African Civilization

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Africa’s role in the history of the world varies depending on the perspective of the writers. For a long time, the role of Africa in the history of the world underwent derision and even dismissal as inconsequential. The domination of the Eurocentric view to world history motivated this perspective, often relegating the continent to minor roles in situations when it was unavoidable. However, later archaeological and paleontological evidence resulted in the development of the view of Africa being at the center of the history of the world. While the views on Africa may be contradictory, re-examining them may enable their being viewed as instructive as opposed to being a failing in history. The re-examination of the understanding of Africa and its history sheds light to the notion of the Dark Continent, and enables reconstructing its relations with the rest of the world.

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The early versions of history reflect a deep Eurocentric political agenda as opposed to basing on pure fact. The attempt to write history and the resulting exclusion of Africa from early accounts was influenced by the over-reliance on written documents and the quest to spread racial supremacy. Early scholars from Europe were often unable to read the available written forms (such as hieroglyphics) or remained unaware of such documents. The result was that the writers of history dismissed Africa as lacking a history of its own and instead living in savagery and devoid of any culture. Similarly, in the wake of the scientific revolution in Europe, notions of white supremacy had taken root among the scholars and historians. David Hume dismissed Negroes as being naturally inferior, and lacking any capabilities of history of art, science, or cultural manufacturing.

In the early twentieth century, the notion of civilization dominated most of the historical writing. This concept further defined the racial model of history, classifying European civilizations at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. Cultures such as those of the Chinese and Persians received supporting roles, but the African civilization remained unmentioned. The problem was propagated by the assumption that Africa was uncivilized and that there lacked any historical documents that could support a dissimilar position. In fact, the historical scholar made deliberate efforts to suggest that the Sahara separated Africans from civilization. Consequently, they could neither have contributed to civilization in any way nor been affected by the process.

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However, factual discoveries and motivations of Africanism in the 20th century produced contradictory notions of African history. The views challenged the Eurocentric accounts of history and the dismissal of Africa as lacking in historical contribution and internal civilization. Historical pioneers like W.B du Bois made extensive publications on the history of Africa and provided evidence of its contribution to the histories of the rest of the world. The publications of the later 20th century also enabled challenging some of the pre-conceptions regarding the ancient civilizations that had received white attributes. For instance, the notion of the early Egyptians having been white received massive criticism, with the views of Diop forming the foundation of Afrocentric accounts of African history. The accounts of more historical studies indicate that long before the time of Alexander the Great, Ethiopia had already conquered Egypt and remained the center of civilization for more than a century.

The exploration of pre-modern maps indicates that Africa was previously not viewed as such a separate part of the world from Asia and Europe. Activities of trade and the Roman Empire resulted in interactions that suggest parts of North Africa may have been more part of the Roman Christian Empire than vast regions of Europe. Early accounts attested to a Christian King in Africa, Prester John, and lending credence to the possibility of the region having integrated with the civilization process before the racial perspectives caused division. Further evidence from religious texts indicated the Nile Valley occupants having been in their 13th Dynasty by the time of the birth of Abraham. Paleontological accounts also attest to the existence of the Nubian Kingdom of Kush 300 years before the birth of Christ. Such evidence nullified the notion that Africa lacked individual history, and may often be perceived as proof of failure on the part of early historians for ignoring the glaring role of Africa in world history.

Perhaps the most irrefutable evidence shaping African history is the archaeological and biological findings that identify the continent as the cradle of mankind. According to studies, the Y chromosome can be traced back to a common ancestor and estimates indicate the ancestor to have existed about 150,000 years ago. The surviving strains of the chromosome in its original form are only found among Africans, especially the San of the Southern region and some Ethiopian tribes. Multiple archaeological findings were also made in the course of time and dated earlier human remains in Africa, including the Taung Child from South Africa and the Paranthropus species from Koobi Fora in Kenya. Multiple discoveries of skeletal remains all over the African continent confirm the extensive history of the African continent. While it is clearly harder to detail this history due to the minimal written evidence, it is still clear that the continent plays an integral part in defining world history.

The differences in African history substantiate the perspective that historians based their accounts on their internal motivations. The first accounts purposely obliterate the continent, while later accounts very deliberately focus on evidence of the continent’s role in history. The differences suggest the history being constructed both by fact and ideology. Eurocentric accounts may have based on the need to propagate European superiority in the global hierarchy, while later accounts drew on the Pan-African drive. These perspectives imply underlying factors driving historical accounts and the potential that the history will probably change in the future as audiences change. The influence of prevalent notions on history is a critical learning point from both a historical and political perspective.

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The contradictory views of Africa suggest that as a concept, Africa is a construction. It is based on the differences in views within multiple audiences over the course of time and these perceptions will usually vary. Africa can no longer be discounted as being without history. Therefore, as opposed to criticizing the previous positions of history, it is important to deconstruct the motivations behind these views and the factors that have propagated development of an alternative account of the continent’s history. There are views arising from agenda’s on the political front while others are based on facts of history. Differentiating these views and the motivations will move the contradictions from being failings in history to being the basis for understanding the political and factual motivations that shape the history of the world. Understanding history as based on connections and separations is integral to objectively to the construction of a more comprehensive view of the history of the world.

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  1. Ehret, C. The civilizations of Africa: A history to 1800. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.
  2. Gilbert, E., and J. T Reynolds. Africa in world history: From prehistory to the present. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.
  3. Iliffe, John. Africans: The History of a Continent. London: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  4. Manning, P. Navigating world history: Historians create a global past. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.
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