Spotlight on dark continent

The Peopling of Africa
March 7, 1997

At the very least, this book reveals the tremendous richness, complexity and dynamism of Africa's cultural geography in the precolonial period. But more than this, James Newman has skilfully sifted through archaeological, ethnographic, linguistic and historical evidence to produce an impressive and sensitive "essay" on a vast topic.

The target readership is as broad as the book's subject, with the author claiming that "I have written a book for both Africanists and an interested public". At this price it could indeed reach a wide readership. In the introduction the author states that "Africa and Africans deserve to be known on their own terms, and to achieve this goal, we need to improve our understanding of what took place before colonialism rewrote many of life's rules."

The book covers the entire mainland of Africa, together with nearby islands such as Zanzibar and Bioko, but not more distant islands such as Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles and Cape Verde. The timespan covered is from the "origins of humanity" to the beginning of the colonial period in the late 19th century. The book is well illustrated and inclusion of no fewer than 49 maps is particularly welcome. There are many black and white photographs, contemporary prints and line drawings. However, the absence of a composite bibliography in favour of a "bibliographical essay" is regrettable, as is the lack of textual reference to specific sources.

In attempting to meet the needs of both a specialist and nonspecialist readership, the author has fallen between the two, succeeding in satisfying neither. For the specialist Africanist, the absence of detailed source references is a problem. For example, in examining relationships between the development of settled agriculture and population growth, Newman suggests that evidence contradicts the view that settled agriculture resulted in greater food availability and "lessened the famine-induced mortality which had kept Stone Age gatherer-hunters in check". On the contrary, he argues that as hunting and gathering support relatively low population densities, communities were more able to ensure reliable subsistence needs with relatively limited effort. Newman concludes that "starvation was not a constant companion of Stone Age peoples, nor, for that matter was malnutrition, so the adoption of agriculture would have had little or no positive effect on death rates and life expectancy."

Furthermore, he suggests that settled agriculture actually led to more health problems as pools of water around settlements became breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Some thought-provoking ideas here, but I would need to see more detailed evidence before I could fully support them.

Another issue relating to food production is raised in connection with the effects of the slave trade on West African communities. Newman suggests that the disruption caused by raids led to increased reliance on cassava as a staple food, with a consequent decline in nutritional standards. He argues that "under conditions of uncertainty, cassava provided several advantages to grains and even yams: not much effort was needed to grow it, the tubers could remain unharvested for several years without serious risk of damage, and the crop stored well." While I would agree on the convenience and nutritional qualities of cassava, I would like to see more convincing evidence of its increased popularity being a direct result of the slave trade.

For the general reader the main problem with the book is probably the vast and complex catalogue of facts. Newman might have done better to examine on a continent-wide basis a number of important and recurring themes, such as slavery, the spread of Islam, major population movements and the development of material culture. As it is, these topics are afforded piecemeal attention in a number of individual chapters, such that the overall impression of their significance is unfortunately diluted.

Tony Binns is senior lecturer in geography, School of African and Asian Studies, University of Sussex.

The Peopling of Africa: A Geographic Interpretation

Author - James L. Newman
ISBN - 0 300 06003 3
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 235

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