By Afrosapiens, 3650 words.
This article is a point by point refutation of Pumpkin Person’s extremely inaccurate and unscientific depiction of Black Africa’s history based on astrophysicist Michael Hart’s book Understanding Human History. While it might sound like a waste of time to give any attention to the writings of a clueless blogger, I found it was the perfect occasion to share the main specialist views on civilizational development and Sub-Saharan African history that many are still unaware of.
Although a couple of our commenters have been citing a lot of the accomplishments of black Africa, Dr. Michael H. Hart paints a very different picture in his book Understanding Human History.
To begin with, we have to question the value of Michael Hart’s account of human history when we know that this man is only an astrophysicist with no specialist background in history or archeology of any region of the world. Aside from Hart’s blatant incompetence in these areas of study, I can’t fail to mention his close links with the white nationalist movement and his well known association with American Renaissance. Knowing this, it is hard to believe that an incompetent writer with known ideological leanings would have produced an objective description of human history.
Hart’s book was published in 2007 so some of his claims may no longer be accepted as the archeological record has since become more complete and politically correct.
Pumpkin Person needs to elaborate on how the archaeological record could be “politically correct” or incorrect. Archeology is factual, not political. Either way, Michael Hart’s claims were wrong in 2007 and are just as wrong as of 2017 as his account of African history is in contradiction with the earliest reports by explorers of the continent.
For starters, Hart claims that farming was not practiced in Africa until it was brought to Egypt by Southwest Asians in 6000 BC and from there it spread to Ethiopia, Sudan and then West Africa by 3000 BC. Central and Southern Africa however, were still living in the paleolithic until 1000 BC, according to Hart.
This claim is obviously wrong and unsupported by genetic or botanical evidence. Pumpkin Person, doesn’t understand that societies do not invent “farming”, instead populations domesticate specific plants. The first plants were domesticated in West Africa around 5000BCE, these crops (sorghum, African rice, pearl millet, yam, fonio) are direct descendants of their local wild ancestors and were not grown in the Middle East and North Africa. This fact makes an introduction from those regions impossible, especially since transaharan communication was impossible before the domestication of the camel in the horn of Africa or southern Arabia around 3000 BCE. An other fact that Pumpkin Person seems to ignore is that populations do not transition from hunting and gathering to farming just from being exposed to agricultural populations, foreign crops are instead adopted by sedentary horticulturalist populations that have already domesticated non-grain plants. For this reason, the most common mode of diffusion of farming is not contact with another population but migration of the farmers themselves, which is why agriculture did not reach the southern half of Africa until the farming Bantu populations of West African origin gradually settled the region.
By 600 BC iron smelting occurred in Nigeria. Hart writes “It seems probable that knowledge of iron work had been introduced from the North or brought from the eastern Sudan.” Introduced or brought in by Caucasoids?
Once again, the external introduction hypothesis is unsupported by any sort of evidence, especially since West Africans started smelting copper in the Sahel by 2000 BCE, which was the first stage of metal working development before iron-metallurgy. Evidence from metal working and crop domestication confirm West Africa’s status as a place of independent transition from the paleolithic to the neolithic.
Hart notes that prior to 1500, sub-Saharan Africa could be divided into two wildly different sections. The exposed zone and the secluded zone. The exposed zone was all the parts that were in contact with Caucasoids, such as West Africa, Ethiopia, Somalia, small remote parts of the Indian Ocean colonized by Arab traders, and parts of the Atlantic coast where Portuguese traders had set up shop. The rest of sub-Saharan Africa was the secluded zone. A terrifying region roughly twice the size of Europe.
Being familiar with African historiography, I was very surprised to learn about this pretended division between a “secluded” and an “exposed” zone marking the history of the continent before 1500. Such a division never appears in the literature and searching for it on the Internet only led me to Pumpkin Person’s article, which implies that this distinction only exists in Pumpkin Person and Michael Hart’s heads. Also, it’d be interesting to find an actual map of the pretended “secluded zone” as well as a scientific translation of its “terrifying” character.
Nevertheless, it is true that African regions that were more exposed to the outside world benefited from the exchange of goods, knowledge and technology more than the more isolated parts of the continent, similarly to the rest of the world. However, places like the pre-islamic Sahel and savanna (Ghana Empire, Nok Civilization, Djenne-Djeno), the Gulf of Guinea (Benin, Yoruba states, Igbo states), the Great Lakes regions (Rwanda, Buganda), the Lower Congo (Kongo Kingdom, Kuba Kingdom) and Zimbabwe developed complex organized societies independently from Eurasian contact before 1500.
While the exposed zone was not poor, and benefitted from written languages brought by Muslim slave traders, Hart feels the indigenous peoples still failed to make a single contribution to World civilization.
Bold claims here. Firstly, it is well acknowledged that the University of Timbuktu founded under the rule of the Mali Empire was one of the Islamic world’s main learning centers staffed by local West African scholars with thousands of religion, science, poetry, history and novel manuscripts still remaining to this day. Secondly, “the Muslim slave traders” were not foreigners of North African or Middle Eastern ancestry as Pumpkin Person or Hart seem to imply, these Muslims were Black African Muslims (close to half Sub-Saharans are Muslim) and they were not “slave traders” per se. They indeed traded slaves, along with gold, ivory and gum and other African products.
But it is the vast secluded zone that bears the brunt of Hart’s poison pen. Described as a primitive and backward region until as recently as the 19th century, Hart notes that there were:
Interesting, but what is this “secluded zone” that he’s referring to? Can someone name some populations of this “secluded zone”?
-no wheeled vehicles, nor even the potter’s wheel
Which is common to every isolated region with low population density.
– no method of even joining together pieces of wood
It’s extremely hard to understand what he’s referring to. Given that most Africans all over the continent built wooden houses, or assembled different pieces of metal and wood to manufacture tools, weapons or musical instruments, this allegation doesn’t stand the test of reality.
-no beasts of burden or draft animals (though cattle was raised)
These characteristics are far from being exclusive to Africa even if we’re only mentioning the “secluded zone”, these animals were absent in the Americas too. Keeping large animals was made even more difficult in tropical Africa by the presence of tsetse flies killing animals and humans by transmitting African trypanosomiasis also known as sleeping sickness.
-not a single written language in the entire region, and thus no law codes, no philosophical works, no literature or even oral epic-poetry
Before expanding on the topic of writing, I must quickly react on this obviously wrong assertion that any place in Africa was devoid of oral literature. Besides the very rich record of such an oral literary tradition, African societies all over the continent are noticed by the existence of a social caste of storytellers best exemplified by the West African griots. As for writing, although it is true that most of Subsaharan Africa remained illiterate until colonization and the literate parts adapted or adopted foreign scripts (writing was only invented in Egypt, Sumer, China and Mesoamerica according to most specialists), evidence, mainly from the Cross River region of current day Nigeria, shows that Africans had developed proto-writing with the Nsibidi system used in courts and were thus only a few centuries away from developing a complete, fluid and ideographic writing system, tonal languages making alphabets hard to use.
-no coins or money
This remark makes no sense since all forms of exchange were barter or a slightly improved form of it before the introduction of real, modern fiat money. Anyway, differently shaped pieces of metal, shells and salt were common means of transaction all over Africa in precolonial times.
– no math beyond simple arithmetic,
Although the absence of written language greatly limits the development of mathematic science, it is obviously wrong to claim that Africans anywhere in the continent were unable of calculation above the level of simple arithmetic. Indeed, as this paper demonstrates in the case of central Africa, various memorization techniques were used to execute complex calculations prior to colonization.
-no cities beyond small towns
Anyone who knows that the difference between a city and a small town or a village is not the intelligence but the number of its inhabitants can only wonder what this is supposed to prove besides the fact that Africa’s population density was and is still very low, which is in line with the leading and unchallenged position among specialists that complex societies are the consequence of population density.
no temples, large monuments nor domes, arches, schools, hospitals, libraries nor paved roads.
Same thing as with cities, monumental architecture was not the product of superior intelligence, instead, it relied on huge pools of laborers to erect such structures whose construction commonly spanned over several decades or centuries.
Hart credits the ruins of Great Zimbabwe as the most notable construction in the secluded zone, but feels it was nothing compared to the Machu Picchu in South America, or Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex, or Mesoamerica’s large cities and religious buildings. Hart notes that the giant statues on the tiny isolated Polynesian Easter Island were more impressive than anything found in the entire, secluded zone of black Africa.
This passage contains many inaccuracies. Firstly, Angkor Wat was by no means an isolated place. It was a Hindu, then Buddhist temple, and both religions went to Cambodia from India. As an assemblage of multiple stones to form a fortification system, Great Zimbabwe certainly necessitated more complex skills than carving statues in volcanic monoliths as seen in Easter Island. Machu Picchu, which is not a monument but an abandoned town is actually very similar to Great Zimbabwe, both are settlements built with locally available materials with a relatively simple architecture. Regarding Mesoamerican pyramids, they are absolutely not comparable to either Machu Picchu, Great Zimbabwe or Easter Island monoliths as they were built in a highly populated literate region with advanced mathematics and geometry which greatly facilitate architectural development.
-Almost no maritime skills. Hart notes the stunning fact that took Indonesians from the other side of the Indian Ocean, coming from 3000 miles away, to inhabit Madagascar in 500 AD, because Africans still had not reached it, even though it was only 250 miles off the East African coast. Nor did they reach the Cape Verde Islands, just a few hundred miles off the West African coast.
Africans are continental peoples, contrary to Indonesians who had spent millennia on archipelagos where seafaring across calm waters was the only means of communication between tiny islands. The African coast is straight and boarded by tumultuous oceanic waters, without peninsulas nor islands visible from the coast. For the same reason, Europeans never reached Madeira, the Azores or the Americas (apart from the Vikings, reaching Greenland and Newfoundland from Iceland at an unknown period) before the age of discoveries, Native Americans never reached Bermuda or the Galapagos and East Asians didn’t reach the Americas or any island in the Pacific. Continentality does not promote the development of seafaring skills whereas oceanic waters, with no island in sight from the coast give the impression of a boundary of the world. Nevertheless, Bantu peoples reached the Comoros in the sixth century soon after reaching the Eastern coast from their West African homeland, from there, they settled Madagascar at about the same time as Austronesians.
Hart also claims the secluded zone was primitive when it came to political and ethical matters, noting the lack of democracy and civil liberties and the common use of slavery and occasional cannibalism.
I wonder if this part has to be taken seriously. In fact, those things were common features in Africa, in and out of the “secluded” zone. But they were also common all over the world until someone invented and then enforced the idea of human rights. Duh!
Why was the secluded zone of black Africa so far behind virtually everyone else on Earth? In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond argues that black Africa was simply cut off from the rest of the World, and thus didn’t have access to advances in knowledge, however Hart rejects this explanation because Native Americans were even more geographically isolated than black Africans, yet their societies were so much more advanced.
Wrong, Mesoamerica has impressive pyramids, the Andes have ancient ruined cities but those things definitely aren’t a common sight from Alaska to Patagonia. In fact, the area of the Americas where complex societies never existed is much larger than the whole Subsaharan part of Africa and is also much more “backward” since most populations did not acquire metallurgy and barely practiced agriculture, which makes them paleolithic societies.
Instead Hart favours the cold winters explanation. Races who left Africa tens of thousands of years ago, and got at least some exposure to the ice age, evolved higher intelligence to survive the cold, and once the ice age ended, this allowed them to create advanced culture and technologies.
This explanation is not supported by any genetic, archaeological, anthropological evidence. No Wurm-glaciation-related bottleneck has ever been reported by any geneticist, nor did any other related adaption on another trait. The only noticeable anthropometric change that came after the Wurm Glaciation is shrinking brain and body sizes. Also, the cradles of the neolithic revolution (all in low subtropical latitudes) were actually mildly affected by the last glacial maximum whereas such a scenario would have led one to expect agriculture or metallurgy to appear in more northerly regions.
Secondly, there is already a leading theory on the emergence and development of civilization that isn’t challenged and fits observable patterns. This theory does not focus on “qualitative” factors of human populations such as intelligence but simply on quantitative factors such as population density and exposure to long distance trade.
And it is no coincidence that complex societies emerged and developed in environments that were able to sustain high population densities thanks to their climate and vegetation, the quality of their soil, some characteristics of their terrain that prevented population dispersal and facilitated crowding, low disease burden and access to world trade. For these reasons, the different regions of the world experienced different trajectories of social development.
Australia and Oceania
Mostly lying in the tropical zone and greatly isolated from the Eurasian landmass, indigenous Australian and Oceanian societies developed in hostile environments and tiny islands preventing demographic expansion. Whereas Polynesia was settled by Austronesian populations that developed seafaring skills in the Indonesian Archipelago, Australia and Melanesia had no contact with the outer world until European exploration. No agriculture was ever developed in Australia, however Papua New Guinea is one place of independent domestication of crops, which along with continental Asian cultivates spread to Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia.
Central And Northern Asia
As a flat, arid and cold continental mass, Central and Northern Asia’s environments do not favor population density and complex social organization. Nomadism was traditionally a prevalent mode of subsistence in the region and and only a few complex permanent settlements emerged along the southern silk roads that were crucial to trans-Eurasian trade. Although the region has virtually no indigenous advancements, the Turkic and Mongolic warlike nomadic tribes have been able to take over the well established empires of Europe, East Asia, India, Persia and the Near-East.
Benefiting from some of the most fertile soils of the world, a temperate climate enabling long growing seasons and lowering the prevalence of disease, as well as a terrain made of enclosed plains and valleys in Northern China and narrow peninsulas and islands in Japan and Korea. East Asia’s environment has allowed the development of very complex societies that still boast some of the highest population densities in the world. Expanding southwards to the subtropical area, the Han Chinese found the ideal conditions for year long high yield riziculture allowed by abundant rainfall and fertile soils. East Asia is noticeable within the Eurasian landmass for the indigenous development of its agriculture and writing and its historical resistance to foreign influences, which likely resulted in a delayed social development relative to the potential conferred by its excellent environmental conditions.
Receiving neolithic technologies from the near east, complex societies first developed in the southern peninsulas of Greece and Italy where the terrain and the Mediterranean climate quickly allowed high population densities. By the end of the first millennium AD, Mediterranean technologies were established in the northern areas and the large scale movement of deforestation cleared vast agricultural areas with fertile soils under an excellent temperate low-disease climate that led to a population boom that quickly allowed Europe to rise to global prominence.
Middle East and North Africa
Often called the cradle of civilization, the Middle East and North Africa reunite the optimal conditions for the emergence of complex societies. A warm, temperate climate with balanced rainfall combined with fertile valleys (Nile and Mesopotamia) allowing year-long irrigation, all enclosed by inhospitable deserts preventing population dispersal. Moreover, the region finds itself at the crossroads of the Old World and has dispersed then received technologies and commodities from neighboring eras.
North America and the Arctic
Similarly to South America and contrary to Subsaharan Africa as depicted by Pumpkin Person and Michael Hart, North America shows a stark contrast between highly developed Mesoamerica and the mostly paleolithic other regions and is a perfect illustration of the fundamental role of population density in the emergence of civilization. Whereas the narrow temperate highlands and warm lowlands of the Mesoamerican isthmus enabled highly productive yearlong agriculture and prevented population dispersal thus leading to very high population density and civilization in isolation from the Old World, the northern areas remained underpopulated due to a vast, flat continental landmass.
Nevertheless, the eastern temperate areas of Canada and the United States, benefiting from a balanced climate and fertile soils sustained some small scale agriculture but it is only after European settlement that these ideal conditions were fully exploited. Another specificity of the Americas compared to the Old World is the absence of disease due to lack of domestication of large animals. Whereas this could have been beneficial for demographic growth in precolumbian times, it proved to be fatal quickly after contact with the old-world as the indigenous populations had evolved no genetic immunity to resist Old World disease or to spread New World disease to the invaders.
Comparably to North America, the development of complex societies is restricted to the very narrow Andine Altiplano, a temperate highland plateau where indigenous populations subsisted on the cultivation of potatoes. A colder climate and a shorter growing season prevented Andine societies to achieve population densities that equaled that of Mesoamerica and for this reason, they couldn’t develop complex technologies to the same level. The rest of the South American landmass has similar environmental characteristics to Subsaharan Africa which is a very warm area of flat arid grasslands and equatorial rainforests. The soils are poor for grain crops and the population densities are accordingly low.
Entirely lying in the tropical zone, South-East Asia includes the Indochinese peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago. Whereas some volcanic islands like Java as well as more temperate regions in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam were able to sustain high population densities, most of the local technology and cultural elements were acquired from the Indian Subcontinent and, to a lesser extant, East Asia. The constellation of islands in Indonesia led to the formation of thalassocracies whose maritime tradition allowed the settlement of Austronesian peoples in remote islands like Hawaii, Madagascar and Easter, but curiously not Australia.
Southern Asia was for a long time the second most advanced region in the world after the Middle East and North Africa and similarly adopted and spread technologies and cultural practices from and to the neighboring regions. Centered around the Indus and the Ganges valleys as well as the Deccan plateau, Southern Asia has fertile soils, warm and moderately humid climates in that alternate with more arid climates where a large variety of crops can be grown all year thanks to powerful rivers that allow irrigation. Seasonal monsoon provide ideal rainfall for rice cultivation. Along with Eastern China, Northern India currently has some of the most densely populated areas of the world.
Subsaharan Africa is a vast, flat landmass under very warm climates which result in environments made of deserts, arid grasslands and equatorial rainforests. Short growing seasons, high disease burden and population dispersal (slave trade included) have made it particularly difficult to achieve sufficient population densities that lead to more complex societies compared to the rest of the world from which the region remained partially isolated. Nevertheless, centralized states were established in the Sahel and the northern Savannas of West Africa, in the Gulf of Guinea, the Lower Congo, the Ethiopian Highlands, the Great Lakes region, the Swahili Coast and Southern Africa. Contrary to the imaginary “secluded zone” theory proposed by Pumpkin Person and Michael Hart, social complexity is in Africa as elsewhere in the world more a function of population density than a function of exposure to “more evolved races”.
For further information on “secluded zones”, you will enjoy this documentary