by Basil Davidson
"In terms of geological time, man's multiplication in Africa -- as elsewhere -- began only yesterday. Yet in terms of decades and millennia it began so long ago that the routes it took and the conditions that promoted it belong only to the realm of intelligent guesswork."
What were they like, those men and women of Gamblian times? They were probably
unlike any people now surviving in Africa, with the possible and partial
exception of the Bushmen of the Kalahari and the Pygmies of the Congo. Perhaps
they were the lineal ancestors of those lithe hunters of small stature and, to
us, strange physiognomy; perhaps they belonged to a racial type which
anthropologists call Bush-Boskop, or, nicely evading any suggestion of
certainty, boskopoid. However that may be, they spread and multiplied and held
their ground, and traces of them have been found in many regions of the
Some time around 5000 B.C. new types of humanity appeared in Africa. The Negro, or Negroid, type was prominent among these. His earliest remains have come, so far, from much the same African latitude: a fossilized skull and some other fragments from a Middle Stone Age site near Khartoum in the Sudan, and another skull and some bones from beneath thick clay at Asselar, some two hundred miles northeast of Timbuktu in the western Sudan.
These people, these "Negroes" (for neat racial pigeonholes have little application here), undoubtedly multiplied in the years after about 5000 B.C. An analysis of some eight hundred skulls from pre-dynastic Egypt -- that is, from the lower valley of the Nile before about 3000 B.C. -- shows that at least a third of them were Negroes or ancestors of the Negroes whom we know; and this may well support the view to which a study of language also brings some confirmation, that remote ancestors of the Africans of today were an important and perhaps dominant element among populations which fathered the civilization of ancient Egypt.
The year 1958, as it happens, brought vivid illumination to an otherwise meager record. A French explorer of the Sahara, Henri Lhote, returned to Paris with a wonderful collection of copies of rock paintings and engravings. His exhibition of these was a memorable affair.
For here was human history on the grand style, tier after tier of Saharan styles that told of a bewildering succession of different peoples through uncounted millennia, ranging from marvelously sensitive pictures of animals to no less sensitive portraits -- the word is not too strong -- of men and women; from scenes of wheeled warfare to scenes of pastoral peace; from gods and goddesses that surely came from ancient Egypt to masks and figures that just as surely did not. Many of them were the work of Negro peoples in a time that was probably not long before, or not long after, 4ooo B.C.
From such evidence as this the empty centuries enlarge and echo with forgotten peoples. It had earlier been thought -- and the opinion is useful to an understanding of the complexity which accompanied this peopling of ancient Africa -- that the Sahara had known four main periods of habitation during its time of fertility. The earliest of these had been a hunting people, who were eventually followed by a cattle-keeping people, and these last, or their successors, had acquired horses around 1200 B.C. Into this bare outline Lhote has now poured a wealth of new evidence which brings it suddenly and wonderfully to life. Basing himself on recognizable variations of painting and engraving style, he suggests no fewer than sixteen different phases of occupation between the time of the hunting people and the time of the cattle- keeping people -- "a fact," he says, "that is astonishing and revolutionary, since it was unthinkable until now that the Sahara could have known so many different populations."
This reminder of exceeding complication in the peopling of the old Sahara -- and, of course, not only of the old Sahara -- is useful when one looks at the difficulty of tracing where the lines of migration really went, and what manner of peoples and language groups actually followed them. Bushmen and Pygmies, now very rare, may represent the only close link with many "original" populations of remote antiquity. Those whom Europeans have called "Negroes" are another great African stock, today long dominant in much of the continent. There is no doubt that other groups entered the Horn of East Africa from western Asia in distant times, and helped to form peoples who spoke and speak the Cushitic languages. For many years, too, anthropologists argued the existence of another ancient stock which they called Hamite.
These "Hamites" were said to have a "white morphology" deriving from "Caucasoids" -- from "Europeans" -- although this was so long ago that nothing secure could be said about them. Anthropologists divided them into "eastern Hamites" and "western Hamites." Little or nothing was known about their origins or migrations, but they were generally said to have entered Africa long ago and to have mingled with the "Negroes," whom they "civilized" and helped to develop. All this was guesswork, and for the most part it was quite ungrounded. Today, no serious writer will any longer accept this "Hamitic hypothesis," and the work of the 1960's has gone far towards finally burying it as just another "White" illusion. In his brilliant reexamination of African linguistic relationships, Greenberg has proposed that the term "Hamite" should be completely abandoned. He argues that the peoples to whom the term was applied should be labeled by names referring to the various languages they speak; in this he is supported by nearly all his linguistic colleagues.
Whatever may have been the detailed truth, there is general agreement today that a variety of ancient stocks, of one language group or of another, gave rise through mingling and evolution at a time undoubtedly very remote to the ancestors of a majority of modern Africans. Thus the Hottentots of southern Africa may also have come from a mingling of Bushman and Bantu. The numerous and multiplying peoples of Bantu language group appear to be a mingling of "Negro" and Hottentot and now and then of Bushman too. And there are plenty of other possible or probable combinations. If other types of people today occupy much of the northeast of continental Africa, and peoples of the Bantu language group predominate in the southern half of the continent, while "pure Negroes" appear most often in western Africa, the distinctions are largely those of language and anthropological convention. They imply little as to precedence of ancient migration and settlement, and nothing at all as to "inferiority" or "superiority."
The point is worth emphasizing if only because an imagined superiority of Hamite over Negro -- read white over black -- has often been, and sometimes still is, what Mr. Justice Holmes (1) in quite another connection once called "the inarticulate major premise." This premise has no foundation in the facts, neither for ancient Africa nor for relatively modern Africa. Evolution and development in Africa, as elsewhere, have their major key not in racial but environmental circumstance, and there is nothing in the world to show or suggest that Negroes, had they lived in North Africa instead of Central Africa, would not have "done as well" -- or as "ill" -- as the alleged "Hamitic" Egyptians and Berbers of the Nile Valley and the Mediterranean shore. Later on in history, as it happened, cattle raisers from the Sudan, once labeled "Hamitic," would enter an East Africa populated by sedentary farmers of mainly "Negro" origin, and would partly impose a more backward system of society upon a more advanced one.
Yet the myth of "Hamitic superiority," veiling as it generally has an "inarticulate major premise" that Africans are a naturally inferior people, dies hard. Only a few years ago an otherwise serious anthropological student of East Africa, when describing remains of a primitive people found in Kenya, recorded that they might be Hamitic except that it was "difficult to see why a civilized people such as the Hamites should have lived at this altitude," which was about as sensible as saying that a civilized people like the Irish should not have lived in bogs. It was not their race which enabled the Irish -- or this or that people in Africa -- to civilize themselves, but the varying conditions of environment.
There is another reason for insisting on this point. Time and again the achievements of men in Africa -- men of Africa -- have been laid at the door of some mysterious but otherwise unexplained "people from outside Africa." It is not only "Hamites" who have given scope for the "inarticulate major premise" of an inherent African (or black) inferiority. Over the past fifty years or so, whenever anything remarkable or inexplicable has turned up in Mica, a whole galaxy of non-African (or at any rate non-black) peoples are dogged in to explain it. The Phoenicians are brought in to explain Zimbabwe in Rhodesia. The Egyptians are produced as the painters of the "white lady" of the Brandberg in southwest Africa. Greeks or Portuguese are paraded as the inspirers and teachers of those who worked in terra cotta and in bronze in medieval West Africa. Even the Hittites have had their day. Yet every one of these achievements and phenomena is now generally agreed to have had a purely African origin.
The problems of backwardness and progress -- even when and where these really
exist, and are more than the illusion of Europocentric frames of thought --
cannot be explained along these simple lines. They cannot be explained along
any social lines. Environment, not race, provides the key. And that is why it
will be found that even when African peoples have taken much from outside, at
different times and places, their process of borrowing -- whether of
techniques or beliefs -- has always undergone an adaptation, through
environment and circumstance, into societies and cultures and civilizations
which became specifically and uniquely African. Achievement and failure can
alike be traced to the same complex and endlessly interesting source: the
interplay of men and their environment.
(1) In his dissenting judgment on Lochner v. New York, U.S. Supreme Court, 1905.
Lines of Migration | The Desert Barrier | Giants and Heroes
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