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Africa: A Biography of the Continent di John…
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Africa: A Biography of the Continent (originale 1997; edizione 1999)

di John Reader (Autore)

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Combines photography and text to capture the diverse landscapes, wildlife, and peoples of Africa, from the Sahara of northern Africa to the Southern Veld, from Kilimanjaro to the Niger River.
Titolo:Africa: A Biography of the Continent
Autori:John Reader (Autore)
Info:Vintage (1999), 816 pages
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Africa: A Biography of the Continent di John Reader (1997)

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Review of: Africa: A Biography of the Continent, by John Reader
by Stan Prager (4-17-21)

Africa. My youth largely knew of it only through the distorted lens of racist cartoons peopled with bone-in-their-nose cannibals, B-grade movies showcasing explorers in pith helmets who somehow always managed to stumble into quicksand, and of course Tarzan. It was still even then sometimes referred to as the “Dark Continent,” something that was supposed to mean dangerous and mysterious but also translated, for most of us, into the kind of blackness that was synonymous with race and skin color.
My interest in Africa came via the somewhat circuitous route of my study of the Civil War. The central cause of that conflict was, of course, human chattel slavery, and nearly all the enslaved were descendants of lives stolen from Africa. So, for me, a closer scrutiny of the continent was the logical next step. One of the benefits of a fine personal library is that there are hundreds of volumes sitting on shelves waiting for me to find the moment to find them. Such was the case for Africa: A Biography of the Continent, by John Reader, which sat unattended but beckoning for some two decades until a random evening found a finger on the spine and then the cover was open and the book was in my lap. I did not turn back.
With a literary flourish rarely present in nonfiction combined with the ambitious sweep of something like a novel of James Michener, Reader attempts nothing less than the epic as he boldly surveys the history of Africa from the tectonic activities that billions of years ago shaped the continent, to the evolution of the single human species that now populates the globe, to the rise and fall of empires, to colonialism and independence, and finally to the twin witness of the glorious and the horrific in the peaceful dismantling of South African apartheid and the Rwandan genocide. In nearly seven hundred pages of dense but highly readable text, the author succeeds magnificently, identifying the myriad differences in peoples and lifeways and environments while not neglecting the shared themes that then and now much of the continent holds in common.
Africa is the world’s second largest continent, and it hosts by far the largest number of sovereign nations: with the addition of South Sudan in 2011—twelve years after Reader’s book was published—there are now fifty-four, as well as a couple of disputed territories. But nearly all of these states are artificial constructs that are relics of European colonialism, lines on maps once penciled in by elite overlords in distant drawing rooms in places like London, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels, and those maps were heavily influenced by earlier incursions by the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch. Much of the poverty, instability, and often dreadful standards of living in Africa are the vestiges of these artificial borders that mostly ignored prior states, tribes, clans, languages, religions, identities, lifeways. When their colonial masters, who had long raped the land for its resources and the people for their self-esteem, withdrew in the whirlwind decolonization era of 1956-1976—some at the strike of the pen, others at the point of the sword—the exploiters left little of value for nation-building to the exploited beyond the mockery of those boundaries. That of the ancestral that had been lost in the process, had been irrevocably lost. That is one of Reader’s themes. But there is so much more.
The focus is, as it should be, on sub-Saharan Africa; the continent’s northern portion is an extension of the Mediterranean world, marked by the storied legacies of ancient Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, and the later Arab conquest. And Egypt, then and now, belongs more properly to the Middle East. But most of Africa’s vast geography stretches south of that, along the coasts and deep into the interior. Reader delivers “Big History” at its best, and the sub-Saharan offers up an immense arena for the drama that entails—from the fossil beds that begat Homo habilis in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, to the South African diamond mines that spawned enormous wealth for a few on the backs of the suffering of a multitude, to today’s Maasai Mara game reserve in Kenya that we learn is not as we would suppose a remnant of some ancient pristine habitat, but rather a breeding ground for the deadly sleeping sickness carried by the tsetse fly that turned once productive land into a place unsuitable for human habitation.
Perhaps the most remarkable theme in Reader’s book is population sustainability and migration. While Africa is the second largest of earth’s continents, it remains vastly underpopulated relative to its size. Given the harsh environment, limited resources, and prevalence of devastating disease, there is strong evidence that it has likely always been this way. Slave-trading was, of course, an example of a kind forced migration, but more typically Africa’s history has long been characterized by a voluntary movement of peoples away from the continent, to the Middle East, to Europe, to all the rest of the world. Migration has always been—and remains today—subject to the dual factors of “push” and “pull,” but the push factor has dominated. That is perhaps the best explanation for what drove the migrations of archaic and anatomically modern humans out of Africa to populate the rest of the globe. The recently identified 210,000-year-old Homo sapiens skull in a cave in Greece reminds us that this has been going on a very long time. Homo erectus skulls found in Dmansi, Georgia that date to 1.8 million years old underscore just how long!
Slavery is, not unexpectedly, also a major theme for Reader, largely because of the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on Africa and how it forever transformed the lifeways of the people directly and indirectly affected by its pernicious hold—culturally, politically and economically. The slavery that was a fact of life on the continent before the arrival of European traders closely resembled its ancient roots; certainly race and skin color had nothing to do with it. As noted, I came to study Africa via the Civil War and antebellum slavery. To this day, a favored logical fallacy advanced by “Lost Cause” apologists for the Confederate slave republic asks rhetorically “But their own people sold them as slaves, didn’t they?” As if this contention—if it was indeed true—would somehow expiate or at least attenuate the sin of enslaving human beings. But is it true? Hardly. Captors of slaves taken in raids or in war by one tribe or one ethnicity would hardly consider them “their own people,” any more than the Vikings that for centuries took Slavs to feed the hungry slave markets of the Arab world have considered them “their own people.” This is a painful reminder that such notions endure in the mindset of the deeply entrenched racism that still defines modern America—a racism derived from African chattel slavery to begin with. It reflects how outsiders might view Africa, but not how Africans view themselves.
The Atlantic slave trade left a mark on every African who was touched by it as buyer, seller or unfortunate victim. The insatiable thirst for cheap labor to work sugar (and later cotton) plantations in the Americas overnight turned human beings into Africa’s most valuable export. Traditions were trampled. An ever-increasing demand put pressure on delivering supply at any cost. Since Europeans tended to perish in Africa’s hostile environment of climate and disease, a whole new class of “middle-men” came to prominence. Slavery, which dominated trade relations, corrupted all it encountered and left scars from its legacy upon the continent that have yet to fully heal.
This review barely scratches the surface of the range of material Reader covers in this impressive work. It’s a big book, but there is not a wasted page or paragraph, and it neither neglects the diversity nor what is held in common by the land and its peoples. Are there flaws? The included maps are terrible, but for that the publisher should be faulted rather than the author. To compensate, I hung a map of modern Africa on the door of my study and kept a historical atlas as companion to the narrative. Other than that quibble, the author’s achievement is superlative. Rarely have I read something of this size and scope and walked away so impressed, both with how much I learned as well as the learning process itself. If you have any interest in Africa, this book is an essential read. Don’t miss it.

Review of: Africa: A Biography of the Continent, by John Reader

Podcast: ( )
1 vota Garp83 | Apr 17, 2021 |
From Timothy Burke's Making Scholarship notes blog (

Often comes pretty close to depicting Africans as uniquely limited by environment--it's the exact same intellectual framing as John Iliffe's very similarly titled history of Africa in one sense, but Iliffe tells the environmental story as heroic (African agency and humanity triumphing over a uniquely hostile environment) as opposed to Reader, who tells a story of how Africans are produced by and identical to their environments--all of their societies until the modern period are depicted as a harmonious product *of* environment.

Chaps. 1-4

Geological particularities of Africa, most prominently ancient unchanged landmasses and exceptional deposits of mineral wealth.
Africa the "laboratory of mammalian evolution".
Stable position in relation to other continents.
Rainforest ecology: rainforests are fragile, soil nutrients drained faster than they accumulate.

"There was nothing new in Africa. The human dynamic was continuous and unbroken." p. 100

North-south axis rather than east-west, divided into two by equatorial rain forest.
Rainforest not the dominant biome. Desert 40% of land area.

Savannah, wooded plains, grasslands most common vegetation/environment type.

Deep fertile topsoils are rare due to year-round warm temperatures; bacteria and parasites do not have a winter hibernation.

Ecological specificity of plant-animal relationships on continent may turn out to be something that Western conservation of charismatic megafauna was largely inattentive to until post-1945 and maybe not even then.

Relation between human evolution in African environments and human societies in historical time in Africa stressed throughout, with occasionally uncomfortable immediacy (e.g., here lies the older tendency to view Africa as unchanging and Africans as 'primitive' or 'backward' in their close association with the evolutionary past of humanity). See for example Khoisan languages.

The debate over hunter-gatherers and its intersection with Enlightenment ideas about the foundations of human society. Pretty fair summary of the use of Khoisan in sparring over prehistorical human societies. Includes the round of critique kicked off by Wilmsen et al--this is a good demonstration of the difference between histories of environment/ecology that naturalize and universalize humans and those that insist that what is represented as natural and ecological is in fact sociocultural and historical.

r-strategy; K-strategy

Inching up to an argument that humans in their evolved habitat had firm limits on their numbers and material potential.

Good compressed version of the "agriculture was the beginnings of many burdens and fragilities" argument.

Question in Chs 11-19 in part is "is it possible to care about some of these issues (role of climate in human evolution, origins of agriculture in Africa, evolution of pastoralism, co-evolution of humans and animals, etc.) in a way that doesn't predispose them to be deterministic preconditions of much more specific social and economic conditions in contemporary Africa? What would concern for such issues 'in and of themselves' look like, and is there any reason to demand conformity with such concern?

Diffusion v. parallelism (iron, agriculture, social formations thereof)

Niger River as major site for connecting ecology, environment and sociopolitical formations

pp. 229-230 Reader takes on the proposition that environments always produce harmonious human socioeconomic behavior in which people are always doing that which the environment dictates that they should--but not sure his alternative argument is anything more than a resituating of this point "it was the unpredictability of the delta regime itself which was responsible for the robust subsistence system that its inhabitants developed. In other words, the problems of making a living in the delta were so great that only sound adaptive strategies were effective" p. 230

So it's not so much that the delta was harmonious and people lived harmoniously in it, but that they adapted to long-term unpredictability by creating resilient systems of urbanization (Jenne-jeno) at which point I'm not sure what the difference is between that and "people always adapt as they should/must". The alternative seems to me is more, "Sometimes human systems are maladapted to environments and ecologies and yet manage to survive or continue", which Reader assuredly doesn't think describes the Delta.

Southern movement of herders, fishermen, cultivators as Sahara dries--another example of this point. Why not just 'stay put' and adapt to changing environments when the change is happening at an unpredictable but rather long-term level. This is a general question: if point-to-point migration, transhumanism and defiantly sedentary histories are all "explained" by environmental change, then does environmental change actually explain anything?

Marka rice cultivation and other secret knowledges (p. 232): maybe the issue is partly that some environmental economies have very high expertise burdens

Myths and legends as "ecological abstractions": e.g., both as evidence OF the ecological character of distinctive cultures and as the means by which those cultures instruct their successors on ecological adaptation. Again, there's something tautological in here.

"Groups congregated by choice": but if they congregated because this was the ideal system for managing the long-cycle unpredictability of the delta ecology, isn't 'choice' a strange thing to invoke? Where does 'choice' live in this sense?

pp. 229-233 worth working over in detail in class--some very key claims being made here, in a rather modest or backhanded way

Decline and absence become things to explain with or through ecology--but it begs the question of why we perceive or imagine continuity and continuation in other places. "France" in the 12th Century is about as related to the present day "France" as "Jenne-jeno" is related to Djenne Mali.

Ch 24: ok, here we go: this is the clearest summary of the co-adaptation argument about why human populations in Africa have had adverse developmental histories. Diseases that were highly adapted to human beings capped fertility, produced greater disability, and generally slowed economic and technological progress until human populations that had flourished in other environments were able to return bearing 'foreign ideas of how it should be done'

examples are malaria and tsetse fly

Concept of "carrying capacity" at play in Ch. 25: the difference between the theoretical productivity of land under agriculture and its reality; Reader tries to explain that by reference to environment (e.g., that the 'real' carrying capacity is not a product of human failure to exploit or develop it properly but a 'reality' of environment that is not immediately evident until the specificity of African environments--soils, climatic unpredictability, disease--are considered.)

Africa as "land-rich" and "people-poor", compared to Western Europe--e.g., that land is almost never scarce in relation to human communities in Africa until very recent times, that the deep environmental imagination of African societies never casts land as scarce or lacking and is instead deeply drawn to the challenge of fertility

Terracing as another example: it appears where it is adaptive, not where it isn't; he's especially engaged by cases where environmental conditions essentially dictate political structures (you don't have chiefs or centralized states unless you adaptively need chiefs or centralized states)

Elephants and people in a long-term environmental struggle that only favors people in the 1950s; environmental 'deep histories' that recast or reinterpret the present as the cultural outcome of a material 'rationality' rather than an irrational byproduct of market greed or cultural ideology p. 261-262

Functionalism, p.266: gerentocracy as adaptive necessity for managing cropping/herding/iron economy, another tautological loop--you have cropping/herding/iron because that's what environment dictates, you have gerentocracy because that's what that socioeconomic system requires, you have them because gerentocracy secures them and because they demand gerentocracy.

consent/compromise important tropes: that precolonial systems of power made sense, were not maladaptive or out of control. But note p. 267 even "aggression" and "avarice" as they appear in political and economic behavior are 'controlled' and related to instinctive cost/benefit analysis, to an intuitive calculation of what is needed and not needed. --society as equilibrium; "imperfections and abuses were contained" p. 269

Trade as the sort of extrinsic disruption to highly adapted human ecologies, but also as having an ecological motivation when the good sought is a physiological necessity (salt). Why not just live where there is salt? A: because then you would be leaving otherwise inviting environments uninhabited--or preferring very harsh environments that just happen to have salt (e.g., Saharan core). Cost/benefit calculations again: raises the question, just how do people DO that? But note even further, it's not just a calculation of: live where no salt, trade; live where salt, cope; it's "live where no salt IF there's an animal (camels) that provides a material precondition of trading for salt". Which begs the question: why do some people ride camels and produce salt and other people grow crops and trade for it? How does differentiation actually happen? Why does it persist? Path-dependence a possibility? But note if that's the way we want to talk about it, the specter of non-adaptive or maladaptive social ecologies comes back into view--things that were adaptive and then aren't but where it's impossible to shift to another 'path' (arguably this is a way to talk about extinction in genetic or evolutionary terms)

"Ecology, not conquest, brought about the fall of Ghana. The herds were too big, there were too many people. The more successful they were, the more certainly their fate was sealed". p. 284; Arab chroniclers paid more attention to 'dramatic events'. What do you think it means to say that Ghana 'fell'? What does an ecological 'fall' look like?

How can we explain a trade in gold in ecological terms? (p. 288: because it was easy to do at times when 'labor demands for food productivity were relatively slight')--but note how this places drivers of ecologically meaningful change outside of the domain of the ecology being described--why is "Ghana" the unit of the analysis rather than "the ecology of gold production, circulation and consumption"?

Slavery: a third rail in this whole conversation. Rights-in-persons and the management of social violence in kin-based societies; but is slavery 'ecologically normal'? What to do with a social practice which is not tautologically fit into the environmental picture that Reader is drawing? the dangerous potential to do exactly that

Now "choice" turns back on itself: p. 296. Earlier stresses on how ecological provisions allowed models of political organization that were not coercive but chosen give way to asserting that individuals had to organize in kin groups and communities. Why are "a succession of good harvests" a "distortion"? Same for "large influx of impoverished individuals"? p. 296--all non-equilibrium histories are being pushed to the outside as intrusions on the 'normal'

Environments as maintained and shaped by humans (Bananas): here is a different emphasis where what Europeans take to be natural, unchanging, providential, is in fact the result of long human shaping of environment, in this case in Asia and then Africa

Clues on what "fall" looks like: the 'centre could not hold and political authority gravitated to the periperhy': why doesn't an environmental history actually tell us, 'don't pay so much attention to transient political histories, pay attention to long-term continuities of material and economic practice' period, in all cases? ( )
  TimothyBurke | Oct 7, 2013 |
If you've traveled to Africa or plan to travel to Africa, this is an exceptional book on everything you'd ever want to know about Africa. It's long at 682 pages, but can can be read a few chatpers at a time. It's easy to skip chapters that don't interest you. ( )
  Doje | Oct 2, 2011 |
I found this book rather heavy going, but that is partly because a lot of the more distant history stuff is of little interest to me. I did, however, also find the writing style a little dull.

To be fair, it is very ambitious in scope and provides a breadth of coverage, not just in terms of timescale, but also subjects e.g. linguistics, economics, anthropology etc that is not available in any other texts that I've seen. It is also extensively referenced. For these reasons, I've given 4 stars, despite having not particularly enjoyed reading it.

I am primarily interested in more recent history and, fortunately for me, this is delivered to near perfection in the fantastic 'State of Africa' by Martin Meredith. ( )
  cwhouston | Nov 20, 2010 |
This is a big book with big aims: to tell, over the course of seven hundred pages, the story of sub-Saharan Africa from its geological formation through to the mid 1990s. Considering the magnitude of what he was attempting, Reader did well. It's obviously well-researched, cleanly written and accessible even for people like me, who know shamefully little about Africa. Yet I think the strain of compressing so much into such a small space began to tell on him after about the first two hundred and fifty pages or so—where they are strongly argued and well paced sections dealing with human evolution, and with the kinds of stresses and demands which led to the formation of Africa's distinct horizontally-organised socio-economic systems, the remaining four hundred or so pages become disjointed and choppy.

The earlier part of the book has the case studies serving to illustrate the thematic histories which he was constructing; in the latter half, however, the case studies become an end to themselves, and it's less easy for the reader to bring it together as a whole. A lot of the information which he presents about the awful impact which invasion and colonialism had on Africa was startling (if sadly not surprising), and what he had to say about the ways in which European intervention changed African culture very interesting, but I was left wishing that he'd had an editor ask him to step back a little and think about why he was saying what he was saying a little bit more, to recreate the structure of it. An interesting book, and probably a good starting point if you want to know more about Africa, but not without its flaws.

Lastly, there were one or two things which made me tilt my head. Reader has spent a lot of time in Africa, but as he acknowledges himself in the introduction, he is a white man and thus has to overcome a lot of internalised assumptions when talking about the continent. In many respects—at least to me—it seemed like he succeeded. But for instance, there were times when he referred to 'miscegenation' without problematising the term, showing how it's an ugly, ugly word, and that bothered me. ( )
  siriaeve | Jun 12, 2009 |
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Nome dell'autoreRuoloTipo di autoreOpera?Stato
John Readerautore primariotutte le edizionicalcolato
Lewis, MichaelFotografoautore principaletutte le edizioniconfermato
Nicola, MariaTraduttoreautore secondarioalcune edizioniconfermato

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Combines photography and text to capture the diverse landscapes, wildlife, and peoples of Africa, from the Sahara of northern Africa to the Southern Veld, from Kilimanjaro to the Niger River.

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