Sub-Saharan Africa: An Environmental History

By Tropp, Jacob | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Sub-Saharan Africa: An Environmental History


Tropp, Jacob, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Sub-Saharan Africa: An Environmental History. By Gregory H. Maddox. Nature and Human Societies Series. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2006. Pp. xi, 355. $85.00 cloth.

Gregory Maddox has crafted an insightful and accessible introductory survey of sub-Saharan Africa's environmental history over the millennia. Impressively covering material from the origins of human life on the continent to HIV/AIDS in the twenty-first century, from the sands of the Sahara to the central African rainforest, this work brings together the diversity, dynamism, constraints, and innovations of human interactions with their natural surroundings into a concise and readable narrative, without diluting the complexity of particular histories.

Maddox frames his analysis around two central themes: the unique and extreme variability of African environments has greatly shaped people's ways of coping with their landscapes; and Africans have consistently demonstrated "ingenuity and tenacity" in working to control their local environments (pp. 2-4). The first six chapters then pursue these themes through successive historical stages: the environmental and climatic contexts for the origins of humanity (Chapter 1); the development of food production systems in early human societies (Chapter 2); the evolution of "complex" societies and their intensification and spread of agricultural production through roughly the fifteenth century (Chapter 3); the impacts of the Columbian exchange, the transatlantic slave trade, and European "contact" on African populations and environments from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries (Chapter 4); the reorganization of space under colonial rule (Chapter 5); and (Chapter 6) the "age of conservation and development"- a creative way to address the continuities between political ecological dynamics in the high colonial and postcolonial eras and to frame the globally and locally influenced environmental challenges Africans continue to face today. Chapter 7 then provides three detailed case studies on, respectively, the Sahara, the Serengeti, and food production and agriculture in eastern, central, and southern Africa, some of which overlaps with previous chapters. Finally, a "documents" section follows, offering a small collection of diverse primary source excerpts (from an oral tradition of clan origins in Tanzania to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness) and brief introductory remarks by the author.

Throughout his analysis, Maddox thoughtfully suggests how evidence from Africa's past undermines a number of myths and stereotypes that have continued to plague historical depictions of the continent's populations and landscapes. Some of the most forceful comments in this vein are when the author describes the indigenous development of crop domestication and when he explores the "Monsoon Exchange"-connecting eastern Africa with the Indian Ocean world-to refute older paradigms that gave undue weight to Mediterranean influences and the Columbian exchange to explain agricultural innovation in sub-Saharan Africa. …

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