Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 205-208
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An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 B.C. to 400 A.D.
An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 B.C. to 400 A.D. By CHRISTOPHER EHRET. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia; Oxford: James Currey, 1998. Pp. xvii + 354. $45.00 (cloth).
At the end of his main text, Christopher Ehret claims that in this book "a beginning has been made, sometimes detailed and complex in its revelations, towards restoring the early Eastern and Southern African past into the domain of history." He also asserts that "the history [End Page 205] of Eastern and Southeastern Africans" in this period selected "bears a lively relevance for the world history of those times" (p. 297). Readers will find that the contents of An African Classical Age amply justify both these statements. There can be no doubt that this is an important book and that it is also a courageous one, seeking to tell the story of the inhabitants of a huge part of the African continent over the course of a millennium and a half for which there is very little documentary evidence, minimal oral tradition, and only patchy archaeological data. The inevitable question raised by the book concerns the basis of the author's knowledge: quite simply, how, in such circumstances, does he know what happened? The answer is that his source of information is historical linguistics: the reconstruction of past languages and the identification of the people who spoke them, together with their technology, economy, and social organization, as well as their relationship with their neighbors. In the end, such reconstructions depend on detailed analysis of the very large number of languages spoken in the relevant parts of Africa, either at the present time or in the relatively recent past. The problem is that for most readers (including the reviewer, who is an archaeologist) such evidence is regrettably in the "black box" category, that is to say, it is mysterious and difficult to evaluate.
It might be argued that this is only a problem for unspecialized readers, except that the book is clearly intended for such general readers; it does not contain the sort of detail that research linguists might expect. Nevertheless, the author has tried hard to present both an explanatory textual account based on the detailed evidence and substantial examples of that evidence in the form of tables in both the main text and two appendices. There is also a series of useful maps. However, most readers will still find parts of the text difficult to follow, covering as it does such a complexity of languages, peoples, and places. Furthermore, although the interpretive methodology is explained with some care, the chronological basis of the historical deductions that are made is insufficiently explicit. Glottochronology is presumably involved but is hardly mentioned.
In spite of these problems, this is a book with much to recommend it. It represents one of the few attempts at general synthesis for the periods and areas involved, and it offers one of the most convincing accounts of the complex movements and interactions of Bantu and other peoples, in the context of developments in food production, iron technology, and commercial contacts. The much-debated problem of the arrival and dispersal of the Asian food plants and of the domestic chicken is handled particularly well (pp. 277-280). In addition, [End Page 206] repeated attempts are made to equate the linguistic evidence with the relevant archaeological data, although the author seems to have a poor opinion of some archaeologists for "eschewing broad synthesis and downplaying linguistic techniques unfamiliar to them" (p. 228). Nevertheless, archaeologists will find this book a rich source of potential research objectives, because it makes repeated predictions of areas and subjects that would repay archaeological investigation. Of particular interest to this reviewer, for instance, with his experience of archaeological fieldwork in the Lake Albert area, is Ehret's suggestion that...