With so much time, Africa's peoples have woven a complex, fascinating story of human interaction, a story that includes two of the most dramatic population movements of the past 5, years: the Bantu expansion and the Indonesian colonization of Madagascar. All those interactions are now tangled up in politics because the details of who arrived where before whom are shaping Africa today.
How did the five divisions of humanity in Africa get to be where they are today? Why did blacks come to be so widespread, instead of one or more of the four other groups whose existence Americans tend to forget? How can we ever hope to wrest the answers to these questions from Africa's past without written evidence of the sort that taught us about the spread of the Roman Empire?
African prehistory is a detective story on a grand scale, still only partly solved. Clues can be derived from the present: from the peoples living today in Africa, the languages they speak, and their plant crops and domestic animals. Clues can also be dug up from the past, from the bones and artifacts of long-dead peoples. By examining these clues one at a time and then combining all of them, we can begin to reconstruct who moved where at what time in Africa, and what let them move--with enormous consequences for the modern continent.
As I mentioned, the africa encountered by the first European explorers in the fifteenth century was already home to five human races: blacks, whites, Pygmies, Khoisan, and Asians. The only race not found in Africa is the aboriginal Australians and their relatives.
Now, I know that classifying people into arbitrary races is stereotyping. Each of these groups is actually very diverse, and lumping people as different as the Zulu, Masai, and Ibo under the single heading "blacks" ignores the differences between them.
So does lumping Africa's Egyptians and Berbers with each other and with Europe's Swedes under the single heading "whites. All the human groups on Earth have mated with humans of every other group they've encountered. Nevertheless, recognizing these major groups and calling them by these inexact names is a shorthand that makes it easier to understand history.
By analogy, it's also useful to divide classical music into periods like "baroque," "classical," and "romantic," even though each period is diverse and shades into other periods. By the time European colonialists arrived, most of Africa's major population movements had already taken place see map on next page.
Blacks occupied the largest area, from the southern Sahara to most of sub-Saharan Africa. The ancestors of most African Americans came from Africa's western coastal zone, but similar peoples occupied East Africa as well, north to the Sudan and south to the southeast coast of South Africa. They were mostly farmers or herders, as were the native African whites, who occupied Africa's northern coastal zone and the northern Sahara.
Few of those northern Africans--the Egyptians, Libyans, and Moroccans, for instance-- would be confused with a blond, blue-eyed Swede, but they're often considered white because they have lighter skin and straighter hair than the peoples to the south. At the same time, the Pygmies were already living in groups widely scattered through the central African rain forest. Although they were traditionally hunter-gatherers, they also traded with or worked for neighboring black farmers.
Like their neighbors, the Pygmies are dark- skinned and have tightly curled hair, but that hair is more thickly distributed over their body and face. They also are much smaller in size and have more prominent foreheads, eyes, and teeth. In the s they were actually two groups, found over much of southern Africa: large-statured Khoi herders, pejoratively known as Hottentots, and smaller San hunter-gatherers, pejoratively called Bushmen. Most of the Khoi populations no longer exist; European colonists shot, displaced, or infected many of them, and the survivors interbred with Europeans.
Though the San hunter-gatherers were similarly shot, displaced, and infected, a dwindling number managed to preserve their distinctness in Namibian desert areas unsuitable for agriculture. The Khoisan today look quite unlike African blacks: they have light brown skin sometimes described as yellow, and their hair is even more tightly coiled.
Of these population distributions, that of North Africa's whites is the least surprising because physically similar peoples live in adjacent areas of the Middle East and Europe. Throughout recorded history people have been moving back and forth between Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
But the puzzling placements of blacks, Pygmies, and Khoisan hint at past population upheavals. Today there are just , Pygmies scattered amid million blacks. This fragmentation suggests that Pygmy hunters lived throughout the equatorial forests until they were displaced and isolated into small groups by the arrival of black farmers. Similarly, the Khoisan area of southern Africa is surprisingly small for a people so distinct in anatomy and language.
Could the Khoisan as well have been originally more widespread until their more northerly populations were somehow eliminated? Perhaps the greatest puzzle, however, involves the island of Madagascar, which lies just miles off the coast of southeastern Africa, much closer to Africa than to any other continent. It's in Madagascar that the fifth African race is found. Madagascar's people prove to be a mixture of two elements: African blacks and--surprisingly, given the separation seemingly dictated by the whole expanse of the Indian Ocean--Southeast Asians, specifically Indonesians.
As it happens, the language of the Malagasy people is very close to the Ma'anyan language spoken on the Indonesian island of Borneo, over 4, miles away.
No one even remotely resembling the Borneans lives within thousands of miles of Madagascar. These Indonesians, their language, and their modified culture were already established on Madagascar by the time it was first visited by Europeans in To me this is the single most astonishing fact of human geography in the whole world. It's as if Columbus, on reaching Cuba, had found it occupied by blue-eyed, towheaded Scandinavians speaking a language close to Swedish, even though the nearby North American continent was inhabited by Indians speaking Indian languages.
How on earth could prehistoric people of Borneo, presumably voyaging in boats without maps or compasses, have ended up in Madagascar? The case of Madagascar shows how peoples' languages, as well as their physical appearance, can yield important clues to their origins. Similarly, there's much to be learned from African languages that can't be gleaned from African faces.
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In the mind-boggling complexities of Africa's 1, languages were simplified by the great linguist Joseph Greenberg of Stanford. Greenberg recognized that all those languages can be divided into just four broad families. And, because languages of a given language family tend to be spoken by distinct peoples, in Africa there are some rough correspondences between the language families and the anatomically defined human groups see map at right. Afro-Asiatic languages, however, are spoken by a wide variety of both whites and blacks. The language of Madagascar belongs to yet another, non-African category, the Austronesian language family.
What about the Pygmies? They're the only one of Africa's five races that lacks a distinct language: each band of Pygmies speaks the language of its neighboring black farmers. If you compare a given language as spoken by Pygmies with the same language as spoken by blacks, however, the Pygmy version contains unique words and, sometimes, distinctive sounds. That makes sense, of course: originally the Pygmies, living in a place as distinctive as the equatorial African rain forest, must have been sufficiently isolated to develop their own language family.
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Today, however, those languages' disappearance and the Pygmies' highly fragmented distribution both suggest that the Pygmy homeland was engulfed by invading black farmers. The remaining small bands of Pygmies adopted the invaders' languages, with only traces of their original languages surviving in a few words and sounds. The distribution of Khoisan languages testifies to an even more dramatic engulfing. Those languages are famously unique--they're the ones that use clicks as consonants.
All the existing Khoisan languages are confined to southern Africa, with two exceptions: the click-laden Hadza and Sandawe languages spoken in Tanzania, some 1, miles from their nearest linguistic kin. In addition, clicks have made it into a few of the Niger-Congo languages of southern Africa, such as Zulu and Xhosa which is the language of Nelson Mandela. Clicks or Khoisan words also appear in two Afro-Asiatic languages spoken by blacks in Kenya, stranded even farther from the Khoisan peoples of today than are the Hadza and Sandawe speakers of Tanzania.
All this suggests that Khoisan languages and peoples formerly extended far north into Africa until the Khoisan, like the Pygmies, were engulfed by the blacks, leaving behind only a linguistic legacy to testify to their former presence.
Perhaps the most important discovery from linguistic sleuthing, however, involves the Niger-Congo language family, which today is spread all over West Africa and most of subequatorial Africa. Its current enormous range seems to give no clue as to precisely where the family originated. However, Greenberg has pointed out that the Bantu languages of subequatorial Africa, once thought to be their own language family, are actually a subfamily of the Niger-Congo language family.
Technically they're a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-subfamily. These Bantu languages today account for nearly half of the 1, Niger-Congo languages, and Bantu speakers account for more than half nearly million of the Niger-Congo speakers.
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Yet all Bantu languages are so similar to one another that they've been facetiously described as dialects of a single language. There are some other such Niger-Congo subfamilies, most of which are crammed into West Africa, a small fraction of the entire Niger- Congo range. Even the most distinctive Bantu languages, as well as the Niger-Congo languages most closely related to Bantu, are concentrated there, in a tiny area of Cameroon and adjacent east and central Nigeria.
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From Greenberg's evidence it seems obvious that the Niger-Congo language family arose in West Africa, while the Bantu subfamily arose at the east end of that range, in Cameroon and Nigeria, and then spread out over most of subequatorial Africa. That spread must have begun sufficiently long ago that the ancestral Bantu language had time to split into daughter languages, but nevertheless recently enough that all those daughter languages are still very similar to one another.
Since all Niger- Congo speakers--including the Bantu speakers--are black, it would be nearly impossible to infer who migrated in which direction just from the evidence of physical anthropology. To make this type of linguistic reasoning clear, let me give you an example: the geographic origins of the English language. Today the largest number of people whose first language is English live in North America, with others scattered over the globe in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries.
If we knew nothing else about language distribution and history, we might have guessed that the English language arose in North America and was carried overseas by colonists. But we know better: we know that each of those countries has its own English dialect and that all those English dialects make up just one subgroup of the Germanic language family. The other subgroups--the various Scandinavian, German, and Dutch languages--are crammed into northwestern Europe.
Frisian, the Germanic language most closely related to English, is stuck in a tiny coastal area of Holland and western Germany. Hence a linguist would immediately deduce--correctly--that the English language arose on the northwestern coast of Europe and spread around the world from there. Essentially the same reasoning tells us that the nearly million Bantu-speaking people now flung over much of the map of Africa arose in Cameroon and Nigeria.
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Thus linguistics tells us not only that the Pygmies and the Khoisan, who formerly ranged widely over the continent, were engulfed by blacks; it also tells us that the blacks who did the engulfing were Bantu speakers. But what it can't tell us is what allowed the Bantu speakers to displace the Pygmies and Khoisan.
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To answer that question we need to look at a different type of surviving evidence, that of domesticated plants and animals. Why is this evidence so crucial?