free web hosting | website hosting | Business WebSite Hosting | Free Website Submission | shopping cart | php hosting
Rethinking Africa’s contribution to global cultural history III

lessons from a comparative historical analysis of mankala board-games and geomantic divination


by Wim van Binsbergen

to homepage

Part I: Abstract and contents | Part II (section 1-2)


3. Patterns of intercontinental cultural interaction

My overview of two major classes of pan-African cultural phenomena, mankala board-games and geomantic divination, has revealed fascinating generic and formal interrelations and distribution patterns, both within each genre and between these two genres.

                        At least these two significant cultural items of latter-day African culture suggest that it is a typical pattern of African cultural history to see

     active early participation in global cultural origins and flows (central in the case of early mankala, more peripheral and hypothetical in the case of early geomancy),

followed by

     local and regional processes of cultural and political creativity, producing splendid civilisations which however did not have a direct impact on global cultural processes

as well as

     entrenchment — ‘cultural involution’ is perhaps the word[1] — so that later, newer global trends are no longer picked up and locally fed back into the earlier models; instead the latter localise to the extreme, taking up residence in the very texture of local cultures and absorbing the latter’s symbolism and cosmology so effectively that the result is recognised as something uniquely local i.e. ‘African’, having lost all explicit references to, in fact virtually all traces of, an earlier intercontinental exchange.

For instance, in the context of divination in West Africa and Southern Africa practitioners and clients are no longer aware of the Arabian provenance of their geomantic divination. For Southern Africa, until recently, scholarship shared this ignorance. Inward-looking localisation, severance of intercontinental cultural ties and conscious references, the relativity yet of continental boundaries, and the general quality of having become a backwater in the world system of economic and cultural exchange — these are aspects of African cultural involution as suggested by my case studies. Admittedly, also in the last one or two millennia Africa turns out to be capable of cultural export and transmission (to wit, the export of both mankala and geomancy to the New World). But the cultural items it contributed to other continents in recent times have tended to remain culturally peripheral in the destination continent, limited to immigrant groups who define their particular transcontinental identity by reference to these imports.

                        If this tripartite model of (a) initial global participation (b) splendid regional creativity and (c) cultural involution, peculiar to Africa? Not really so, since many of its features remind one of ancient Northwestern Europe until well into the second millennium CE, and even of China. Much further research is needed before the model can be considered sufficiently sophisticated. It is only then that the much more difficult task can begin, of explaining the features of cultural dynamics on the African land mass as highlighted by this model. Is there something about the physical geography of Africa (e.g. desertification in recent millennia; the paucity of navigable river systems and sea arms cutting deep into the land; the relatively impenetrable rain forest) that has impeded its continued participation in global culture? Is there something about African cultures (e.g. kinship systems, sorcery beliefs, reliance on non-verbal and non-representational cultural production in music, dance and ritual, the relative absence of a production of intercontinentally coveted petty commodities but instead a reliance — which has persisted to the present times — on raw materials) that entrenches the social communities which carry these cultures, closes their horizons, makes them less penetrable for intercontinental influences? Could not the same factors be shown to be at work in other continents, if only we could break the spell of implicitly racialist and colonialist stereotypes about what is ‘typically African’?

                        It has been Basil Davidson’s life’s work, through a long series of books[2] and television productions meant for the non-specialist, to correct the Eurocentric stereotypes of Africa as passively receptive and as incapable of major achievements of culture and civilisation, drawing attention to the splendour of ancient kingdoms as well as Africa’s place in ancient intercontinental networks of exchange. But negative stereotypes that apparently fit so well, and apparently explain, the contemporary media image of Africa are difficult to eradicate.

                        The distribution and history of writing in Africa is a case in point.[3] Its pattern strongly reminds us of that of geomancy and mankala. Of the few oldest writing systems of mankind, one (Egyptian hieroglyphic script) was invented in Africa — with the authorities increasingly tending to play down the possibility of a ‘stimulus invention’ factor from Mesopotamian Sumer and Elam. In Antiquity, Nubia, Meroe, Ethiopia, Carthage and its African possessions, and Berber groups throughout North Africa had writing systems of their own. These derived in part from Egyptian non-alphabetic hieroglyphic writing and its hieratic and demotic derivates, but mostly from (probably hieroglyphic-inspired)[4] alphabetic scripts, whose earliest, even pre-Phoenician forms spread rapidly across great distances. Greek and Latin writing established itself throughout North Africa from the first millennium BCE, towards the end of the first millennium CE to be supplanted (with the exception of Greek-derived Coptic script) by Aramaic-derived Arabic script. By the same time, Islam brought writing to Africa’s Indian Ocean coast and the Sudanic belt, and in the next half millennium this expansion continued slowly, via Muslim scribes at many royal courts from Zimbabwe to Senegal. In the next centuries these were, initially in small part and again very slowly, supplanted by Christians (mainly missionaries and Portuguese agents), — a movement to be greatly accelerated by the 19th century, and converging with the imposition of effective European colonial rule. That century also saw the intensified conversion of West African and Sudanic masses to Islam, lending them direct access to Islamic writing. Several African initiatives at the creation of local writing systems have also been recorded since the nineteenth century. The two world religions, Islam and Christianity, and modern statehood have been the main factors of massive literacy (however, still very unevenly spread across the African countries) as a recent phenomenon, after millennia of writing being concentrated in specific regions, outside of which it was a sporadic prerogative of a professional outsider class.

                        This is a rather different story than one would expect on the basis of the persistent stereotype of Africa as a composite of cultures without writing — an image to which anthropology has greatly contributed. And give or take a few centuries and substitute the names of other world religions and agents of expansion, but including the pattern of widespread and virtually total popular illiteracy until relatively recently,[5] it is not a strikingly different story from that of writing in Europe and Asia — apart from the fact that contrary to Africa Europe so far has not been recognised[6] as one of the cradles of writing.

                        One thing will be clear: within that land mass, different dynamics will have to be distinguished according to region, historical period, and strand of cultural tradition — the model will not yield generalisations about Africa, let alone Africans, as a whole.

                        Whatever the outcome of much needed further research on continental and intercontinental patterns of African cultural history, what I have formulated here is already highly pertinent to the Black Athena thesis. Partial but significant support for that thesis is offered by my argument in that it allows us to trace how the earliest civilisations in the Neolithic context were situated in, and derived from, among other places, Africa. In other ways however, looking at the last two or three millennia, my argument with its two cases illustrating African cultural involution, offers an indication of the severe limitations of a model of ‘Africa civilising the rest of the world’. In the extremist Afrocentric distortions or appropriations of the Black Athena thesis, interaction is replaced by one-way traffic, Asia is swept under the carpet, and ancient Egypt is, through pars pro toto (and without further analysis as to its place among the many and diverse cultures of Africa), equated with the African continent as a whole. Thus the illuminating Black Athena thesis of multiplex intercultural interaction risks being reduced to a myth of mechanical and exclusive one-way dependence. The latter is more than anything else a projection back into the past of an exact mirror image of Eurocentric racialist images of Africa as passive, primitive and dependent. Both myths are all the more dangerous if endowed with the insignia of scientific respectability.

                        My proposed model of

     Africa’s important early contributions to global civilisation,

       in the most recent millennia followed by

     Africa’s local and regional cultural and political creativity

but also and increasingly by

     Africa’s entrenched cultural involution

does not of course apply to all instances of recent cultural interrelations involving Africa, as the case of jazz music clearly shows. It does not contradict the Black Athena thesis in its sophisticated form, since there the unit of analysis is not land masses, but civilisations. In that light it is perhaps more significant that ancient Egypt, along with the central Sahara and Ethiopia, belonged to a chain of early civilisations in the greatly extended Fertile Crescent, than that some these early civilisations were situated on or outside the African land mass. Yet for the popular perception of ‘Africa’ in the world today an awareness in terms of the Black Athena thesis must be a healthy corrective to sweeping, often racialist- and colonialist-inspired, generalisations about that continent’s place in global cultural history.

                        Two swallows do not make summer, yet I submit that the underlying model explicitised in these two cases, has rather wide applicability when it comes to assessing ‘Africa’s’ place in the world’s cultural history, both in the Neolithic and during the latest few millennia. We have found that ‘Africa’ might claim both the initial and the later glorious contributions, and the subsequent stagnation and involution.


4. ‘Africa’ not a viable unit of scientific analysis but a welcome concept in identity formation

Might — for the more important message is that ‘Africa’ is the wrong unit of analysis altogether. My argument suggests that regions of cultural initiative are not fixed rigidly and once for all on the map, but show considerable dynamics, influencing each other, now taking precedence, then sinking into relative stagnation as compared to near and not so near neighbours. Such regions are typically the size of large states, a few hundred kilometres across, not of continents. It is the temptation of blowing up of the Black Athena thesis to the scale of entire continents interacting (and then only two, Africa and Europe; and only in the form of one-way traffic), which threatens to deprive it of scientific value and to reduce it to a mere geopolitical (ultimately even racialist) myth. Continents are far too large, too heterogeneous and too capriciously shaped, and their natural boundaries (oceans, seas, deserts, a narrow isthmus in the case of Africa’s boundary with Asia) far too porous and too much an interface for human interaction coming from all directions, than that they can define viable units of analysis in cultural and social history.

                        However, for the same reasons continents provide excellent raw material for an intellectual process that at all costs needs to be distinguished from detached scholarship: identity formation. Under the conditions of technology, political and bureaucratic organisation, and international ideology, which together define (as an increasingly obsolescent) Modernity, political actors themselves set out to define their interactions in geopolitical terms by explicit reference to the map. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the case of Europe, not only intercontinentally in the formative years of imperialism and colonialism, and continentally during the birth of nation states as from early Modern times, but also today, in the birth pangs of the European Union.

                        It is no accident that delusions about the pivotal place of Africa in the world’s recent cultural history (meaning the latest few millennia) should occur now, in the 1990s CE. The internal social contradictions within the U.S.A. after the Cold War put a new premium on whiteness and blackness as social categories. In the world at large, processes of globalisation today do nothing but increasingly marginalise the African continent: an island of poverty and international debt; participating for no more than 1% (!) in the world’s trade flow; getting less and less income out of even a lightly increasing production of crops such as cocoa, coffee and groundnuts; on the verge of being given up by development agencies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; torn by ethnic and civil war, with more than a dozen postcolonial states having effectively ceased functioning; yet more than ever open (through electronic media, education, world religions, intercontinental travel) to the images and aspirations of Late Modernity.[7] Just as it is no accident that we are forced to discuss these issues today, in a context where — with the unification of ‘Europe’ gradually taking political and economic shape — geopolitical ideologues are desperately looking for a binding symbol to define Europeanness as against the rest of the world: Is it to be Christianity? The Celtic heritage of Hallstatt and La T鑞e? Charlemagne? Prometheus? The Greek heritage? Minoan Crete, after all? Athena?! The relative lack of resonance of the Black Athena debate in continental Europe may indicate widespread apathy caused by the current confusion as to what role we as intellectuals are to play in the continental identity game. ‘Should we retreat to a superior deconstruction of such messy identity engineering as illusory, manipulative, and inherently Eurocentrist?’ (‘Yes!’) ‘Should we give up our academic distance and rush to the assistance of opinion leaders of our choice?’ (‘No!’) ‘Should we leave the choice to outsiders, so that Europe simply becomes, culturally and phenotypically, a model of the world at large: multicultural but under North Atlantic cultural hegemony, phenotypically mixed but with White/ Caucasian as the norm, religiously diverse and with Islam as the second largest world religion, but under the implied hegemony of Christianity?’ (‘Disconnected’)

                        This is the context in which we must radically reject continents as appropriate scientific units of cultural analysis. Before the self-conscious political exploitation of the concept of Africa on a truly continental scale, map in hand, in the nineteenth century CE, Africa only existed as a land mass, not as a self-conscious cultural, social or linguistic unit. None of its many cultures, societies and languages ever encompassed the entire land mass, and each tended to share many traits with similar units outside that land mass, in what we now call Asia and Europe. These continental distinctions did not make much sense in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic past, up to scarcely 10,000 years ago, and the instructive pattern of intercontinental continuity prevailing then, deserves closer attention from present-day scholarship as to its impact on cultural continuities today.[8]

                        Instead, historians, linguists, an璽hropologists, writers, politicians, and most recently Afrocentrists, have dreamed up — partly in polemic response to Eurocentric myths, partly as a specific contribution to the continuous social and political construction of ‘otherness’ which goes on in all societies and at all times — myths to define a distinct cultural Africanness which was to be coterminous with the land mass or with the dominant somatic human type inhabiting it — characterised by considerable pigmentation of the outer skin. Here Hegel, who continues to be considered as one of the founding fathers of contemporary North
Atlantic thought, set a trend from which Western thought still has not distanced itself sufficiently:

‘Jenes eigentliche Afrika ist, soweit die Geschichte zur點kgeht, f黵 den Zusammenhang mit der 黚rigen Welt verschlossen geblieben; es ist das in sich gedrungene Goldland, das Kinderland, das jenseits des Tages der selbtsbewu遲en Geschichte in die schwarze Farbe der Nacht geh黮lt ist. Seine Verschlossenheid liegt nicht nur in seiner tropischen Natur, sondern wesentlich in seiner geographischen Beschaffenheit. (...) Der eigent黰lich afrikanische Charakter ist darum schwer zu fassen, weil wir dabei ganz auf das Verzicht leisten m黶sen, was bei uns in jeder Vorstellung mit unterl鋟ft, die Kategorie der Allgemeinheit. Bei den Negern ist n鋗lich das Charakterische gerade, da?ihr Bewu遲sein noch nicht zur Anschauung irgendeiner festen Objektivit鋞 gekommen ist’.[9]

                        Of course, any Africanist today (and most other people) would be horrified by this Hegel quotation, and could cogently argue how African Studies has entirely and consistently constituted one sustained crusade again this sort of blatant racialism, which fortunately lies almost two centuries behind us. However, this is putting the matter far too simply. True enough, Africanists today can safely leave the public production of sweeping Eurocentric stereotypes about Africa to the electronic media and the press, who often oblige. Meanwhile the construction of images and formulae of, still, a compound and unitary Africanness has continued to be one of the conspicuous products[10] of African Studies so far — as a result of the pressures of professionalisation and institutional competition in academia, and also as an implicit reflection, largely unintended, of North Atlantic hegemony in the world system today.


5. Conclusion: Three tasks ahead of us

Our argument has taken us from across the entire Old World and a bit of the New World, and across an expanse of several millennia. It is time to face the here and now, and to draw lessons for the future, in the context of the ongoing Black Athena debate.

                        As a first task, the kind of anti-racialist anti-Eurocentric critique of scholarship which Black Athena I has so brilliantly and largely successfully undertaken for classics as a discipline, could and should also be undertaken for African Studies and anthropology.[11]

                        Such a task would have to be completed before even we can set out to perform the second task: tracing the concrete implications of the Black Athena thesis further on to ancient African cultures as the most likely main sources of ancient Egyptian culture.[12]

                        Only after these two tasks have been completed can we come to terms with a third task: A fair assessment of the Afrocentrist claims — extremist as well as moderate and plausible ones — which Black Athena has reinforced, much to the dismay of many of its critics.[13]

                        If the latter task cannot yet be fully undertaken now, that does not mean that we cannot outline its parameters. I see these in the following terms. The future of Africa and of Black people living in or originating from that continent, and of mankind as a whole for that matter, lies in a radical rejection of racialist claims to a particularistic birth right, in favour of models stressing the common heritage of universal humanity, in the light of a common future. Precisely one such model has been offered in Black Athena, with its exposure of the a-historical Eurocentric myth suppressing from consciousness the facts of multiplex interaction, interdependence and indebtedness straddling three continents. It rightly claims such initial contributions of Africans, people living in Africa, to global cultural history as have been filtered through the intermediary of Ancient Egypt. Yet it fails to analyse the wider African inputs into Ancient Egyptian culture, and the ways these must have been subjected to transformative localisation within Egypt before being handed on to the rest of the world, including the Levant and (probably largely via the latter) to Greece and thus further into Europe, finally to reach global distribution. The formal geographical location of the civilisation of Ancient Egypt inside the African land mass is less relevant in the present context, than its specific cultural, religious and linguistic roots in sub-Saharan Africa — which are undeniable, yet probably less far-reaching than claimed in Afrocentrist discourse,[14] and which by and large await thorough scholarly assessment in the light of up-to-date data and of adequate interdisciplinary methodologies.

                        Moreover, for a responsible, non-Eurocentrist reassessment of Africa’s place in global cultural history we clearly need even a larger framework than the Black Athena thesis, however stimulating and timely, can provide. It is certainly not enough to promote Africa to a status comparable to that attributed to Atlantis in Plato’s Timaeus and Critias: producer of a superb culture which, however, unfortunately has long ago ceased to exist. Africa’s global cultural birth-right was racialistically denied for centuries, but it is not going to be restored in popular global consciousness by simply pointing out that it once carried, and probably largely engendered, several millennia ago, the civilisation of Ancient Egypt. We also need to address the theme of more recent stagnation. And equally important, we need to situate Ancient Egypt within the full range of great African civilisations, from that of Kush which (although virtually absent from Bernal’s work) was contemporary to Ancient Egypt and whose independent originality is now being more and more appreciated, to the great civilisations of West, East and Southern Africa throughout history right up to the present times.

                        Here the disappointment of that great Africanist Basil Davidson needs to be appreciated, who at the end of his jubilant review of Black Athena I yet had to write:

‘...the Hamites and their Caucasoid quick wits [as depicted by Seligman, not Davidson, of course] have in any case vanished from the scientific scene. So have other stereotypes of the racist model. The scholarship of the last thirty years and more has simply tipped them into the dustbin of exploded fantasies. This was not achieved easily or without a lot of stubborn effort; but it has now been achieved beyond any possibility of reversion to those aforesaid fantasies. It may even be claimed that this achievement is among the most significant intellectual advances of the twentieth century. Yet Bernal’s treatment of this important aspect of his own subject is disappointingly deficient, being little more than an afterthought at the end of his book. No doubt he has it in mind to put this right in a later volume. As it is, reading his pages in this respect must leave one without the slightest indication of the fact that the study of African history and humanity, in many disciplines, has become the concern of manifold colleges and universities in all the continents, not least in Africa itself. (...) Valiantly toppling the Aryan Model for Europe, this sympathetic writer has not yet had time to notice that its partner for Africa has meanwhile bitten the dust.’[15]

                        And finally a point which has been made repeatedly by critics of Martin Bernal:[16] cultures should be appreciated in their own right as manifestations of the variety of human achievement and creativity, not merely according to the extent to which they can be demonstrated to have contributed to the culture of latter-day Western Europe. The great African civilisations are among the lasting triumphs of Mankind, even regardless of whether Arabs and Europeans came along to admire them and be inspired by them. Here however Bernal’s appeal to the specific global context of cultural exchanges and identity discourse in our age and time (in other words, the contemporary dominance of Western European culture happens to be an empirical political fact, and it is in the light of this dominance that intercultural comparisons are made, if not at the level of scholarly analysis then certainly at the level of political praxis), in my view fully exonerates him from the ironic charges of Eurocentrism as laid against him:

‘ is certain that Western European culture is dominant in the world today, there is also no doubt that — directly or indirectly — the civilization of Ancient Greece has been central to the formation of this culture. Furthermore, Europeans holding the gamut of political views from fascist, to liberal, to communist have all agreed that Ancient Greece created philosophy, art, science and democracy. This myth of origin has been widely used to give Western European and their descendants elsewhere, the exclusive possession of such desirable cultural artifacts. This monopoly has been used to bolster and justify European military and political power in other continents.

                        If it can be shown that the greatness of Ancient Greek civilization came from its eclecticism, that it was not a purely European culture and had strong African and Asian components and that many crucial elements of ‘Greek’ philosophy, art, science and democracy had been introduced from the Near East[, t]his would have a fundamental and to my mind beneficial effect on peoples (...) not merely those of South West Asia and North East Africa but also those of the rest of the world including Europe.’[17]

                        Afrocentrism is not primarily a scientific theory; above all it is an indication of Black people’s determination to regain once more a place among the ranks of those taking globally significant cultural and political initiatives — not as a condescending concession grudgingly made by others, but as a birth-right. It is crucial to realise that we have this birth-right by virtue of being human, not by virtue of any past or present glory or misery of that section of humanity situated, now or in the distant past, on the African land mass. Intellectual support for Afrocentrism as primarily an orientation to the future requires placing Afrocentrist-related research issues involved (including a rigorous assessment of Ancient Egypt’s place among African cultures as advocated above) at the heart of current empirical and theoretical debate, and applying to them the same high standards of data and method that obtain in other fields of research today.

                        The alternative, of tolerating — even flirting with — a pseudo-scientific identity discourse in the periphery of academia and allowing it the trappings of scientific authority, means that one is utterly cynical about the academic profession and its responsibilities; about what the great physical anthropologist Ashley Montagu has called ‘Man’s most dangerous myth’, race;[18] and about our common future, that of Mankind as a whole.

to homepage

Part I: Abstract and contents | Part II (section 1-2)

[1]Cf. Geertz, C., 1963, Agricultural involution, Berkeley: University of California Press.

[2]E.g. Davidson, B., 1964, Old Africa rediscovered, London: Gollancz; Davidson, B., 1969, African Genius, Boston: Atlantic, Little Brow; Davidson, B., 1969, The Africans: An entry to cultural history, London/ Harlow: Longmans; Davidson, B., 1972, Africa: History of a continent, London etc.: Spring, rev. ed., 1st ed. 1966; Davidson, B., 1978, Discovering Africa’s past, London: Longman; Davidson, B., 1994, The Search for Africa, London: New York: Times Books/ London: James Currey.

[3]Cf. Diringer, D., 1996, The alphabet: A key to the history of mankind, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, reprint of the 1947 British edition; Goody, J., ed., 1968, Literacy in traditional societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Hassan, F.A., 1983. ‘The roots of Egyptian writing’, Quarterly Review of Archaeology, 4, no. 3: 1-8; Raum, O.F., 1943, ‘The African chapter in the history of writing’, African Studies (Johannesburg), 2, 4: 179-192; Ray, J.D., 1986, ‘The emergence of writing in Egypt’, World Archaeology, 17: 307-16; Thorold, A., 1992, ‘Script, prescription and the Scriptures: Writing as ritual in southern Malawi’, paper read at the Anthropology Association of Southern Africa Annual Meeting, Durban-Westville, September 1992; Bernal, M., 1990, Cadmean letters: The transmission of the alphabet to the Aegean and further west before 1400 B.C., Winona Lake (Ind.): Eisenbrauns; Bernal, M., 1987, ‘On the Transmission of the Alphabet into the Aegean before 1400 B.C.’, Bulletin of the American School of Oriental Research, 267: 1-19; and references in these publications.

[4]Gardiner, A. H., 1916, ‘The Egyptian origin of the Semitic alphabet’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 3: 1-16; Cerny, J., 1971, ‘Language and writing’, in: Harris, J.R., ed., The legacy of Egypt, 2nd ed., Oxford: Clarendon, pp. 197-219, 214f and table ‘The alphabet’ at the beginning of that book.

[5]Cf. Radwin, E., 1993, ‘Literacy and illiteracy’, New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopaedia, Release 6:

‘The Germans who conquered Rome during the 5th century AD (...) were illiterate and attached little value to literacy. Literacy was eradicated to such an extent that by the year 1000, probably only 1 or 2 percent of Europe's population was literate. (...) After 1000, literacy slowly began to reemerge and spread through Europe. (...) By 1700, Europe's literacy rate ranged from 30 to 40 percent; by 1850, 50 to 55 percent; and by 1930, 90 percent.’

In 1995 the literacy rate for sub-Saharan Africa was 54%, ranging between 85% for Zimbabwe and 14% for Niger (source: Information and Policy Analysis Statistics Division, 1996, United Nations Statistical Yearbook, 41st ed., New York: United Nations Publications, table 11, pp. 74-75; with thanks to my colleague Henk Meilink). Literacy is defined here in UNESCO terms as the percentage of the population age 15 and above capable of understanding and producing a simple written statement on everyday life.

[6]Despite persistent claims of a Balkan neolithic script contemporaneous to or predating scripts from the Ancient Near East; e.g. Gimbutas, M.A., 1991, The civilization of the Goddess: The world of Old Europe, San Francisco: Harper ch. 8, ‘The sacred script’.

[7]Cf. Wim van Binsbergen, 1997, Virtuality as a key concept in the study of globalisation: Aspects of the symbolic transformation of contemporary Africa, The Hague: WOTRO, Working Papers on Globalization and the Construction of Communal Identities.

[8]Cf. Edwards, I.E.S., C.J. Gadd & N.G.L. Hammond, eds., 1986, The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 1 part 1: Prolegomena and prehistory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3rd ed., first ed. 1970, notably: Garrod, D.A.E., 1986, ‘Primitive man in Egypt, Western Asia and Europe in palaeolithic times’, pp. 70-89; Clark, J.G.D., 1986, ‘[Primitive man in Egypt, Western Asia and Europe] in mesolithic times’, pp. 89-121; Hughes, D.R., & Brothwell, D.R., 1986, ‘The earliest populations of man in Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa’, pp. 156-172.

[9]Hegel, G.W.F., 1992, Vorlesungen 黚er die Philosophie der Geschichte, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel Werke 12, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1st Suhrkamp edition 1986, pp. 120-122; posthumously published on the basis of his lecture notes 1822-1831; cf. Kimmerle, H., 1993, ‘Hegel und Afrika: Das Glas zerspringt’, Hegel-Studien, 28: 303-325.

[10]For a critique of this voluminous literature, cf. the work of two cosmopolitan African philosophers: Mudimbe, V.Y., 1988, The invention of Africa: Gnosis, philosophy, and the order of knowledge, Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press/ London: Currey; Mudimbe, V.Y., 1994, The idea of Africa, Bloomington/ London: Indiana University Press/ James Currey; Appiah, K.A., 1992, In my father’s house: Africa in the philosophy of culture, New York & London: Oxford University Press.

[11]This has been an recurrent discussion but seldom at the heart of the discipline: Cf. Asad, T., 1973, red., Anthropology and the colonial encounter, London: Ithaca Press; Leclerc, G., 1972, Anthropologie et colonialisme, Paris: Fayard; Copans, J., 1975, ed., Anthropologie et imp閞ialisme, Paris: Maspero; Fabian, J., 1983, Time and the other: How anthropology makes its object, New York: Columbia University Press; Asad, T., 1986, ‘The concept of cultural translation in British social anthropology’, in: Clifford, J., & Marcus, G., eds., 1986, Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography, Berkeley: University of California Press — and many other contributions to that important collection; Pels, P. & O. Salemink, 1994, ‘Introduction: five theses on ethnography as colonial practice’, History and Anthropology, 8, 1-4: 1-34.

[12]Cf. Wim van Binsbergen, ‘Black Athena Ten Years After: Towards a constructive re-assessment’ (this volume), section ‘Into Africa?’.

[13]Cf. Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c.; Lefkowitz, M., 1996, Not out of Africa: How Afrocentrism became an excuse to teach myth as history, New York, Basic Books; but see Bernal’s review of this book, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 1996, Internet journal.

[14]The theme of ‘Egypt in Africa’ has haunted Egyptological and African studies at least since Petrie, cf. Petrie, W.M.F., 1915, ‘Egypt in Africa’, Ancient Egypt, 3-4: 115-127, 159-170 — whose information however according to Shinnie (Shinnie, P. L., 1971, ‘The legacy to Africa’, in: Harris, J.R., ed., The legacy of Egypt, 2nd ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 434-55) is often suspect. Throughout the twentieth century it has been habitual to characterise aspects of (especially pre- and protohistorical) Egyptian culture as African, often without being too specific; for excellent recent work however cf. Hassan, F.A., 1988, ‘The Predynastic of Egypt’, Journal of World Prehistory, 2: 135-85. Classic diffusionist studies include Schmidl, M., 1928, ‘Ancient Egyptian techniques in African spirally-woven baskets’, in: Koppers, W., ed., Festschrift/Publication d’hommage offerte au P.W. Schmidt, Vienna: Mechitaristen-Congregations-Buchdruckerei, Anthropos, Vienna, pp. 645-654; Wainwright, G.A., 1949, ‘Pharaonic survivals, Lake Chad to the west coast’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 35: 167-75. The crucial challenge to the Egyptocentric diffusionist assumption was formulated by H.W. Fairman as quoted by Shinnie: how do we distinguish between Ancient Egypt’s contribution to Africa, and Africa’s contribution to Ancient Egypt? Despite earlier evidence to the contrary (e.g. Strouhal, E., 1971, ‘Evidence of the early penetration of Negroes into prehistoric Egypt’, Journal of African History, 12: 1-9), physical anthropology seems to tend towards a denial of too close links between Ancient Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa (Brace, C. L., D. P. Tracer, L. A. Yaroch, J. Robb, K. Brandt, and A. R. Nelson, 1996, ‘Clines and clusters versus 'race': A test in Ancient Egypt and the case of a death on the Nile’, in: Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 129-164, p. 145). The most up-to-date academic statement is probably Celenko, T., ed., 1996, Egypt in Africa, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996, which I have not yet seen. Also cf. O'Connor, D., 1994, Ancient Nubia: Egypt's rival in Africa, Philadelphia: University Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. Several critics of Martin Bernal have stressed that Kush, as the other great civilisation of Northeast Africa besides Ancient Egypt, is a more likely candidate for spreading and receiving sub-Saharan cultural influences: cf. Bard, K., 1996, ‘Ancient Egyptians and the issue of race’, in: Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 103-111, p. 104f; Yurco, F.J., 1996, ‘Black Athena: An Egyptological review’, in: Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 62-100, pp. 87f, 95; Baines, J., 1996, ‘On the aims and methods of Black Athena’, in: Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 27-48, p. 32. Apart from specifics (his contentious attribution of the Tassili al-/Hadjar rock paintings to Ancient Egyptian cultural influence, and his identification of Nyoro kingship in Buganda as the sole convincing Black African case of Ancient Egyptian diffusion) Shinnie’s thoughtful essay and restrictive conclusions still contain much of value. Of the old, now obsolete, literature on the subject, cf.: Seligman, C.G., 1913, ‘Some aspects of the Hamitic problem in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 43: 593-705; Seligman, C.G., 1930, Races of Africa, London: Butterworth; repr. 1957, 3d ed. London: Oxford University Press; Seligman, C.G., 1934, Egypt and Negro Africa: A study in divine kingship, London: Routledge. Pioneering Afrocentrist views include the popular: Noguera, A., 1976, How African was Egypt: A comparative study of Egyptian and Black African cultures, New York: Vantage Press; and Diop, C.A., 1981, ‘Origin of the Ancient Egyptians’, in: Mokhtar, G., ed., General history of Africa, vol. II, Ancient civilizations of Africa, Berkeley and Los Angeles: UNESCO and University of California Press, pp. 27-51. Bernal (Black Athena writes back, in press, Durham: Duke University Press) draws attention to what he considers ‘extremely interesting’ recent work by young Black scholars which combined conventional scholarship with Afrocentrist inspiration: Scott, T.M., ‘Egyptian elements in Hermetic literature’, Th.D., Harvard, 4/18/1987; UMI 1991. 3058; Karenga, M.N., ‘Maat, the moral ideal in Ancient Egypt: A study in classical African ethics’, Ph.D., U.S.C., 1994 (UMI 1994.9601000). This is a promising direction for future, sophisticated research into this central question to take.

[15]Davidson, B., ‘The ancient world and Africa: Whose roots?’, Race and Class: A Journal for Black and Third World Liberation, 29, 2: 1-15, p. 9f, italics added; reprinted in: Davidson, The search for Africa, pp. 318-33.

[16]Baines, p. 32; MacLean Rogers, G., 1996, ‘Multiculturalism and the foundations of Western civilization’, in: Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 428-445, 442; Jenkyns, R., 1996, ‘Bernal and the nineteenth century’, in: Lefkowitz MacLean Rogers, o.c., pp. 411-419, 416:

‘And it is surely his aim also to do what he must know he cannot quite manage: to give African-Americans a share of the credit for Egyptian civilization ([Black Athena] I: 242). But is this project not Eurocentric? (...) it is because blacks are, seemingly, outside the traditional European story that Bernal wants to find them a place in that sun; and however well-meaning this aim, it can hardly help being patronizing. And there is another consideration which ought to weigh against Bernal: that he is encouraging blacks to enter an invidious competition.’

[17]Bernal, M., 1992, ‘Response to Edith Hall’, Arethusa, 25: 203-14.

[18]Montagu, A., 1974, Man's most dangerous myth: The fallacy of race, 5th ed., first published 1942.

to homepage

Part I: Abstract and contents | Part II (section 1-2)


page last modified: 03-05-01 12:07:00      
Easy Submit Add Me!