for the Defense becomes, for a period, relatively easier. Even those who deny Egypt a place as an African civilization cannot deny that the Nubians who conquered the empire in the twenty-fifth dynasty, for sixty years after 730 BCE, were Africans. When the Assyrian conquest of Egypt pushed them back to the south, the kings moved first to Napata and then (at about 600 BCE) to Meroë, where they were when Herodotus traveled to Aswan in the fifth century. Meroë’s monuments bear comparison with the best of Egypt’s, and excavations at Kerma, in Nubia, over the last two decades, have revealed a city whose roots go back at least to the third millennium BCE.16
The Romans knew of another African civilization that arose further east. At Aksum, in the northern Ethiopian highlands, we find a literate civilization, using gold coinage, with great monuments—including one monolith that is, at 33 meters and 7,600 tons, “arguably the largest single piece of worked stone ever hewn.” Aksum’s civilization grew within the influence of the Sabean kingdom (in present-day Yemen); from there it probably adopted both the plow, which was the basis of its advanced agriculture, and its script. Aksumite writing eventually produced the script known as Ge’ez, which is the ancestor of modern Ethiopian writing.
From the Roman sources (including Pliny) we know that Aksum was already an important trading center by the first century. It was connected through the Red Sea port of Adulis not only with Rome, but with “India, China, the Black Sea, and Spain,” and among its exports were “ivory, rhinoceros horn, hippopotamus hides, and slaves” as well as “gold dust, frankincense, civet-cat musk—and even live elephants.” In the fourth century, Aksum converted to Christianity, and it survived as a great center until the middle of the eighth century. In “the late sixth and early seventh centuries, war in the eastern Mediterranean reduced the market for luxury goods in the increasingly impoverished Roman Empire; then Persia gained control of South Arabia (threatening trade routes to India), and in the early eighth century Arab forces destroyed Adulis,” the Red Sea port through which they sent much of their trade. Then, as if they had not suffered misfortunes enough, after centuries of long rains, “the rainfall pattern reverted to the single season that had prevailed before Aksum rose to wealth and power.”
And so the population moved into central Ethiopia, whose soils were still arable, only to reemerge on the pages of history in the thirteenth century as the modern Ethiopian state.
In writing of Aksum, Mr. Reader’s usually implicit argument against Africa’s indicters becomes explicit:
Since Eurocentric predispositions have fostered a belief that any evidence of civilization found on the continent must have been introduced, it is important to note that Aksum is a defining example of an indigenous civilization and state-formation in Africa. Its roots are set deep in the indigenous landscape, sustaining a system that remains viable to this day.
Not, of course, that he wants to ascribe this indigenous triumph to the natural superiority of the Aksumites. In explaining the success of Aksum, Mr. Reader, true to his fundamental principles, returns to the natural environment. “In tropical regions, altitudes of over 2,000 metres are particularly conducive to the evolution of ecosystems that humans are able to exploit.” There is no malaria, no bilharzia, no tsetse fly. There is plentiful rainfall, produced as wet air rises over the highlands. In Ethiopia, these climatic and ecological advantages were combined with distinctive and valuable plants (including coffee) and animals, kept apart from Africa’s other flora and fauna by the peculiarities of geography.
Aksum is a civilization of a familiar sort: monarchs, monuments, cities, writing, gold. But in West Africa, starting sometime in the first 500 years BCE, an urban civilization began to grow in the inland delta of the Niger River that is, as Mr. Reader describes it, a good deal less familiar. For something like one and a half millennia, in the city of Jenne-jeno, in an extremely unreliable environment, a complex intersecting network of farming, herding, and fishing peoples survived in relationships of mutual dependence. Mr. Reader shows how the ebb and flow of the river produces an ecosystem in which farmers, fishers, and pastoralists must shift their strategies with the seasons.
What is impressive about the social system of the Niger’s inland delta is that it persisted peacefully for so long. There are not many examples in the ethnographic literature of ethnically distinct peoples, deeply dependent, in their different ways, on the same ecosystem, living on (and, so to speak, off) the very same land. The oral histories of the delta people recount conflict; but it was not common. And one reason seems to have been that they understood that their mutual interdependence depended on keeping to a balance of traditional mutual obligations.
The civilization of the inland delta of the Niger is a new item on the list of historic cultures in West Africa. Until what we have learned from excavations at Jenne, Western knowledge of the large-scale civilizations of medieval West Africa came to us through the writings of the Arabs. From them, we knew that the medieval empire of Ghana, whose fame as “‘the land of gold’ had reached Baghdad”17 by the end of the eighth century, was followed in the eleventh century by Mali, in the fourteenth by Kanem-Bornu, and a century later by Songhay. The Arabic accounts see these successions as the result of battle and conquest, reflecting, in Mr. Reader’s view, their own obsessions. His story of ancient Ghana’s rise concentrates, by contrast, not on conquering kings but on trade.
When Berber-speaking nomads introduced the camel into trans-Saharan trade sometime in the first half of the first millennium CE, the commodity they took south was salt. What came north included ivory, the caffeine-rich kola nut, and gold. In the later Middle Ages, Africa accounted for something like two thirds of world gold production, and it was the largest source of supply from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries.
This demand for gold was the force that drove the growth of states in West Africa: it did so even though Africans themselves did not, by and large, value gold as highly as they valued copper and iron. As a result, Mr. Reader is skeptical of Arab disquisitions on ancient Ghana, with their talk of kings who adorned themselves (and caparisoned their horses) with gold. “Though locally abundant, the metal served no practical, ritual, or even ornamental purpose in the affairs of people in sub-Saharan Africa until demand from the north reached the region, and even then it remained solely an item of trade. The king and his court were ancient Ghana’s shop window.”
Mr. Reader makes a good deal less of these medieval empires than is normal in the writings of Africa’s best-known defenders. Cheikh Antah Diop and his allies have rested their case on the foundations of monumental, literate, urbanized, hierarchical civilizations. And so, you might think, if Mr. Reader does not join the chorus, this must be one of those places where the Honest Truth has trumped any sort of partisanship. But perhaps Mr. Reader has not so much changed sides as changed strategies: his case is based not on Trevor-Roper’s “battles and conquests, dynasties and usurpations,” but on a vision that is both less bellicose and more democratic.
Mr. Reader’s view is that prior to the fifteenth century, when Portuguese trade began a process that, as he says, “harnessed Africa to Europe,” the continent was one of small settlements and low population density, both of which reflected the ecological constraints that had shaped African life for tens of thousands of years. There were also some less-settled societies—like the !Kung of southern Africa and the Berbers of northern Africa, nomads in arid areas, or the hunter-gatherer ancestors of the Mbuti of the Congo rain forests. But there were no large towns, even in the few places where there were states. Sixteenth-century Ethiopia was ruled by a Christian emperor, but a Portuguese visitor in the 1520s found no town of more than 1,600 households.
When states begin, Mr. Reader suggests, it is always as the result of “external trade and foreign contacts”—first with the Arabs, later with Europeans. (He has little interest in fabled trade cities like Timbuktu.) In sum:
The archaeological evidence in-dicates that while communities throughout Africa maintained strong kinship and trading links over wide areas prior to their contact with external influences, the centralized and coercive regional control so typical of early state-formation elsewhere was not a feature of African social development.
The argument here relies on the same image of Africa as a hard place to live that has governed his account of pre-history: in this harsh world, the surplus population that makes for city civilizations was never available.
Mr. Reader’s vision of a continent of peaceniks has undoubted appeal—but is it the only plausible interpretation of the evidence? Those of us familiar with standard accounts of African history are bound to find this all a mite surprising. Divine kingship, for example, is often said to be an African institution; and if, like me, you went to primary school in Ghana, you know that our state was named after one a millennium earlier. You know, too, the story, which comes from reading the Arab sources, of ancient Ghana’s succession by Mali and Songhay. Mr. Reader would have us give up these glorious medieval empires (with the oral epics they have left to us) for a rather more Fabian view of our ancestors; and yet the only real arguments that he makes against the conventional historiography are less than wholly convincing.
The first begins with the observation that in Buganda—the East African kingdom that lies within modern Uganda—the “only word which approximates a European understanding of the word reign is mirembe, which actually means a period of peace between succession struggles.” Mr. Reader makes much of this fact. In the absence of primogeniture (which is, indeed, not much of a feature of other African political systems) succession will often have to be “decided by warlike means. All of which suggests that the reigns of kings were aberrant eruptions from the standard pattern of events in Africa, provoked by unusual circumstances (such as high levels of food production or external influences).”
This is not a very good argument. First, there is the fact (which he admits) that there are, in Africa’s traditions, other procedures than primogeniture for organizing succession. But, second, if kingship is an aberrant eruption, why would succession need to be decided by any means, warlike or not? And why would the sort of rulership he imagines be worth fighting for?
Mr. Reader has made his task harder for himself here by his insistence on staying within the bounds of one large narrative, with Africa as its single subject. A more modest argument could begin by distinguishing two Africas, one of Aksum and Ghana, where some form of state-formation really did occur, and really did have (as he admits of Aksum) roots deep in the African landscape. The other Africa (larger, perhaps, and certainly of equal interest and importance) remained held together by connections much looser than any that could count as the bonds of a state. If you are obliged to insist on the importance of the latter in a generalizing account of Africa, you are constrained either to explain the former away, as he does with Ghana, or to treat them as exceptions. And so, having told us about Jenne-jeno and Great Zimbabwe, both of which were, as he says, “relatively large (but still not very large) urban-style communities” that look like the cores of states, he must say that “they arose where special conditions had pertained” and add that “even here the influence of foreign trade cannot be ruled out.”
Why not say, simply, that relatively large urban communities are rare in pre-colonial Africa, that they arise in special circumstances, often associated with trade, and then move on? I think the answer has to do with the fact that Mr. Reader really is concerned to make a Case for the Defense: he believes that the low-density, small-settlement cultures that were the norm were also not very warlike. What kept the population low, in his view, was disease, the vagaries of climate, the depredations of elephants in the grain fields—in short, the rigors of nature, not the murderous habits of the indigenous people. In his view, the violence of warfare, at least as a regular matter, begins with outside contact.
Mr. Reader would appear to be in the minority here. Drawing upon such reputable scholars as Jan Vansina and Georges Balandier, Adam Hochschild has recently offered the following description of the Kingdom of the Kongo, in the prologue to King Leopold’s Ghost, his fascinating account of the creation of the Belgian Congo by that strange, greedy, cruel monarch Leopold, King of the Belgians:
The Kingdom of the Kongo was roughly three hundred miles square, comprising territory that today lies in several countries. Its capital was the town of Mbanza Kongo—mbanza means “court”—on a commanding hilltop some ten days’ walk inland from the coast…. In 1491…an expedition of awed Portuguese priests and emissaries made this ten-day trek and set up housekeeping as permanent representatives of their country in the court of the Kongo king.
The Kingdom of the Kongo had been in place for at least a hundred years before the Portuguese arrived. Its monarch, the ManiKongo, was chosen by an assembly of clan leaders. Like his European counterparts, he sat on a throne, in his case made of wood inlaid with ivory….
In the capital, the king dispensed justice, received homage, and reviewed his troops under a fig tree in a large public square….18
In Mr. Reader’s account, on the other hand, the Kingdom of the Kongo which the Portuguese found when they arrived in the late fifteenth century was “a loose confederation of villages linked by language, kinship, and trade” with a “concentration of economic activity at a place called Mbanza Kongo….” He maintains that the Kongo monarchy and state did not really exist until the Portuguese came, introducing slave-trading and converting the ManiKongo, Nzinga Mbemba, into Afonso I, King of the Kongo. But though Portuguese trade plainly transformed the situation significantly, to insist that Mbanza Kongo was not a capital but a “concentration of economic activity,” or that Afonso appears not out of a tradition of kingship but out of a “ruling elite” is, I think, a tendentious rendering of the evidence.
Indeed, Mr. Reader himself refers to a centralized, stratified state before 1175 CE at Mapungubwe in southern Africa, and agrees that the accumulations of vast cattle herds there created a “kind of surplus or economic wealth that was worth fighting for and defending.” And he also discusses the growth, just after the change in climate that destroyed Mapungubwe, of Shona states further to the north, one of which built Great Zimbabwe. (Both these societies developed around cattle, even though they traded gold: so it will not do to see them simply as the result of the external stimulus of trade.) All of which is to say that Mr. Reader’s own book contains enough evidence to call into question his claim that states (including states with “centralized, coercive control”) must come from outside.
But this does not settle the general question whether Africa, prior to its having been “harnessed to Europe,” was substantially less warlike. For there is no doubt that Africa’s population density before 1500 was (as it remains) relatively low; that most of the monarchies we now recognize grew up after European contact, on the backs of European arms and the profits of European trade; and that large cities only developed in Africa in the period after World War II.
Mr. Reader identifies the central difficulty of method here. If “history” means the period of written sources, then Africa’s yoking to Europe coincides with the transition from pre-history to history. Isn’t it inevitable that in the earlier period we shall find ourselves appealing to explanatory forces of climate and ecology—the things that the archaeological evidence permits us to see—while in the later period we shall find ourselves discussing warfare and other forms of human action? In societies whose weapons are spears and arrows and clubs—all of which can be used for hunting or keeping predators from your flocks and elephants out of your fields—what would archaeological evidence of warfare look like? The sorts of remains that might provide forensic evidence simply rarely survive outside the arid regions where, for example, the massacre at Wadi Halifa in northern Sudan was found.
Mr. Reader insists that he is not motivated here by a desire to prettify Africa’s past:
“Merrie Africa,” like Merrie England, was always a myth. Dispersal, insufficient manpower, or the lack of anything worth fighting for, certainly would have repressed the human propensity for conflict, but hardship was widespread nonetheless. And hardship, though revealed in the archaeological record only by the implications of climate and potential food shortages, is unmistakable in the documentary record.
But in suggesting this new picture of a continent of low-density settlement living at peace, he is arguing against a picture of traditional social relations that is found in many oral histories and in the accounts of African life suggested by early written sources.
In Mr. Reader’s interpretation, the arrival of the Portuguese changed the direction of African history: hierarchical states and cruel warfare grew in association with the Atlantic slave trade. Dealing with this morally fraught subject, Mr. Reader sifts cautiously through the evidence, beginning with the obvious fact that slavery was widespread in Africa long before first Arabs and then Portuguese began to export slaves from the continent. He summarizes the vast range of forms that slavery took in Africa before the Atlantic slave trade, seeing the trading of “rights in persons” as, in part, a response to Africa’s low population densities.
Thus, the roots of Africa’s servile institutions lie in the need for wives and children, the wish to enlarge one’s kin group, and the desire to have clients, dependents, servants, and retainers. Indeed, in circumstances where the opportunities for converting agricultural surpluses into material wealth were limited, control over people was an alternative option.
In the early sixteenth century, Portuguese traders on Africa’s Gold Coast (what is now Ghana) sought to acquire directly the gold that had previously come to them across the Sahara. But there was a problem. The Akan people of that region had a limited interest in “cloth and sundry goods” and other “material” wealth and its climate was not suitable for horses. Moreover the Pope had forbidden the sale of weapons to unbelievers.
Perversely, however, the Portuguese discovered there was an African commodity that the Akan would readily accept in exchange for their gold; furthermore, it was a commodity that was abundantly available to the Portuguese a relatively short distance (up to 800 km) along the coast: slaves.
The slaves were sold to the Portuguese by Benin and Igbo people on what became known as the Slave Coast. Portugal’s slave-traders began, in large measure, as middlemen in an African trade.
The Akan were already engaged in state-building and expansion, driven in part by trade to the north, from which they were already acquiring slaves. These slaves were not only pressed into use in the panning and mining of gold; they were used to expand the labor available for agriculture and forest-clearance. In the first third of the sixteenth century from ten to twelve thousand people were shipped from the Slave Coast across the Bight of Benin to the Gold Coast.19
Only in the early seventeenth century did the trade across the Atlantic really take off, expanding from a few thousand a year before 1600 to nearly 19,000 a year in the seventeenth century and 60,000 a year in the eighteenth. “Even at the end of the nineteenth century (ninety years after abolition) it was still running at an average of 33,000 a year.” These slaves came from three major sources. Some were captives, taken in war. A second group were kidnapped by slave-raiders. And a third group were people from the same societies that sold them: criminals, dependents, people acquired from their families in exchange for loans—so-called debt pawns. (As societies that lived off the slave trade arose, the distinction between those kidnapped and those taken in warfare is not always easy to make.)
Between the mid-fifteenth and the late nineteenth centuries, perhaps as many as 13 million people left Africa and were submitted to the appalling conditions of the Atlantic slave trade, with 10 to 20 percent of them dying in the infamous Middle Passage. Millions more were traded across the Sahara or the Red Sea, or from the East Coast of Africa across the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic. The historian Patrick Manning has suggested that as many as 21 million people were captured in West Africa between 1700 and 1850, to produce the 9 million or so slaves who left the region in the Atlantic slave trade in that period; millions died, and as many as 7 million never left, remaining as slaves in Africa.
Mr. Reader, reporting the historical debate about the extent to which African societies were affected by the slave trade, comes down in support of the “transformation thesis,” which holds that “the slave trade transformed African societies from whatever they might have been into societies that relied on slavery more extensively than ever before.” Without the slave trade, he calculates, Africa’s population might have been anything from 40 to 100 percent larger in 1850 than the 50-odd million that it actually was.
More than this, Africa emerged from the slave trade with a vast internal slave population, produced in large measure by the societies which had grown up around the trade, and whose political economies could not adjust to the collapsing external demand. Societies that had become used to using slaves not only in trade but also in agriculture and mining and in domestic work did not suddenly cease to have a use for their labor. Nor did the end of the slave trade give them any reason to change the slave status. (In the United States, after all, the slave trade was ended officially long before emancipation.) By the end of the nineteenth century, between a third and a half of the population living in “the great swathe of Sahelian grasslands extending from the Atlantic coast of Senegal to the shores of Lake Chad” were slaves. As Mr. Reader writes,
The sympathetically disposed may describe the forms of slavery practiced in Africa prior to the advent of the slave trade as benign strategies which offered the needy a refuge from the vagaries of unpredictable ecological circumstances. The slave trade and its aftermath, which left Africa shackled to the developing industrial economies of Europe and America, transformed those marginal features of African society into central institutions upon which the economic viability of entire communities was founded.
The “sympathetically disposed” are advancing the Case for the Defense by making a counterattack: Europeans made African slavery worse. Mr. Reader’s step falters a little here, because he accepts the terms of the indictment. If we see slavery as a response to the environment, it was still a response with winners and losers, and there is blame to be placed, in Africa and outside it.
As we enter the colonial period, it gets yet harder to bring the continent’s history into a single picture. But the book continues to cover a vast number of issues—they include the enormous shifts in population and ethnicity in southern Africa in the nineteenth century, in which both slavery and European settlement had an important part; the extraordinary depredations of colonialism in the Belgian Congo that are the subject of Adam Hochschild’s recent, haunting book; the first German genocide of the Herero in Namibia, with its chilling anticipations of the Nazi Holocaust; the Rwandan genocides, and, in a final moment of hope, the creation of the new South Africa.
These final pages offer the last few centuries in abbreviated vignettes; but the real achievement of the book is to show us how to read between the absences of the early record. The archaeological view, though far more detailed than you might suppose, is still a view from afar. Close up, among the details of the recent past, it is hard to focus on a single Africa: the challenge is to write a unitary biography of a person with a galloping case of multiple personality syndrome.
But even in the recent past, Mr. Reader keeps visible the ecological challenge of life in Africa, especially before the availability of modern drugs. In the late nineteenth century, for example, as Africans were coming face to face with imperial Europe, rinderpest killed “between 90 and 95 per cent of all cattle in Africa” over about a decade. The result was that the pastoral cultures that had grown into a complex interdependence with their cattle were ill-equipped to resist colonization. And the disease had other long-term consequences. “In East Africa in particular, areas which had once supported large and relatively prosperous populations of herders and farmers were transformed into tsetse-infested bush and woodland inhabited only by wild animals.” As Mr. Reader observes laconically, the “tsetse-infested game parks” of eastern Africa, which have come to be regarded by safari-goers and conservationists as the model natural African environment, were made possible by a cattle epidemic a century ago.
An interplay of disciplines is required to understand the effects of the rinderpest epidemic—with climate, epidemiology, ecology, economics, and politics all having their part—and Mr. Reader’s account draws on the best in African historiography. Even where we have archival evidence, it can usefully be supplemented by a rich appreciation of social and natural science. Where students of the African past have been led willy-nilly, others, even in the world of rich archives, might do well to follow; and Mr. Reader shows how productive it is, once you have learned this lesson, to apply it even to the recent past, where the rising tide of documents could easily divert us.
Still, by the end, we have inevitably come a long way from the evolutionary narrative with which we began. Evolution only explains long-term changes in human life, because genetic adaptation occurs on the scale of many generations. But, of course, biology can be significant in other ways than genetic ones, and there is no reason to leave our biological spectacles at the dawn of history. And, in this year of El Niño and Hurricane Mitch, with their substantial impact on local economies, it should not be necessary to remind us how climate still shapes history.
Hugh Trevor-Roper’s animadversions about Africa were really only an aside: his wider polemic was directed against those many among his professional colleagues who believed that scientific historical study must understand each historical place and period on its own terms. So, those who wish to defend Africa can take heart from the fact that, on the major issue, Trevor-Roper is on their side: as Mr. Reader’s book shows so decisively, without the study of the African past no one can understand “how we”—we humans—“have come to be where we are.”
December 17, 1998
Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Rise of Christian Europe,” The Listener, November 28, 1963, p. 871. ↩
Or, as Hegel might have put it, “the Owl of Minerva is our pet.” ↩
“The oldest known historical record pertaining to Nubia belongs to the dawn of history itself. It is a pictorial representation found on a rocky outcrop near the Second Cataract, apparently commemorating a military success of the First Dynasty Pharaoh Jer (or Zer) over a local foe.” (William Y. Adams, Nubia: Corridor to Africa [Princeton University Press, 1977], pp. 66-67.) That picture has been there now for some 5,000 years. ↩
J. Ki-Zerbo, editor, UNESCO General History of Africa, Vol. 1, “Methodology and African Pre-History” (University of California Press, 1981). ↩
Cited in Ki-Zerbo, editor, UNESCO General History of Africa, Vol. 1, p. 60. It would be ungenerous not to observe that, taken at face value, the stories narrated in oral traditions are, indeed, often far from the literal truth. Method in oral history, like method in the analysis of the written archive, involves reconstructing events from past representations of the past, even when the representations are themselves false. ↩
First published as De la tradition orale: essai de méthode historique (Tervuren: Mémoire no. 36 du Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, 1961). ↩
Jan Vansina, “Oral Tradition and its Methodology” in Ki-Zerbo, editor, UNESCO General History of Africa, Vol. 1, p. 143. ↩
See Luca Cavalli-Sforza, The History and Geography of Human Genes (Princeton University Press, 1994). ↩
This work was described to me by Professor Dan Livingstone many years ago. See, for example, J. Malley, “The African Rain-Forest Vegetation and Paleoenvironments during Late Quaternary,” Climatic Change, Vol. 19, Nos. 1-2 (September 1991), pp. 79-98. ↩
“Bipedalism preceded stone-tool production by at least 1.2 million years, and hominids were making stone tools for at least 700,000 years before there was any substantial increase in brain size.” Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent, p. 61. ↩
These estimates come from Cavalli-Sforza, The History and Geography of Human Genes. ↩
Cotonou, Republic of Benin: Les Editions du Flamboyant, 1997. ↩
“La ‘révolution culturelle,’ on s’en souvient, faisait alors rage au pays de Mao et prétendait, entre autres objectifs, faire table rase du passé. Me faisant sciemment l’avocat du diable, je demandai au ‘grand frère,’ un peu sur le mode de chahut, ce qu’il en pensait et comment il pouvait justifier, dans ce contexte, son insistence pour faire admettre l’origine égyptienne des civilisations nègres. Au fond, ajoutai-je, à quoi sert l’histoire, si la seule dimension qui vaille est celle du futur?” In Hountondji, Combats pour le sens, p. 169. ↩
“La réponse fut d’un clarté limpide. Les Chinois peuvent, à la limite, et jusqu’à un certain point, mettre entre parenthèses leur passé; ils le retrouveront toujours de toutes manières, le moment venu: qui a jamais mis en doute l’ancienneté, la profondeur historique, les splendeurs de leur civilisation? Nous autres, Africains, par contre, ne pouvons nous offrir ce luxe. Après plusieurs siècles de trait négrière et de mensonge colonial, il nous faut réhabiliter notre passé. Le rôle de l’histoire, dans ces conditions, est de donner à nos peuples conscience de leur continuité dans le temps.” In Hountondji, Combats pour le sens, pp. 168-170. Translation mine. ↩
As those who have read Professor Diamond’s book will recall, his account of early human evolution differs from the one that I have borrowed from Mr. Reader, since he says Homo sapiens are “less than fully human” until we have developed such things as hunting, fishing, standardized stone tools, and jewelry, all of which he thinks began about 50,000 years ago with what he calls the “Great Leap Forward.” The criteria of full humanity here are cultural—which strikes me as appropriate. In humans, our “software” and cultural practices are as central to our nature as our biology. Let me repeat here my earlier observation: much is speculation, opinion is divided, others think otherwise. ↩
Professor Charles Bonnet of the University of Geneva, who is excavating this site, has told me in a recent fax: “The earliest remains found at the site are those belonging to the Pre-Kerma settlement dated by C-14 as well as ceramics around 3000-2800 BC.” And he adds that the Kerma area can certainly be “called an urban center from the Ancient Kerma period (2500-2050 BC) onwards.” As a result, Kerma is now arguably the oldest known urban center in Africa and one of the oldest excavated urban sites in the world. ↩
Ki-Zerbo, editor, UNESCO General History of Africa, Vol. 1, p. 630. ↩
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), pp. 8-9. ↩
Egypt, Aksum, Jenne, Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, and the Akan state of Asante will all figure prominently in a series to appear on PBS next fall entitled The Wonders of the African World. ↩