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READ: A Curious Case — African Agrarianism
A Curious Case: African Agrarianism
By David Baker, adapted by Newsela
Due to the “late” start of agriculture in Central and South Africa below the Sahara and Sahel, we only see the first glimmer of agrarian civilizations beginning to emerge in the region from 1000 to 1500 CE, before their development was interrupted by the unification of the world zones.
The Curious Case of Africa
Compared to other world regions like the Fertile Crescent, Africa below the Sahara and Sahel adopted agriculture relatively “late” in human history. The Fertile Crescent began farming around 9000 BCE, West Africa independently developed agriculture around 3000 BCE, and East Africa enjoyed the transmission of knowledge from both hubs. Central and South Africa, on the other hand, only developed agriculture after the Bantu farmers migrated across the region between 1000 BCE and 500 CE. In many ways it is not surprising that Central and South Africa should have been relatively late in their transition from foraging to agriculture, since human ancestors evolved over millions of years to forage in African ecosystems, and were particularly well suited to their coexistence with nature.
The late start of agriculture in Central and South Africa below the Sahara and Sahel, however, did affect the development of agrarian civilizations. Most early Central and South African states started up between 1000 and 1500 CE, and did not cover as much territory as the East and West African states. Additionally, huge swathes of Africa did not develop states at all from 1000 to 1500, but stayed in the phase of smaller agrarian communities that precedes agrarian civilizations everywhere.
It is an open question whether or not Central and South Africa would have produced large states if they had been given a bit more time to develop before the world zones collided around 1500. As it was, the “early agrarian” phase usually takes several thou-sand years to produce states. The Fertile Crescent took at least 4,000 years to produce states after they first started farming. West Africa took about 3,000 years to produce the first major states and kingdoms. Since farming only really took hold in Central and South Africa around 1000 BCE to 500 CE, they did not have as much time.
In order for an early agrarian community to produce states, the farmers there need to produce a lot more food than they need to survive. This supports densely populated settlements, towns, and cities. It supports a “division of labor” which allows some people to work in positions without farming for themselves – bureaucrats, scribes, rulers, priests, architects, blacksmiths, professional soldiers, and so on. The majority of Central and South Africa only had 2,000 years at the most (and in most cases considerably less) to move from the dawn of agriculture to the origin of states. That being said, some small states were already emerging in the region, further indicating that the “human experiment” has a lot of similarities even when it is conducted in different parts of the world. It is interesting to note how, after centuries of prejudiced talk about “superior” and “inferior” civilizations, it may all be a simple coincidence of timing – depending on when the healthy foraging peoples of a region are sucked into the much harsher and unhealthier life of early farming. From there the tumbling snowball effect of rising human complexity takes time. This was time that the agrarian civilizations of Central and South Africa simply did not have in abundance.
Central and South African States
From 1000 to 1500, long after the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations had faded from history and much of while the world dwelt in long-established medieval societies, the first states began appearing in Central and South Africa. In a few places, small agrarian communities formed into slightly larger tribal kingdoms of a few thousand people. Then, through warfare and intermarriage, these kingdoms transformed into the handful of larger states that existed in Central and South Africa before the arrival of the Europeans around 1500.
In the eleventh century, Mapungubwe arose in southern Africa. Believed to be a Bantu settlement, it was a very small community of only a few thousand people, but was remarkable for its clustering of a dense population within its stone walls. Aside from farming and herding, Mapungubwe dealt in the gold and ivory trade. Surrounded by much smaller agricultural communities for miles in any direction, at the time Mapungubwe would have looked quite remarkable. These people migrated north and set up an even more impressive kingdom, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. Its capital, Great Zimbabwe, had tall stone buildings and housed three to four times as many people, upward to 20,000. By the 1200s, Great Zimbabwe had become a center for long-distance trade, exporting and importing goods to lands as far away as Arabia and China. In turn, this kingdom was absorbed by the Mutapa Empire, which arose in the 1400s. How-ever, even at its widest extent, Mutapa was considerably smaller than the states of West Africa. And a few decades later, Portuguese traders made contact, started expanding their political influence there, and began the process that would sweep the region into the wider story of the unification of the world zones.
To the northwest, in what today is the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Luba and Lunda kingdoms formed from much earlier agrarian communities. There had been fishing communities in the region since 400 CE, and they had firmly adopted farming around 900 at the latest. But states take time to form after the adoption of agriculture, in some cases many thousands of years later. In contrast to the Fertile Crescent, Luba and Lunda took only a few centuries. The Luba villages were united in the 1300s and 1400s and became a concrete state under a single king in the late 1500s. Similarly, the neighboring Lunda raised up a unified state made up of agrarian clans by 1600. Both kingdoms became trading hubs with a fairly sizable amount of territory. Due to the remoteness of their location in the middle of the southern continent, they did not fully succumb to colonialism and the unification of the world zones until the 1800s.
To the west, on the African coast, several small kingdoms had arisen in the 1300s and were taking part in coastal trade. By 1380 or 1390 (there were no written records, so it is unclear) these were united into the Kingdom of Kongo. The capital of Kongo had started out as a large settlement and evolved into a densely populated city-state of many thousands of people. It ruled over a countryside with a comparatively thin population of farms and tiny agricultural villages. Kongo was a considerably wealthy king-dom with a powerful military. They traded mostly in natural resources. They quickly expanded east and began a slave trade of prisoners of war. However, Kongo formed only a century before the Portuguese arrived in the 1480s and began rapidly expanding their political influence, converting people to Christianity, buying slaves for the Americas, and initiating centuries of military interference.
All of these agrarian civilizations had a division of labor, an established ruling elite, towns of thousands, military capabilities, and skills at architecture, sculpture, and iron manufacturing. Other agrarian communities in Central and South Africa had coalesced into loose alliances of villages, headed by chiefs and kings, or trade posts that expanded their influence into their hinterlands. However, it was Zimbabwe-Mutapa, Luba, Lunda, and Kongo that managed to form the largest and most complex states, with a concrete and strong authority over their subjects, prior to 1500. A number of independent states, kingdoms, and empires were to rise after 1500, but their stories become increasingly interwoven with that of European exploration and colonialism.
Lessons in Collective Learning
If agriculture had arisen in Central and South Africa a few millennia earlier like it did in West and East Africa, it seems likely that these small states would have grown even larger, perhaps even forming mas-sive empires. As it was, the “late” start of agriculture in the region meant that Central and South Africa’s independent story was interrupted by the larger story that was driving the world closer and closer together – sometimes with painful results. In many ways, these agrarian civilizations were “strangled in the cradle” by the expansionism of older human societies.
Since the emergence of our species approximately 200,000 years ago, collective learning has steadily increased from generation to generation. We refined our foraging skills in Africa and 64,000 years ago began adapting to new and strange environments all over the world. Taken globally, human culture and society have increased in complexity by leaps and bounds. Yet if we look more closely at recent human history, there seems to be some inequality in the levels of complexity and collective learning that permitted one human group to exploit another. These inequalities between human groups find their source in different starting points of the origin of agriculture and the beginning of agrarian civilizations.
Many regions of the world, like the Fertile Crescent, were “trapped” into lives of farm-ing many thousands of years ago, despite the fact that foraging was easier and healthier. Regions like Central and South Africa enjoyed the benefits of foraging for a lot longer, and escaped the less healthy life of early farming until between 1000 BCE and 500 CE. While this “late start” was a definite advantage in terms of healthy living and a less strenuous lifestyle for many thousands of years, it turned into a curse when African communities encountered explorers and armies from civilizations that were trapped into agriculture many thousands of years ago.
On the long view of history over the past 10,000 years, Central and South Africa was in many ways a much nicer place to live than many other regions of the world. It escaped farming for longer, and after 1000 BCE most regions still escaped the oppressive hierarchies that characterize most agrarian civilizations and empires. On the other hand, when reading the past 500 years of Central and South African history, it is difficult not to be depressed or pessimistic. However, contrasted to 200,000 years of human existence, this painful era looks rather brief. What will determine whether this period of history is a beginning of a long downturn or a mere transitional phase into a global system of rapidly increasing collective learning is how Africa adapts, copes, and is treated by its neighbors during the twenty-first century and beyond.
Peter Bellwood, First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005)
David Christian, Cynthia Brown, Craig Benjamin, Big History: Between nothing and everything, (New York: McGraw, 2014)
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, (New York: Norton, 1997)
Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002)
Kevin McDonald, “Ancient African Civilizations” in Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah, Africana: The Encyclopedia of The African and African American Experience, (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999)
Kevin Shillington, History of Africa, 3rd ed, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
Bruce Smith, The Emergence of Agriculture, (New York: Scientific American Library, 1995)
Cover image: Detail from Image of Blue Marble: Next Generation, courtesy of Reto Stöckli, NASA Earth Observatory. Public domain. http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=73580
Image of gold rhino found at Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, South Africa, a World Heritage Site. © Tim Hauf/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis