Geographical Notes: No savage paradise but the cradle of humanity

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AFRICA GETS a bad press. In popular imagery it is a "savage paradise", the source of glorious wildlife documentaries and terrible reports of starving and warring people, of disappearing rainforest, erosion and drought. People are the invaders of paradise, all this implies, ill-adapted to the rigours of life on the continent and therefore plagued with pestilence and strife. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Africa is the cradle of humanity.

The human line originated in Africa more than five million years ago. Ninety-eight per cent of our evolutionary history was spent exclusively in Africa. This was our only home until about 100,000 years ago, when the ancestors of all modern humans first ventured out of the continent via the Gulf of Suez and proceeded to colonise the globe. The roots of everything we consider human are anchored deep in the circumstances of life in Africa.

Our upright stance, naked skin and large cognitive brain are unique evolutionary responses to the opportunities and constraints of the equatorial African environment. Our sense of humanity is a consequence of the physiological, cognitive and social adaptations that enabled our ancestors to utilise the resources of the continent. Our everyday life is founded upon a talent for technological innovation that was first exercised in the manufacture of stone tools, in East Africa nearly three million years ago.

Despite the commonly held view of Africa as over-populated, the continent is not nor ever has been densely populated. Africa's problems stem largely from an insufficiency of people, not an excess, and its history is best understood in terms of population history. The struggle for prosperity which dominates popular conceptions of history in the rest of the world has had limited relevance in Africa, where soils are generally poor, the climate fickle, insect pests abundant and human parasites and disease uniquely prevalent (due to millions of years of co-evolution).

African history is far more the story of people coming to terms with the environment than of individuals amassing fortunes and leaders sending armies into battle. The continent was too thinly populated and its resources too hard-won for such extravagances, a circumstance which is eloquently demonstrated by the disparity between the growth of the African and the out-of-Africa populations: from just a few hundred that left the continent 100,000 years ago, the out-of-Africa population has grown to over five billion today. Meanwhile, the resident population grew from about one million at the time of the migration to under 800 million today.

Before foreign influences dominated affairs in Africa the continent had been populated by small and widely dispersed groups of people - their distribution and diversity determined primarily by the ecological circumstances of the environments they occupied. People thrived to the extent that they developed a symbiotic relationship with the environment - and failed to thrive where they did not. Colonialism, consumerism and the global economy has changed Africa irrevocably but the basic truth remains - humanity will survive only to the extent that it uses the environment judiciously.

The history of human affairs in Africa provides valuable lessons on the issue of human interactions with the environment, but as the new millennium approaches modern technology threatens to nudge us ever further from a true appreciation of Africa in the human context. If anything, the view of Africa as a fascinating but foreign and inhospitable "savage paradise" could become even more biased and firmly entrenched.

It is time to look beyond that popular imagery, time to recognise the depth of our relationship with the continent - time to pick up the thread that extends back five million years.

John Reader is the author of `Africa: a biography of the continent' (Penguin, pounds 12.99)