The Penguin Atlas of African History
Colin McEvedy

Colin McEvedy

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The Penguin Atlas of African History



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The Penguin Atlas of African History

Copyright © 1980, 1995 by Colin McEvedy

Note (Hal’s):
One neat feature of this atlas reflects the fact that the African record includes the appearances of various human species. McEvedy begins with a map of the supercontinent of Pangea, 175 million years ago, and tracks the relevant mammalian populations as it splits up, and the more recent divergence of the ape populations as the continental rifts divide the climates of East and West Africa; thence he proceeds via anthropology to history.

— end note

0.5 million years ago

And from the flakes left behind at the toolmaking sites, we can deduce that they were 90 per cent right handed, as we are. This preferential handedness is a sign of brain lateralization, which in turn is closely associated with speech. It is therefore likely that Homo erectus had developed useful language skills. This will have enabled him to organize group hunts, a far more rewarding activity than the simple scavenging of Homo habilis.

Homo erectus seems to have used his superior skills to dispose of his hominid rivals, first Homo habilis, then the Australopithecines. Maybe he simply pushed them off the East African range into areas where they couldn’t survive, maybe he disposed of them more directly. Either way, by the date of this map, Homo erectus was the only hominid in existence.

40,000 BC As Neanderthal man had a monopoly of Europe until late on in the Ice Age, we can reconstruct the early history of H. sapiens sapiens as: 1) a purely sub-Saharan phase involving the replacement of Rhodesian man with the modern form; 2) a break-out from sub-Saharan Africa to Asia around 100,000 BC with spread across Asia to Australia by 50,000 BC; 3) an advance across Europe resulting in the extinction of the Neanderthalers by about 30,000 BC. This is the ‘out of Africa’ hypothesis which has now vanquished the rival ‘candelabra’ theory (in which modern races evolved in parallel from local varieties of Homo sapiens, i.e. Europeans from Neanderthals, Africans from Rhodesian man, and so on).
8000 BC Thanks to the geneticists, we can now quantify the differences between human populations and it turns out that all the non-African races of mankind – Europeans and Middle Easterners, Chinese and Japanese, Indians and Indonesians, Polynesians, Amerindians and Australian Aborigines – have very similar genetic constitutions. This is because they are all descended from the very small number of Homo sapiens who broke out from sub-Saharan Africa around 100,000 BC. The population of Homo sapiens south of the Sahara at the time was a thousandfold larger and had a correspondingly greater diversity. As they have never been squeezed through the sort of ‘genetic bottleneck’ that the ‘out of Africa’ pioneers experienced, present-day sub-Saharan Africans have retained this rich genetic inheritance and different groups are as different from each other as they are from extra-African humankind.
1250 BC

Egypt remained the world’s most important kingdom for an amazingly long time: it had no real rivals at all until 2300 BC, when Sargon the Great united Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), and a thousand years after that there were still only three major powers in existence: the Egyptian empire (which now included Palestine), the Babylonian empire (which had succeeded Sargon’s in Mesopotamia) and the Hittite empire (centered on the eastern half of Turkey). Of the three undoubtedly the most impressive was Egypt: it had an air of having been there forever that the others couldn’t match.

AD 650

One of the areas where Christians were particularly liable to massacre was Arabia. When this happened the survivors appealed to the Abyssinian king, the nearest Christian potentate, for protection and, if conditions in Abyssinia allowed it, he obliged with a punitive expedition. Normally these expeditions didn’t go beyond the Yemen, but in 570 an Abyssinian army was despatched against the pagans of Mecca in the Hejaz. With it went an elephant, something never seen in these parts before. There was a great deal of excitement about this and though the expedition never actually got to Mecca – some sort of epidemic broke out and it turned back well short of the city – the elephant found a permanent place in local folklore. For it was in Mecca in ‘the year of the elephant’ that the Prophet Mohammed was born.



the travels of Ibn Battuta AD 1325–53

The medieval world didn’t produce any explorers but it did have some great travellers. Undoubtedly the greatest was an African, Ibn Battuta. He was born in Tangier in 1304. In 1325 he set out on the pilgrimage to Mecca and having got there found he couldn’t stop.

Like most travellers Ibn Battuta was a bit of a liar, and he certainly never visited some of the places he said he had – China for instance. But no one has ever doubted his account of Mali: it’s too detailed for that and his description of the strange mixture of Moslem and animist customs at the court of the king is entirely convincing. So are his rather priggish reactions, which range from admiration (for the high standards of security and justice) to scorn (for local ceremonial, especially in the matter of gifts for travelling scholars) and outrage (about the way the young girls dressed or, to be more accurate, didn’t). One sombre note is the way the subject of slavery keeps coming up: when he set off home it was as part of a caravan taking 600 female slaves from Takedda to the north. It looks as though slaves were beginning to rival gold as the Sudan’s most important export. There are hints of the same thing in his account of the east coast.

AD 1460 In 1417 a Chinese fleet commanded by Zheng He, the driving force behind these westward ventures, even visited East Africa. Zheng collected some curiosities, including a giraffe, but the small amount of trading carried out by the fleet can’t conceivably have covered its expenses. And, curiosity satisfied, the Chinese never came back.


Zheng He

population and trade routes in AD 1600

Slavery is an institution that societies seem to grow out of and by the sixteenth century Europe had done so. When the Portuguese tried to market black slaves there they found there was no demand for them and most of the slaves they had bought in their early days were resold within Africa (mostly in Morocco). But then they found a use for slaves themselves. The Atlantic islands they had discovered in the course of their explorations – Madeira, the Cape Verde Isles, São Tomé and Principe – had turned out to be ideal for growing sugar cane, but, Europeans being reluctant to do this sort of work, the plantations were chronically short of labour. [...] By the end of the century the New World had come to dominate the picture: the rate of dispatch of slaves from Black Africa had risen from the one or two thousand a year typical of the early 1500s (of whom nearly all went to the Arab world) to something like 5,000 a year (of whom the majority ended up in the Americas).



AD 1800

Napoleon’s announced mission was one of reform and according to him had the blessing of the Ottoman sultan and of the best Islamic theologians: if the background information was hardly correct the intention was firm: like it or not, reformed was what the Egyptians were going to be. [...]

Exactly what the French hoped to do with Egypt in the long run is unclear: no one involved in the planning of the campaign seems to have thought beyond the short term. Napoleon was eager to play Alexander, his rivals were eager to see him out of France, the soldiers wanted to see the odalisques and do a bit of plundering.

population in AD 1800

[...] Africa was now clearly the black man’s domain: three out of every four people living there were either Negro or Nilo-Saharan.

Exchanges with the outside world had no effect on this situation, though they did have marked consequences for the demography of the Americas. The Black Africans taken as slaves to the New World created a community there that already numbered five million in 1800 and can be estimated at something like 100 million today. That this enforced exodus had no effect at all on Africa may seem surprising because the slave trade at its peak in the 1780s was removing something near 100,000 people a year. However, this is less than half the likely rate of increase for a population of the size existing in Black Africa at the time and the fact that a majority of the slaves were male means that the effective subtraction was smaller than this. Moreover the Atlantic traffic was not without its advantages: in particular the introduction of new staples like manioc and maize may well have produced an increase in the rate of population growth that outweighed the loss due to the slave trade.

the European geographer’s view of Africa in AD 1800 If ten Europeans landed in West Africa it was pretty well certain that six of them would be dead – nearly all of malaria – before a year was out. And inland, mortality was even fiercer. Not for nothing was West Africa known as the White Man’s Grave.
AD 1830

And Mohammed Ali deserves more than a passing mention because he, almost alone among contemporary African leaders, saw that achieving the sort of military superiority enjoyed by the French was not just a matter of buying in European firearms, it meant altering the social structure of the army.

Mohammed Ali’s reforms can be said to have begun in 1811, when he invited the surviving members of the Mamluk leadership to a banquet in Cairo and massacred them. This disposed of the last remnants of this feudal caste which had claimed exclusive rights to the profession of arms in Egypt. He then proceeded to recruit from the despised peasantry of the country an infantry force which was equipped and trained to fight Western style. [...]

Mohammed Ali’s reforms were civil as well as military: he built schools by the hundred and created new administrative departments by the dozen: he took a census and set up a government printing press. The difficulty that he didn’t really solve was how to pay for it all.

AD 1890

The British aim in East Africa was to prevent any other European power reaching the Upper Nile. They were persuaded that this was necessary by Sir Samuel Baker, who assured the government of the day (and the readers of The Times) that such a power, using modern engineering methods, could easily divert the waters of the White Nile, so bringing desolation to Egypt and disaster to the British empire. The best that can be said for this idea is that it gave British policy in this part of Africa a consistency which maybe contributed to its success.

AD 1950 Mussolini, the Italian dictator who invented fascism, was determined to wipe out the memory of Adowa and this time things were done better – better, that is, if you count the use of mustard gas as an improvement.



An upsurge of nationalist sentiment was making Britain’s imperial role impossible in two key areas: India and Egypt. In 1947 the British recognized this: they agreed, with surprisingly good humour, to leave India and, much more grudgingly, to get out of Egypt bar the Suez Canal. Not that there was any point hanging on to the canal once India was gone, but out of some sort of obsolete strategic reflex the British insisted on it: in doing so they lost what little goodwill the evacuation of the rest of Egypt had brought them.
AD 1960 Much less happy was the situation in Algeria, where the million-strong white settler community was insisting that the French government implement its quite unrealistic promise to integrate Algeria with France: by 1954 there was a major war in progress here. In this struggle the French army usually came out on top in the settled areas, in the daytime and in the daily communiqués, while the FLN, the Algerian Liberation Front, gradually won over the hinterland, the Moslem majority and the sympathies of the international community.
AD 1970

Considering that Africa’s frontiers were drawn by the colonial powers to suit themselves it is not that surprising that some of the newly independent states had a difficult task holding themselves together. Most of the new countries were far bigger than the tribal units to which Africans gave their fiercest loyalty, and some of them are composed – like Sudan and Nigeria – of people who are in ethnic, religious and historical opposition to each other. The remarkable thing is how little success the first secessionist movements had.

population in AD 1994

More poverty means yet more people and even less hope.

However, the last few years have produced grounds for a more optimistic assessment. Birth rates seem to have turned down a bit. There has also been a long overdue re-evaluation of the role of government, with a definite movement in favour of multiparty democracy and a market economy. [...]

Perhaps the most hopeful of all recent developments is the national reconciliation that has taken place in South Africa, for this country possesses the continent’s most important reservoir of skills and, now that the sanctions imposed by a disapproving world have been lifted, looks poised for a period of rapid growth. That could benefit its neighbours as well as itself. It would be a fitting congé to the pessimists if the erstwhile pariah of African society, having broken out of its racist mould, emerged as the leader of a new, more confident and more effective, African polity.

text checked (see note) Jun 2006

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