BOOK REVIEW / The first green shoot in a cultural drought: 'The Archaeology of Africa' - Ed. Thurstan Shaw, Paul Sinclair, Bassey Andah & Alex Okpoko: Routledge, 75 pounds

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The Independent Online
BLACK AFRICA's spectacular pre-European past has long been ignored by Britain's publishing industry. Of its 15 or more ancient civilisations and empires, only one, East Africa's Swahili culture, has a book dedicated to it in print (Swahili Origins by James De Vere Allen, 1993). Most have never had books written on them, in English or indeed any other language.

In the world's major museums and universities, this tendency to ignore black Africa's pre-European past can be found again and again. In the 87 universities in the UK, there are only half a dozen academic staff specialising in pre-19th-century black African history, and only two in the region's archaeology. It is difficult enough for university-based students of Africa's fascinating archaeological and historical heritage to find adequate material to read. For interested members of the general public, including secondary school teachers, it has been all but impossible.

Until now, that is. The Archaeology of Africa is a virtual encyclopaedia on the 'Dark Continent's' long-ignored past, a 300,000-word work compiled by four editors - two from Europe, two from Africa. It embraces commissioned sections and chapters from 60 specialists in 20 different countries, including Kenya, Nigeria, Mozambique, Madagascar, Ghana, Zaire, Malawi, Namibia, Botswana, Libya and Zimbabwe.

The book's 43 chapters represent the latest thinking on African archaeology and history. It is, quite literally, the first book of its kind published on the subject. It covers not only several of Africa's individual ancient cultures, but also those phenomena and developments that affected the continent as a whole. Apart from anything else, it explains the tragically relevant process by which Africa has become drier and drier over the past 10,000 years.

It also describes ancient Egypt's relationship with the rest of the continent, charts the development of Africa's early food-production techniques, and examines the origins of metallurgy in the continent.

The editors deal with many civilisations: ancient Egypt, the land Punt (Eritrea), Aksum (in Ethiopia), the Middle Niger, Zimbabwe and Swahili East Africa. And it covers, with great thoroughness, the emergence of several early urban cultures and states in black Africa, helping to contradict popular misconceptions that black Africa had no urban past before the arrival of the Europeans. Sometimes the book dives head first into controversy, as when, for instance, it questions the received wisdom about the Bantu diaspora.

Many of the book's co-authors use not just conventional archaeological evidence to argue their cases, but also ethnographic, linguistic and botanical data. This helps them to track, for instance, the spread of cattle, sheep, goats and horses in early Africa.

Of equal importance is the use of pictorial evidence - in the form of ancient rock paintings. Prehistoric art - in which Africa is particularly rich - is used to trace the development of animal domestication in Ethiopia and to help to determine the origins of ancient pasturalists in what is now the Namib Desert of Namibia. In the Sahara, rock paintings are being dated with the help of zoological evidence.

The book describes and explains aspects of African cultural development in a plethora of environments - everything from tropical forests and river valleys, to deserts and mountain fastnesses. In short, it will be a superb source for university students, not to mention secondary school history and geography teachers, struggling to research poorly resourced aspects of the national curriculum.

Earlier this year, I wrote in the Independent that most publishers ignored black Africa's pre-European past. Though thoroughly academic in tone, Routledge's new book does make an impressive start at correcting the balance. Let's hope that others follow where they have led.