Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Early Human History in Africa

So a few months ago there was this guy on Jon Stewart, he had written a book about evolution or something.  I don't actually remember what the book was but at one point he said, "The human race has lived in Africa longer than it has lived anywhere else.  We lived there for about a million years."

Technically I knew that, in the sense of, I knew the human race evolved in Africa.  I'm still a bit fuzzy about the number of million years involved.  But somehow that comment made me think about the actual history involved, and I wanted to learn more.  It's hard to find information on this period though.

These are the books that I read:
  1. Origins Reconsidered, by Richard Leakey, 1993 (a sequel to Origins, published 1982.)  This book is an overview of evolution, and it's not what I actually wanted to read about.  Like I said, I already know about evolution.  I want to know what happened afterwards.  But it's still a fascinating book, especially when he talks about all the things we don't know.  Apparently we have found just enough fossils to be able to say that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa but we don't have anything like a complete timeline - there are huge gaps - and the fossils that have been found have not all been categorized into species. There were a series of species between the non-human ancestor of apes and humans, and Homo sapiens itself, and all of the other hominid species died out.  Anyway, paleoanthropologists say things like "We don't know which of these species was an ancestor of Homo sapiens" and "We don't know if these two fossils come from the same species or not." You'd think they would know.  One problem is that everybody wants to discover a new species.

    Leakey himself makes interesting reading.  He went through a long period of rebellion against his parents' legacy, he wasn't going to follow in their footsteps, but then he did.  And I agree with most of his opinions, which is always pleasant.
  2. I read some book about African rock paintings, because I know rock paintings are old, but the problem was that this book was old too.  It resolutely refused to date anything, except the most recent paintings.  The most informative part of it was some gruesome descriptions of genocide practiced against native South Africans by the Boers.
Then I discovered the works of Graham Connah, an archeologist based in Australia who has been studying Africa for at least four decades.  Even his stuff didn't go back much further than three or four thousand years, but it was still completely amazing. His goal is to show, as he puts it in one of his books, that "Africans didn't all live in huts."  He also addresses the related myth that when there was any sign of civilization in Africa it must have come from outside. 

Having said that, one of the signs of a vibrant civilization is that it interacts with its neighbors, and the history of interaction between Africa and the rest of the world is also fascinating.  The third myth about Africa is that it was "undiscovered" until Europeans (which in this case means Christians) found it.  This is an injustice to other parts of the world besides Africa.  One of the things I learned from reading these books is that most of the coast of East Africa engaged in trade with Arabia, India and even with China.  I was also reminded that North Africa has long been part of the Mediterranean community.

I liked these books, not only for the reasons above, but also because I like reading about stuff.  Physical objects.  They built dams.  They worked in iron, bronze, gold, copper and silver.  They had elaborate burials.  They had coinage!  (Some African cultures made their own coins.  Other sites yielded coins from as far away as China.)  They had houses with indoor toilets!  (Connah is very conscientious about mentioning places that had good sanitary facilities.)

These are the books by Graham Connah that I read, in order of how relevant they were to my subject:
  1. Forgotten Africa: an introduction to its archaeology, 2004.  In some ways this book is unavoidably superficial.  It sets out to cover 4 million years of history, on a huge continent, in less than 200 pages.  But it was the only book I could get ahold of which contained any information on the time period I was interested in.  And although it is a series of vignettes, they are magnificent vignettes.

    I will mention only two bits.  First, giraffes in China!  About 600 years ago the Chinese sent an expedition to Africa and brought back a giraffe.  You can see a picture of it here.  Second, on page 43 Connah gives this example of the limitations of archeological evidence:
"It is remarkable that the earliest evidence for cultivated sorghum [in Africa] is only about 2000 years old.  This indigenous African cereal must have been domesticated much earlier, because it was already being cultivated in Saudi Arabia and India, where it was not indigenous, some 4500 years ago."
  1. African Civilizations: an archaeological perspective, 1st ed., 1987 (a second edition was published in 2001, but InterLibrary Loan sent me the old one.)  This is a slightly more focused version of the book listed above, in that it covers only 3,000 years and eight specific areas, in about the same number of pages.  If you are impressed by cultures that were able to build huge buildings, you should read about Ethiopia and Great Zimbabwe.  The country Zimbabwe was named after some large towers, called "zimbabwes," built of unmortared stone on a plateau in southeast Africa.  Fans of Egypt (and who doesn't love Ancient Egypt?) might be interested to learn about Meroe, a city-state that existed at about the same time somewhat further up the Nile.
  2. Three thousand years in Africa: man and his environment in the Lake Chad region of Nigeria, 1981. This was the most "academic" of the three books and I have to admit that I only skimmed it.  He does mention that even though the area he excavated contained nothing that was older than 3,000 years, nearby sites yielded artifacts that were at least 39,000 years old, and he's certain that his area must have been inhabited by humans for just as long.
Obviously I cannot do justice to the history of the human race in Africa in one blog post.  But there was one other thing  that struck me.  According to Graham Connah, one of Africa's major exports has always been slaves.  I have the impression that the European slave trade decimated Africa - how is it, then, that thousands of years of human trafficking apparently didn't make much of a dent?  Were the numbers not really that large?  We're told that the Christians needed slaves for labor on their American colonies.  But the interesting thing about that is that Islam colonized Asia too. Did they not need slaves?  Was there some essential difference between Christian and Muslim colonization?  That question applies to Africa too, of course.

I hope to do more research on the topic of Africa. There seems to be an awful lot we don't know.

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