A Response


The Origins of Agriculture in Africa.

It is impossible in a relatively short space, to cover the vast and controversial prehistory of humanity since its origins in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago. Therefore this article will start with the beginnings of agriculture there within the past 20,000 years. Experts agree that agriculture, the cultivation of crops and the domestication of animals, began independently in many different places. There were two major centers or "hearths" in America, one in Southeast Asia, and others. Two important hearths were in Africa. The first of these was in the savanna south of the Sahara, where a number of different sorghums and millets were domesticated. Specimens of these have been found dating to around 7000 B.C.E. and domestication may well have begun earlier(Wendorf et al. 1992).

The other acknowledged African hearth is Ethiopia. There other sorghums as well as grains such as teff and noog still grown there, were first cultivated. Most scholars maintain that nontropical crops like wheat, barley and chickpeas were first domesticated in Southwest Asia around 9000 B.C.E. and spread from there to Egypt and the rest of north Africa some twenty-five hundred years later. However, two new discoveries have led a number of specialists to reconsider this hypothesis. The first of these is that during the late Ice Age, between 14,000 and 12,000 years before the present, when the climate of southern Egypt was similar to that we now call "Mediterranean," there was a sharp increase in the amount of barley and other grains being harvested and consumed. This does not necessarily mean that they were also being planted but it seems very likely(Hassan 1980, pp.437-438). The second discovery is that of the extraordinary variety of types of barley found in Ethiopia, indicating that it has been cultivated there for an extremely long time.

The two new pieces of evidence suggest three possibilities: 1) that barley (and wheat) was domesticated independently in Ethiopia and Syria; 2) that the cultivation began in Ethiopia and diffused to Southwest Asia; the third and most likely scenario, that toward the end of the Ice Age, inhabitants of the Nile Valley were in fact cultivating barley and other nontropical grains above the first cataract--cataracts are series of rapids and waterfalls that are impossible to traverse by boat. As the climate became hotter and wetter--even more so than it is today--this cultivation moved north along the Nile to Southwest Asia and up the mountains into Ethiopia (Doggett, 1989.p.33). After two thousand or three thousand years, when the climate of the lower Nile valley became drier and more temperate, the cereals were reintroduced to Egypt and northern Sudan from Southwest Asia where they competed successfully with the tropical crops developed in the savanna south of the Sahara.

Although domesticated sheep or goats have been found in southern Egypt from the sixth millennium B.C.E., it seems likely that there were first domesticated in Southwest Asia. Cattle, on the other hand appear to have been domesticated in both Africa and Southwest Asia( Grigson, 1991). Thus, most if not all of the early bases of African agriculture were indigenous.

The Nile Valley 3500-500 B.C.E.


African history, as opposed to African prehistory, begins with the Egyptian records after the Upper Egyptian unification of Egypt around 3400 B.C. (Bernal, 1991. pp.207-211). For two hundred years before then, however, there is evidence of a sophisticated state in Nubia--between the second and first cataracts of the Nile. Royal tombs found along the riverbank, now under Lake Nasser, indicate the existence of a rich stratified society and the fact that symbols of royalty such as the hawk on a serech , or palace facade, and the white crown later used by Egyptian pharaohs were already in use there. The local pottery shows that the culture was Nubian not Egyptian but pots and other objects found in the tombs indicate a pattern of trade stretching from the Kordofan Mountains in what is now south central Sudan to the Levant, now Syria and Palestine?Israel (Williams, 1980). The Nubian wealth appears to have come from cultivation along the river banks and herding and hunting in the Acacia desert scrub that existed then, where there is now desert. It is also possible that Nubians were already trading in gold which was abundant in the region.

Some time later, another state emerged in "Upper Egypt" along the Nile from the first cararact to the mouth of the Delta. The physical type of this population was similar to that of Nubia then and today and is classified as belonging to the "Saharo-tropical" variant range, which includes both "elongated African," of the type identified with the present Fulani or "Nilotic Negro" seen today in the southern Sudan and Broad or "Negro" physiognomies (Keita, 1990). It is probable that the Nubian language of the time was related to that of Upper Egypt. This belonged to the Afroasiatic linguistic Super-family which includes the Semitic and Berber language families, the Cushitic languages of East Africa as well as the Chaddic languages to the west, including Hausa. One possible territory in which the super-family could have arisen are in the Upper Nile in what is now southern Sudan, where languages of another African family are now spoken. A more likely original home is in southern Ethiopia, where there is the most dense concentration of Afroasiatic families and individual languages and from which the African members of the family could have fanned out. It is conventionally supposed that the Semitic languages now spoken in Ethiopia arrived there from southern Arabia. However, an increasing number of linguists now see the Semitic family as having arisen in Ethiopia and spreading from there to Southwest Asia.(Murtonen, 1967).

Like Nubia, Upper Egypt was a society in which the ruler played a pivotal part, not only as a leader in war but as a producer of agricultural wealth, magically by ensuring good floods of the river and practically by organizing irrigation. He also played a central role in the distribution of bread and beer, the staples of Egyptian life. The greater size and economic potential of Upper Egypt not only gave it the edge in competition with Nubia but enabled its king Menes to conquer Lower Egypt in the Nile Delta and unify the whole country around 3400 BC.E

Although Egyptian rulers were always symbolically and actually aware of the distinction between the two halves of Egypt and of the tensions between them, for most of the next three thousand years they were able to maintain unity for the whole country and achieve a record of stability, prosperity and cultural creativity that--with the possible exception of China--is unsurpassed in human history.

Lower Egypt was inhabited by northern Africans of the "Mediterranean" type found in the coastal Maghreb, but with unification of Egypt there was an immediate mixing of population types among the elites and a slower one among the people as a whole. Even today there is a definite cline or slope from south to north with the appearance of the population tending towards that of Southwest Asia. This tendency has intensified with the many infiltrations and invasions from Southwest Asia that have taken place over the past five thousand years. These seem to have begun even before the unification of 3400 B.C.E. and traces of settlements from Syria at this time have been found in the Delta. As stated above, there was trading contact between the Levant and Nubia and presumably Upper Egypt in the1st half of the 4th millennium.

Cultural influences from Syria and Mesopotamia increased after unification and there is evidence of it from artistic styles during the 1st two dynasties. It is also possible that the concept of writing was introduced to the Nile Delta from Southwest Asia at this time. However, the fundamental differences between Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs and the fact that many ancient symbols from Nubia and Predynastic Egypt were incorporated in later Egyptian script indicates that even if the idea of a visual representation of speech came from outside, the form of Egyptian writing was entirely local. Similarly, the centralized kingdoms of the middle Nile Valley are totally unlike the city states found in Mesopotamia and Syria at the same time, and the pharaonic system would seem to be a completely indigenous development.

Egyptian culture was consolidated at the beginning of the Third Dynasty around 3000 B.C.E.. The following five hundred years of the "Old Kingdom" were those in which nearly all of the pyramids were built and Egyptian architecture, mathematics, and art were raised to a very high level. From the beginning, Egyptian culture was extremely analytical. Butchery of animals and the dissection and separation of organs necessary for mummification--a tradition of Saharan origin not found in Southwest Asia-- is paralleled by the central myth of the murder dismemberment and reassembly of the Osiris the god of fertility, rebirth and immortality. In hieroglyphics, fractions could be written as the different strokes that made up the sign for the "eye of Horus" said to have been torn apart by the wicked god Seth and restored by Thoth god of wisdom and calculation. This analytical tradition of distinguishing the different parts and functions of the whole remained important in Egyptian culture and played a significant role in the development of Greek medicine and science (See Bernal, 1992).

Although the political unity and prosperity of the Old Kingdom was destroyed by the anarchy of the First Intermediate Period after 2500 B.C.E. its high culture survived and continued to develop during the Middle Kingdom (2100-1800 B.C.E.) and New Kingdom (1570-1070 B.C.E.). During these peaks of wealth and centralized authority, Egypt frequently extended its military power to the north over Syria and its political influence much further to include parts of what are now parts of Turkey and Greece. To the south, Egyptian control sometimes reached up the Nile as far as the fourth cataract just 150 miles north of the modern Khartoum.

Nevertheless, Nubian culture did not disappear. In the Old Kingdom, Egypt conquered lower Nubia to the second cataract, but, when it collapsed around 2500 B.C.E., a new form of Nubian culture emerged. During the Middle Kingdom, Egyptians established a series of forts at the second cataract unparalleled in the ancient and medieval worlds (Adams, 1984, pp.175-188). Their enormous scale testifies not only to Egyptian wealth and power at the time but also to the importance with which Egypt considered Nubia. Scholars debate as to whether the forts were mere assertions of grandeur or had practical defensive value. If the latter were the case, it would demonstrate that the Nubians of the time were extremely powerful and well organised. Another possibility is that the forts--none of which is far from the river-- were built to protect trade from the south. These suggestions are not mutually exclusive, but the last would seem to be the most important. The significance of this trade is shown graphically by Egyptian tomb paintings of the import of tropical goods and gold from the south.

Trade also seems to have been an important factor in the growth of a kingdom at Kerma, just above the third cataract. This kingdom may also have been part of the threat against which the Egyptian forts were constructed. Kerma became still more powerful after the collapse of the Middle Kingdom and the invasion of Egypt from Syria by the barbaric Hyksos. Royal tombs at Kerma contain the largest number of human sacrifices around the deceased ruler found by archaeologists anywhere in the world. This indicates the existence of a powerful central authority. Excavations in the 1980s showed that there was also a large fortified city containing houses built of stone, mud brick or wood dating from before 2000 B.C.E. and lasting for several centuries (Connah, 1987, pp. 39-40). There is no doubt that there were Egyptian influences in the architecture and material culture of Kerma. Nevertheless, it was clearly an indigenous civilisation, which collapsed only with the conquests upto the fourth cataract, of the Egyptian New Kingdom in the sixteenth century BC.

With the climatic deterioration between 4000 and 1500 B.C.E. lower Nubia eventually became almost uninhabitable below the second Cataract. However, by the ninth century B.C.E. a new form of Nubian culture had arisen at Napata above the third cataract. This state dominated the Nile Valley as far south as the modern Khartoum. Although completely independent politically, Napata was heavily Egyptianized. Its rulers saw themselves as pharaohs, used Egyptian hieroglyphs for inscriptions, and worshipped Egyptian gods especially Amon, whom it should be pointed out, was generally associated with the south in Egyptian religion. In the decade following 730 B.C.E., Pijankhy ruler of Napata sailed and marched down the Nile into Egypt, which was in chaos with local disorder compounded by increasing Assyrian interference from the north. Pijankhy died after several battles but his brother Shabaka went on to conquer the whole country in 715 B.C.E.. The Nubian pharaohs were outstanding for their generosity and their piety to the Egyptian gods. After seventy years, they were driven out of Egypt and retired to Napata, where the state survived in Upper Nubia, until the 5th century B.C.E. when it was replaced by that of Meroë, still further up the Nile.



Other Regions of Africa Before 500 B.C.E..

The Nile Valley has been far more extensively excavated than other parts of the continent. Thus, it is much less easy to tell the extent of urbanisation and state formation elsewhere. Traces of agriculture and pottery have been found in the Sahara before 8000 B.C.E. By 2000 B.C.E. the cultivation of tropical African crops had spread across the savanna south of the Sahara and beyond, possibly as far as South Africa (Davies, 1975). By this time, Sorghum had also been taken overseas to become--with rice-- the staples of South Indian agriculture (Doggett, 1989. pp.43-45). The spread of agriculture in Africa does not mean that hunters and gatherers disappeared and they continued to occupy large territories in the continent until the last few centuries.

The beautiful rock paintings of the central Sahara illustrate the life of pastoralists or "Bovidians" of the Southern Saharan-Sudanese tradition for many thousand years as it moved up towards the wetter mountains with climatic deterioration. The paintings illustrate a mixed population consisting of some North African types but predominantly of black peoples of the Fulani or elongated African type. The extremely dark tall thin Haratîn are still found in some Saharan oases. In the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. the style of paintings changed and they become stiffer and more concerned with horses and chariots than with cattle. The new chariot riders appear to have been the ancestors of the nomadic Berber speaking Tuaregs, who came to dominate the native agriculturalists. However, as we shall see, Saharan blacks came to play a significant role in chariot warfare.

Further west in what is now inland Mauritania, the Saharan-Sudanese Neolithic tradition, based on this agriculture has left traces of many stone built villages and towns from between 1500-1100 B.C.E.(Munson, 1976) After 1100 B.C.E. the villages were fortified and in more defensible positions. After 850 B.C.E. there was a definite deterioration of the culture, which has been interpreted as the result of attacks by Berber speakers from the north who possessed both chariots and bronze. Since then, until today, this zone has been contested between the predominantly black and negroid local population and the newcomers. It was from this region that much later, in the 4th century AD, that the Soninke (Niger Kordofanian) speaking kingdom of Ghana arose.

There is no archaeological evidence of urban life in the forests of West Africa before 500 B.C.E.. However, given the availability of wood, fibers and leaves for construction and tools and the heavy rainfall the chances for preservation of remants are very low. The possibility of urbanision and technical sophistication , as well as cultural influences there from the Nile around 1000 B.C.E. is suggested by the significant though controversial evidence of West Africans in prominent positions as well as by Nilotic cultural features in the Olmec civilisation of Central Mexico( Van Sertima, 1992).

There are two other non-archaeological indicators of very early cultural sophistication in Africa. These are the Tifineh alphabet, still used by Tuaregs in the Southern Sahara and the Ethiopic one, the basis of the Amharic alphabet used in Ethiopia and Eritrea today. Both of these derive from an alphabet in use in the Levant in the Late Bronze Age and contain archaic features indicating arrival in Africa before 1200 B.C.E..(Bernal, 1990 pp.51 & 63). Thus, during the second half of the second millennium B.C.E., both the northern African societies invading and infiltrating the Sahara and the Ethiopian agriculturalists contained literate individuals.

African Contacts with Southwest Asia and Europe, 3500-500 B.C.E..

Contacts between the Nile Valley and the Levant in the 4th millennium B.C.E. were referred to above. With the Egyptian unification, the relationship became unequal with Egypt as the dominant partner. Contacts were made not only by land, over Sinai peninsula, but also and more often by sea. Byblos, the oldest and greatest city on the Levantine coast, during the Bronze Age always had a particularly close relationship with Egypt. During the Middle and New Kingdoms, Egypt controlled much of the Levant directly and had strong political influence over the rest. During these centuries, Egyptian culture and language had a substantial influence on the Semitic languages of the region, notably the West Semitic Canaanite, of which Hebrew and Phoenician were dialects. ( The Semitic and Egyptian languages were already related as members of the Afroasiatic language family.) It is because of the heavy influence of Egypt on the Canaanites that Canaan was seen as a son of Ham (Egypt) and a brother of Cush (Nubia) in the Table of Nations in Genesis chapter 10.

During the Intermediate Periods of disunity between the great Egyptian kingdoms, there were peaceful migrations and invasions by Semitic speakers and others from Syro-Palestine. The most famous of the latter were those the Hyksos who ruled Egypt from about 1730 to1570 B.C.E.. These led to later Egyptian culture being influenced by that of the Levant. Despite such interactions fundamental differences remained between the African Egyptian irrigation farmers along the Nile and the nomads, rainfall farmers, and traders of Syro-Palestine.

Egypt and to a lesser extent Libya had a lengthy influence around the Aegean in what is now largely Greece. Predynastic Egyptian objects have been found in Crete, as well as objects and material indications of Egyptian influence dating before the great Cretan palaces there were built around 2000 B.C.E.. The architectural and bureaucratic structures of the latter were largely based on Southwest Asia and a Semitic language may well have been dominant there until the Greek conquest of the island around 1450 B.C.E.. However, much of Cretan religion and art developed locally and much else clearly derived from Egypt.

During the period of Hyksos domination of Syria and Lower Egypt, there appear to have been particularly close relationships around the eastern Mediterranean. It is possible that these were the result of conquests and settlements in the South Aegean by the Hyksos, who brought more Semitic and Egyptian culture to the region(Stubbings 1973 and Bernal 1991, pp.361-408). Strong indications of such influence have been found on pictures from this period(the seventeenth century B.C.E.) on the Aegean island of Thera and Cretan influences have been found on murals in the Hyksos capital in the Nile Delta and in the Galilee.

Around 1570 B.C.E., Egyptian rulers from the south expelled the Hyksos and set up the Eighteenth Dynasty and the New Kingdom. With national unity, Egyptian power not only expanded south to the fourth cataract, but also to the north. Direct rule was established over much of the Syro-Palestine and a sphere of diplomatic and political influence extended far beyond that. By 1400 B.C.E., Egypt's only serious rival was the Hittite Empire based in what is now Central Turkey. Thus, contact was established with the enemies of the Hittites to their west in order to outflank them and to gain the products of the Aegean region, which after middle of the 15th century B.C.E. came under the overall domination of the Greek rulers of Mycenae in the north- east of the Peloponnese.

Tomb paintings from the Egyptian capital at Thebes show Aegean envoys and their servants bringing Cretan products and offering their submission to the Pharaoh. Diplomatic correspondence from Western Turkey to the pharaoh and religious reformer Akhenaten(1367-1350 B.C.E.) has been found. Furthermore, as the Egyptologist Donald Redford has written recently: "There is no reason to doubt that the Egyptian court was at all times during the Mycenaean Age in correspondence with the court at Mycenae, although the letters have not as yet been recovered" (Redford, 1992. pp.242-243). Archaeological finds from this period provide the same picture. Many Egyptian and Levantine objects have been found around the Aegean and Mycenaean pottery in the Levant as well as Egypt and Nubia( Cline, 1987). Still more startling have been two shipwrecks from this period, excavated under water off the Turkish coast. Their cargoes, one of which is extremely rich, show considerable trade among Egypt, the Levant and Cyprus and the Aegean( Bass, 1987).

There is no doubt that the kingdoms of the Aegean were important players in the international system between 1450 and 1200 B.C.E.. They exported metals, finished metalwork, pottery and probably cloth, wine, olive oil, honey, and slaves. We also know that Mycenaean mercenaries served in the Egyptian armies. Nevertheless, it is clear that Egypt was the dominant partner. Economically, it had a huge grain surplus and was a producer of linen and papyrus, it was also a conduit for gold and tropical products such as ebony and ivory. Politically it had a strong centralised state extending far into Syria. Culturally, it was far in advance of Mycenaean Greece with two thousand years of almost continuous religious and technical development behind it. Although there was clearly substantial Egyptian influence on Greece-directly or through Crete-before this time and for many centuries after, the period from 1450 to 1200 B.C.E. was probably the one of Egypt's greatest direct impact on Greece (Bernal, 1991. pp.408-484).

There are a number of indications of the presence of Africans in Bronze Age Greece from 1650 to1200 B.C.E.. Among other paintings at Thera was one identified by the excavator as of two African boys boxing. This interpretation has been challenged but there is no doubt about other paintings of Black Africans from the Bronze Age Aegean or about the 6 representations of "negroid" Africans found from Bronze Age Cyprus(Karageorghis, 1988, pp. 8-15). Documents found in Greece from the thirteenth century B.C.E., contain a significant number of West Semitic names but also others such as Aikuptiyo the later Greek Aigyptios and Misarayo from the West Semitic Mis5ry both meaning "Egyptian". The names Kamayo and Kemeu may come from the Egyptian km or kame "black" and Kmt or Ke@me " the black land or people" i.e. "Egypt". It is generally acknowledged that the name Aitioq/po found on these tablets is the later Greek Aithiops, "Ethiopian" (Snowden, 1970. p.102).

Aithiops had a wide range of meanings. It was sometimes used to denote any people substantially darker that Greeks or Romans themselves. Homer, for instance, refers to two sets of "Ethiopians" one to the south and one to the east. The latter clearly indicates the dark Asian populations of Elam (in what is now Iran) and India. At the other end of the scale, the meaning of Aithiops was restricted to black Africans with "Negro" features. In Roman times, the name Aegyptius became a synonym of Aethiops. Before then, it meant inhabitant of Egypt, hence people of either dark Mediterranean or Upper Egyptian Nilotic appearance. Thus, from the beginning there was an overlap between the Aithiops and Aigyptios, although the former generally denoted darker and more "negroid" types.

One of the earliest Greek poems--now lost-- was called Aithiopis. It was concerned with Memnon, king of the Ethiopians. Its date is uncertain, but the story of the "the most beautiful," noble, and brave Ethiopian prince, who marched to Troy's rescue and died there heroically, was known by the earliest Greek poets whose works survive, Hesiod and Homer, who lived in the 10th or 9th centuries B.C.E. (Bernal, 1987, pp.86-88). There is some confusion as to whether Memnon was an Asian "Ethiopian" or an African one(Snowden 1970, pp.151-152 and Bernal, 1991, pp.258-260). The predominant tradition, however, linked him to Egypt and Nubia and the most plausible origin of his name is from Imn m ht or Ammenemes II, the twelfth Dynasty pharaoh, who campaigned far to the north of Egypt in the 19th century B.C.E.(Bernal, 1991. pp.267-268).

Memnon was not the only Ethiopian to play a prominant role in the Homeric epics. In the first book of the Iliad, Zeus goes with the other gods to feast with 'the blameless Ethiopians"(I. 423-424) The Odyssey opens with Poseidon visiting them (I.22-24). Thus, for Homer and presumably other Greeks of his time the Ethiopians were a particularly virtuous people with close associations with the gods. This, and Homer's knowledge of Pygmies (who lived in the land where cranes migrated in winter) show that he had some sense of African Geography(Iliad. III.5-7).

Homer had a great admiration for Egypt. For him, its capital Thebes, was the richest city imaginable; its medicines and magic were the most effective and its rulers the most just and generous in the world(Iliad IX. 382-386; XIX. 37-39 and Odyssey IV.123-126; XIV. 282-286). The poet also saw Africans in Greece. Odysseus' herald Eurybates, who accompanied him on important missions was described as having "black skin and woolly hair"

(Snowden, 1970, p.102 and Drake, 1990, pp.318-319).

There was also a lord called Aigyptios on Odysseus' island Ithaca.

The modern scholar Frank Snowden has suggested that there may have been a special connection between Ithaca and Egypt.

(Snowden, 1970, p.102). However, this would seem unlikely given the use of the name in Bronze Age texts. It is much more probable that Egyptians and other Africans were living in many places around the Aegean, both during the Bronze Age, which Homer depicted and in his own time, several centuries later. However, the poet's use of the name and the description of Eurybates's physiognomy as remarkable indicate both that Egyptians and other Africans were familiar in Greece and that they were unusual there.

Africa 500 B.C.E.-500 C.E.

Around 400 B.C.E., the Napatan state declined and was replaced by one still further up the Nile at Meroë, just seventy miles north of Khartoum. Archaeologists have excavated a large city there with monuments and official buildings of stone and ordinary houses of brick. There are many inscriptions in hieroglyphics and in a special cursive alphabet developed from Egyptian writing for the Meroitic language. This has been deciphered and historians have been able to establish a list of the kings and queens for the state's 700 years of history after the shift of capital from Napata. Unfortunately the Meroitic language is still unknown and the texts cannot be read(Adams,1984. pp. 294-332). Nevertheless, from Egyptian inscriptions, freizes illustrating royal triumphs, descriptions by Greek and Roman travellers and archaeology it is possible to reconstruct some aspects of Meroitic politics and society.

Royal power was based on pharaonic principles and pyramids, of a distinctive type, and collossi were constructed. However, Meroitic queens, the "Candaces" of the Bible and Greek sources were clearly more powerful than in Egypt. It should be noted that in the first millennium B.C.E., the status of women in Egypt was itself far higher, than in contemporary Syro-Palestine or Greece. The Meroitic state extended well to the south of Khartoum and to the north as far as the Egyptian frontier under Greek or Roman rule. In the first century C.E., technological improvements allowed for water to be raised for irrigation and lower Nubia to be cultivated once again. The state controlled over twelve hundred kilometers of the Nile Valley from above the sixth to well below the second cataract, some stretches of which were extremely fertile and productive. Thus, the economy of the Meroitic state had a firm agricultural basis. Cotton fabrics were produced in Nubia before they were in Egypt. From these textiles and some of the art styles it is clear that Meroë was in contact-presumbly by the Red Sea- with India.

Most scholars believe that Nubia at this time was a "corridor" and gained great wealth from trade between Egypt and the Mediterranean and central Africa and some have gone on to suggest that Nile Valley culture was diffused elsewhere in Africa from Napata and Meroë(Arkell, 1961, p. 177). This has been denied in the recent academic trend towards isolationism(Connah, 1987. pp.64-66). However, some striking similarities require explanation. Amazing parallels between the ritual and objects of Egyptian and Nubian pharaohs and those of royalty from elsewhere in Africa have been noted by many scholars(Hoffman, 1979, p,258-260). There are two explanations for these, 1) that Nubia and Egypt drew from a wider African tradition and 2) that Nile Valley styles of kingship diffused elsewhere in the continent. The two explanations are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it would seem likely that both processes took place. Nevertheless, some of the specifics are too close to be explained simply as part of a general tradition and, given other cultural similarities between Nubia and distant parts of the continent it, is very likely that there was cultural diffusion during the 1st millennium B.C.E. from Napata and Meroë across the savanna at least as far as Nigeria.

Meroë was a major producer of iron. One scholars has even propose that smelting iron "formed (its) economic basis." (Phillipson, 1977. p.88). The slag neaps outside the capital led another to describe it as "the Birmingham of ancient Africa" (Adams, 1984. p.301). It is generally believed that forging iron was first developed in Anatolia, the modern Turkey in the second millennium B.C.E.. However, it is likely that Egyptians were using terrestrial (nonmeteoric) iron by the period of the Old Kingdom and there is no doubt that it was in use there in the New Kingdom, ( Dunham and Young, 1942). However, it is likely that there were religious and cultural inhibitions to its use in Egypt and it was never used on such a large scale as in Nubia. Nubian sandstone contains easily accessible iron ore, and given the shortage of tin, which is needed for bronze the development of iron there is not surprising. Iron was not being smelted only at Meroë. By the ninth century B.C.E., it was being worked, far to the south in Rwanda and Burundi. By Meroitic times, the metal was being smelted to the south west of Lake Nyanza in Tanzania( Sinclair, 1991. p.200). The Nok culture of the Nigerian savanna that was later to produce such wonderful naturalistic sculpture was already working iron by 500 B.C.E. It is difficult to say whether this wide spread occurrence in such a relatively short period was the result of independent invention or diffusion and if diffusion what was the point of origin. Despite the early working in Rwanda, before the emergence of the Napatan kingdom, the most likely candidate for origin is the Nile Valley. and given the major iron works of Meroë this state certainly had a significant influence in the spread of the metal's use.

The huge and rapid expansion of the Bantu language family appears to have begun by about 400 B.C.E.. Linguistic evidence leaves no doubt that the family originated in the savanna of what is now Cameroon and both linguistics and archaeology indicate that its success was the result of a superior iron technology. There is, however, so far no evidence for this in Cameroon. Thus, scholars postulate that Bantu speakers as successful agriculturalists spread around the north of the rain forest of the Congo basin, to the Great Lakes region, where they encountered and learnt new herding techniques and metallurgy from the Sudanic and Cushitic speakers there. Some of them then migrated south and south west, and began the process that eventually led to the occupation of virtually the whole of Central and Southern Africa. The patterns of Bantu migration and absorption of other peoples were undoubtedly extremely complex, and it is unlikely that historians, linguists and archaeologists will ever completely unravel them(Phillipson, 1977.pp.210-230). In any event, the Bantu expansion led to the later establishment of many large and successful states.

Meroë was destroyed in the 4th century CE by one or more of its neighbours, the tribes to the east and west and the Kingdom of Aksum, whose king Ezana boasted of having raided this country in the early fourth century. The Kingdom of Aksum based in the Northern Highlands of Ethiopia is claimed as the ancestor of the Ethiopian monarchy, which was abolished only in 1975. As mentioned above, the Ethiopian highlands had been one of the major African agricultural hearths and a very early recipient of barley and wheat. The introduction of the alphabet there suggests that a society of some stratification and sophistication existed there, before the emergence early in the first millennium B.C.E. of the powerful and cultivated states across the Red Sea in South Arabia(the present-day Yemen). It is also interesting to note that this early introduction fits with the strong Ethiopian tradition of relations between Ethiopia and Israel during the reign of King Solomon in the tenth century B.C.E., although many of the details of the tradition would seem to be mythical. There is also no doubt that there was a strong Jewish influence on Ethiopia well before the country became Christian in the fourth century C.E.

Archaeological discoveries have confirmed the traditions that there was a close relationship between Ethiopia and the South Arabian kingdoms. This does not mean, however, that the Semitic languages in Ethiopia came from Arabia. Nor were conquests always from Asia to Africa, in the sixth century C.E., for instance, Ethiopians conquered South Arabia. Almost a thousand years earlier in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., however, there is evidence of cultural influence from South Arabia to Ethiopia of such intensity as to suggest a conquest. Nevertheless, the culture always remained distinctively Ethiopian. Impressive temples were constructed and bronze and iron were smelted. After the third century B.C.E., the civilization continued to develop more independently and in the first century C.E. Aksum was established as a strong kingdom. It was referred to with respect in Greek and Roman sources, and there is archaeological evidence of grand monuments and huge fortified stone built palaces (Connah, 1987, pp.74-83) Ezana, the best known king of Aksum left inscriptions recording his triumphs in the first quarter of the fourth century C.E. He raided the Nile Valley, and he declared Christianity the state religion of Aksum. Thus, Ethiopia was the second country to become officially Christian (Armenia had converted some twenty years earlier). Ezana also reformed the Ethiopian alphabet by introducing diacritical marks onto the consonantal letters to indicate the vowel that followed them. This principle was adopted from India and shows the extent of trade across the Indian Ocean at the time. As a literate, urbanized and Christian state Aksum survived for many centuries and provided a cultural basis for later Ethiopian religious and social structures even after the capital moved to more productive climatic zones further south.

As the Sahara became drier, the coast and mountains of north-western Africa were increasingly cut off from the rest of the continent. Their relationship with the Mediterranean world was enhanced by the establishment there after 1100 B.C.E. of a number of colonies from Phoenicia; these became integrated into a trading network that formed the first basis of the "slave society" that later became typical of the Greek and Roman worlds. Nevertheless, the Phoenicians of Carthage and the other cities of the northern coast of Africa had significant links with the native Berber speaking peoples of the mountains and the Berbers and others who inhabited the Sahara and the savanna to its south.

A significant proportion of the population of Carthage at this time has been described by physical anthropologists as "negroid" and this includes members of the upper classes (Keita, 1990, pp.36-37). Thus, around 500 B.C.E. there was here, as in Egypt, Upper Nubia and Ethiopia a distinctive literate and urbanized, sophisticated civilization on the African continent.

Africans, Asians, and Europeans from 500 B.C.E. to 500


Dislike or suspicion of peoples who look different from the physical norm or ideal type of a population occurs in many societies. However, before 500 B.C.E. there is no evidence that Asians or Europeans disliked Africans for their skin colour or physiognomy. Quite the contrary, there seems to have been a general admiration, not merely for the cultural and moral achievements of Egyptians and Ethiopians but also for their appearance. This favorable impression did not disappear immediately. Herodotos, the earliest Greek historian, whose work is extant wrote in the fifth century B.C.E. that the Ethiopians (by which he meant the Nubians of the Upper Nile) were "said to be the tallest and best-looking people in the world"(III.20). By this time, however, a prejudice against both darkness of skin and "negroid" physiognomy was growing around the Mediterranean World. In Egypt, black was the color of fertility, life and immortality, in contrast to the sterile red of the desert. This contrasted with Greece where there is no doubt that at least as far back as Homer, blackness was associated with night and death as well as with the terrors that these inspire. This is not a human universal. In many cultures white or pallor-the color of corpses- is the symbol of death. However, in early Greece, black also had positive aspects. It was seen as the color of bravery and manliness while white was that of effeminacy and lily-livered cowardice. The predominant association of blackness with evil only began in Greece in the fifth century B.C.E..

A similar shift took place in the Hebrew tradition. It is clear that there were people of African appearence in Ancient Israel. The name Pinchas comes from the Egyptian Pa NNNhs "The Nubian" and Smimjôn, Sim(e)on may well come from Smaw "Upper Egyptian". This does not necessarily mean that the individuals so named were themselves black, but the names do indicate both that there had been people of this type in Israel and that they differed from the norm. In the Old Testament, the predominant color of sin is scarlet a tradition preserved today in the color of the devil. In Israel, too, black had unfortunate associations. It was used to portray psychological as well as natural gloom but black --and night as a relief from the heat of the day-- also had positive connotations. Black was the color of the clouds that brought the precious rain, and the beautiful and erotic lover in the Song of Songs is called in both the Hebrew and Greek texts "black and beautiful."(Drake, 1990. p.307). White too had both negative and positive connotations. It was sometimes the color of purity, but also that of leprosy. In the labeling of people, the ambivalence at the level of abstraction was made more acute by the uncertainties involved in transposing an abstract color to human complexions.

By the time of the New Testament, at the beginning of our era black had become the color and complexion of evil and white that of purity and goodness (Drake, 1990, pp.4-5). The shift is symbolised by the fact that the Latin "Vulgate" translation of the Song of Songs changes the description of its heroine to "black but beautiful." It was in the last centuries B.C.E., that the long sickening tradition began of people with dark skins being patronized by others, or excusing themselves with the argument that their souls are white.

The Biblical story of Noah's punishment of his son Ham by a curse on Ham's son Canaan, had originally been used to justify the Israelites' extermination and enslavement of the Canaanites. In biblical interpretations written in the new atmosphere, the curse was transferred to Ham, the African, and took the form of "ugly" blackness and perpetual slavery (Drake, 1990, pp.15-23).

What caused this change of attitude? The standard explanation that it was the first encounter between Mediterranean peoples and black Africans does not hold, because of the evidence of substantial contact between the two groups during the Bronze Age and the period up to 500 B.C.E.. There are two other explanations for diminution of the positive connotations of blackness and the exageration of the negative ones at this time. The first is that Greeks began to dominate darker peoples in Southwest Asia and Egypt during these centuries and began to find complexion a useful marker and justification of rule; the second explanation is influence from Persia.

During the second millennium B.C.E. Indo-European speaking invaders, calling themselves "Arya," invaded the older civilizations of Elam (in what is now Iran) and the Indus Valley. The "Aryans" were generally lighter in color than the natives, who seem to have resembled the south Indians of today. During these struggles, a cult of lightness, associated with the sun and the sky grew up. The Hindu Vedas or scriptures contain violent images of the destruction of natives described as "darker" and clear cut in their preference for the invaders own lighter skins, though black has continued to be valued in some respects in Indian culture(Drake, 1990, p.309). In Iran, these struggles became integrated into the Zoroastrian religion which, like its later branch Manichaeanism, sees the universe as in perpetual conflict between the forces of good and evil or light and darkness.

In the sixth century B.C.E., Persia irrupted into the Mediterranean, conquering the Levant and Egypt as well as many Greek city states. In Egypt, the emphasis on the value and moral superiority of lightness was useful both to the conquerors and to Greeks who played an increasingly important role there even before the conquest by Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Macedonian or Greek Ptolemaic dynasty there around 300 B.C.E.. This preference for the invaders and paler Lower Egyptians, introduced a new sense of "race" to Egypt and resistance to the Persians and later to the Greeks involved a cultural "return" to the art of the great southern Dynasties in Upper Egypt and an image of Nubia as a refuge( Drake, 1990. pp.259-265).

These new "racial" attitudes spread into Greece. Nevertheless, the prejudice against people of evident African descent that grew up at this time was qualitatively different from the "caste racism" found in the modern world as a direct result of European needs to justify the horrors of race-based slavery. In the modern form, the best black is seen as inferior to the worst white. This was never the case in classical Greece and imperial Rome. The presence of many Africans there is indicated by the. large numbers of blacks represented in Greek and Roman art (Snowden 1970). We know that some were slaves, although most slaves of the period were Mediterranean or northern European. Some Africans were important free craftsmen. For instance, the best known and most admired potter in fifth century Athens, had the Egyptian name Amasis and was portrayed by a rival as a black African(Snowden, 1970, pp.16-17). Blacks were also admired and feared as warriors. The bulk of Hannibal's Carthaginian army that crossed the Alps and invaded Italy was African, and some were "negroid". The coin struck to pay the troops and symbolizing his army had a Negro head on one side and an elephant on the other(Snowden, 1970. pp.70-71).

This leads us to consider Greek and Roman relations with Africa beyond Egypt. The name "Africa" probably comes from the Afar people, who lived (and live), at the southern end of the Red Sea. In Roman times, however, "Africa" was used as a euphemism for the hated Carthage for the territory we now call Tunisia. These northern Africans continued to play an important role in Roman history. The early Roman playwright Terencewas a central figure in the formation of Latin drama from Imperial times to the Middle Ages, was surnamed Afer and was born in North Africa. The Roman imperial dynasty of the Severans, who ruled the Empire from 193 to 235 C.E., were originally Punic or Phoenician in culture and came from the coast of what is now Libya. A number of the most important Christian fathers of the church came from Northwestern Africa, the most important being St Augustine the theological founder of the Roman Catholic church.

The Roman provinces of North West Africa were conquered not only from the Carthaginians but from Berber tribes and the urbanized Berber kingdoms of the mountains to the south, who put up a ferocious resistance to the Roman legions, which were never able to establish themselves in the desert.

For the Romans and Greeks, there were three types of blacks. There were those who lived within the empire, who were generally, though not always in the lower classes. Then there were the admired civilized and philosophical "Ethiopians" who were generally located in the Nubian state of Meroë. The name "Ethiopia" has maintained this high status into the modern period. The third type, the fierce nomadic "Ethiopians" of the desert from Egypt to the Atlantic, resisted Roman attacks and raided cities within the empire. From these and from black forces in the Roman legions, Africans gained a reputation for soldierly qualities. In Christian times, the patron saint of soldiers became St Maurice, a soldier from Upper Egypt of the 3rd century CE, who was always portrayed as a "negro"(Drake, 1990, pp.214-220).

Ptolemy the mathematician and astronomer of the second century CE, was also an Upper Egyptian, and known to Arab writers as a black, (Bernal, 1992, p.606). Christian writers did not refer to his appearance. Thus, despite the widespread fear and suspicion of blacks among western Europeans of the Middle Ages the dominant figures or authorities in their theology, warfare, and science-St Augustine, St Maurice and the learned Ptolemy were Africans and the last two were sometimes or more often seen as Blacks.

The name "Maurice" was itself linked to blackness, as it appears to come from the Roman province of Mauritania, the present Morocco and Western Sahara, from which the later Latin Maurus and the English Moor both seem to have come.

Another word with a somewhat similar history is "nigger." The Canaanite verb ngr means "to gush forth, flow or vanish." In Hebrew, one finds the words niggarim and niggarôt as "torrents" or "streams". Throughout,the Arabian and Saharan deserts there are ancient place names of the type Gerrha, Nagara and Negra. These derive from the Phoenician dialect of Canaanite and mean "oasis" or "river that flows into the desert." It is from the last that the name of the river Niger seems to have derived. Classical writings refer to a people called Nigretai, Nigretes or Negritai, who were Western Ethiopians or lived to the west of the Ethiopians. Together with their neighbours the Pharusai they were described as having ridden across the desert on horses and chariots to raid and destroy 300 Phoenician cities on the coast. The Roman writer Pliny( 23-79 C.E) believed they came from the Niger but it would seem more plausible to suggest that they came from the Saharan oases(v.43). There is no doubt that they appeared as "black" to the peoples of the coast.

It is not a coincidence that the best known Latin word for "black" is niger. There is no common Indo-European root for "black" and although niger has descendents in all the Romance languages, negro, nero, noir etc. there are no cognates to it in other Indo-European languages and its origin is unknown to orthodox lexicographers. In early Latin there were many words for the color, the commonest of these being ater used for the dull black of shade or night and niger. The meaning of niger was originally restricted to the brilliant black, with a violet tinge found in southern products such as ebony and opals. Although not attested for people in the early period, this color fits exactly with the beautiful complexions of the Haratîn in the oases of the Sahara, and the Latin word niger would seem likely to derive from them as the Nigretai, Nigretes or Negritai. Later niger displaced ater and the other terms to become the standard Latin term for "black." The fact that the Portuguese used their word for "black" negro, to describe the people they raided and enslaved on the African coast seems to be simply a coincidence and the negative connotations of "negro" and its derivative "nigger", in the era of race-based slavery more than justify the distaste with which they are held today. Nevertheless the terms have an honourable prehistory showing once again the intricacy and intimacy of relations between Africa and Europe in antiquity.






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