Discovering Africa

A Fascinating History Of Humanity's Sprawling First Home.

By Gregory McNamee

Africa: A Biography of the Continent, by John Reader (Alfred A. Knopf). Cloth, $35.

A CENTURY AGO, a Polish-born writer who had traveled the world reflected on the way in which fellow 19th-century explorers had enshrined even the most remote spots of the globe in atlases and military maps. Even hitherto little-known Africa, as the narrator of Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness recalled, "was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery--a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness." A place of darkness, that is, because so much geographical ink now spilled onto the continent's outlines.

Books For many who live outside the borders of Africa, however, the continent remains too little known. Standard European and American histories speak little of Africa save as the setting for misbegotten colonial adventures; important figures in African history and contemporary politics go unrecognized in general-knowledge surveys; even the great civilizations of Zimbabwe and Benin fail to appear in many college-level world history textbooks. Such ignorance is perhaps justifiable, if only because so few good surveys of the continent's past and present are available to general readers.

It will be difficult to mount that defense in the future, however, thanks to John Reader's eminently approachable Africa: A Biography of the Continent. Reader, an English historian and journalist, does much to put Africa on the mental map of readers who live elsewhere.

Writing within the framework of an ecological history, Reader carefully demonstrates how important Africa has been to the development of the human species--not only as "the tree where man was born," but also as the site of the earliest plant and animal domestication, the place where herds of ruminants and plowed fields first dotted the landscape.

Africa begins millions of years before humans first appeared as Reader draws an expert geological history of the continent. It is, he remarks, "the Earth's oldest and most enduring land mass...Africa has seen it all, and preserves the evidence." Rocks in the southernmost portion of the continent have lain undisturbed for more than one billion years, giving an undistorted geological sequence nearly without parallel in the world; elsewhere on the continent, the antique landscape reveals the fossil history of nearly every kind of life form the planet has seen. The continent's mineral wealth, the result of ancient geological processes, financed the first human empires; it also fueled the conquering drive of generations of Europeans, who arrived in search of gold and gems and left with boatloads of slaves instead.

Tracing the story of human evolution, Reader does an impressive job of describing the modern science of paleontology. He draws on recent mitochondrial DNA studies, for example, to provide a detailed pedigree of the human family, of whom some 50 members left the cradle of Africa three million years ago to populate the rest of the earth with their kind--which would become our kind. He also reviews past scientific efforts to construct this pedigree, reminding us of famous fossil subjects such as the australopithecine Lucy (named for The Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," which was popular among the excavators who dug up her 3.2-million-year-old bones).

The ancestral humans who remained in Africa dispersed, spreading across the continent. About 15,000 years ago, peoples who lived along the Nile came up with an important innovation: the domestication of cattle. With that change came the Egyptian dynasties, the great nomadic cultures of the Sahara, and eventually the powerful empires of various Zulu and Bantu nations.

Reader hurries the pace of his history in the last half of the book, which unfolds the tale of human activity on the continent, from the time important crops such as bananas and coffee first came to be grown about 2,000 years ago, to the present day. In that space, he analyzes the slave trade, itself an African innovation seized on by Asian and European merchants; examines the commerce in precious metals and other trade goods; and considers the political fortunes of various nations--fortunes that, in places such as Rwanda and the Congo, continue to change rapidly and sometimes, it seems, unpredictably.

The Africanist Thomas Pakenham likens the 50-plus-chapter Africa: A Biography of the Continent to a spreading baobab tree, with its massive trunk and sprawling branches. The metaphor is apt, for this is a vast and all-encompassing book which succeeds in its attempt to bring a continent's deepest past into view.

Reader has brought a huge story to rest between the covers of his deeply learned, thoroughly researched book. And his readers will be grateful for that hard work. TW

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