A History of Africa
Chapter 1: THE ORIGINAL AFRICANS
This chapter covers the following topics:
For many centuries Africa and its people seemed strange to the rest of the world. Generations of traders came by ship or by caravan, to purchase Africa's wealth in gold, ivory, and human beings, but their reports produced more mysteries than they solved. Where did the Africans come from? Why did they look so different from other men, and have different customs? Eventually the Europeans concluded that the Africans were savages, inferior human beings, and they couldn't help being the way they are.
That answer lasted until the African nations achieved their independence in the middle of the twentieth century. Since that time scholars have re-discovered Africa's history and heritage. The so-called "dark continent," it turns out, is not just a land of endless savagery and chaos. Its people have a history of their own, and have created cultures, nations, and art that often compare favorably to what other cultures have produced.
Africa can also be difficult to understand because it is such a diverse place. The local terrain, climate and ecology vary tremendously from one place to another. For example, near the mouth of the Red Sea is a lowland called the Danakil Depression, a desert of fearsome heat, decorated with volcanoes and strange rock formations; it looks a lot like Mordor, the land of evil in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." However, the Danakil Depression is also part of the Great Rift Valley, the same geological feature that contains Africa's highest mountains and the much-more-pleasant East African lakes. The people of Africa are also more diverse, in race, tribe and culture, than on any other continent. Most likely this happened as a combination of isolation and the need to adapt to widely varying conditions. No place, no culture in Africa can be cited as typical of the whole continent.(1)
Most Africans were, and still are, descendants of Ham, one of Noah's three sons. They all migrated out of the Middle East before 3000 B.C., following more than one path. The families of Mizraim and Phut (two of Ham's sons) took the most direct route, across the Sinai peninsula into Egypt and from there they followed the Mediterranean coast all the way to Morocco. Today they make up the North African peoples, the two largest groups being the Egyptians and the Berbers (the latter include the Tuareg, the nomads of the deep Sahara). The Berbers call themselves Imazighen, meaning noble or free men; the name we use comes from the Latin Barbari, or barbarians. Linguists lump all North African groups together under the name Hamites.
South of the "Hamite" realm a different world existed. The people living here came from another son of Ham, Cush, and they got there by traversing Arabia and crossing the Red Sea to Ethiopia, presumably at the Red Sea's narrowest point, the Bab el Mandeb. Moving both south and west, individual families and tribes got separated from their kinsmen. Isolation caused genetic drift to set in, and the Cushites differentiated into four distinct racial groups: the Bantus, Nilotics, Pygmies and Bushmen.
Of those four groups the Bantus have been by far the most successful. At the beginning of history they lived in the forest and bush country of West Africa, from Cape Verde to the Cameroon mts. They are the Africans most of us are familiar with: tall, black-skinned and broad-nosed. Around 1 A.D. they started to migrate into the rest of sub-Saharan Africa; this is arguably the most important event in African history.
The Nilotics or Nilo-Saharans are also tall and black but thinner in both body and face. At first they only lived in the middle third of the Nile valley (modern Sudan), but later they spread south to the equator and as far west as Lake Chad. Today they are found all along the Sahara's southeastern fringe; modern examples of Nilotics include the Somalis, Nubians, Masai and Tutsi (also called Watusi).
The Pygmies live in the rain forests of the Congo (formerly the Zaire) basin. They really are small, averaging 4' 6" in height; their skin is brown to black, their noses are broad and their hair is scanty. The Bushmen are just a little bit bigger (averaging 5' 2"), with yellow-brown skin and hair that grows in tufts, creating a "peppercorn" look. They speak the world's most unusual languages, using clicking sounds along with vowels and consonants. Like the Pygmies, the Bushmen have been largely displaced from their lands by the Bantu migrations. Today the Bushmen are confined to the Kalahari desert in the southwest, but at one point they had all of eastern and southern Africa to themselves.
Finally mention should be made of two ethnic sub-groups that are special cases. The Hottentots of Namibia are a mixture of Bushmen and some other race, presumably the Bantu. Today's Ethiopians (called Cushites by anthropologists) have a number of Semitic features, such as long noses and wavy hair, because more than one Arab tribe came across the Red Sea in the first millennium B.C. However, they are darker than the Semites or Hamites found elsewhere, no doubt because of interbreeding with their black neighbors.
Though wetter than the Sahara, very little of sub-Saharan Africa is hospitable to man. The grasslands are not lush American-style prairies, but tropical savannas. Baked for six months by the sun, then leached by six months of heavy rains, the topsoil is too poor to grow most crops. No long mountain ranges rise in Africa to wring moisture reliably from passing air masses. The mountains that exist have an enticing green color, but are covered with scrub and thorn instead of grass.
Rivers meander without going in a straight direction anywhere, and because most of Africa is on a plateau, they crash in tremendous waterfalls that interrupt navigation. Only the Nile and the Niger have long, navigable stretches through open (non-forested) countryside, which is why Africa's largest kingdoms have appeared on the banks of those rivers. In some places the plateau and clay soil combine to produce a feature almost never seen elsewhere--inland deltas. Here rivers break up to form several smaller streams, which meander for a while before coming back together into one river. Examples of inland deltas include the upper Niger, between Jenné and Timbuktu in Mali; the Sudd on the White Nile, and the Okavango delta in northern Botswana. A similar environment exists on Lake Chad, where masses of vegetation break off to form floating islands, regularly changing the outline of that lake's shore. Only the delta on the Niger has been fertile enough to feed a civilization (see Chapters 4 & 5). By contrast, the Sudd is a swamp that no one could pass through for most of history, and while the area around the Okavango is fertile, it never had a large enough community to start a civilization.
Heat never goes away, because Africa straddles the equator and is contained between 38o north and south latitude, making it the most centrally located of all continents. Relief only comes in the higher altitudes of the eastern and southern plateaus and on parts of the west coast, where currents transport seawater from cooler regions.
Overall, rainfall patterns reveal extreme contrasts. The jungles are a dense and dank world where the sun rarely shines, deluged with two rainy seasons totaling eight or more feet per year and once described as a "glittering equatorial slum [where] huge trees jostle one another for room to live." The rest of the continent has a single wet season, which may deliver insufficient rainfall to some areas and skip others entirely. Two thirds of Africa loses more water to evaporation than is gained from rain. One of the hardest hit areas in recent years is the Sahel, the belt of grassland immediately south of the Sahara; here the water table is steadily dropping, requiring the digging of deeper wells, and the desert expands further south every year. Often man has contributed to the desertification process, by destroying the vegetation through overgrazing or the burning down of wooded areas.
On top of all that are deadly diseases and parasites, which have killed many men and even more livestock, making herding impossible in some locations. The highlands of Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, for example, are cool enough and well-watered enough to allow agriculture and herding, but they are also infested with the tsetse fly, a bloodsucking insect that carries the dreaded sleeping sickness. However, the fly doesn't bother antelopes much, so antelope herds became carriers of the disease, infecting human hunters who pursued them. As a result, the tsetse fly saved Africa's wildlife from being hunted to extinction; on much of the savanna the lion, and not man, remained at the top of the food chain. Other deadly diseases are malaria and yellow fever. Many of the natives are protected from malaria by sickle cell anemia, a hereditary disease that makes red blood cells unappetizing to the malaria parasite; unfortunately sickle cell anemia can also be fatal, if the subject inherits it from both parents.
But the heirs of Cush overcame all these obstacles. They learned how to live in their inhospitable land, how to grow crops(2), and how to raise cattle. In the second millennium B.C. they started forging iron; they might have learned this trick from the Middle East, but they did it so early that it is also possible that they discovered the secrets to smelting ores by themselves. Finally their tribes turned into cities and nations. Their progress took longer than it did on other continents, because the black African found it a constant struggle to stay alive at the same time, but he did progress in the long run.
The Countries of Modern Africa
Bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Indian Ocean to the east, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the African continent and surrounding islands are divided into more than fifty countries. After World War II many African territories began to fight for their independence from European colonization. The borders of many modern African nations reflect the colonial boundaries. The blank territory below Morocco was called the Western or Spanish Sahara before 1976. It has been part of Morocco since then, but some countries do not recognize this annexation.
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But the Sahara did not remain a garden when the Ice Age ended. Wind patterns changed as the world grew warmer. The monsoon winds stopped blowing from the south, and without their rains, North Africa began to dry up. The rivers got smaller and disappeared; sand replaced grass; the forests died. The game and fish went away, and so did the people. The drying out began in Egypt, most likely during the early to mid-fourth millennium B.C.; as the land began to bake in the sun, the people living there gathered in the only place where water remained, the Nile valley. Spreading west, the process was complete sometime in the second millennium B.C.
The middle of the Sahara contained an inland fresh water sea, which at one point covered 154,000 square miles and was 570 feet deep. We call it a "sea" because it was larger than the Caspian Sea, the largest lake in today's world. When the climate became more arid, the "Sahara Sea" shrank and split into two large lakes, Lake Bodele and Lake Chad. Lake Bodele was larger, but it eventually dried out, leaving Lake Chad as the only body of water in the Sahara, aside from the oases. For most of recorded history, Lake Chad has covered about 15,000 square miles; the smallest point was in 1998, when the Sahel drought of the late twentieth century reduced it to 778 square miles. Changing water levels and floating islands of vegetation in the lake cause the shoreline to change constantly, making it difficult for cartographers to draw maps of Lake Chad.
There were some wet phases around 750 B.C. and 500 A.D., when the climate briefly changed in the other direction, but most of the time rain evaporated before it even hit the ground. Salt, leached out of the rocks by evaporating marshes and ponds, formed deposits that would some day become the Sahara's most valuable resource, and wind erosion wore down quartz-bearing rocks into the ever-present sand. No longer a home or a highway, the Sahara became the world's largest desert, a barrier that few dared to cross.(4)
On a plateau named Tassili-n-Ajer in southern Algeria, the natives produced 15,000 superb rock paintings. In 1956 and 1957 a French explorer, Henri Lhote, traveled to Tassili, studied the paintings, and brought back copies of 800 of them; this is the most complete collection of prehistoric art to be found anywhere. All sorts of animals are portrayed here, from elephants and giraffes to rabbits and cattle, showing us that the land could once support much more wildlife than it does today. Scholars have classified the paintings into four rough time periods, each named after the most common art subject:
An example of Saharan rock art, showing herdsmen counting their cattle.
These paintings show not only how the locals progressed from hunting to the herding of animals, but also how the increasing dryness of the landscape caused the wildlife to change; the camel, for example, is first mentioned in ancient texts as living in Africa in 46 B.C.
Who were these people? Because the Tassili paintings stretch across millennia, several cultures are represented. Most represent scenes that would be familiar to tribes in other parts of Africa, while a few show individuals with costumes and hairstyles that look remarkably modern. There was some contact with the outside world, but not much; one painting featured four ibis-headed humans, looking very much like the Egyptian god Thoth, while classical writers like Herodotus mentioned tribes like the Garamantes living in the interior of Libya(5), but knew very little about them. We are confident, though, in asserting that the increasing dryness of the Sahara is what finally drove them away. A few probably stayed nearby, becoming the ancestors of the Tuareg, while others moved north, becoming the Berbers of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Here the densely forested Atlas mountains, which reach as high as 13,000 feet, halted the spreading of the desert, allowing a relatively mild climate along the Mediterranean shore.(6) Still others went south, to join the tribes already living there. Here they found themselves isolated from the rest of humanity, surrounded by oceans on three sides and desert on the fourth. Indeed, until the invention of ocean-crossing ships and the opening of trade routes across the Sahara, the only easy path into and out of sub-Saharan Africa was via the Nile valley, and very few travelers were willing to go that way. Thus, Africans were largely left out of the sharing of ideas and technologies that went on between European and Asian civilizations, further limiting their progress. Eventually, much of the outside world forgot about Africa, and came to see it as a land without a past. When Europeans discovered the ruins of impressive cities like Zimbabwe, they assumed that such structures could never have been built by blacks.(7) For much or the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, theories were floated around about a lost white colony on the continent, most likely planted by King Solomon or the Queen of Sheba. It took decades of work before non-African scholars were persuaded that most of the artifacts found in Africa came from the indigenous population. Only then did it become possible for outsiders to view Africa and its history the way its inhabitants view them.
Most of the communities that took up cultivation became entirely sedentary, staying in one place long enough to build permanent villages which were sometimes walled. Other peoples concentrated on herding, driving their animals from one pasture to another as the seasons changed or the livestock ate up the local ground cover; mobility remained the leading characteristic of their culture. Thus began the split between nomad and peasant, between the inhabitants of the steppe (which is good for nothing but grazing) and the settled, ultimately urban society which would generate nearly all of the population increase.
At first Africa played no part in these developments, due to the aforementioned limitations of geography and climate. Progress began with the transmission of neolithic technology from the Jordan valley across the Sinai peninsula to the Nile valley of Egypt. The new techniques were then spread gradually along the Mediterranean coast to the countries of the Maghreb (Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) and up the Nile to what is now called Sudan. The last stage before 1000 B.C. was more rapid (taking less than half a millennium), and involved the spread of cattle herding westward all the way along the southern border of the Sahara, by following the Sahel, the narrow grassland between the desert and the jungles of West Africa. Nilotic tribes led the way here, but west of Lake Chad they got separated from their kinsmen who stayed east of the lake, and soon developed languages of their own; henceforth we will call them the Chadic group. Southwest of them the Bantus were brought into the neolithic zone, but since the West African bush country makes agriculture a better proposition than herding, their economy emphasized the growing of sorghum.
Though the development of civilization was painfully slow in most of Africa, there was one spectacular success--Egypt. In fact, it was so spectacular that for a long time (until the discovery of equally old civilizations elsewhere), it was seen as the world's oldest civilization, and people, then and now, have tended to think of Egypt as not really being part of Africa. Therefore, we must never forget the cultural similarities Egypt shares with the rest of the continent: the worship of animals (see footnote #8 below), the king's absolute status as a lawgiver and a living god, and smaller elements like the use of wooden headrests instead of pillows.
Egypt got a head start not only because of its proximity to the "cradle of civilization"--the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East--but because it had the type of environment where civilization is most likely to get started: a river valley in a desert. As noted in my previous works, the dry nature of the climate encourages people to gather where the water is, and life in such a climate is not difficult, but it requires work if one is going to live well.
Most historians agree that ideas and trade goods traveled between Egypt and the Middle East at a very early date--as early as 3000 B.C., if not sooner. Is it possible that people migrated along those trade routes as well, and stayed when they arrived? Sir Flinders Petrie, the father of modern Egyptology, thought Egypt got started this way. When Petrie excavated the predynastic cemetery of Nubt (Naqada), one of Upper Egypt's oldest cities, he noticed that the graves had two different styles of burial, and called these differences the Naqada I and the Naqada II culture. Whereas the Naqada I people were buried in a fetal position and covered with palm branches (a style the poorest Egyptians would practice for centuries to come), the Naqada II graves were lined with bricks and covered with palm logs. Moreover, instead of keeping the body in one piece, the Naqada II culture dismembered the dead before burial, and knife and teeth marks on the bones suggest that ritual cannibalism was practiced. Finally, the pottery styles in the two types of graves were very different, and even the skulls were of different shapes, leading Petrie to conclude that the Naqada I and Naqada II people were not the same at all.
A predynastic burial, in the Naqada I style.
(From the Oriental Institute, Chicago.)
To explain all this, Petrie proposed the "Dynastic Race theory" to explain the changes. According to this, a group of outsiders invaded and conquered Nubt; artifacts at Nekhen (Hierakonpolis), a town far up the Nile, tell us that Nekhen was a second base for the same people. Petrie also called these elite foreigners the "Falcon Tribe," because the falcon was one of their symbols from the start, and soon Nekhen became the main cult center for Horus, the Egyptian falcon god. Nubt is where the Nile meets the Wadi Hammamat, a sixty-mile-long valley at the narrowest point between the Nile and the Red Sea, so he went on to suggest that the newcomers were Mesopotamians, who sailed around Arabia, entered the Red Sea, and marched through the Wadi Hammamat to get here. Later on one of their descendants would conquer the rest of Egypt and crown himself as the first pharaoh.(8)
The "Dynastic Race" theory went out of fashion in the mid-twentieth century, because it was too politically incorrect for a post-colonial world. Then in 1998 it was revived by another British Egyptologist, David Rohl, who felt that the story of newcomers in Egypt could be told correctly if the imperialist elements were left out. Besides the previously mentioned evidence, Rohl cited the following:
For the author of this work, the most compelling piece of evidence is a stone knife with an ivory handle, found a century ago at Gebel el-Arak. On one side of the knife handle is a carving showing a battle between two groups, with the tell-tale high-prowed boats nearby. On the other side is a man with a full beard, wearing a woolen robe and a Sumerian-style hat, wrestling with two lions. This pose looks very much like how the Mesopotamians portrayed heroes like Gilgamesh, to the point that one is tempted to look at the handle and say, "This is Nimrod!"
If Egypt's first rulers were foreigners, they did not remain distinct from their subjects for very long. Perhaps we should see them as a catalyst, like the Normans in England and the Varangians in Russia: after speeding up the development of the land they took over, they were absorbed into the masses. By the end of the second dynasty of pharaohs, the only way one could identify members of the "Dynastic Race" was by whether or not they belonged to Iry-Pat (hereditary nobility) families.
West of Egypt, the first fully developed civilization was that of the Carthaginians, centered in modern-day Tunisia. Here we have even less to go on when it comes to artifacts showing this area's development (presumably because the Romans did a very thorough job of destruction when they finished off Carthage in 146 B.C.), but we know who was responsible; Greek and Roman records identify the founders as Phoenicians coming from Tyre, the greatest city of ancient Lebanon. To discuss the Egyptians, Nubians and Carthaginians in detail here would make the rest of ancient Africa look insignificant, so the complete story of those civilizations will be covered in the next three chapters of this work.
Here are the most important kingdoms that existed in Africa before the Europeans took over, in the late nineteenth century A.D. The purpose of the map is to show where each kingdom was; keep in mind that several were too small to appear on a map of this scale, like Benin. Also, the core territory of each is shown, but in some cases these borders do not reflect the kingdom's size at its peak. For example, while you can see the Merina kingdom was based in the heart of Madagascar, the borders are the ones it had around 1800 A.D.; afterwards it conquered most of the island. In the north, Egypt ruled Nubia (the area occupied by Kush) and the nearest parts of Asia more than once, while Carthage dominated the western Mediterranean, the European as well as the African shore, during its best years between 500 and 200 B.C.
This is the End of Chapter 1.
A History of Africa
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