The story of the continent with no history

28 June 2012

The cradle of humanity is in Africa, yet the continent is still considered by many to have no history. It is the intention of Professor Dr. Andreas Eckert to change this preconception. Gutenberg Endowed Professor Friedemann Schrenk invited him to rectify this distorted image of Africa in the lecture series "Out of Africa: The Global History of Homo Sapiens."

Did Africa have a history before the first colonial rulers carried the light of progress to the Dark Continent? Many Europeans found – and continue to find – this unlikely.

"The story of Africa is determined by the fact that not enough Africans appear in the history books," lamented Nicolas Sarcozy in a speech in Dakar less than five years ago. The African remains "motionless in an unchanged order, he never looks to the future," continued the French president. "It never seems to occur to an African to try to break out of this continuum and invent a new destiny. This is Africa's problem."

Europe must not be a yardstick

But Professor Dr. Andreas Eckert considers that it is Europe that has the problem; Europeans are all too willing to see their continent as the benchmark for all things and as an orientation point for everyone else. "It is time we overturned this perception," urges Eckert, Professor of African History at the Humboldt University of Berlin. "It is Europe that needs to be explained, not Africa. We must get away from seeing Europe as the yardstick."

Paleoanthropologist Professor Dr. Friedemann Schrenk, 13th holder of the Johannes Gutenberg Endowed Professorship, had invited the prominent Africa specialist to contribute towards the lecture series "Out of Africa: The Global History of Homo Sapiens." In a lecture entitled "Africa in the World – The Story of a Continent with No History," Eckert promised his audience at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) "a tour de raison through Africa's history."

African history – a chamber of horrors?

He begins by presenting a mixed bag of nasty stereotypes. Eckert not only had quotes by Sarcozy up his sleeve: "Hegel heads the chamber of horrors that contains perceptions of African history." In Africa, the philosopher saw a continent in its natural state, unexplored, beyond any concept of statehood, whose markets offered human flesh for sale. Friedrich Schiller echoed these sentiments. In his view, the Europeans were the adults, while the peoples living around them were still in their childhood. And with his eyes on Africa, the poet complained: "Oh, how shameful and sad is the image of our childhood that these people provide us."

However, voices began to be heard in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s that claimed that Africa had its own pre-colonial history and demanded that it be researched. Sadly, there was one vital factor that these individuals had overlooked – there is no written record of Africa's past. "The idea was to learn languages and undertake detailed studies on Location," said Eckert. The problem with this is that oral traditions are often contradictory and historians soon recognized the narrow limitations of this approach.

Of the difficulties of research

It was also difficult for the Africans themselves to conduct research. "The vast majority of African countries were grappling with major problems, particularly during the oil crisis of the 70s."

At the same time, there has been a general trend within the discipline of history to accept that the story remains incomplete without the history of Africa, explains Eckert, while at the same time pointing out: "There are only four professorships in African History in Germany." Not only that, but: "The sources for African history are complex and cannot be used easily by just anyone. Archeology is the main discipline that is concerned with the pre-colonial period. But we must not assume that there is no history simply because we have so few facts."

Racial prejudices replace facts

Unfortunately, the interpretation of the small amount of knowledge available is also colored by considerations that are Eurocentric, if not outright racist. One of the most remarkable phenomena to have occurred in Africa is the spread of the Bantu language. In the 19th century, Carl Meinhof interpreted this cultural development as the result of light-skinned livestock herders from a white race bringing progress to the dark-skinned population. This theory is not supported by the facts. Instead, it is based much more on the prejudice that dark-skinned people are incapable of advanced cultural achievements.

And, in Eckert's view: "One must beware of coming up with grand theories." It has already been established that "in pre-colonial times, Africans were not just scattered groups of people living in thatched mud huts." They also lived in organized states and there was a high population density. Iron tools were produced, sophisticated agriculture techniques were being employed. In spite of all this, Europeans at the time chose to portray African rulers as monstrous tyrants. The strange, the primitive, the human flesh in the markets seemed more credible and more interesting than the reality.

Archeology is booming in Africa

"What we must do is avoid making the continent appear exotic, although we need to emphasize its own specific characteristics," says Eckert. But this is no easy task in view of the source material situation and the lack of experts. Professional historians are playing an increasingly less important role in Africa.

In contrast, the Africans themselves are becoming progressively more interested in their origin, their heritage, and are beginning to ask the question: Who was here first? "Archeology is booming in Africa," says Eckert, thus coming back to the work of Friedemann Schrenk, the paleoanthropologist whose focus is on the cradle of humanity in Africa.