The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800

In a book that is intended for use by undergraduates yet conveys much in the way of new research results and new interpretation, Ehret defines four major civilizations of Africa according to the four major language groups of African peoples. He shows each of these to have undergone growth and transformation in the nearly 20,000 years of the book’s time span. The language and civilizational groups are the Nilo-Saharan speakers of north central and northeastern Africa, the Niger-Congo speakers of western and central Africa, the Afrasan (also known as Afroasiatic) speakers of northern and northeastern Africa, and the Khoisan speakers of eastern and southern Africa.

In nine chronological chapters, Ehret traces the development and interaction of these four civilizations. For the period from 16,000 to 9000 B.C.E. Ehret focuses on the systems of food production for each of the four civilizations, but also notes the distinctive religious beliefs of each civilization. In Afrasan societies, religious beliefs emphasized clan deities and evil brought by harmful spirits; Nilo-Saharan societies developed nontheistic belief systems; Niger-Congo societies recognized spirits at various levels and were concerned about evil stemming from neglected ancestors or from evil living persons; and Khoisan societies emphasized a nontheistic spiritualism tied to trance-dances. Both food production and systems of belief, in Ehret’s vision, have chronologically deep roots in African societies.

For the period from 9000 to 3500 B.C.E. Ehret analyzes the rise of agriculture for three civilizations and the development of new hunting systems among the Khoisan. This chapter concludes with a section placing Africa in the context of the world history of agricultural development. For the period from 3500 to 1000 B.C.E. Ehret pursues the issue of agriculture and gives particular attention to the spread of Bantu speakers. Since the “Bantu migrations” have become a favored topic in world history courses, it is important to have the additional detail and complexity that comes from Ehret’s summary. For the period from 1000 B.C.E. to 300 C.E. Ehret develops three important topics: the independent invention of iron smelting in north central Africa and its spread throughout the continent; the spread of commercial networks in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and East Africa; and the impact of Indonesian mariners and settlers in introducing crops, housing styles, and musical instruments.

His summary is parallel in its scope and perhaps in its importance to V. Gordon Childe’s The Dawn of European Civilization and New Light on the Most Ancient East, written some seventy years earlier. Childe relied on archaeological work to provide a sophisticated but accessible portrayal of the early history of Europe, and in the process coined the terms for the agricultural revolution and the urban revolution. Time, techniques, and interpretations have changed in the years since Childe’s analysis. Ehret focuses as much on material culture as Childe did, centering especially on food production, but he emphasizes gradual change rather than sudden developments. He relies heavily on linguistic and anthropological evidence, both because of the strength of African linguistic studies and because of the continuing lack of investment in archaeology in Africa.

This book is a major contribution in world history for several reasons. First, it summarizes a major region of the world whose importance is now coming to be recognized. Africa was the region of origin of Homo sapiens something over 100,000 years ago. In the early times that are the focus of Ehret’s book, the African proportion of the human population was surely much greater than the 10% of human population that now lives there. Second, the book addresses major global themes in early times: food production, religion, the use of metals, and the rise of commerce are addressed in innovative fashion. Third, the book traces specific links between Africa and West Asia, Indonesia, Europe, and the trans-Atlantic Americas. Fourth, with its emphasis on reconstructing the past through historical linguistics, it displays the results of a method developed for Africa and for Indo-European speakers, but which should be applied in far more depth for other regions of the world.

The greatest originality of Ehret’s work lies in the first five chapters of the book, as described above. The remaining four chapters, which include more familiar materials on the story of African civilizations from 300 up to 1800 C.E., nonetheless are an important and original portion of the book. That is, they restate existing information in the context of the great time depth that he has been able to add to African history.

The civilizations framework brings substantial strengths to Ehret’s interpretation of Africa’s long-term history. Using the main language communities as the basis for describing four civilizations over time provides an approach that presents units larger than localities, yet avoids making generalizations for the continent as a whole. Further, the civilizations approach presents a way to conduct long-term historical analysis without falling into writing history through essentialized “races.” This is the case particularly for the Afrasan civilization, which has maintained substantial cultural integrity yet includes people of quite different “racial” types.

In addition to analyzing four distinctive civilizations over time, Ehret conducts a useful world-historical analysis by tracing several sorts of change. For present purposes, I can identify five types of patterns in change that he explores. First is innovation, in which certain communities develop new techniques. For wheat and cattle, he emphasizes that innovation takes place not simply in a locality, but through experimentation shared by numerous overlapping communities. For iron he displays the mounting evidence of its independent development in Africa’s central savanna. He also notes the development of the mbira (thumb piano) in iron-age Zimbabwe, and its spread throughout much of the Niger-Congo civilization. Second is the spread of material culture from African sources. A particular example is the African domestication of sorghum, and its spread to farmers as far away as China. Third is colonization. The movement of Bantu speakers south and east from Nigeria is the most obvious such movement, but the spread of Afrasan speakers to the west is another (including the most recent such wave, that of Arabic speakers). Fourth is the interchange of civilizations. In particular, Bantu migrations were not only about colonization. As Bantu speakers moved into East Africa, they interacted, exchanged, and innovated in a complex fashion with peoples of Nilo-Saharan and Afrasan civilizations. Similarly, the exchange of civilizations in what Ehret has called the “commercial revolution” brought interesting mixtures in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and East Africa. Fifth is the spread of material culture from external sources, most notably the arrival of bananas, Asian yams, xylophones, and outrigger canoes from Indonesia—all of these but the last spread clear across the continent.

In sum, Ehret combines his lifetime of research on African historical linguistics with a thorough review of ethnographic, archaeological, and environmental data to present a comprehensive survey of nearly 20,000 years of African history. For the four main groupings of African populations, he traces the evolution of material culture and provides exciting insights into the developments and exchanges in religion, technology, trade, and politics. The book provides an excellent basis for historical comparison and connection of Africa with other regions in the times we used to call prehistory.








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