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  • The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800
  • Patrick Manning
The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. By Christopher Ehret. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002. 481 + xiv pp. Maps and illustrations. $22.50 (paper).

In a book that is intended for use by undergraduates yet conveys much in the way of new research results and new interpretation, Ehret defines four major civilizations of Africa according to the four major language groups of African peoples. He shows each of these to have undergone growth and transformation in the nearly 20,000 years of the book's time span. The language and civilizational groups are the Nilo-Saharan speakers of north central and northeastern Africa, the Niger-Congo speakers of western and central Africa, the Afrasan (also known as Afroasiatic) speakers of northern and northeastern Africa, and the Khoisan speakers of eastern and southern Africa.

In nine chronological chapters, Ehret traces the development and interaction of these four civilizations. For the period from 16,000 to 9000 B.C.E. Ehret focuses on the systems of food production for each of the four civilizations, but also notes the distinctive religious beliefs of each civilization. In Afrasan societies, religious beliefs emphasized clan deities and evil brought by harmful spirits; Nilo-Saharan societies developed nontheistic belief systems; Niger-Congo societies recognized spirits at various levels and were concerned about evil stemming from neglected ancestors or from evil living persons; and Khoisan societies emphasized a nontheistic spiritualism tied to trance-dances. Both food production and systems of belief, in Ehret's vision, have chronologically deep roots in African societies.

For the period from 9000 to 3500 B.C.E. Ehret analyzes the rise of agriculture for three civilizations and the development of new hunting systems among the Khoisan. This chapter concludes with a section placing Africa in the context of the world history of agricultural development. [End Page 243] For the period from 3500 to 1000 B.C.E. Ehret pursues the issue of agriculture and gives particular attention to the spread of Bantu speakers. Since the "Bantu migrations" have become a favored topic in world history courses, it is important to have the additional detail and complexity that comes from Ehret's summary. For the period from 1000 B.C.E. to 300c.e. Ehret develops three important topics: the independent invention of iron smelting in north central Africa and its spread throughout the continent; the spread of commercial networks inthe Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and East Africa; and the impactof Indonesian mariners and settlers in introducing crops, housing styles, and musical instruments.

His summary is parallel in its scope and perhaps in its importance to V. Gordon Childe's The Dawn of European Civilization and New Light on the Most Ancient East, written some seventy years earlier. Childe relied on archaeological work to provide a sophisticated but accessible portrayal of the early history of Europe, and in the process coined the terms for the agricultural revolution and the urban revolution. Time, techniques, and interpretations have changed in the years since Childe's analysis. Ehret focuses as much on material culture as Childe did, centering especially on food production, but he emphasizes gradual change rather than sudden developments. He relies heavily on linguistic and anthropological evidence, both because of the strength of African linguistic studies and because of the continuing lack of investment in archaeology in Africa.

This book is a major contribution in world history for several reasons. First, it summarizes a major region of the world whose importance is now coming to be recognized. Africa was the region of origin of Homo sapiens something over 100,000 years ago. In the early times that are the focus of Ehret's book, the African proportion of the human population was surely much greater than the 10% of human population that now lives there. Second, the book addresses major global themes in early times: food production, religion, the use of metals, and the rise of commerce are addressed in innovative fashion. Third, the book traces specific links between Africa and West Asia, Indonesia, Europe, and the trans-Atlantic Americas. Fourth, with its emphasis on reconstructing the past through historical linguistics...


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pp. 243-246
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