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From an African bestiary to universal science?

Main Text Part II

by Wim van Binsbergen

homepage | Animal symbolism overview page | Part I

6. Interpretation: From an African bestiary to universal science?

How then can we interpret the basic structure of three clusters (A), (B), (C), which is borne out throughout our extensive cluster analysis? Let us look at the dendrogram again:

Diagram 8. Cluster Analysis 2animals only, actual occurrences simplified

Broadly, the three clusters may be characterised in the following terms:

(A) ancient Egypt and Greece

(C) Central and Southern Bantu-speaking sub-Saharan Africa, and classical China

(D) Ancient Mesopotamia’s astral science, modern astronomy as its contemporary derivative, world-wide animal demon representations, and Central Bantu-speaking Nkoya society.

                        Cluster (A) brings together a culture area which recent research (especially, but not exclusively, in terms of the Black Athena thesis) has increasingly identified as forming one historical whole; we may designate this the ‘Black Athena’ culture area.

                        Cluster (D) would appear to be disconcertingly diverse in both space and time, until we realise that its contents, however selective, nicely match Frobenius’ South-Erythraean culture area, which he saw originating in ancient Mesopotamia (with possible extensions towards Dilmun / Bahrayn and the Indus civilisation) and extending south of the Red (= Erythraean) sea to the East African coast and South Central Africa, where the southwestern fringe of the complex would encompass the Nkoya culture of Zambia.[1] There are more extensive reasons for relegating at least certain archaic layers of Nkoya culture to the South-Erythraean culture area, although a discussion would take us to far from the present context.[2] It is meanwhile attractive to extend the South-Erythraean cluster’s core region to the Indus valley, both because this was a recognised centre of cultural innnovation with extensive links with Mesopotamia, and because astrological data abounds in the hitherto only very partially deciphered corpus of Indus valley inscriptions[3] The Nkoya indebtedness to, or even membership of, this complex[4] is partly due to the extensive Indonesian influences in East African and South Central African kingship and court culture in general, as attested by the xylophone-centred royal orchestra, and by the presence, among the Nkoya, of mythemes derived from Mesopotamian and South Asian sources as presumably mediated via Indonesia (which was subjected to massive South Asian influence since the beginning of the Common Era) and Madagascar (which was laregely people from Indonesia in the first millennium CE).

                        Cluster (C) brings together two culture areas (imperial China and sub-Saharan Africa) which one would normally not lump together because of their remoteness. Yet the regrettably rare students of both African and Chinese culture[5] have occasionally been struck by the amazing similarities between sub-Saharan African historical cultural patterns, and such archaic traits of Chinese classic culture which seem to hark back to a cultural substratum predating the unified Chinese imperial state and even the rise of Chinese literacy. Ancient songs and dances, agricultural and ancestral rites, symbols such as enshrined in archaic script signs, and much that went into the making of Taoism as a mythico-realistic approach to nature, all bear witness to this substratum.[6] Explanations for this continuity have been offered, either in terms of prehistoric diffusion from Africa to China by proto-Mande-speaking intercontinental travellers,[7] or in terms of maritime diffusion from China to Africa especially during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).[8] One might even think of Portuguese influence having a converging effect on both Central African societies like the Chokwe, and (via Macao) on China.[9] I consider these explanations too narrow: the mechanisms they advance in order to explain the massive cultural parallels are too limited to produce the observed effect over vast expanses of the African and East Asian continents; and both the ‘China to Africa’ explanation and the ‘Portugese influence’ explanation have a far too shallow time depth: patterns of animal symbolism in African clan nomenclature and divination have perspired in the oldest traveler’s accounts of the continent, and Chinese astral science are known from extensive documentary and archaeological evidence far predating the Portuguese expansion to East Asia, even though later Chinese astronomy and presumably also astrology were greatly influenced by European science as a result of the missionary and scientific work of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) c.s. Gundel claims[10] a remarkable reception of ancient Egyptian decan gods into East Asiatic astrology as late as the nineteenth century CE. Even if this plausible claim cannot be substantiated, we are at least reminded that we should not attribute all latterday parallels between the astral science of China and the Ancient Near East to postulated diffusion in Antiquity.[11]

                        Instead I favour the hypothesis of an extensive Old World Late Palaeolithic substratum (spilling over into the New World),[12] and detectable in such largely formal cultural systems as astral science, board games, mythologies, basic concepts of cosmology and the human body, of witches and ancestors, etc.[13]

                        What emerges is a most interesting historical hypothesis.

                        I submit that the postulated Late Palaeolithic Old World substratum includes an elaborate system of animal symbolism. In those literate civilisations to the North and East of sub-Saharan Africa, represented in our data set mainly by the ‘Black Athena’ cultural region (Egypt and Greece), these animal symbols came to be demonised when the substratum was overlaid by, or supplanted by, anthropomorphic and celestial symbolism such as emerged with the creation of states in the hands of literate priests and kings.

                        Such demonisation is a familiar and wide-spread process by which once dominant obsolescent symbols are relegated to the subterranean and demonic sphere. The word ‘demon’ itself in its current usage of evil spirit could be taken as an example of this very process, the ancient Greek word daimon denoting benign spirit (cf. Socrates’ moral daimon as described by Plato, Xenophon and Plutarch) until the Septuagint translators of the Old Testament appropriated this word to denote an order of beings inimical to the Jewish God. This usage was adopted into the New Testament and Christianity, and projected onto locally recognised spiritual forces predating to the local arrival of Christianity. In Islam a very similar process obtains, responsible for the distinctively local signature of popular Islam wherever in the vaste expanse of Islam from Senegal to Indonesia. A manifestation of this process is the formal and urban Islamic opposition to the popular veneration of trees, rocks and streams, to the latter’s association with minor shrines, to beliefs and practices centring on jinns, and to the widespread cults of spirit possession, — one can glean examples from most ethnographies of local popular Islam in Africa (including North Africa) and South Asia. In this connection, the devil, Satan, Shaytan, etc. the demon par excellence, whose attributes and identity have been projected onto Germanic, Slavonic, African, Native American, Oceanic, etc. spiritual beings and forces in the course of the expansion of the two world religions, Islam and Christianity.[14]

                        In sub-Saharan Africa however this combined process of theocratic and/or secular state formation and literacy did not take place to quite the same extent, the natural environment continued to contain the animal species as part of everyday reality, and therefore in Africa we find the old substratum of animal symbolism still more or less in place, extending over huge expanses of space and time. If indeed we are right in tracing this widespread system of animal symbolism back to the Upper Palaeolithic, then an old and long dismissed suggestion made by the ‘father of prehistory’, Breuil, is thus granted a new lease of life:[15] the idea that there is a historical connection between the bovines depicted in the Upper Paleolithic rock art (specifically that of the Franco-Cantabrian region in southwestern Europe), and the much more recent Babylonian zodiac whose animal imagery is echoed in the Gilgamesh epic and, much later, in Herakles’ heroic twelve works.

                        There is reason to suggest that the Late Palaeolithic Old World system of animal symbolism may have been first formulated in Africa: it is here that somatically modern mankind emerged some 100,000 years Before Present, prior to expansion to other continents where it replaced the Neanderthaloid population, perhaps with some, but probably with no genetic mixing. The easiest way to explain any Late Palaeolithic Old World cultural continuity is by appealing to the world-wide demographic spread of somatically modern man across and out of Africa.[16] The oldest representations of animals are no longer those of the famous rock art of the Franco-Cantabrian region in southwestern Europe, but from East and Southern Africa.[17]

                        The substratum was well preserved in the sub-Saharan African context, but also in East Asia, where the emergence of the state and literacy incorporated and encapsulated, rather than annihilated, the Late Palaeolithic substratum traits. As a result animal symbolism in Chinese astral science (including the zodiac and the lunar mansions as parts of our data set) closely and consistently clusters together with the Chokwe and Tswana material so as to form cluster (C). That also in the South-Erythraean cultural region (D) the postulated Late Palaeolithic substratum of animal symbolism may be detected, is clear from the fact that the ‘animal demons’ series (as a demonising transformation of the original Palaeolithic series) formally situates itself in this cluster (although of course in space and time the animal series transcends all clusters, being virtually world-wide). It is odd that the Nkoya series should situate itself here rather than nearer to the Chokwe material; the Nkoya language is fairly closely related to the Chokwe language,[18] and many forms of material culture and social organisation of both societies are similar. The Nkoya political organisation in kingdoms owes however a demonstrable debt not only to ancient Egypt[19] but also and especially to the East African Coast / Madagascar / Indonesia, and thus might be more effectively influenced by the South-Erythraean cultural complex than the Chokwe. The Chokwe are situated more to the West and would instead display South Atlantic traits (such as worship of the high god Nyambi/ Nzambe/ etc., trading cults, and nkisi medicine containers, all of them little developed and probably recent traits among the Nkoya).

                        Students of early astronomies have often been struck by the extreme success of astrology (divinatory astronomy) as a conceptual frame of reference: apparently invented in ancient Mesopotamia[20] as an additional form of divination (next to the dominant haruspicy) to predict events important to the state and the kingship, it had a counterpart on Egyptian astral science already in the midlle of the first millennium BCE,[21] subsequently conquered Hellenic science, and in Hellenistic times[22] became a central organising theme not only in divination (where it became the systematic reasoning behind palmistry, numerology, etc.), but also in medicine and the pharmacopaea,[23] colour symbolism, mineralogy, art, and permeated the entire world view of Late Antiquity; but also South and East Asia, West and East Africa, and Germanic-speaking northwestern Europe, adopted or developed local astrologies; while the most succesful divination method whose localised versions spread all over the world (including the Indian Ocean region, South and West Africa, Byzantium, Renaissance Europe, German peasant culture, and African American shell divination) was the Arabic (ilm al-raml, which Ibn aldun already recognised[24] to be essentially a perverted form of astrology. I submit that the success of astrology was largely based on the fact that it was an early transformation of a system of animal symbolism that formed a world-wide cultural substratum dating back to the Late Palaeolithic, and to the African continent as the cradle of somatically modern man.

                        Ever since the late nineteenth century art historians and archaeologists have wondered at another widely distributed representational complex: the ‘animal style’,[25] originally identified in Scythian figurines dating from the mid-first millennium BCE onwards, but gradually found to extend over much of Asian and European early history, with ramifications into, e.g., Hittite and ancient Mesopotamian art, and perhaps even Eskimo and other American cultures. The stag or deer occupis a central place in this complex, in its own right or (which seems to be a derived sense) as the animal sacred to a hunting god or goddess. The theme of the ‘flying gallop’ (nowhere to be observed in nature, yet captured in ancient art from China to Scythia, Syria and Crete)[26] is also related to this style, and ultimately central shamanistic themes such as the reviving of a dead animal by the proper arrangement of its skin and bones seem to attach to this theme. I submit that the extreme extension of the ‘animal style’ complex is not only to be sought in linguistic or ethnic communality of certain Asian and European human groups, or in extensive migratory or trading contacts, but that these obvious mechanisms of diffusion have been greatly facilitated by the persistence of a relatively intact original system of animal symbolism as contained in the Late Palaeolithic substratum. Presumably a parallel argument may be advanced with regard to animal tales. If we dare insist on an African origin, the stag or deer would then be a transformation of African antelope species — an equivalence I have already applied in Table 2. The extension of the ‘animal style’ over much of Asia, and specifically both in South West Asia (ancient Anatolia and ancient Mesopotamia) and in China, adds plausibility to the appearance of both African and Chinese material in cluster (C).

                        We are now in a position to suggest an historical explanation for the tripartite cluster structure which our analysis has revealed. Cluster (C), comprising both the African and the Chinese material, corresponds with the Late Palaeolithic cultural substratum including the earliest, presumably Africa-derived, animal symbolism. The other two clusters reveal the two earliest centres of cultural innovation where this substratum was profoundly transformed: ancient Mesopotamia (D) and ancient Egypt (A). It is remarkable that these two centres of civilisation, although relatively close in space (on a world scale) and time, should appear as so radically distinct in our analysis. This is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that the earliest history of Egypt reveals considerable Mesopotamian influence, to such an extent that a considerable number of scholars have seen such influence as decisive in the emergence of Egyptian civilisation (writing, tomb architecture, the unified state, the gods — all a fact by the time of the first dynasty, c. 3100 BCE). Interestingly in the light of our present analysis, it is especially Mesopotamianising themes in the representation of animals on cosmetic palettes and seals, that are among the primary indications of Mesopotamian influence on early Egypt.[27] Other analyses have played down the Mesopotamian influence, and have instead stressed the internal dynamics of the prehistoric societies of the Nile valley,[28] the influence from sub-Saharan Africa,[29] or the interaction between sub-Saharan African influences and Eastern Mediterranean influences[30] — the latter possibly overlapping with the influence from Mesopotamia. In the latter approach we would envisage a situation, in the fifth and fourth millennium BCE, where our three clusters would still be in statu nascendi, still in the process of dissociating from one another, and with little to distinguish the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cluster from the African one. Given an initially considerable Mesopotamian influence, Egypt soon moved away more and more from the Mesopotamian models and towards a most distinctive socio-cultural orientation of its own. I suspect that this divergence increased because of at least two reasons:

(a)  the contingency of cultural change in general (given such contingency, any change both in Egypt and in Mesopotamia — separated after all by considerable stretches of sea and partly inhospitable land — would be more likely to result in further deviation than to further convergence between the two regions); but also

(b)  the Egyptian elite’s and general population’s endeavour to articulate Egypt’s distinctiveness by explicit reference to Mesopotamian models, knowledge about which continued to be available through trade and migration models — as if Egypt and Mesopotamia each sought to occupy distinctive available niches in an extensive and loosely integrated regional cultural ecology; the desire to maintain domestic identity in the face of knowledge about and interaction with surrounding peoples coresponds with the so-called xenophobia for which ancient Egypt has been known throughout its history.

But whatever the earliest history of the civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the material from these cultures as included in our data set derives not from their earliest times, but from the time of their greatest maturation, in the late second and the first millennium BCE, when literacy, the state, religion, and complex social organisation in general, had propelled both Egypt and Mesopotamia into a specific high level of cultural innovation, resulting in a very marked distinctiveness vis-a-vis one another and vis-a-vis the Late Palaeolithic substratum. In both civilisations animal symbolism remained important, as is testified by the animal associations of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in epic texts and in glyptic iconography; by the Mischwesen (composite fabulous animals) appearing in both Mesopotamia, and Egypt, and in Egypt by the very extensive matching, to the point of conflation, between gods and animals. But in both Mesopotamia and Egypt the triumph of literacy, the state, and organised religion consisted in the dethronement of animals as central symbols and vehicles of thought. Their place was largely taken by anthropomorphic gods, often secondarily associated with animals, but also with other natural phenomena and with man-made objects and crafts. It is proper that the demonised animal figures (constituting an anguished memory of symbols that were once — under the Late Palaeolithic substratum — the dominant repositories of meaning) appear, not as part of the substratum cluster (C) — their original context, where they would still be intact and not yet demonised — but as part of one of the ‘transformed animal symbolism’ clusters, (A) or (D). Given the more emphatically maintained animal nature of the ancient Egyptian gods as compared to ancient Mesopotamia, it is consistent that the ‘animal demons’ cluster, although in principle encompassing much of the entire world, should fall in the Mesopotamian cluster (D).

                        Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge the fact that animal demons also occur in African symbolism, and not exclusively as recent transformations of African symbolism under conditions of the state and literacy.[31] As Ruel points out,[32] there is also in Africa specific animal symbolism of political domination. This I can only endorse, on the basis of my own studies of royal symbolism in South Central Africa,[33] and of a comparative exploration of leopard-skin symbolism I recently undertook.[34] This link between African political domination and animal symbolism in principle leaves open the possibility that also in Africa the demonisation — as a secondary phase — of an earlier form of animal symbolism has been associated with the emergence of precolonial states, though not with literacy. By the same token, we should extend our analysis to the, considerable, sub-Saharan evidence on astral animal symbolism in the form of zodiacs etc.[35] It is noteworthy that much ofthe literature on this point refers to the world of African Islam, as if the astronical and astrological knowledge systems we are encountering here, though on African soil, do not directly spring from an indigenous African tradition but from the Arabic one which was a direct heir to the scientific and magical tradition of the Ancient Near East and Graeco-Roman antiquity. But in some of these African astronomical and astrological attestations Islam is merely a distant influence, like among the Dogon. In addition, divination bowls both in Southern Africa (Venda) and in West Africa (Yoruba) often have decorated rims that evoke zodiacal symbolism.[36] It is not clear whether such zodiacal symbolism belongs to

(a)  an independent indigenous African zodiacal tradition (which I would find extremely unlikely);

(b)  an imported literate zodiacal tradition — most probably from the Arab world — which however is locally carried by specialists more or less competent in that tradition; or

(c)  merely represents the superficial, decorative imitations of foreign examples on imported artefacts, not supported by locally competent meaning.

Kroeber reminds us[37] that throughout West Africa we encounter golden rings with twelve zodiacal signs, which however locals cannot explain for lack of astrological knowledge. Of course, magical bowls, sometimes with explicit astrological connotations, have abounded in the world of Judaism, Madaeism, and Islam during the first millennium CE, and given the extensive inroads of southwestern Asian culture into East Africa,[38] these could very well be responsible for superficially imitated zodiacal designs on pottery.[39]

Diagram 9. Interpretation of the results of cluster analysis on world-wide patterns of animal symbolism

(click on the thumbnail to enlarge)


                        Given the abstract, aggregated and highly selective nature of the analysis, few interactive effects which we know to have taken place between the identified cultural clusters, actually perspire in the present material. For instance, the continuity between ancient Egypt and ancient Greece is highlighted in (A), beautifully in line with Bernal’s Black Athena thesis, but not so highlighted is the continuity between ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Greece, which is yet a proven fact precisely in astronomy (from which part of our data set was taken) and other sciences,[40] and which certain scholars[41] have also argued for mythology, e.g. in the parallels between the Gilgamesh epic, the labours of Herakles, and the Prometheus myth. I have already pointed out that it was the thrust of cultural dynamics, accellerated and intensified by societal complexity, literacy, the state and organised religion, which caused the Egyptian and the Mesopotamian cluster to become, at the height of their development, so radically different from one another despite the evidence of Egypt’s initial indebtedness to Mesopotamia. This effect of what I have called ‘transformative localisation’:[42] the local appropriation and adaptation of globally circulating cultural material, so as to produce a distinctive local form which can no longer be reduced to its original provenance. In this case the effect of transformative localisation is so strong as to obscure, from our analysis, any minor exchanges which are known to have occurred between Egypt and Mesopotamia — which for some time during the New Kingdom shared a border at the Euphrates, maintained a correspondence in cuneiform Akkadic, exchanged healing statues of gods, adopted each other’s gods, boardgames, etc. For the same reason of transformative localisation the Egyptian-Greek cluster (A) should appear so radically different from the substratum one (D) containing most of the African material, despite Egypt’s unmistakable cultural and demographic indebtedness to Africa. Both in the case of Mesopotamian / Egyptian exchange, and of African/ Egyptian - Egyptian / African exchanges, the analysis highights how the dynamics of transformative localisation works on cultural material imported by way of diffusion, and shapes that material into something uniquely distinct from yet historically related to the original source. Our analysis is too crude and too limited to reveal some other historically established interaction processes affecting the societies in our sample, such as the influence of Egyptian material not only on Greece but specifically fed back into Africa;[43] or the historical link between China and Mesopotamia precisely in the field of astronomy. In other words, the cluster analysis with its tree-like results tends to play down interaction between clusters and between branches, in this case between cluster (A) and (C) (Egypt/ Africa) and between (D) and (C) (Mesopotamia / China). Ironically, on the basis of extensive field work I recently drafted a book arguing the historical links between the kingship and oral traditions of the Nkoya people if South Central Africa, and ancient Egypt,[44] whereas in the present analysis the Nkoya with their system of clan nomenclature (which is presumably older than and independent from the kingship) situate themselves in the Mesopotamian cluster (D) (which therefore had to be re-interpreted as South Erythraean) and not with Egypt (A).

                        Scientific classifications ultimately arose in the context of these transformations in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, notably through early astronomy and divination systems, much later to be reworked in Hellenic and Hellenistic times, and in modern times to be partly dismissed as pseudo-sciences. Not only does this analysis support the view that extensive continuities in space and time, as a social basis for the attribution of universality, is a feature of other systems of knowledge besides modern science; it also shows how modern science and its spatial and temporal extension is historically indebted to these other systems of knowledge.

7. Summary and conclusion

The philosopher of science Sandra Harding attributes modern science’s claim to universality not in the first place to its internal epistemology, but to the specific social condition that modern science is available, represented, mediated, anywhere on the globe, at specific centres of exchange such as universities, schools, the media etc. The present paper makes the point that, among systems of knowledge, modern science does not have the monopoly of this social condition. Many other systems of knowledge, far from being merely local, have extensive continuity over vast expanses of both space and time, and hence may be suspected of taking on, in the consciousness of the people sharing such knowledge, a validity comparable to modern science’s. The global distribution of the mythological theme of ‘hero fights monster’ is one initial example. The argument then concentrates on animal symbolism as providing an even more impressive example. From eleven widely differing cultural contexts in Asia, Africa and Europe and from a time span of several millennia, eleven series of animal (combined with non-animal) symbolism are processed: world-wide representations of animal demons; nomes and major gods from ancient Egypt; figurines in the Central African (Chokwe) divining basket; the names of clans among the Central African Nkoya people and the Southern African Tswana people; the classic Chinese zodiac and lunar mansions; Babylonian astronomy; the modern international names of the constellations; and the animal associations of the major Greek gods. It turns out to be possible to subsume these very disparate series in one large matrix. After a methodological discussion, the contents of this matrix are subjected to extensive cluster analysis. Given the notorious variability and manipulability of cluster analysis results, we need to proceed cautiously. However, the patterns that emerge turn out to be remarkably stable and consistent, regardless of whether the analysis is limited to animal symbols or is allowed to include non-animal symbols; and regardless of whether actual occurrences in the data set per series and per symbolic category data are taken into account, or instead the data are dichotomised in terms of mere occurrence, or non-occurrence, per series and per category; dichotomisation allows us to use a stronger, parametric distance statistic based on the Pearson correlation, but this again yields largely the same results. Three clusters articulate themselves persistently in the data set: an African / Chinese cluster; an ancient Egyptian / classical Greek cluster; and an ancient Mesopotamian cluster, to which modern constellation names are historically indebted, and to which both globally distributed animal demons, and Nkoya clan names, attach themselves. In an attempt to explain this pattern, the hypothesis is formulated of an Upper Palaeolithic cultural substratum encompassing, among other traits including an early nomenclature of (some) constellations, an elaborate system of animal symbolism. In the African (Tswana, Chokwe) and Chinese material in our data set, this Upper Palaeolithic substratum is still more or less intact. Alternatively, under conditions of state formation, the emergence of organised religion, and literacy, the substratum underwent specific transformations in ancient Egypt (from where a decisive influence was exerted on Greek religion and mythology) and, in a radically different direction, in ancient Mesopotamia. While animal symbolism remained a part of both transformative clusters, animals lost their earlier central roles as vehicles of meaning and of thought (as in the Upper Palaeolithic), and gave way to anthropomorphic symbols or to symbols derived from other natural phenomena than animals, especially meteorological and celestial phenomena. Scientific classifications ultimately arose in the context of these transformations in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, notably through early astronomy and divination systems, much later to be reworked in Hellenic and Hellenistic times, and in modern times to be partly dismissed as pseudo-sciences. Not only does this analysis support the view that extensive continuities in space and time, as a social basis for the attribution of universality, is a feature of other systems of knowledge besides modern science; it also shows how modern science and its spatial and temporal extension is historically indebted to these other systems of knowledge. In addition to this main line of argument, the paper touches on a number of additional points: the Black Athena thesis on ancient Egyptian / Greek continuity, supported by the cluster analysis; Frobenius’[45] concept of the South Erythraean cultural area, as a likely explanation of the Nkoya material’s associating with the Mesopotamian cluster, thus highlighting South Asian and Indonesian influences in Central African kingship and mythology; the manifestation of the postulated Upper Palaeolithic system of animal symbolism in the famous rock art of that period; the persisting manifestation of that system in such familiar themes of art history as the ‘animal style’, the ‘flying gallop’, animal tales, and certain shamanistic themes having to do with animal death and rebirth; the hypothesis that the postulated widespread Upper Palaeolithic system of animal symbolism may have facilitated the amazingly wide spread of astrology as an astral system of animal symbolism; the demonisation or diabolisation, of that system when under conditions of state formation and literacy a different religious regime emerges; and finally such historically documented interactions between the clusters as evade the tree-like representation of relationships in cluster analysis: Mesopotamian/ Egyptian, Mesopotamian/ Greek, Mesopotamian/ Chinese, African/ Egyptian, and Egyptian/ African.

                        Of course, more satisfactory cluster analyses, and a more sophisticated and subtle interpretation of their results, could be made if far more series from a wider range of provenances were included — particularly from other African and Asian societies, from the Americas, Australia and Oceania, ancient Europe, and from other spheres of life than religion, mythology, social nomenclature, and astral science. However, the preparation and analysis of our eleven series has already taken months of work. In the near future the data set will of course be greatly expanded in space and in time. Meanwhile, for a first indication of the kind of potential of this material and of this kind of analysis, the present exercise is quite sufficient. It confirms Levi-Strauss’ that animals have been bien a penser, ‘good for thinking’, in the most literal sense: as props for forms of untamed thought from which, ultimately, along an itinerary whose outline we are beginning to discern, contemporary scientific knowledge was to come forth.

[1]              Frobenius, L., 1931, Erythraa: Lander und Zeiten des heiligen Konigsmordes, Berlin/ Zurich: Atlantis-Verlag.

[2]              For details, cf. my forthcoming Global Bee Global bee flight, o.c.

[3]              Cf. Parpola, A., 1994, Deciphering the Indus script, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4]              Cf. my Global bee flight, o.c.

[5]              Having myself scratched only the barest surface of Chinese history, culture and language, I cannot possibly include myself among these happy few. However, in the mid-1980s I was invited to participate in a symposium of the Oosters Genootschap (‘Oriental Society’) at Leiden University dedicated to patterns of social drinking in various non-European societies. As the only Africanist amongst South and East Asianists, I was struck by the very close parallels between the Southern and Central African patterns of social and ritual drinking as evoked in my presentation, and the Chinese data presented at the same occasion. Regrettably, I did not have the opportunity to work my oral presentation of that occasion into a published text.

[6]              Granet M., 1919, Fetes et chansons anciennes de la Chine, Paris; Granet, M., 1926, Danses et legendes de la Chine ancienne, 2 vols., Paris: ; Granet, M., 1925, ‘Remarques sur le Taoisme ancien’, Asia Major, 2: 146-151; Granet, M., 1988, La pensee chinoise, Paris: Albin Michel, nouvelle edition precedee d’une preface par V. Eliseeff, earlier edition Paris: La Renaissance du Livre, 1934; Maspero, H., 1900, Le Taoisme, Paris, reprinted in: Demieville, P., ed., 1950, H. Maspero: Melanges posthumes sur les religions et l’histoire de la Chine, Paris: Civilisations du Sud, Publications du Musee Guimet, Bibliotheque de Diffusion; vol ii; Maspero, H., 1971, Le Taoisme et les religions chinoises, Paris: Gallimard; Texts of Taoism, vol. 39-40 of: Muller, M., ed., Sacred books of the East: Translated by various oriental scholars, first published Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1875-1910, reprinted 1988, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass; Karlgren, B., 1940, ‘Grammata serica: Script and phonetics in Chinese and Sino-Japanese’, Bulletin of the Museum for Eastern Antiquities (Stockholm), 12, 1f; Karlgren, B., 1957, ‘Grammata Serica Recensa’, The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities Bulletin, Stockholm, 29; Needham, J., with Wing Ling, 1956, Science and civilization in China, vol. 2. History of scientific thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Wang Hongyuan, 1994, The origins of Chinese characters, Beijing: Sinolingua, first published 1993; Wieger, L., 1965, Chinese characters: Their origin, etymology, history, classification and signification: A thorough study from Chinese documents, translation L. Davrout, New York: Paragon Book Reprint/ Dover, reprint of Chinese Characters, Hsienhsien: Catholic Mission Press, second edition, 1927; first edition 1915.

[7]              Winters, C.A., 1980, ‘A note on the unity of Black civilizations in Africa, Indo-China, and China’, in: PISAS [ International Symposium on Asian Studies ] 1979, Hong Kong: Asian Research Service; Winters, C.A., 1983, ‘Blacks in Ancient China, Part 1: The Founders of Xia and Shang’, Journal of Black Studies, 1, 2.

[8]                Duyvendak, J.J.L., 1938, ‘The true dates of the Chinese maritime expeditions in the early fifteenth century,’ T’oung Pao, 34: 341-412; Duyvendak, J.J.L., 1949, China’s discovery of Africa, London: Probsthain; Hirth, F., 1909, ‘Early Chinese Notices of East African Territories,’ Journal of the American Oriental Society, 30: 46-57; Wheatley, P., 1975, ‘Appendix II: Notes on Chinese texts containing references to East Africa’, in: Neville, H., Chittick, H.N., &Rotberg, R.I., eds., East Africa and the Orient: Cultural syntheses in pre-colonial times, New York: Africana Publishing Co., pp. 284-290; Filesi, T., 1972, China and Africa in the Middle Ages, translation D.L.Morisen, London. For an exaggerated assessment of the Chinese presence in East Africa in the second millennium CE, cf. Schwarz, E.H.L., 1938, ‘The Chinese connection with Africa’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 3rd series, 4: 175-193, who speaks of millions of Chinese swarming all over Eastern and Southern Africa by the middle of the second millennium CE; yet the article contains convincing details and has the general marks of serious scholarship.

[9]              I owe this suggestion to Patricia van Binsbergen-Saegerman, who pointed out to me proof of early Portuguese influence on Chokwe art, and on the Kongo kingdom.

[10]            Gundel, Dekane, o.c., p. 216.

[11]            Pace Bezold, Ungnad, o.c. For an example of post-Ming Chinese astrology which shows such close parallels with Hellenistic and Indian astrology that it would be difficult to see the Chinese forms as having evolved completely independently on Chinese soil for two millennia or more, cf. Sherrill, W.A., ed., 1976, The astrology of I Ching: translated from the ‘Ho Map Lo Map Rational Number’ manuscript by W.K. Chu, London/ Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

[12]            Cf. von Negelein, J., 1929, ‘Das Sternbild des ‘‘Grossen Baren’’ in Siberien und Indien’, Archiv fur Religionswissenschaft, 27: 186-187; Hentze, Mythes et symboles lunaires, o.c.; Kelley, D.H., 1960, ‘Calendar animals and deities,’ South-Western Journal of Anthropology, 16: 317-335; Kelley, D.B., 1991, ‘The twenty-eight lunar mansions of China’, Reports of Liberal Arts, Hamamatsu University School of Medicine, No. 5; Kelley, D.B., 1992, ‘The Twenty-Eight Lunar Mansions of China: Part 2: A possible relationship with Semitic alphabets’, o.c.; Kelley, D.B., 1995, ‘The Twenty-Eight Lunar Mansions of China: Part 3: A Possible Relationship with the Ancient Central-American Calendar’, Reports of Liberal Arts, Hamamatsu University School of Medicine, No. 9. Incidentally, in a further analysis along the lines presented in the present paper, these studies could be used to extend our data set of animal symbolism (Table 2) into northern Asia, and the New World.

[13]            Stricker, B.H., 1963-1989, De geboorte van Horus, I-V, Leiden: Brill for Ex Oriente Lux; Fontenrose, o.c.; Ginzburg, C., 1992, Ecstasies: Deciphering the witches’ sabbath, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, reprint of the first English edition of 1991, Pantheon Books, translation of Storia notturna, Torino: Einaudi, 1989; Campbell, J., 1992, De vlucht van de wilde gans, Houten: De Haan/ Unieboek, Dutch translation of The flight of the wild gander, New York: HarperPerennial, 1990; de Santillana, G., & von Dechend, H., 1969, Hamlet’s mill: An essay on myth and the frame of time, Boston: Gambit; for a dismissive view of this study, cf. Palter, R., 1996, ‘Black Athena, Afrocentrism, and the history of science’, in: Lefkowitz, M.R., & MacLean Rogers, G., eds., Black Athena revisited, Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, pp. 209-266. For my own work on such continuities, cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ‘Rethinking Africa’s contribution to global cultural history: Lessons from a comparative historical analysis of mankala board-games and geomantic divination’, in my Black Athena: Ten Years After, o.c., pp. 221-254, also at: . For the exploration of Palaeolithic graphic signs, cf. Hentze, Mythes et symboles lunaires, o.c., but especially Leroi-Gourhan, A., 1958, La fonction des signes dans les sanctuaires paleolithiques, Bulletin de la Societe prehistorique francaise, 55, 5-6: 307-321; Leroi-Gourhan, A., 1958, ‘Le symbolisme des grands signes dans l’art parietal paleolitique’, Bulletin de la Societe Prehistorique Francaise, 55, 7-8; Leroi-Gourhan, A., 1958, ‘Repartition et groupement des animaux dans l’art parietal paleolithique’, Bulletin de la Societe Prehistorique Francaise, 55: 515-528; Leroi-Gourhan, A., 1964, Les religions de la prehistoire: Paleolithique, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France (Mythes et religion 6). Based on the examination, not of subterranean sites of rock art but of portable artefacts, and reaching comparable conclusions: Marshack, The roots of civilization, o.c.; Marshack, A., 1991, ‘The Tai plaque and calendrical notation in the Upper Palaeolithic’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 1, 1: 25-61; for criticism of Marshack, cf. d’Errico, F., 1989, ‘Paleolithic lunar calendars: A case of wishful thinking?’, Current Anthropology, 30: 117; with a reply by Marshack and a rejoinder by d’Errico. For relatively independent views converging with Marshack’s, cf. Anati, E., 1998, ‘Une ecriture avant l’ecriture’, Le Courrier de l’Unesco, april 1998, pp. 10-16; Gimbutas, M.A., 1991, The civilization of the Goddess: The world of Old Europe, San Francisco: Harper, ch. 8: ‘the sacred script’. A general up-to-date background to processes of symbolisation in the Upper Palaeolithic is offered, e.g., by Gamble, C., 1995, Timewalkers: The prehistory of global colonisation, Harmondsworth: Penguin, first published 1993: Allan Sutton Publishing Ltd, Bath.

[14]            Aspects of this process in Africa and South America are treated in: Meyer, B., 1995, ‘Translating the devil: An African appropriation of Pietist protestantism: The case of the Peki Ewe in Southeastern Ghana, 1847-1992’, Ph.D thesis, Amsterdam University; Taussig, M.T., 1980, The devil and commodity fetishism in South America, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press; van Dijk, R., 1995, ‘Fundamentalism and its moral geography in Malawi: The representation of the diasporic and the diabolical’, Critique of Anthropology, 15, 2: 171-191. Glimpses of the process in the Germanic world of first-millenium CE Europe in: Lampen, W., 1939, Willibrord en Bonifatius, Amsterdam: Van Kampen.

[15]            Breuil, H., 1909, ‘Le bison et le taureau celeste chaldeen’, Revue archeologique, 4e serie, 13, 1: 250-254.

[16]            Shreeve, J., 1996, The Neandertal enigma?: Solving the mystery of modern human origins, New York: Morrow/ Viking; Laine, ‘Eve africaine?’, o.c., and extensive references cited there.

[17]            Anati, E., 1986, ‘The rock art of Tanzania and the East African sequence’, BCSP [ Bolletino des Centro Camuno di Studi Preistorici ] , 23: 15-68, fig. 5-51; Anati, E., 1999, La religion des origines, Paris: Bayard; French translation of La religione delle origini, n.p.: Edizione delle origini, 1995.

[18]                Greenberg, J.H., 1955, Studies in African linguistic classification, New Haven (Conn.): Compass.

[19]            Cf. my Global bee flight, o.c.

[20]            For extensive literature cited, cf. van Binsbergen & Wiggermann, ‘Magic’, o.c. On the basis of the early attestation of astrology in ancient Mesopotamia and the subsequent very wide spread of this knowledge system, Winckler launched, a century ago, the idea of pan-Babylonism: ancient Mesopotamia conceived as the cradle of all culture. Winckler, H., 1903, Himmels- under Weltenbild der Babylonier als Grundlage der Weltanschauung und Mythologie aller Volker, Leipzig: Hinrichs. This position is since highly discredited, very early on already by: King, L.W., 1915, A history of Babylon: From the foundation of the monarchy to the Persian conquest, London: Chatto & Windus, ch X, pp. 289-315. There is a certain, but only superficial, similarity between this, highly discredited, position and my own far more complex suggestion, below, which seeks to explain the unmistakably world-wide success of astrology by interpreting this specialist knowledge system as being greatly supported by, and/ or forming a transformation of, a system of animal symbolism; from Africa the latter spread all over the world with the demographic expansion of somatically modern man, and thus offered everywhere a fertile and kindred ground for the reception of astrology as a more sophisticated form of animal symbolism.

[21]            Gundel, Dekane, o.c.; Schott, S., 1936, ‘Erster Teil: Die altaglyptische Dekane’, in: Gundel, Dekaneo.c., pp. 1-21; Gundel, W., 1936, Neue astrologische Texte des Hermes Trismegistos, Abhandlungen der Bayerischen Akademie fur Wissenschaften Philosophisch-historische Abteilung, Neue Folge, Heft 12; Robins, G., 1995, ‘Mathematics, astronomy, and calendars in Pharaonic Egypt’, in: Sasson, J.M., with Baines, J., Beckman, G., & Rubinson, K.S., eds., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, New York etc.: Scribner’s, pp. III, 1799-1813.

[22]            Bouche-Leclercq, A., 1879, Histoire de la divination dans l’antiquite, Paris: Leroux, 4 vols, reprint ca. 1960, U.S.A. (the U.S.A. photomechanical reprint I consulted does not contain any details as to publisher and year of publication); Gundel, H.G., 1972, ‘Zodiakos’, in: Paulys Realencyclopaedie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft: Neue Bearbeitung begonnen von George Wissowa etc., Kroll, W., ed., II. Reihe 19. Halbband, cols. 462-709; Boll, F.J., Bezold, C., & Gundel, W., 1966, Sternglaube und Sterndeutung: Die Geschichte und das Wesen der Astrologie: 5. durchgesehene Auflage mit einem bibliographischen Anhang von H.G. Gundel, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftlichte Buchgesellschaft, first edition Leipzig 1926: Teubner Verlag.

[23]            Pfister, F., 1964, ‘Pflanzenaberglaube’, in: Paulys Realencyclopadie der classischen Altertums­wissenschaft: Neue Bearbeitung begonnen von George Wissowa etc., Kroll, W., ed., 38. Halbband, cols. 1446-1456.

[24]            Ibn aldun, 1980, The Muqaddimah: An introduction to history, translated from the Arabic by F. Rosenthal, 3 vols, second printing of second edition, Princeton (N.J.): Princeton University Press, 1980, first edition Bollingen Series XLIII, New York: Bollingen Foundation Inc, 1958.

[25]            Leroi-Gourhan, A., 1943, Documents pour l’art compare de l’Eurasie septentrionale, Paris: Editions d’Art et d’Histoire; Bunker, E.C., Chatwin, C.B., & Farkas, A.R., 1970, ‘Animal style’: Art from east to west, New York; Cammann, Schuyler v. R., 1958, ‘The animal style art of Eurasia’, Journal of Asian Studies, 17: 323-39; Rostovzev, M.I., 1929, The animal style in South Russia and China, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

[26]            Reinach, S., 1925, La representation du galop dans l’art ancien et moderne, Paris: Leroux

[27]            Kantor, H. J., 1952, ‘Further evidence of early Mesopotamian relations with Egypt’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 11, 2: 239-250; Rice, M., 1990, Egypt’s making: The origins of Ancient Egypt, 5000-2000 B.C., London and New York: Routledge.

[28]            Hoffman, M.A., 1991, Egypt before the Pharaohs: The prehistoric foundations of Egyptian civilization, revised edition, Austin: University of Texas Press, first published New York/ London 1979.

[29]                Frankfort, H., 1948, Kingship and the gods: A study of Ancient Near Eastern religion as the integration of society and nature, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, French translation La royaute et les dieux: Integration de la societe a la nature dans la religion de l’ancien Proche Orient, Paris: Payot; Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel, o.c.; Williams, B.B., 1986, The A-group Royal Cemetery at Qustul Cemetery L: Excavations between Abu Simbel and the Sudan frontier, Keith C. Seele, Director, Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition volume III, Part 1, Chicago: Oriental Institute;

[30]            My Global bee flight, o.c.

[31]            Cf. Ruel, M., 1970, ‘Were animals and the introverted witch’, in: Douglas, M., ed., Witchcraft confessions and accusations, Tavistock

[32]            Ruel, M., 1970, ‘Lions, leopards and rulers’, New Society, 380: 54-56.

[33]            Cf. my Tears, o.c.

[34]            For a section of my forthcoming book Intercultural encounters: African lessons for a philosophy of interculturality.

[35]            Cf. Griaule, M., 1966, Dieu d’Eau: Entretiens avec Ogotomelli, Paris: Fayart, first published 1948, English translation Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An introduction to Dogon religious ideas, London: Oxford University Press; Bork, F., 1914, ‘Tierkreisforschungen’, Anthropos, 9: 66-80 (where the author examines materials from India, Indonesia and West Africa); Callet, le R.P., 1913, Tantaran’ ny Andriana, traduit et annote par M. Colancon, Bulletin de l’Academie Malgache, vol. 11-12, vol 12 part 1, p. 21-114; Coro, F., 1951, ‘Folklore africano: Astronomia e scienze occulte presso i Tuaregh’, Rassegna Mediterranea, December 1951: 19; Crowfoot, J.W., 1920, ‘Beliefs about the mansions of the moon’, Sudan Notes and Records, 3: 271-279; ten Raa, E., 1969, ‘The moon as a symbol of life and fertility in Sandawe thought’, Africa, 39: 24-53; Sechefo, J., 1909, ‘The twelve lunar months among the Basuto’, Anthropos, 4: 931-941; Paques, V., 1964, L’Arbre cosmique dans la pensee populaire et dans la vie quotidienne du Nord-Ouest africain, Travaux et Memoires de l’Institut d’Ethnologie de l’Universite de Paris, no. 70, Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie de l’Universite de Paris; Paques, V., 1956, ‘Le Belier cosmique’, Journal de la Societe des Africanistes,, 26, 1-2: 211-253; Hiskett, M., 1967, ‘The Arab star-calendar and planetary system in Hausa verse’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 30: 158-176; Ferrand, G., 1905, ‘Un chapitre d’astrologie arabico-malgache d’apres le manuscrit 8 du fond arabico-malgache de la Biblotheque Nationale de Paris’, Journal Asiatique, 10th series, 6: 193-273; Knappert, J., 1993, ‘al-Nudjum (A.), the stars: In East Africa’, in: Bosworth, C.E., van Donzel, E., Heinrichs, W.P., & Lecomte, G., eds., Encyclopaedia of Islam, new edition, Leiden: Brill, p. VIII, 105; Bloch, M., 1968, ‘Astrology and writing in Madagascar’, in: Goody, J., ed., Literacy in traditional societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 278-297; Cerulli, E., 1931-32, ‘Nuovi appunti sulle nozioni astronomiche dei Somali’, Rivista degli Studi Etiopici, 6: 83-92; Cerulli, E., 1929-30, ‘Le stazioni lunari nelle nozioni astronomiche dei Somali e dei Dan?kil’, Rivista degli Studi Orientali, 12: 71-78; Littmann, E., 1908, ‘Sternensagen und Astrologisches aus Nord-Abessinien’, Archiv fur Religionswissenschaft, 2: 298-319.

[36]            ; cf. Davis, S., 1955, ‘Divining bowls, their uses and origin: Some African examples and parallels from the ancient world’, Man, 55 (143): 132-135, and references cited there.

[37]            Cf. Kroeber, A.L., 1923, Anthropology, New York: Harcourt, Brace, p. 205.

[38]            Cf. Neville c.s., East Africa and the Orient, o.c.

[39]            Naveh, J., & S. Shaked, 1985, Amulets and magic bowls : Aramaic incantations of late antiquity, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, The Hebrew University/ Leiden: Brill; Spoer, H.H., 1938, ‘Arabic Magic Bowls II: An Astrological Bowl,’ Journal of the American Oriental Society, 58: 366-383.

[40]            Dalley, S., & Reyes, A.T., 1998, ‘Mesopotamian contact and influence in the Greek world (1)’, in: Dalley, S., & Reyes, A.T., eds., The legacy of Mesopotamia, Oxford, Clarendon Press, pp. 85-106; Bottero, J., Herrenschmidt, C., & Vernant, J.P., 2000, Ancestor of the West: Writing, reasoning, and religion in Mesopotamia, Elam, and Greece, Chicago: University of Chicago; van der Waerden, B.L., 1974, Science Awakening, I. Egyptian, Babylonian and Greek mathematics, II: The Birth of Astronomy, Leyden: Brill, English translation of the Dutch Ontwakende wetenschap: I Egyptische, Babylonische en Griekse wiskunde, II. De geboorte der sterrenkunde, Groningen: Noordhoff, first published 1950-1954.

[41]                Fontenrose, o.c., p. 248; Hrozny, B., 1951, Ancient history of western Asia, India and Crete, Prague: Artia, p. 57, 155 (I am aware of the discredited nature of Hrozny’s claim to have deciphered the ancient Cretan script, and of the several other flaws of this book, but that is immaterial in this context); Kramer, S.N., 1961, Sumerian mythology: A study of spiritual and literary achievement in the third millennium B.C., Memoirs xxi, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, reprint of the 1944 first edition, pp. 13, 33. The idea of a direct relation between Herakles and Gilgamesh was however dismissed by Levy, G.R., 1934, ‘The Oriental origin of Herakles’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 54: 40-53.

[42]            van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ‘Black Athena Ten Years After: Towards a constructive re-assessment’, in my Black Athena: Ten Years After, o.c., pp. 11-64, also at: and at .

[43]            My Global bee flight, o.c.

[44]            My Global bee flight, o.c.

[45]            I am aware that Frobenius’ scholarship and moral stance as an Africanist is discredited among mainstream Africanists today (cf. Zobel, C., 1997, ‘Essentialisme culturaliste et humanisme chez Leo Frobenius et Maurice Delafosse’, in Amselle, J.-L., & Sibeud, E., eds, Maurice Delafosse entre orientalisme et ethnographie: L’itineraire d’un africaniste (1870-1926), Paris: Maissonneuve & Larose, pp. 137-143; Streck, B., 1996, ‘Frobenius’, in: Deutsche Biographische Enzyklopadie, 3, Munchen: pp. 499f.; Luig, U., 1982, ed., Leo Frobenius. Vom Schreibtisch zum Aquator: Afrikanische Reisen, Frankfurt a.M.; Vajda, L., 1973, ‘Leo Frobenius heute’, Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie, 98: 19-29. On the other hand, Frobenius is widely acclaimed as a major intellectual influence on Afrocentricity: Abiola Irele, F., 1997, ‘Negritude’, in: Middleton, J.M., 1997, ed., Encyclopaedia of Africa south of the Sahara, 4 vols., New York: Scribners, vol. 3, pp. 278-286; Cesaire A., 1941, ‘Leo Frobenius et le probleme des civilisations’, Tropiques (Fort-de-France), no. 1, pp. 27-36. For a brief anthropological re-appraisal of Frobenius, see my forthcoming bookGlobal Bee Flight: Sub-Saharan Africa, Ancient Egypt, and the World — Beyond the Black Athena thesis.


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