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Sub-Saharan Africa: An Environmental History

By Conte, Chris | African Studies Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Sub-Saharan Africa: An Environmental History


Conte, Chris, African Studies Review


GEOGRAPHY, ENVIRONMENT, AND DEMOGRAPHY Gregory Maddox. Sub-Saharan Africa: An Environmental History. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2006. Nature and Human Societies Series, ix + 355 pp. Photographs. Maps. Illustrations. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. $85.00. Cloth.

Gregory Maddox's Sub-Saharan Africa: An Environmental History follows ABC-CLIO's Nature and Human Societies Series dictum and synthesizes "the intertwined fates of humanity and the natural world" on a continent whose natural history has fostered a substantial environmental diversity, and whose human history is the world's longest.

The early chapters recount how African societies adapted to and transformed tropical forests, savannas, highlands, coasdines, and deserts over the course of humanity's evolution dirough die conclusion of the Adantic slave trade. The book's second half brings Africa and Africans into more intimate contact with Europe, the Americas, and Asia, and the final chapter presents three well-chosen case studies that cover landscape histories from the Sahara, the Serengeti savanna, and the forests of southern, eastern, and central Africa. Maddox follows the narrative with a pedagogically useful set of documents that include oral history, explorer accounts, literary accounts, and international agreements. A useful chronology follows. In order to create a cohesive narrative that includes very large and dynamic processes, Maddox sometimes presents a vague and generalized Africa. However, three thematic threads help to bind together the occasionally diffuse narrative.

The early chapters stress the role of local initiative in the evolution of food production systems, an emphasis aimed at disabusing students of the notion that technological and cultural innovation diffused into Africa. Maddox argues repeatedly that Africans initially domesticated difficult environments with plants and animals endemic to Africa. Mobility, a second unifying theme, serves as the keystone feature of humanity's ecological colonization of the continent through foraging, cultivation, and herding. Mobile communities avoided disease vectors and spread the ecological stress associated with their land use in such a way as to reduce risk.

The dynamic function of regional and global exchanges in commodities and ideas marks the book's third important narrative thread.

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