University of Botswana History Department

The Early Prehistory of Modern People in Africa

Notes for course H201: Africa to 1800

[by Neil Parsons Oct. 1998]

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African identity

Being an African is probably a vital part of your identity. But even the word "Africa" has a history and was not widely used among Africans until the 20th century

The word "Africa" was originally the name of a Roman province in Tunisia more than two thousand years ago. (Probably named after the local ethnic group of Ifrik or Afrik people.) Around 1500 the name "Africa" was given by map-makers (in Europe) to describe one of the four continents (enormous land masses) of the globe that they identified. In the 19th century some black Americans began calling themselves "Africans". But identity as "Africans" among Western-educated Africans in Africa only became common after the 1920s.

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The teaching of H101 starts with the earliest evidence of modern people, or Homo sapiens-sapiens, from somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. The course omits detailed consideration of the evolution of earlier humans and pre-humans.

Most "prehistorians" agree that Africa is the centre and original homeland of the human race. (Prehistory covers the time before we know the actual names of individuals and the actual words of the stories they told. Scientists who study the earliest prehistory are also called "palaeontologists".)

What follows here in this essay is how historians can put together the early prehistory of modern people in Africa. Those of you who study Archaeology will find that archaeologists are never happy with historians trying to do this. They tell us that we are seeking too much certainty in the past, in our effort to try and tell a continuous story.

That is what historians always do. We try to construct narratives (continuous stories) of identifiable people in the past, using all available evidence. Some historians used to say that they were trying to uncover "the truth". But historians today say that all we can do is to construct the narrative that seems most convincing. Other historians should then come along and challenge the narrative, with better alternatives. All history must be open to argument and interpretation.

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African geography

We cannot understand Africa's history, and especially its "prehistory", without a basic grasp of Africa's geography.

The land form consists mainly of a high plateau rising out of the sea, with a limited number of higher mountain ranges (Atlas, Ethiopian, Moon, Cameroun, Drakensberg etc.), a great lowland areas in the Congo Basin and along the West Coast, plus coastal lowlands in East and North African. There are four really significant rivers: Nile, Niger, Congo, and Zambezi, plus the Great Lakes of East Africa (Victoria, Tanganyika, Malawi, etc.).

The main ecological zones of Africa are:

  1. mountains with little human population except in fertile valleys;
  2. tropical forests in lowland areas with hot wet climates, with high fertility but also high mortality;
  3. savanna grasslands, with good grazing, relatively dry and healthy climate;
  4. scrub and desert, notably the Sahara once savanna and steppe up to about 5000 BC, but dry steppe and desert by about 3000BC, and sand desert like today since at least 500AD.

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1. Origins of modern humans: Language

Prehistorians study the evidence of (i) human language; (ii) human biology; (iii) human cultural remains. The main method is first to classify the evidence into groups, and then to compare these group classifications-to deduce common relationships between them, and to trace them back to common ancestors.

Linguists (notably J.H.Greenberg) classify all languages into language-families.

Thus in Africa we have four indigenous language-families: Khoesan; Niger-Congo; Nilo-Saharan; and Afro-Asiatic. In West Asia and Europe - Afro-Asiatic (including Hebrew and Arabic); Indo-European (including Persian, Germanic, and Italic/ Romance); and Altaic (including Turkish). Elsewhere-Dravidian (in South India), Sino-Tibetan (in China etc.), Malayo-Polynesian (in Indonesia), aboriginal Australian, a number of indigenous American language-families, etc. etc.

Related languages can be traced back to ancestor languages, and all language-families to ancestor language-families.

The four African language-families are the most "senior" ancestors, and can be traced back to one common ancestor language. Where was that ancestor language spoken? Look at the map of African language-families before roughly 5000 or 10,000BC (distributed to H201 students), and you will see that the four African language-familes were closest together in the savanna lands of north-east Africa around Kenya/ Ethiopia/ Uganda/ Sudan.

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2. Origins of modern humans: Biology

All modern humans are Homo sapiens-sapiens.

We can be distinguished from the earlier form of Homo sapiens (also called "Neanderthal" etc.) by the less bulky shape of our bodies, the shape of our skulls (higher foreheads), the size of our brains (a bit smaller but more creased and complex), our ability to speak very quickly (with fat short tongue, well-developed adult thorax or voice-box etc.), and probably our capacity to run long distances (with lighter bones, less body hair, sweating to cool ourselves, losing heat through our heads etc.)

Can we classify humans into biological groups in order to trace back our ancestors? Between about 1850 and about 1950, biologists used to classify people by race theory. Since then biologists have developed gene-pool theory to classify people.

Race theory before about 1950 tried to divide all humans into separate biological groups called races: generally black (or Negroid), white (or Caucasoid), and yellow (or Mongoloid). These races must have originated separately long before the evolution of modern humans. But race theorists rarely agreed on precise classifications of skin colour and facial shapes etc. So many people in the world are actually brown rather than definitely black, white, or yellow, that race theorists have to conclude that most people in the world are of mixed race.

"Racists" are people who use race theory to talk about "higher races", to justify oppressing people of "lower" or "impure" or "inferior" races.

Gene-pool theory since about 1950 says that there is only one "gene-pool" of Homo sapens-sapiens. (So there is really only one "race", the human race.) This human gene-pool includes smaller gene-pools inside it, which flow together or apart like currents in a lake.

Biologists have studied the world distribution of two main types of human gene (biological characteristics which are passed on from generation to generation) - blood groups and DNA.

Blood group studies (serology) since the 1950s resulted by 1995 in a comprehensive world atlas of the human geography of blood-groups. This mapped the comparative incidence of O, A, OA, Rhesus Negative and other blood-groups, showing clusters on the map where some groups were more common than others. The atlas is very complex. It looks remarkably similar to the mapping of language-families outside Africa. Inside Africa it has an even greater complexity than just the four indigenous language-families.

DNA studies began in the 1950s and really took off in the 1970s. DNA refers to the acid inside the nucleus of every living cell. DNA contains the genetic code which is passed on (and partly modified) from generation to generation of cells.

The chemical structure of DNA was first described in 1953. (It can be described as a "double-helix" of two intertwined strands or strings. Each strand is dotted with billions of "words" or "sentences" made up of an "alphabet" of four chemical dots or "letters"-A, C, G & T.)

Geneticists are now trying to "read" and compare the DNA "messages" of people over the world. So that they can make a world atlas of types of human DNA. This is called the Human Genome Project. The project will not be complete for decades.

Some geneticists in California, USA, did a quick preliminary study for the DNA world atlas in the 1980s. They tested 147 hospital patients in California - European Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans,. They compared the "mitochondrial" type of DNA which is passed down through mothers.

They concluded that all the patients of non-African ancestry were also descended from the direct ancestors of the Africans. Using a computer they calculated the number of generations back - and they came up with the idea that all humans are descended from a woman they called "African Eve" who must have lived less than 200,000 years ago.

This research was "quick and dirty", and needs much more work to be done. Probably the whole Human Genome Project will not be complete until 2020.

It is unlikely that "African Eve" was ever one person, but rather was a small group of women. Where was Eve's "Garden of Eden"? Once again the evidence suggests the savanna lands of north-east Africa.

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3. Origins of modern humans: cultures

Stone Age archaeologists classify cultural groups by the types of stone tools that people made. Thus Middle Stone Age (MSA) tools include many flake-tools used as spear heads etc., as well as better made hand-axes etc. Later Stone Age (LSA) tools include microliths-very small flakes used as arrow-heads and barbs, razors etc.-plus doughnut-shaped weights to improve digging sticks etc. (See textbooks for pictures of these types of tools.)

How can we fit in evidence of MSA and LSA cultures with biological evidence of the origins of modern humans?

Generally speaking (though archaeologists would protest that this is a case of historians trying to make prehistory much too precise), MSA cultures are probably the remains left by early Homo sapiens (Neanderthal etc.) people, and LSA cultures the remains left by Homo sapiens-sapiens (Modern) hunter-gatherers.

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Putting dates on prehistory

There is a problem with the types of scientific dating commonly used by archaeologists. Potassium argon dating can only give us dates earlier than 200,000 (or possibly 150,000) years ago. Radio-carbon dating can only give us dating later than 40,000 (or possibly 50,000) years ago.

There are some other kinds of scientific dating, but they can only be used in rare circumstances. The gap between potassium argon dating and radio-carbon generally leaves a dating gap or 'window' of 100,000 or more years where dates very difficult to know.

MSA cultures and early Homo sapiens are usually dated more than 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. But some may have lasted as long as 50,000 or 40,000 years ago.

The earliest LSA culture may date to 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. But LSA cultures are usually dated after 50,000 or 40,000 years ago.

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Putting archaeology and linguistics together

How can we fit in evidence of MSA and LSA cultures with linguistic evidence of the origins of modern humans? The language groups classified by linguists and the cultural groups classified by archaeologists (using material remains such as tools or pottery) cannot be always the same thing. But language and culture often seem to go hand in hand together.

For more than a million years from the Early Stone Age (ESA) through the MSA, stone tools developed but were basically similar everywhere (the so-called 'Acheulian' cultural tradition.) But with the start of the LSA there was the development of a great variety of different cultures in different places.

Thus archaeology gives support to the idea given by linguistics that there was basically one quite simple early human language from the ESA through the MSA. But during the LSA there was the spread and development of a great variety of complex different human languages.

Now look at the map of Africa before about 5000 or 10,000 BC. You will see six LSA cultural areas identified by archaeologists. Compare this map with the map of indigenous African language-families 5000 or 10,000 BC.

Notice how the area of the WILTON LSA culture was more or less in the original area of the Khoesan language-family, on the grasslands from Kenya/ Tanzania south to the Cape of Good Hope.

The TSCHITOLIAN LSA culture and the WEST AFRICAN LSA culture were more or less in the original area of the Niger-Congo language-family, in and around the Congo and West African coastal forests.

SAHARA CAPSIAN LSA culture covered more or less the original area of the Nilo-Saharan language-family, around the Sahara as far east as the Nile. And the MAHRIBIAN LSA culture was more or less in the western part of the original area of the Afro-Asiatic language-family, along the coast of North Africa.

There was also the NILE VALLEY LSA culture which is difficult to place with just one language-family, and may have been an area of interaction - n.b. Nilo-Saharan with Afro-Asiatic people.

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This essay provides background for subsequent lectures and tutorials. It raises questions about the (re-)construction of history from archaeology and linguistics. In particular there are questions about ways in which people converted from one culture and maybe language to another.

In the nextsection of the course we will be looking at innovation and migration as means of cultural change. We shall be looking at the spread of food-producing and metal "revolutions", and the spread and contraction of language-families in Africa in the last 5000 or 10,000 years.

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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons
Last updated 19 August 1999