Ancient Africa, a fascinating new book by Christopher Ehret, offers a millennia-spanning panorama of a thriving and innovative continent
By Toby Green
“Barely more than fifty thousand years ago, the primary ancestors of every single human being alive today lived in eastern Africa.” The historian Christopher Ehret begins his new history, Ancient Africa, with this simple, arresting statement, which immediately puts the importance of his book into relief. There have, after all, been only around 2,000 generations of human beings since that time; and when historians and writers speak of the “common history of humanity”, this fact alone embodies what they are describing.
The brevity of modern human history raises enormous questions about what has really driven that history. Is it collaboration, and the exchange of ideas and goods? Or is the vast discord that has continued as people spread out around the planet an indication that violence has been a driving factor? These factors don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and Ehret’s scintillating short book doesn’t pretend to answer the questions conclusively. Instead, he seeks to reinscribe Africa within our common history, lamenting how often the continent’s history has been seen as somehow apart.
Ehret invites us to consider how exploring these themes can open a new chapter in the historical imagination. Now a distinguished professor of history at UCLA, he has been a pioneer of methods that allow historians to reconstruct the deep histories of preliterate peoples. Alongside archaeology, his main approach has been through historical linguistics. When we think of the ways in which words of different origins find their ways into a language, we realise that language itself is an archive. Ehret has pioneered methods to deconstruct the common origins of words, and the numbers of years which have passed since their divergence from a common root – it’s this which allows the interpretation of human movements and exchanges dating back tens of thousands of years.
It was language formation that catalysed the transformations of human history of which we are all the inheritors. The development of syntax was “the primary enabling factor for the vast expansion of our common ancestors”. It probably took place over a period of two or three millennia, around 70,000 years ago. While words existed already among homo sapiens and the various other hominids, the ability to combine them in complex forms was revolutionary: it allowed people to conceive of the abstract, to plan and think ahead about consequences, to design new kinds of objects and technologies, and to develop cultural ideas about the meanings of life.
Without the invention of this capacity in eastern Africa, tens of thousands of years ago, none of us would be human today. That revolutionary change forms the backstory to Ehret’s exploration of humanity in Africa since then. One of Ancient Africa’s concerns is to show how far parallels exist between changes in Africa and those in other continents. The main developments did not diffuse outwards from a single point of origin, but rather emerged spontaneously in several different places. This happened with agriculture, pottery, weaving and metalworking. Usually one invention led to another: metallurgy, for instance, always emerged in societies that had previously developed ceramic firing. As Ehret explores, the fact that the same technological changes emerged in different places is suggestive of the ways in which societies have shared common features and needs throughout human history.
Christopher Ehret, author of Ancient Africa
What’s more, the archaeological and linguistic evidence tells us that they often emerged in Africa earlier than elsewhere. People living in what today is Mali began to fire pottery no later than 11,500 years ago, the third-earliest in the world after two locations in eastern Asia. The earliest evidence of cotton processing anywhere in the world comes from what is now Sudan, with spindle whorls from around Khartoum dated to 8,000 years ago. Ironworks have been found in present-day Cameroon and the Central African Republic dating back almost 4,000 years, well before its emergence in either Anatolia or China. A remarkable illustration of a Rwandan smelting furnace, dating back almost 3,000 years, is revelatory of just how widespread such technologies were in Africa by very early times.
As in other parts of the world, it wasn’t long after the development of these technologies that urbanisation, more complex forms of political organisation, and long-distance trade took root. Again, these kinds of shifts occurred comparatively early in Africa. Urban centres with craft specialisation emerged in what is now Mauritania almost 4,000 years ago. Long-distance trading routes linking up the different urban centres followed, using the Niger river and also donkeys as means of transporting goods. The domestication of the donkey itself – the first animal anywhere in the world to carry trade goods and pull vehicles – took place in eastern Africa, probably in Somaliland, before spreading throughout the continent, and serving as the model for the later domestication of the camel and the horse in Eurasia.
Ehret charts the many pathways of interconnection between Africa and the world; the arrival of African grains (sorghum, pearl millet) in India over 4,000 years ago reveals just how deeply the continent has always been connected to the rest of the world. It is through details such as this – and some beautiful illustrations and informative maps – that Ancient Africa’s immense canvas is brought to life. Ehret is a gentle and understated guide to this vastness. At a time when people seem more divided than ever, it’s refreshing and rather moving to read a book which humanely reminds us of how much we all have in common.
Toby Green’s latest book, co-authored with Thomas Fazi, is The Covid Consensus (Hurst). Ancient Africa is published by Princeton University Press at £22. To order your copy for £18.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books