Conventional history claims that Africa had no indigenous written scripts before the arrival of the Europeans. The continent had only an "oral" tradition, implying that Africa was a "historically illiterate" continent. But is this true? Not so, say the facts on the ground in many African countries! From Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to Saharan rock art, to the ingenious modern syllabaries of the Vai and Bassa people of Liberia and the Bamum of Cameroon, Africa had its own written scripts before the Europeans arrived. Our Correspondent, Curtis Abraham, has returned from an interesting project in Cameroon where an indigenous African writing script, the Bamum, is being preserved. Here is his report.
HUMANKIND'S INVENTION OF the written word was indeed one of the greatest innovations in the history of our species. Not only did it forever transform communication and record keeping, it also altered the organisation of societies and changed the nature of state administration. However, when it comes to Africa a myth still persists that the continent and its various peoples are lacking in a legacy of the written word. Africa is instead demoted to the oral tradition status.
Nevertheless Ancient Egypt is an obvious and excellent example. And it is through Ancient Egypt that the Western world shares an important legacy with Africa: the emergence--over 5,000 years ago during the fourth millennium BC--in Egypt of a form of writing from which all modern scripts are genetically descended.
Egyptian hieroglyphics made up a formal writing system used by the Ancient Egyptians that contained a combination of pictographs (e.g. ancient or prehistoric drawings or paintings found on rock walls) and ideographs (a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept) that later evolved into a phonetic (linguistic) script.
The process in which phonetic writing was born in Ancient Egypt is often called the "rebus principle", with the use of existing symbols such as pictograms purely for their sounds, regardless of their meaning, to represent new words.
Contemporary historians of Africa, archeologists, linguists and others have provided strong evidence that Ancient Egypt's culture grew from sub-Saharan African roots. In fact, from approximately the sixth to the fourth millennia BC, the Saharo-Sahelian peoples far to the south made seminal contributions down the Nile into pre-dynastic Egypt. And it is this south-north and north-south social interaction that is the precursor to cultural innovations like the writing system that developed in the land of the pharaohs.
Recent studies in population genetics are also bringing to light the dynamic cultural interaction between sub-Saharan Africa (Ancient Nubia) and Ancient Egypt. For example, in 1997, C. Lalueza Fox of the Universitat de Barcelona in Spain conducted mitochondrial DNA analysis of the remains of Ancient Nubians, inhabitants of southern Egypt and northern Sudan. Dr Fox concluded that there was indeed a south to north genetic flow following the Nile River Valley.
Further genetic research conducted by Dr Maria C. Terreros of the Florida International University and her colleagues (Dr Rene J. Herrera and Dr L. Martinez) in 2003 discovered close affinities between eastern sub-Saharan populations and those of Egypt in the phylogenetic trees (Phylogenesis is a term in Biology describing the sequence of events involved in the evolution of a species, etc).
This, Dr Maria Terreros and her colleagues suspect, may indicate the existence of gene flow along the Nile River--confirming more or less what Dr Lalueza Fox had earlier reported.
Egyptian hieroglyphics did not emerge like a phoenix from the ashes (although it might have had a single ingenious Egyptian inventor). It evolved from what experts call "highly codified African graphic systems", which, even if not phonetic, were a highly systematised and recorded, as well as communicated, information. …