Africa and the Africans in the Nineteenth Century: A Turbulent History

By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch; Mary Baker | Go to book overview

Introduction

When the sun rose on the nineteenth century, Africans already had a very long history behind them. Not only had Africa been the cradle of humanity several million years before, but, with records from ancient Egypt and archeological and linguistic research, we know that its history, properly speaking, dates back seven millennia before the Common Era. From around 7000 B.C.E., peoples speaking so-called “Nilo-Saharan” languages (such as Songhai) and “AfroAsiatic” languages (such as Berber and Hausa) began flowing to the edges of the Sahara. Creeping desertification led them to move both into the Maghreb and also into the Chad basin and western Sudan. In the millennia that followed, with the progression of the Congo-Kordofanians (better known under the reductionist appellation “Bantu-speakers”), there were many developments, including the gradual spread of iron smelting and agriculture, which were among the primary engines of change. The first wave of transformations continued into the tenth century of our era, though earlier technology dating back to the Stone Age continued to be used, even in the nineteenth century. Both kinds of technology were often used in the same period by the same people. This made it possible for farming and foraging societies to coexist. The best known of these huntergatherers are the forest Pygmies, whose name varies depending on the location. They have recently been discovered to have been part of the Bantu-speaking people’s expansion, who probably adapted genetically to the forest milieu. Another example of adaptation is the foraging culture of the Khoisan-speakers, who were pushed toward and into the Kalahari Desert.

The reason for evoking the faraway past is to point out that since that time people have been able to adapt, surmount obstacles, and pass through stages, from the ancient Iron Age to complex societies. Thus, in Africa, demographic changes; long-term environmental transformations caused by human activity; contact with Islamized Arabs starting in the seventh and eighth centuries; interactions with East Indians, a few Chinese traders in the fifteenth century, and finally Europeans; religious and cultural syncretism among animist and monotheist religions; and the development of political systems have differed over time and space. These are among the many factors that have set off a wide range of long-term adaptation and transformation processes.

-xi-

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