Archaeology in Africa

A British writer born in Bristol in 1914, BASIL DAVIDSON has recently finished his new book, THE REDISCOVERY OF AFRICA, which will be published by Atlantic-Little, Brown in the autumn. During the war he served as a lieutenant colonel of infantry in the British Army and was for several months attached to the U.S. Army in Italy. His first books were the result of his extensive travels after the war: REPORT ON SOUTH AFRICA (1952). DAYBREAK IN CHINA (1953).


IT IS less than three quarters of a century since Europe’s Congress of Berlin agreed upon a colonial share-out in Africa that was intended to be long enduring, if not permanent. It is less than half a century since Africa’s first graduates emerged from European universities; less than a quarter of a century since any significant number of graduates emerged from universities in Africa itself. Does this mean that the independent or about-to-beindependent African states come historically naked, or next to naked, into the civilized and selfgoverning world? Does it mean that their experience of statehood — their progress from savagery to barbarism to civilization — began no earlier than yesterday?

Many have thought so. “For countless centuries, while all the pageant of history swept by,” declared Lord Milverton, a former governor of Nigeria, not long ago, “the African remained unmoved — in primitive savagery.” Africans south of the Sahara — to quote a characteristic judgment delivered by an academic follower of Dr. Strijdom in South Africa — “had little more in the way of culture, or of control over physical environment, than is associated with the Stone Age. . . . Their thinking was not concerned with objective validity and was preoccupied by the mystic powers of persons and things. This centuries-long stagnation cannot be attributed to their isolation from the main streams of civilization.” In short, there must be something wrong with Negroes and their kind, something lacking in their nature, something naturally inferior. Others have seen in this view no more than the convenient rationalization of a white man’s claim to superiority. What Dr. Melville Herskovits has called “the myth of the Negro past” — that the Negro is “a man without a past” — was based on nothing more solid than the imperialist ethos of slaving and colonialism. It was not true, said Herskovits, that the Negro was a man without a past; it was only true that he appeared in that light to those who knew no better.

Yet even supposing that appearances are deceptive, is it possible to know any better? Is it possible to offer more than guess and speculation in the matter of African origins, social growth, and political development in the dozen centuries or so before European discovery? Definitely yes. One can know a great deal about the pre-European African past. One can show that it comprised a steady civilizing growth through many centuries. A little over a hundred and fifty years ago a young Scots surgeon, Mungo Park, rode through Saharan sand and thorn into the remote city of Ségou on the middle reaches of the Niger River. “Looking forwards,” he wrote of this experience, “I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission — the long sought for, majestic Niger, glittering to the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly to the eastward.” To the eastward: triumphantly he had underlined those words. Ever since Ptolemy, sixteen centuries before, men had written on maps that the Niger flowed to the westward. Now at last they knew the truth; and it was the reverse of what they had thought.

Mungo Park perished on the Niger before he could plot its course to the sea; but others followed him. Within seventy years or so, after great pioneering journeys up and down the continent, the main facts were fixed and clear upon the map. Much the same thing is now happening to African history: historians and archaeologists have embarked on journeys of historical discovery that parallel the geographical ventures of Park and Clapperton, Barth and Caillié, Livingstone and Stanley, and so many more.

The problem is partly one of remembering what Europe had thought of Africa four or five hundred years ago. When the Carnegie Foundation joined with the Nigerian and British governments three years ago to award a team of scholars the sum of $120,000 for the writing of a history of the medieval Nigerian kingdom of Benin, those who prepared to spend the money knew that a large part of it should go toward research in European libraries where many early records lie still unknown.

It is partly a problem of recording what Africans themselves have remembered of their past. Much African history is oral history: the tale of king lists and of more or less mythical events passed down from generation to generation but containing, along with heroic fairy stories, more than a grain of hard historical fact. Perhaps this capacity for true remembrance can best be illustrated in the story of what Emile Torday heard among the Bushongo people of the Central Congo nearly sixty years ago. Their “great king,” he knew, was Shamba Bolongongo, who had reigned “a longtime ago.” But just how long? “As the elders were talking of the great events of various reigns,” he afterwards recalled, “and we came to the ninetyeighth chief. Bo Kama Bomanchala, they said that nothing remarkable had happened during his reign except that one day at noon the sun had gone out, and there was absolute darkness for a short time.”

“When I heard that,” says Torday, “I lost all self-control: I jumped up and wanted to do something desperate — the elders thought that I’d been stung by a scorpion.” Several months later Torday received from Europe the actual date of that eclipse, and “there was no doubt left that it was the thirtieth of March, 1680, when there was a total eclipse of the sun, passing exactly over Bushongo,” the only eclipse that would have been visible in the Central Congo during the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. “As there were three reigns between that of Shamba Bolongongo and of Bo Kama Bomanchala, and the great king’s as well as that of his two successors had been of more than usual length, we cannot be far out,” concludes Torday, “if we put the beginning of Shamba’s rule at 1600, or thereabouts.” It is significant of Europe’s new interest in the possibility and the usefulness of studying African history that Torday’s work is now revived and carried further by ethnologists.

YET it is archaeology and some of its newest tools which have really helped historical research. In the context of relatively recent African history — the period, let us say, of 1500 years before the present time — archaeology is of course only at the beginning of its task. Yet its first fruits are not small. In 1929 Gertrude Caton-Thompson examined the stone ruins of Southern Rhodesia and showed that these ruins were medieval in date and Bantu-speaking African in origin. The book in which she published her findings, The Zimbabwe Culture, set a new standard in African research. With majestic clarity and lack of passion Miss Caton-Thompson disposed of earlier European notions that Africans could not possibly have built these palaces and towers, and swept into the dustbin, in so doing, a vast mythology that had called in the ancient Egyptians, the Phoenicians, Hittites, or “mysterious peoples from the north.”

Later work has confirmed the truth of her findings. And in 1952, at Chicago, the measurement for radioactive carbon of fragments of timber from beneath the walls at Great Zimbabwe brought fresh certainty. By similar tests in London, two years later, these carbon 14 results showed that the earliest builders at Zimbabwe began their work around 750 A.D. About eight hundred years after that, Portuguese raiders would reach the central plateau of South Africa; the history of what lies between is the history of the birth of an African civilization.

That story is not yet written. Much of it may never be known, for much may be unknowable; yet the outline is already clear. More will become clear as the history of nearby regions is detached, little by little, from myth and guesswork. It is known, for example, that the mining culture of the southern plateau was closely linked with the coastal trade of East Africa. And it happens that a great deal can be learned about this coast trade.

When Vasco da Gama’s four small ships had passed the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and sailed northward along an East African coast that was utterly unknown to Europe then, their nearmutinous crews, weary from months of battling with gray Atlantic loneliness, were astonished to come upon busy ports and populous cities. To their relief and joy they found themselves among sailors who knew the seaways to India and beyond; who sailed with charts and compasses and quadrants as good as their own, or better; whose knowledge of the world was wider even than theirs. They anchored in havens that were thick with ocean shipping. They went ashore to cities “with many fair houses of stone and mortar, very well arranged in streets.” They watched a flourishing maritime trade in gold and iron and ivory and tortoise shell and slaves, and saw that they had blundered on a world of commerce that was wider and perhaps wealthier than anything that Europe knew. And when at last they sailed for India, it was with an Arab pilot, Ahmad ibn Majid, who knew the voyage well.

It has long seemed likely that new knowledge of this Indian Ocean trade, ranging as it did from Southeast Africa to Southeast China, would throw new light not only on the civilization of the city-states and trading stations of the East African coast but also on their suppliers in the hinterland — among whom the people of the kingdom of Monomotapa, whose capital was probably at Great Zimbabwe, were prominent. For the whole culture of Great Zimbabwe, Miss Caton-Thompson thought, “the trade connexion with India is undoubtedly strong — indeed, I believe it to be the primary stimulus which led to the development of the indigenous Zimbabwe culture.”

The latest findings of archaeology tend to confirm this. They also suggest that the light will be stronger than was generally supposed, and more plentiful. Exports from East and South-central Africa were mainly in raw material, and this offers no evidence of date, for it has vanished. But imports into Africa yield much more promising answers. From India these imports were mostly in textiles, which have disappeared, but they were also in beads and pottery; and, from China, in porcelain. Nearly all these “hard stuffs” can be dated with a fair accuracy. And they are there, in East Africa, in no meager quantity. “I have never in my life,” remarked a leading British archaeologist, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, after visiting Tanganyika a few years ago, “seen so much broken china as I have seen in the past fortnight along the coast and the Kilwa islands: literally, fragments of Chinese porcelain by the shovelful. . . . In fact, I think it is fair to say that as far as the Middle Ages are concerned, from the tenth century onwards, the buried history of Tanganyika is written in Chinese porcelain.”

Since Wheeler said this, a group of British archaeologists, led by Dr. Gervase Mathew, has completed a preliminary survey of pre-European sites along the coast of British East Africa; those for Tanganyika alone number as many as sixtyfour. Most of these are medieval, ranging from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries; but some are earlier than that. A few are contemporary with the great years of Ptolemaic and Roman expansion. Coins are also proving useful. Reporting to a conference on African history and archaeology held under the auspices of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies in July, 1957, Dr. Freeman-Grenville wrote of coins discovered on Zanzibar and nearby East African islands, “Sassanian and Parthian: Roman, Byzantine, Ummayad, Mamluk: a hoard of 176 Chinese coins ranging from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries.” Having come so near to accurate dating of these coastal cities, modern research is now on firmer ground for tackling the much greater problems of the hinterland.

THESE few examples may be enough to show that this “rediscovery of Africa”—of African history in the thousand years or so before European penetration — is no longer the product of wishful sentiment or mere enthusiasm. They could be multiplied by many other examples from other parts of the continent. M. Mauny and his colleagues of the Institut Français de L’Afrique Noire, at Dakar in French West Africa, have important findings to their credit. In the region of Lake Chad, M. Leboeuf and others have excavated a hitherto legendary civilization that worked finely in bronze and iron from at least the tenth century onwards. Further north, M. Vercoutter, director of antiquities of the republic of the Sudan, is completing a comprehensive survey of attested sites of the great Kushite civilization that flourished on the middle Nile for a thousand years after about 800 B.C. Dr. Mathew and Mr. Lanning have had important things to report from Uganda. Dr. Clark and Dr. Summers have published valuable contributions from Rhodesia. Dr. Biobaku has investigated Yoruba origins in southwestern Nigeria. Dr. Dike, another Nigerian scholar, is now in charge of writing the history of Benin.

Can it be said that any broad and general truths emerge from all this research? Can one generalize about the African past, even on the basis of interim conclusions? A tentative and general outline does seem to emerge and runs something like this.

Sometime around 3000 B.C., and possibly before, the drying out of the Sahara set up a barrier between the cradles of ancient civilization and the greater part of Africa. This barrier was always traversable; after the coming of the camel to the Sahara, in the last centuries B.C., it was regularly crossed in both directions, but always with enormous difficulty. The civilizing ideas and techniques of the Mediterranean and the Nile could reach continental Africa only with long delay, muffled by time and space, reduced by the sheer perversity of climate. Africa south of the Sahara entered its Metal Age, accordingly, centuries after countries lying to the north. Fairly conclusive evidence has lately shown that iron was unworked in continental Africa until the last centuries before the birth of Christ or the first centuries after that event; the African Metal Age, insignificant until the working of iron, therefore begins about 2000 years ago.

With the installation of iron smelting and manufacturing industries in continental Africa, southward from the Sahara and the middle Nile, the spread and multiplication of the ancestors of Africa’s present peoples could begin and continue. It was the endless movement of migrating peoples across the continent during the first thousand years of this Metal Age that gave Africa the types of people and of social organization whose memory is still preserved today. By the tenth century A.D. the knowledge of iron extraction and manufacture was common to nearly all the peoples of Africa; they had emerged from the Stone Age, although many might still be using implements of bone and stone along with tools and weapons of iron. By then or somewhat earlier, in at least two large regions of West and South Africa, strong and vigorous peoples had embarked on the long road from barbarism to civilization.

In both of these regions the growth of civilization was heavily influenced by trade with the outside world. In West Africa, wealthy from trans-Saharan trade, the historic states of Ghana, Mali, Kanem. Songhay took their rise and spread their growth across a million square miles. In East-central and South-central Africa the Indian Ocean trade gave to city-states on the coast and kingdoms in the interior the same drive that the trans-Saharan trade was giving to the West. In both of these regions the African Metal Age can be said to have shown a steady growth and development toward indigenous forms of civilization for at least a thousand years before European discovery and conquest. These peoples transmuted what they took from the outside world into a synthesis that became uniquely their own.

The achievement was not a small one. Cut oil though they were from the Nile and the Mediterranean or India and the Middle East by months of voyaging through sea or sand, the early states of southern Africa nonetheless began their journey out of barbarism not long after states in northern Europe had set out upon the same road. By 700 or 800 A.D., in spite of their great remoteness from the beaten highways of exchange, a number of African peoples had begun to settle in quite large cities both in West and in Southeast Africa. They had evolved their own successful forms of grain growing and cattle raising where none had existed before. They understood the extraction and manufacture of several metals and were mining for iron to a depth of fifty feet or more. They were very skillful in irrigation, and the ruins of their careful hillside terraces may still be seen from the Sudan in the North to Southern Rhodesia in the South. They were good artists, often wonderfully good. They were trading with the Mediterranean and the East and Far East. So famous had their iron exports become by 1150 A.D. that Edrisi could report that just as the best steel came from India, so did India acquire its best iron from Southeast Africa.

In every formal requirement of the test of civilization except that of literacy — yet some of these medieval states and cities had scholars who were literate in Arabic or in the writing of their own languages with an Arabic script — they were as civilized as many of their European contemporaries. The cultural gap between Africa and Europe would immensely widen in later centuries, for Europe would go forward and Africa would go back, but in medieval times the gap was not wide, and sometimes it was not to Europe’s advantage.

My central point, however, is not to make comparisons between Africa and Europe, but to show that the fundamental themes of African history are essentially the same as those of any other branch of the human family. People in Africa have encountered obstructions and discouragements that were peculiarly African and that called for peculiarly African solutions. Yet increasingly, as myth gives way to fact, we are likely to see that African peoples, though so often lost to the rest of humanity in that “land shadowed with wings which lies beyond the rivers of Ethiopia,” were nonetheless moving toward the same destinations and the same objectives, bad or good, as peoples elsewhere in the world. And surely there is something that is good and hopeful in this. Mankind, it seems, is after all indivisible.