Resisting the stereotypes of an undeveloped, unchanging continent

African History through the Lens of Economics: An introduction to African development and history

In the first session of the Wheeler Institute’s new ten-part open access online course, African History through the Lens of Economics, Christopher Ehret, Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA and author of a classic treatise on The Civilizations of Africa, gave a fascinating overview of his research, which combines archaeological and linguistic analysis, into Africa’s history, its technological achievements and its importance in global trade from earliest human times to the period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The session was moderated by Awa Seck, PhD candidate in Political Economy and Government, Harvard University.

Professor Ehret urged the audience to resist pervasive, incomplete and quite often false stereotypes of Africa as a continent somehow cut off from the rest of humanity, less developed, and unchanging. Rather he stressed the need to understand that Africa has always been and continues to be a diverse continent of people who have actively contributed to and participated in formative long-term developments of human technological and economic history.

Ehret’s remarks were full of memorable examples of Africa’s internal diversity, its fundamental role in the earliest development of agriculture and technology, and its centrality to global networks of trade and commerce from earliest history until colonial times. Besides, Ehret discussed many examples of significant technological innovations and advancements developed and expanded across all parts of Africa. These characteristics, advancements, and contributions appear much less well appreciated today than they deserve to be. Ehret passionately argued that they should form an integral part of any modern economic analysis of the continent.

Africa is a continent of cultural, social and linguistic diversity

It is reasonably known that our earliest ancestors lived in East Africa, usually dated to around 70,000 BCE when those common ancestors of all people living today developed syntactical language and abstract thought. It is from East Africa that humans spread outward in their remarkable journey that brought them across the world. However, what is less appreciated is that this migration took place across Africa as well.

Professor Ehret’s lecture focused on the history of African people across three main broad language families:

  • Niger-Congo – which could be the world’s largest in terms of number of distinct languages, encompassing Yoruba, Akan, and Senufo, as well as the Bantu languages of sub-Saharan Africa;
  • Nilo-Saharan, which includes the languages of ancient Nubia, Maasai and Songhay;
  • Omotic, from south-western Ethiopia (a branch of the wider Afroasiatic language family, which includes such languages as Somali, ancient Egyptian, and Hausa).

Together, languages in these three families are today spoken by nearly 1 billion people across over 10 million square kilometres.

Africa played a central role in the earliest development of agriculture and technology

Countering the idea that Africa was in some way left behind after those very early migrations, Professor Ehret explained how the world’s first major economic shift – from foraging to agriculture – occurred independently between 10,000 and 5,000 BCE in around a dozen parts of the world, three of which were separate African locations. In West Africa, people speaking Niger-Congo languages began cultivating pearl millet, fonio, groundnuts and cowpeas; in the eastern part of the Sudan belt, Nilo-Saharan peoples planted sorghum, pearl millet and watermelons; in the Southern highlands of modern-day Ethiopia, Omotic peoples ate the corms of the insat (enset) plant.

Ehret went on to consider Africa’s contributions to technological developments in three major areas – ceramics, weaving and metallurgy. First, he explained that Africans were responsible for the world’s second and third earliest inventions of ceramics, initially in Niger-Congo, today’s Mali, before 9,500 BCE (3,000 years before the Middle East), and then independently in modern Sudan in 8,500 BCE. Second, he then showed pictures of spindle whorls from Eastern Sudan used in the weaving of cotton textiles dating to 5,000 BCE – earlier than those from India, commonly considered as the first place to develop the technology – and of a different, vertical broad loom from southern Nigeria, used for making raffia cloth as early as 4,000 BCE. Thirdly, he considered what could be the earliest iron-working technology in human history, dating from 2,000 BCE in what is now the western Central African Republic and Cameroon. The technology subsequently spread across sub-Saharan Africa; Ehret showed images of two beautiful examples of high-quality metalwork – a ceremonial throwing knife and an ornamental flange-welded double bell. He observed that Africans at this time used furnaces hot enough to produce carbon steel, an outcome not achieved in the West until around one hundred and fifty years ago.

Africa was an important part of world trade throughout most of history

Professor Ehret then challenged the widespread idea of the Sahara cutting Africa off from the world’s trading systms. On the contrary, Ehret explained how between 4,000 and 500 BCE at least eleven food crops and one important animal – the donkey – were domesticated in West Africa, Eastern Sudan and the Horn of Africa before spreading to distant parts of Eurasia. By the third millennium BCE, for example, pearl millet, sorghum, finger millet and tamarind had spread to India; the country potato (or coleus) and roselle reached south-east Asia; around the same time, sorghum became a major crop in northern China.

Between 1800 and 1000 BCE, networks of long-distance trade were established in the Sudan belt, linking skilled artisans and merchants and leading to the foundation of towns in the Tichitt region in southern Mauretania as focal points of manufacturing. Between 1000 and 500 CBE, these networks began to link with other networks of commercial exchange in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean.

Indeed, it was only with the development of the slave trade that African participation in global innovation and trading networks began to wane. Professor Ehret contrasted the images of African trade from the 15th and 19th centuries – in 1500, Benin was an important producer of raffia cloth and cotton textiles in high demand from modern-day Angola, high-quality iron from Sierra Leone was traded in Senegal by Portuguese ships, and cotton moved back and forth between different parts of the continent. By 1900 the slave trade had displaced these more productive economic activities and replaced them with the enduring misrepresentations that this lecture sought to correct.

African economic history offers a welcome lesson on the economic status of women

The guest lecture closed by considering a final area in which African economic history is unusual. Across southern Eurasia, from the furthest East Asia to Iberia, patriarchal societies have been the norm throughout history, with women’s agency and initiative under-valued. However, south of the Sahara this has not been the case – women have been independent social and economic actors, and the owners of the products of their labour. They have been major commercial entrepreneurs, as is well known for example in Nigeria. These characteristics were common not just in areas of traditional African religions, but also in Muslim and Christian communities.

Professor Ehret provided a fascinating introduction to African history and to how economists have sometimes seen the continent, offering a persuasive encouragement to remember its diversity, innovation and global importance through history. The lecture laid the foundations for the upcoming sessions on the political and social organisation of ‘precolonial’ Africa, the slave trades, the Scramble for Africa, colonization, and independence. Interested readers are encouraged to consult Professor Ehret’s books, including its classic The Civilizations of Africa (University of Virginia Press, 2016) and the forthcoming Ancient Africa: A Global History (Princeton University Press, expected 2022; title provisional).

African History through the Lens of Economics is an open-access, interdisciplinary lecture series to study the impact of Africa’s history on contemporary development by the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development. This course is led by Elias Papaioannou (London Business School)Leonard Wantchekon (Princeton University)Stelios Michalopoulos (Brown University), and Nathan Nunn (Harvard University and supported by CEPR, STEG and the European Research Council. The course runs from February 1 to April 13 of 2022 and has received more than 27.000 registrations. For more information visit the course website.

David Jones (MBA 2022) is a Classics graduate and has worked as a teacher in Malawi, an accountant at Deloitte and in the finance function at the Science Museum in London. He completed an internship with the Wheeler Institute’s Development Impact Platform in Zambia over summer 2021 and is now continuing as an intern for the Wheeler Institute, contributing to the creation of content that amplifies the role of business in improving lives

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