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Drawing on many years of African experience, John Reader has written a book of startling grandeur and scope that recreates the great panorama of African history, from the primeval cataclysms that formed the continent to the political upheavals facing much of the continent today. Reader tells the extraordinary story of humankind's adaptation to the ferocious obstacles of forest, river and desert, and to the threat of debilitating parasites, bacteria and viruses unmatched elsewhere in the world. He also shows how the world's richest assortment of animals and plants has helped - or hindered - human progress in Africa.

I Speak of Africa and Golden Joys. In Search of Prester John. The Beginnings of Agriculture. The Impact of Iron. It is a beautiful journey through the story of how we came to be us, and how African countries came to suffer the tragedies they experience today. Reader does an excellent job of avoiding the romanticization of African traditional ways of life that many sympathetic westerners fall into. Nature is heartless, and life could be brutal. Starvation was—is—a constant threat, and none of our modern notions of human rights applied.

But he tries to show that far from being backwards, African cultures achieved something the West never has: Technology evolved locally inasmuch as was needed to adapt to changing conditions, and cultures developed to allow groups of people to live symbiotically without a coercive state. Westerners mistook balance for backwardness, and thus, Reader shows, their our influence has been malevolent from the first.

From time to time, it is clear that Reader is writing beyond his expertise. His economic analysis sometimes leaves something to be desired, and occasionally he pursues his sympathetic agenda at the cost of intellectual honesty—but only in small ways.

Africa: A Biography of the Continent Summary

View all 3 comments. Jul 25, Hana rated it liked it Shelves: Vast, kaleidoscopic--an ambitious tour through millions of years of African history and prehistory. There is so much to like and be impressed with here that I feel somewhat churlish rating it three rather than four stars, but the book suffers from its own ambition and, especially towards the end, from too scattered a focus. Still, for those looking for a thoughtful and intriguing introduction to a very big and complex land, Africa: A Biography of the Continent deserves to be well up on the TBR l Vast, kaleidoscopic--an ambitious tour through millions of years of African history and prehistory.

John Reader is at his finest when he centers his narrative firmly on how the land was formed and how the people and the land continued to shape each other down through the millennia. He does a brilliant job setting the geological background: Ninety-seven percent of the continent has been in place and stable for more than million years Continents drift and rain forests shift splendidly and majestically: But the forests have not been static.

They have migrated across the continent as the continent drifted about on the face of the Earth The Equator lay across what is now the Sahara to begin with, and then moved south as Africa drifted northwards. Trypanosomes, hookworms, schistosomiasis, malaria. As humans shifted from pure hunting and gathering, they found they had serious competition.

Now I can see them: Yet humans did tame the land and large swathes of Africa became rich grazing land for the continent's pastoralists, who in turn shaped the plant and animal life and even the mix of parasites. Cattle, for example, have a long and ancient history in Africa dating back over 7, years ago. But the human edge was always fragile. Starting in , after 25 years of above average rainfall, the next decades saw continent-wide drought followed by epidemics of cholera, typhus, smallpox and horrible jiggers--a kind of burrowing sand flea introduced from Brazil.

Then, as he tells it, on the once-rich pasture lands depopulated by rinderpest, the land reverted to tsetse-infested bush and woodland inhabited only by wild animals. Influential environmentalists who thought these plains were pristine wilderness fought for their 'conservation' and now most including the famed Serengeti are tsetse-infested game parks devoid of their ancient human populations. That's Reader at his most incisive and unexpected. His discussion of archeological evidence of sub-Saharan cultures is masterly and very engaging, but he largely ignores centuries of North African civilization, allotting a mere six pages to Pharonic Egypt and giving Rome, Byzantium and the Islamic Empires barely a glance.

That would be fine except that the influences of those cultures shaped the fortunes of Africa's sub-Saharan native populations just as surely as did Western European colonialists. And it is in the coverage of Africa's modern history, from the arrival of the Portuguese on, that the narrative becomes scatter-shot and less compelling.

Too many pages are given over to oft-told tales, like the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, but without the perspective that a look at the North African trade might have granted us. Similarly, the long history of colonial rule under North African and Arab powers is not discussed, but that of Europe is. Truthfully, I wish that some editor had taken a sharp red pencil to much of the last hundred pages of political narrative and pushed Reader to refocus his view on the story he knows best: Every time he returns to that theme, the book takes off again and the ah-ha moments kept me searching hopefully.

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Alas, he ends with the Rwandan genocide, with only a very brief look at the end of apartheid in South Africa--a finish that left me exhausted and confused. But don't let the downside stop you from trying this--it's a great place to start on any serious tour of a land filled with marvels. Group read with Great African Reads Content rating: PG warning for dark thematic elements such as slavery and genocide. For a thoughtful and readable perspective on trade and interactions between the Arab and Mediterranean worlds and sub-Saharan Africa I recommend Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora.

For a brief and interesting history of North Africa, see: A Traveller's History of North Africa. View all 16 comments. Nov 22, Bruce rated it really liked it. This detailed but very readable work begins with a historical discussion of the geography of the continent, including continental drift, and moves quickly on to the begins of life, the first two chapters spanning billions of years in relatively few pages while providing an adequate and interesting outline of the topics.

Reader then discusses changes in climate over millenia, the accompanying evolutionary changes, and the emergence of humans and the evidence that has accumulated to support our un This detailed but very readable work begins with a historical discussion of the geography of the continent, including continental drift, and moves quickly on to the begins of life, the first two chapters spanning billions of years in relatively few pages while providing an adequate and interesting outline of the topics.

Reader then discusses changes in climate over millenia, the accompanying evolutionary changes, and the emergence of humans and the evidence that has accumulated to support our understanding of these processes. He continues by discussing the cultural anthropology that defined the various peoples populating the continent by drawing on data from a host of disciplines. All of this is very clear and interesting.

He also, however, is astute and clear about illuminating how the unique African experience was different from other places. The gradual development of various economies and economic types was of interest, particularly as related to the past few centuries, and I was intrigued to learn more about the evolution of the slave trade in particular as it changed from being primarily an activity internal to the continent to a more widespread and global phenomenon. Indeed, Reader argues that slavery, both domestic and external, and the introduction of firearms into Africa, were the two most pivotal events in transforming traditional culture, economics, and society into what emerged over the past three hundred years, both processes having continent-wide consequences.

Ironically, after the abolition of the slave trade by nations outside of Africa in the 19th century, slavery within the African continent actually increased dramatically. Keys to understanding this period for Africa as a whole include the discovery and exploitation of diamonds and gold, on the one hand, and the establishment by Leopold the Second of Belgium of the Belgian Congo on the other, this latter setting off the race of colonialism involving the entire continent. After tracing the colonialization of Africa by European powers during the 19th century, Reader describes the terrible environmental and ecological devastation caused at the end of the 19th century by rinderpest, a fatal viral disease of domestic and wild animals that was introduced by cattle from Italy; subsequently, and directly caused by this plague, came the rapid spread of the tsetse fly and its human disease, sleeping sickness.

These catastrophes so decimated the human population of the continent that the people were unable effectively to resist the exploitation of the European powers. During the colonial period and thus after the European powers seemingly arbitrarily created national boundaries, the approach to Africa by these powers was highly paternalistic, discounting indigenous history and culture. Most of the conflicts were within rather than between nations, and the paths of individual nations varied widely, from the horrors in Rwanda on the one hand to the more orderly transitions in South Africa on the other.

Nonetheless, he has done a masterful job of tracing the history of this fascinating continent. Jan 05, Jenny Reading Envy rated it really liked it Shelves: In my attempt to read more from and about Africa, this was a year-long group read with the Great African Reads group. True to form, I kept with the schedule up until July, and found myself needing to read the second half this week.

Can one book tell the story of an entire continent? Consider that the story of one empire's rise and fall takes six volumes The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire! Then I found that Reader, who is not himself African, starts at the very beginning. As in, In my attempt to read more from and about Africa, this was a year-long group read with the Great African Reads group. As in, the formation of the world and the joining of the tectonic plates that would form Africa. It took a while to get to the people of Africa, as I'm sure you can imagine. But these pieces of information about the formation of the land ended up being crucial to understanding why some parts were sought for ownership, why some were set up to support rapid population growth, and why the very best diamonds would be formed in some of the depths of the earth of these nations.

Once Reader gets to the 19th century, it was as if he flipped a switch and talked about the nations staking claims that they had no right to, and I thought ugh, is it all colonies and empire? He says in passing that Ethiopia was the only African nation not to be claimed by a European country in their own empire building.

I admit, I don't know that much about African history, and that is why I read this book, but that did surprise me. The author does do a good job at making connections between the ramifications of seemingly small decisions and events, from the importance of rain to the fallout from requiring the people living in Rwanda to declare an ethnic group. I have a slightly different perspective on Africa since we had missionaries in our home on furlough throughout my childhood.

Some worked with the Maasai, some with the Turkana, some traveled furtively and unofficially through countries unrecognized by the USA like Eritrea. I can sing in Swahili and have consumed ugali. But even that perspective is filtered by the imperialism that changed Africa forever. My later training in folklore, fieldwork, and anthropology comes from a field that really came into its own in the s. That field places great importance on the insider perspective, and I want to read the story of Africa from that perspective. I want to understand the people without our framing of tribes and warring people groups.


  • Africa: A Biography of the Continent.
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I want to understand their history and everchanging culture from their perspective. That isn't what this book is, but the author knows it. He tries to give an overview of how everything fit together. It is well-researched and documented, but the only African voices we tend to get are those in positions of power.

I want the people! And for a final, sarcastic send-off, I declare that I! Before I picked up this book, I had a relatively rich smattering of knowledge of Africa - particularly my trips to Sierra Leone and Tanzania and the reading I'd done associated with them. However, all these readings served to emphasize my lack of a broad, strong foundation of knowledge about African history.

I was desperate for books by the end of my study abroad in Tanzania, which led me to browse the airport bookstore while waiting for a flight to Kilimanjaro, where I came across this enticing Before I picked up this book, I had a relatively rich smattering of knowledge of Africa - particularly my trips to Sierra Leone and Tanzania and the reading I'd done associated with them.

I was desperate for books by the end of my study abroad in Tanzania, which led me to browse the airport bookstore while waiting for a flight to Kilimanjaro, where I came across this enticingly ambitious and well-recommended brick of a survey. I took a gamble: The gamble paid off, more or less. John Reader's Africa is a history in the broadest sense, a synoptic overview of the geology, ecological evolution, human evolution, climatic trends, archaeology, human ecology, and recorded history of the whole thing.

Reader's skill as a writer is evinced by the relative infrequency at which the book felt like it was groaning under the weight of its vast subject matter. Aside from clear, accessible writing, Reader accomplishes this by focusing the book on revelatory ideas about causation and trend rather than aspiring to be comprehensive. He chooses new perspectives on old debates, avoiding an obligatory-feeling rehash of well-trodden pop-sci territory. Having just taken classes in human evolution and savannah ecology, I felt like I still had a lot to learn from Reader's points of view though this is essentially a reflection of the overall shittiness of those classes.

Among his interesting points, I remember especially the idea that those investigating ancient social regimes shouldn't only look at the earlier autocratic states, since there are several interesting examples of more egalitarian complex economies, like the Niger delta's cooperative interaction between fishers, farmers, and herders.

The biggest point he made regarded labor: This issue was compounded by boom and bust cycles of climate that inhibited the stability of large populations; the high disease load of the continent where humans evolved particularly tsetse and their trypanosomes, and malaria ; and eventually slavery, rinderpest and its consequent famine, and the world wars. The struggle of colonizers was to marshal sufficient labor to extract the abundant resources they wanted to plunder.

As a Brit, Reader's perspective was generally liberal in bent, placing a lot of blame for modern African problems at the foot of European colonial powers my estimation of Belgium suffered greatly, for instance - they seem to have been the most blithely selfish and inconsiderate of them. The policies of apartheid, ethnic division and internal conflict particularly the Rwandan genocide , the generally execrable state of government, lack of human capital, population growth in excess of capacity to accommodate it, and even the existence of uninhabitable areas of wilderness like the Serengeti and Selous are all ascribed to European influence, usually due to policies that were self-consciously greedy and short-sighted, if not deliberately malicious.

I guess it could be because he's playing to my biases, but I buy all these arguments. On the other hand, beyond his interest in unorthodox explanations and interpretations generally sympathetic to Africans, Reader has no agenda or ideology in the strict sense. He never hesitates to criticize Africans for their bad decisions and behavior, and he even goes so far as to suggest that, in the light of colonial depredations, it's not inaccurate to say that many African states were "not ready" for independence. He has no patience for ideas about the pleasantness and harmony of pre-colonization lifestyles.

He makes a point to emphasize the existence of a native slave trade prior to that of the Europeans, and to illustrate the active and eager complicity of many states and chiefs in that vile trade. The logistic nature of the timescale is weird in this book, as it is in all books like it, because there's something discontinuous about passing from geologic time to the often daily scale at which modern historical events unfolded. It feels like you are reading a different book by the end, which is fine, because all the parts are well done. The transition between the early colonial period and independence is particularly striking, which I think is genuine and not an artifact of the book's organization.

People thought about the world in a completely different way after years of exposure to European culture.


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If you want to learn about Africa, in general, this book is the best place I can imagine starting, a solid foundation that is thorough but digestible. Apr 13, AC rated it it was amazing Shelves: A thoroughly digested and thoughtful account of a million years of history Literally, a biography of the continent.

Aug 30, Tim Martin rated it it was amazing Shelves: Though a thick book at pages plus appendices, endnotes, and bibliography , it is a wonderful read. The introductory section laments that Africa has been "woefully misunderstood and misused by the rest of the world," and that humanity does not properly "recognize its debts and obligations to Africa. Part one was four chapters detailing the geological and paleontological history of Africa, the author noting that the search for missing links is a tradition in African paleontology "an icon Part two was fantastic, devoted to the origins of the hominids.

He also cited such researchers as Peter Wheeler, who concluded that "thermoregulation is at the root of all things human," that being bipedal gave hominids additional advantages walking upright exposed less body surface to direct rays of the sun and allowed for more heat to be removed from the skin by convection by taking advantage of the cooling effects of being higher above ground that allowed them to remain active in temperatures that would drive a quadruped to heat stroke.

Part three looked at the origins of modern humans civilization, spending a good deal of time on the importance of language and the increasing evidence that sophisticated modern behavior did not arise first 30,, years ago among humans that had left Africa for Eurasia, but instead had occurred in Africa some 35, years earlier than that, the author providing accounts of the manufacture of sophisticated tools and early attempts at agricultural practices.

A fascinating chapter was devoted to the spread of the iron-using Bantu-speaking peoples, who in less than 3, years expanded from their homes in modern Nigeria and Cameroon to colonize virtually all of sub-Saharan Africa, "an event unmatched in world history. The history of African agriculture is well-covered, noting the importance of bananas and plantains to the diet, the differing practices of raising cattle for milk versus beef surprisingly interesting , and the fact that elephants were a real impediment to African agricultural development until comparatively recent times.

Part five examined early European exploration of Africa and the origins of the Atlantic slave trade and also delved into many aspects of African political and economic development, noting how various factors, such as unpredictable climate, disease, problems of food production, the need to maintain voluntary and cooperative trade links, and the age-set system of rule mitigated against the development of powerful, densely-settled African states and the disadvantage this would put the Africans at when facing Europeans.

Reader also spent a good deal of time noting just how profoundly four centuries of slave-trading "seized the entire social and cultural ethos" of Africa, leading to destruction of some peoples, the creation of others, and the commercialization of African economies sadly, even after the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade indigenous slavery not only continued to exist but actually expanded.

Part six largely dealt with the history of South Africa. Several themes pervade this book. The most refreshing of these is that because all humankind originated in Africa, we are all, in a sense, Africans. For this reason, differences among peoples in different parts of the world can best be explained by looking at their unique environments, not at racial differences among the peoples themselves.

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A second theme, closely related to the first, is the crucial importance of environment in human history. Indeed, his book might fairly be described as an ecological history of Africa. And what a challenging ecology African peoples have always faced! Among the special problems with which Africans have had to cope are poor soils, meager and erratic rainfall, stifling heat, and debilitating diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness, and bilharzia.