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Cupmarks, stellar maps, and mankala board-games (3)
An archaeoastronomical and Africanist excursion into Palaeolithic world-views

Wim van Binsbergen

with the astronomical collaboration of Jean-Pierre Lacroix


3. Eurocentrism, Black Athena, Egypt and Sub-saharan Africa, the cultural unity of Africa, Afrocentrism...

Against this background I immediately recognised a kindred spirit in Martin Bernal, the author of the multi-volume book Black Athena.[1]

            Bernal intends to expose the Eurocentrism which — as he demonstrates — has been at the roots of the study of Graeco-Roman Antiquity over the past two centuries. In Bernal’s opinion the idea of being heirs to the genial Greek civilisation, allegedly without roots in any previous non-European civilisation, has played a major role in the justification of European intercontinental imperialism. His central thesis is that we must recognise the African and Asiatic roots of classical Greek civilisation (especially its philosophy and religion) — and in doing so, we would also recognise the non-European roots of major cultural orientations in today’s North Atlantic civilisation, which is increasingly becoming global anyway. Hence the pragmatic title of Bernal’s magnum opus, Black Athena: this title is to indicate that the goddess Athena, although the central symbol of classical Greek civilisation, yet had an origin outside Europe, in Africa. The question is not without interest for philosophers for the principal stake in the Black Athena debate is the claim concerning the non-European origin of the European philosophical tradition.[2]

            With Black Athena: Ten Years After (1997) I reopened the debate on Bernal’s work, which appeared to be effectively closed after the devastatingly critical Black Athena Revisited[3] With the new book, Global Bee Flight, I return to Africa in order to investigate the implication of the Black Athena thesis for our Africa research today — and the implication of our Africa research for the Black Athena thesis. Because Ancient Egypt occupies a key position in the debates on Africa’s cultural historical relation to Europe and to the rest of the world, a massive section of Global Bee Flight is occupied by an analysis of the mutual interpenetration of Ancient Egyptian and sub-Sahara-African themes, in the way of concepts and structures of thought, myths, symbolism, the kingship, state formation, and productive practices.

            One absolutely surprising outcome of the book (I started out writing it in order prove the opposite to be true!) is my empirical confirmation, without the slightest reservation, of one of the most ridiculed ideas of early twentieth century anthropological diffusionism: Egypto­centrism as a model for African cultural history. By the end of the fourth millennium before the common era, Ancient Egypt owed its emergence as a civilisation to the profound interaction between Black African and Eastern Mediterranean/ Near Eastern  cultural orientations. In fact this model is a substantial departure from Bernal’s Black Athena model, which despite perfunctory proclamations of multicentredness and mutual influences, yet tends to think in terms of one-way processes: from Egypt to the Aegean, and from Black Africa to Egypt. In other words, not everything that went into the making of Ancient Egypt came out of Africa, which makes the pattern of cultural indebtedness in the eastern Aegean and the Near East from the Bronze Age onwards rather more interesting and complex, rather more historical, than Bernal and particularly, than popular restatements of his Black Athena thesis, would have it. But as a next step my analyses seek to demonstrate that Ancient Egypt, in its turn, did have a fertilising effect not only (as rightly stressed in the Black Athena thesis) on the eastern Mediterranean basin and hence on Europe, but also, in a most significant feed-back process, on Black Africa, right into the nooks and crannies of many aspects of life, including the kingship, law, ritual and mythology.[4]

            In stead of the patchwork quilt blanket of mutually absolutely distinct ‘cultures’, as in the dominant view both among scholars and in the modern world at large, what thus emerges is the image of an Africa which displays a very remarkable cultural unity. And this unity is brought about, not by any mystique of Africanity, but as a result of clearly detectable historical processes:

 

     Africa as first a principal source and subsequently

     as a principal recipient of Ancient Egyptian civilisation, and finally

     as a result of converging Arabian/Islamic as well as - in the most recent centuries —

     North Atlantic colonial influences.

 

            The general conclusion of Global Bee Flight is a radical, positive and unexpected revision of our conception of the place of Africa in global cultural history — an empirical revindication of some of the most daring Afrocentrist hypotheses. There is little reason why the same model of qualified continuity over large distances in space and time would not also apply to other continents including Europe, and to the historical connections between these other continents. Meanwhile it is strange that the argument of convergence has met with so little acceptance on the part of African philosophers today. Instead they virtually unanimously support the argument of cultural diversity. In Appiah’s words:

‘If we could have traveled through Africa’s many cultures in (...) [precolonial times] from the small groups of Bushman hunter-gatherers, with their stone-age materials, to the Hausa kingdoms, rich in worked metal – we should have felt in every place profoundly different impulses, ideas, and forms of life. To speak of an African identity in the nineteenth century – if an identity is a coalescence of mutually responsive (if sometimes conflicting) modes of conduct, habits of thought, and patterns of evaluation; in short, a coherent kind of human social psychology – would have been ‘‘to give to aery nothing a local habitation and a name.’’ ’[5]

            In line with this stress on precolonial fragmentation lies the African philosopher’s Kaphagawani’s thesis on ‘C4’, which is a scientistic formula meant to express

‘the Contemporary Confluence of Cultures on the Continent of Africa. This is a postcolonial pheno­menon where different cultures meet and mingle to form new, hybrid forms’.[6]

In this formulation the emphasis on a plurality of mutually distinct and bounded cultures is indeed does give way to a recognition of greater unity, but extreme multiplicity and fragmentation is still held to be the hallmark of the African past, the point of departure. Such unity between African cultures as is being recognised is taken to be the result of the postcolonial phenomenon of globalisation, which allows this view to salvage the concept of a pristine distinctness of a great number of precolonial cultures in Africa. The entire discussion on Afrocentrism (with its Senegalese precursor Cheikh Anta Diop) appears to be lost on the majority of contemporary African philosophers.[7] Afrocentrists like Molefi Kete Asante[8] are scarcely welcomed or cited in the circles of academic African philosophers.

            Yet in our present age and time, it is impossible to produce academic images of Africa without taking into account the ideas of the Afrocentrist movement since the early 1980s. This movement has gained prominence among North American Black intellectuals,[9] many of whom have been inspired by the work of the Senegalese natural scientist and cultural philosopher Cheikh Anta Diop.[10] It is in an Afrocentrist environment that the first published product of Bernal’s Black Athena project saw the light.[11] And it is among Afrocentrists that he received, by and large, a favourable reception.[12] While expressing sympathy for the Afrocentrist movement, Bernal has been careful[13] not to identify too closely with that increasingly contentious and besieged intellectual point of view. Now Bernal is not an Africanist, his one African language he learned as a boy on his maternal family’s tea estate in Malawi, and he can (and does) afford levels of ignorance and of nostalgic projection which for me, as an Africanist, would amount to professional suicide. On the other hand, I am not only an Africanist scholar. As a sangoma I have for years identified with the variant of Afrocentrism that seeks in the African past, present and future a source of inspiration of profound and lasting value for mankind as a whole.

            This inspiration will also be detectable in the present book, but only occasionally so. Its argument is not primarily about Africa, and not explicitly Afrocentrist. Whenever I can bring Africa in, I shall do so, but despite the initial focus on the mankala board-game which has a virtually ubiquitous distribution across the African continent, the bulk of the empirical material for the present book derives from Palaeolithic finds in southwestern Europe and from general astronomy which is not specific to any particular spot on the earth’s surface. Of course I discuss the implications of recent palaeo­anthropological findings for our overall appreciation of the place of Africa in global cultural history. Moreover, among the various competing archaeo­astronomical approaches which I advance in the course of my argument, one (Approach II) has far-reaching implications for Africa’s influence on Europe because it involves a celestial configuration centring on the brightest fixed star, Sirius, which at the time (the Upper Palaeolithic) could only be observed from tropical latitudes. However, this did not bring me to favour Approach II over the obviously far more convincing, detailed and empirically grounded Approach III which appeals only to local, i.e. southwestern European astronomical conditions.

 

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[1]              Bernal, M., 1987, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, I, The fabrication of ancient Greece 1787-1987, Londen: Free Association Books/New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press; Bernal, M., 1991, Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic roots of classical civilization, II, The archaeological and documentary evidence, Londen: Free Association Books/New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

[2]              Bernal, Black Athena, I, o.c.; Burkert, W., 1992, The orientalizing revolution: Near Eastern influence on Greek culture in the Early Archaic Age, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, originally published as: Die orientalisierende Epoche in der griechischen Religion und Literatur, Heidelberg: Winter; Evangeliou, C., 1994, When Greece met Africa: The genesis of Hellenic philosophy, Binghamton: Institute of Global Studies; James, G.G.M., 1973, Stolen legacy: The Greeks were not the authors of Greek philosophy, but the people of North Africa, commonly called the Egyptians, San Francisco: Julian Richardson Associates, first edition New York: Philosophical Library, 1954; Lefkowitz, M.R., 1996, Not out of Africa: How Afrocentrism became an excuse to teach myth as history, New York: Basic Books; Palter, R., 1996, ‘Black Athena, Afrocentrism, and the history of science’, in: Lefkowitz, M.R., & MacLean Rogers, G., eds., Black Athena revisited, Chapel Hill & Londen: University of North Carolina Press, pp. 209-266; Preus, A., 1992, Greek Philosophy: Egyptian origins, Binghamton: Institute of Global Cultural Studies; West, M.L., 1971, Early Greek philosophy and the Orient, Oxford: Clarendon.

[3]                Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers, Black Athena revisited, o.c.

[4]              With reference to the work of the Senegalese natural scientist and cultural philosopher C.A. Diop, more than with reference to Bernal’s work (which he does not like any more than he does Diop’s; cf. Appiah, K.A., 1993, ‘Europe upside down: Fallacies of the New Afrocentrism’, Times Literary Supplement, 12 february, pp. 24-25), Appiah rejects the idea of such a continuity, on the grounds of two self-evidences which however are untenable in the light of recent historical research: the claim that Ancient Egypt had only a non-specialised philosophy which moreover is unrelated, in substance, with current African cultural orientations; and the claim that we cannot expect to find, in Africa, cultural continuities extending over a period of three or more millennia. Appiah, K.A., 1992, In my father’s house: Africa in the philosophy of culture, New York & London: Oxford University Press, p. 161f.

[5]              Appiah, In my father’s house, o.c., p. 174; cited in approval in: Bell, R.H., 1997, ‘Understanding African philosophy from a non-African point of view: An exercise in cross-cultural philosophy’, in: Eze, ed., Postcolonial African philosophy: A critical reader, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 197-220, p. 218f, n. 29.

[6]                Kaphagawani, D.N., & Malherbe, J.G., 1998, ‘African epistemology’, in: Coetzee, P.H., & Roux, A.P.J., 1998, eds., The African philosophy reader, London: Routledge, pp. 205-216, p. 209.

[7]                However, see: Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1996, ‘Black Athena and Africa’s contribution to global cultural history’, Quest – Philosophical Discussions: An International African Journal of Philosophy, 9, 2 & 10, 1: 100-137. For the reception of the Black Athena discussie among African and African American intellectuals, including Appiah en Mudimbe, cf: Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ‘Black Athena Ten Years After: Towards a constructive re-assessment’, in: van Binsbergen, Black Athena: Ten Years After, o.c., pp. 11-64; Berlinerblau, J., 1999, Heresy in the University: The Black Athena controvery and the responsibilities of American intellectuals, New Brunswick etc.: Rutgers University Press.

[8]              Asante, M.K., 1990, Kemet, Afrocentricity, and knowledge, Trenton (N.J.): Africa World.

[9]              Basic Afrocentrist writings include: Williams, C., 1987, The destruction of Black civilization: Great issues of a race from 4500 B. C. to 2000 A.D., Chicago: Third World Press; first published 1971, Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/ Hunt; van Sertima, I., 1985, ed., African presence in early Europe, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, special issue of the Journal of African Civilizations, November 1985 (vol. 7, 2); Finch, C.S., 1983, ‘The African background of medical science’, in: I. Van Sertima, ed., Blacks in science: Ancient and modern, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, pp. 140-56; ben-Jochannan, Y.A.A., 1971, Black man of the Nile, Africa, Africa the mother of civilization, New York: Alkebu Lan Books; ben-Jochanan, Y.A.A., 1989, Black man of the Nile and his family, Baltimore: Alkebu-lan Books. James, G.G.M., 1954, Stolen legacy: The Greeks were not the authors of Greek philosophy, but the people of North Africa, commonly called the Egyptians, New York: Philosophical Library/ London: African Publication Society; Reprinted, San Francisco: Julian Richardson Associates, 1973; repr. 1989, New York: African Islamic Mission Publications. Fundamental recent studies of Afrocentrism include: Berlinerblau, J., 1999, Heresy in the University: The Black Athena controvery and the responsibilities of American intellectuals, New Brunswick etc.: Rutgers University Press, especially ch. 7, pp. 133f; and: Fauvelle, F.-X., ed., in press, L’Afrocentrisme, Paris: Karthala, to which I have contributed an article.

[10]            Diop, C.A., 1955, Nations nègres et culture: De l’antiquité nègre-égyptienne aux problèmes culturels de l’Afrique noire d’aujourd’hui, Paris: Presence Africaine, 2nd edition, first published 1954; Diop, C.A., 1974, The African origin of civilization: Myth or reality? translated by Cook, M., Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill; Diop, C.A., 1977, Parenté génétique de l’égyptien pharaonique et des langues négro-africaines, Dakar: IFAN-NEA; Diop, C.A., 1978, The cultural unity of Black Africa: The domains of patriarchy and matriarchy in classical Antiquity, Chicago: Third World Press; Diop, C.A., 1981, ‘Origin of the ancient Egyptians’, In: G. Mokhtar, ed., General history of Africa, vol. 2, Ancient civilizations of Africa, Berkeley & Los Angeles: UNESCO/ University of California Press, pp. 27-51; Diop, C.A., 1985, ‘Africa: Cradle of humanity’, Nile Valley Civilizations [ volume ] : 23-8; Diop, C.A., 1985, ‘Africa’s contribution to world civilization: The exact sciences’, Nile Valley Civilizations, [ volume ] : 69-83; Diop, C.A., 1991, Civilization or barbarism: An authentic anthropology, translated by Ngemi, Y-L.M., and edited by Salemson, H.J., & de Jager, M., Brooklyn, N.Y.: Lawrence Hill/ Chicago Review Press, first published 1981.

[11]            Bernal, M., 1985, ‘Black Athena: The African and Levantine Roots of Greece,’ in: Van Sertima, African Presence in Early Europe, o.c., pp. 66-82.

[12]            For instance Asante, o.c., pp. 100f. Kmt (‘black soil’) is one of the ancient names of Egypt.

[13]            Cf. Bernal, Black Athena I, o.c., p. xxii; also: Carruthers, J. 1992, ‘Outside of Academia: Bernal’s critique of the Black champions of ancient Egypt’, Journal of Black Studies, 22, 4: 459-76.

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