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A Conversation with Christopher Ehret

Christopher Ehret, UCLA
Interviewed by WHC Co-editor Tom Laichas

    Editor's note: Apart from the Nile Valley, Ethiopia, and the Bantu migration, African history before 1000 CE hardly appears in world history classrooms and texts. Most of us assume that there simply isn't enough documentary or archaeological evidence to say anything about social and technological change.
    Christopher Ehret wants to change that. Among the most innovative and provocative scholars working in African history, Ehret has made a career of studying the development of African languages, teasing from the linguistic history evidence for ancient social, economic, technological, and religious development. Ehret acknowledges that some readers may have trouble "getting comfortable with language evidence."1 The effort is worth the trouble. Languages "contain immense vocabulary resources that express and name the full range of cultural, economic, and environmental information available to their speakers."
    Want to know when a particular people first domesticated animals? Take a look at their vocabulary for breeding and raising the animals. Look for similar vocabulary in languages spoken by related groups. If you can determine how long it has been since all these groups shared a common language, you may be on your way to dating the origins of stock raising. This is not easy work; it means applying a fine-grained knowledge of linguistic structure, while avoiding coincidental or misleading relationships. One test of the work is how well it predicts later archaeological discoveries. By that measure, Ehret has done well.
    The Africa Ehret reveals cannot be described as unchanging or peripheral to world history. Among his most exciting ideas is that of an "African classical age," from about 1000 BCE to about 300 CE. During this period, he argues, peoples from four language families ­ Khoisan (sometimes known as Khoi-San and best known for the "clicks" in their languages), Afrasan (a.k.a., Afrasian or Afro-Asiatic), Nilo-Saharans and Niger-Congo peoples—encountered one another in the African Great Lakes region and along the eastern Rift Valley. That encounter helps account for the southward expansion of Bantu-speaking Niger-Congo communities, who adopted cattle-raising from Nilo-Saharan groups and independently worked iron. Recently, Ehret summarized much of this work in The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800.2 4

WHC: How did you get interested in African history?

Ehret: There are two things that moved me toward African history. One was that, when I was quite young, African nations were seeking independence. As a kid in elementary school and junior high, I was thinking "Yeah, the American ideal is independence, so Africans should throw out British colonialism! "I think that this idea of throwing off colonial rule just hit a core of just being American.

Connected with that was the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision which, to me, was startling. I went to an integrated school in California and had no idea that you could get away with segregation in America. I thought, well, obviously the Supreme Court had to make that decision. Only later I found out that the country had been doing the wrong thing for a long time.

Of course, I was interested in history all along. I started at Cal Tech finding that apart from math, it was what I loved best. And I was very interested by that time in Africa. What I found was that I could not find much African history in the libraries. The raw materials were there, but none of it was getting to any of the books that I read. So why was Africa being left out? Everything was wide open to new discovery for me.

I liked history, but I don't know that I would have been an academic historian without the real intrigue and interest and vast newness of African history.

WHC: You did your undergraduate work at Cal Tech?

Ehret: University of Redlands. Well, I started out in math at Cal Tech, but I decided that I could have more fun if I went someplace else. At Redlands I could drive off on the weekends and go out to the desert. At that time, Redlands was out on the edge of things, beyond the smog. Whereas Cal Tech was deep in the smog. I did have the math department people at Cal Tech try to convince me that I could do history and still stay there. It was nice that they cared. But I had a lot of fun at Redlands. And going to Redlands gave me a lot more time to go exploring libraries to discover Africa. That's when I began discovering just how faulty a lot of thinking about Africa history really was.


WHC: How did you get into linguistics?

Ehret: That was another hobby of mine as a child. I saw what people had done with Indo-European, and eventually encountered things people had done with American Indian studies using language to reconstruct things a long way back. The language evidence was appealing to me because it was mathematical.

Because languages change their phonology [i.e., their sounds] regularly, you can set up a historical sequence of phonological changes. You can then ask some interesting questions: what words were in this language before the sound change?

When I got into my junior year, towards the beginning of the senior year, several universities were starting up African Studies programs. I thought, wow, let's see, can I get away with doing linguistic stuff with this Africa? I got into a program where they said, if you want to do this cross-disciplinary interests, go ahead. That was Northwestern University.


WHC: What about the other programs?

Ehret: At Wisconsin, they had a Tropical History program, comparing various parts of the world that had been neglected. But they didn't really have the linguistic piece of it. At Northwestern there were people who could understand the method, who could handle it.


WHC: What kind of problems did you find in the received wisdom on Africa?

Ehret: The presumption in mainstream literature was that African history didn't exist, that Africans were like Andaman Islanders, people cut off from the rest of the world. But it was immediately obvious, once you started looking, that there was were empires and states, that there was long-distance trade. I also saw that this was a really good place for using non-literary types of analysis and evidence.

Students still come to my classes and are surprised about all these names they've got to know! Well, I tell them, you wouldn't say that about European or United States history classes. Why haven't children learned enough of these names along the way so you can take it up in college with as much fluency and ease as they take up French history—and France is, compared to Africa, such a tiny little place!


WHC: Is that the major problem for students new to African history?

Ehret: That would be the only major problem, unfamiliarity.


WHC: What are the most important things world history teachers might teach their students about Africa?

Ehret: Africa sometimes seems to students off the edge of the world. The first thing is to realize is that it's an integral part of what's going on in the rest of the world. If you are going to integrate Central Asia into your history, you can absolutely integrate sub-Saharan Africa into your history. You just can't talk about the Indian Ocean unless you talk about eastern Africa. And you can't talk about Mediterranean history unless you know what's going on in West Africa. You can't talk about the Red Sea and the Middle East unless you're talking about Ethiopia ­ actually, for the Middle East, you need West Africa and East Africa too. If you're doing world history, you need to connect up all these places.

And then too, students just do not know that Africa is a seminal area of innovation in world history.


WHC: Describe that innovation.

Ehret: You can of course begin with the fact that all our ancestors were fully human before any of those ancestors left Africa 60,000 years ago. The first places that you see artistic or symbolic representation are in eastern Africa. You see the first backed stone tools, the first shaped and reshaped bone tools. It's after 60,000 BCE or so that real humans finally leave the continent. So we're all Africans. Face up to that fact.

But people who do world history usually begin with the origins of agriculture. There are at least seven or eight ­ maybe eleven to thirteen ­ world regions which independently invented agriculture. None in Europe, by the way. One, of course, is in the Middle East, and many people still believe that this was the first, from which all the others developed. The idea of diffusion from the Middle East still lingers.

That idea really can't be sustained.

You have, for instance, one independent invention of agriculture in East Asia, maybe two. You have it more widely accepted now that there's an independent invention of agriculture in the interior of New Guinea. People argue about what to make of the Indian materials, but certainly India saw one of the three separate domestications of cattle; there are enough uniquely Indian crops that we might end up with India as another center of independent agricultural innovation. There are different ideas about the Americas, but I think we have two for sure: Mesoamerica and the Andes. There may also be a separate lowland tropical South American development. It also seems that there might be a few things domesticated in the southeastern United States even before there was Mesoamerican stimulus or diffusion. So that makes four.

Here's the point: agriculture was invented in Africa in at least three centers, and maybe even four. In Africa, you find the earliest domestication of cattle. The location, the pottery and other materials we've found makes it likely that happened among the Nilo-Saharan peoples, the sites are in southern Egypt. There is an exceptionally strong correlation between archaeology and language on this issue.

A separate or distinct agriculture arose in West Africa around yams.

A third takes place in southeastern or southern Ethiopia. I've got a student working this year in Ethiopia to see whether we can pin this down more precisely. The Ethiopians domesticated a plant called enset. It's very unique: Ethiopians use the lower stem and the bulb; not the tuber, the fruit, or the greens. Enset grows in a climatic zone distinct from that where cattle were first domesticated; that was further north.

The possible fourth area of agricultural invention would involve people who cultivated grain in Ethiopia. They seem to have begun cultivation of grain independently, but adopted cattle from the Nilo-Saharans of the middle Nile region. To pin this down, we need archaeology from a whole big area, but so far it's missing.

There's another really interesting innovation in Africa: pottery. There are two places in the world which develop pottery really early. One is Japan, where you find pottery before 10,000 BCE, going back to at least 11,000 or 12,000 BCE. And then you've got pottery by 10,500 BCE in the eastern Sahara, and it spreads widely in the southern Sahara. Unlike the Middle Eastern ceramics, where you can see the development of pottery at every stage, the stuff we find in the southern Sahara is already great pottery. So there's probably 500 years we're missing from the archaeological record. So let's say that pottery develops in the southern Sahara 2,500 years before Middle Eastern pottery. The Middle Eastern stuff does look like it was developed independently of the African, but ­ hey, this is really interesting! Africa is not too far away; there may have been some diffusion.

So, in a world history class, I would be talking about the development of agriculture in all the different parts of the world. I'd look at how people developed different kinds of agriculture in response to their particular environmental or demographic challenges. Then I'd look at the independent invention of pottery. In the Japanese case, it's not even connected with agriculture. One could argue that it turns up with cattle-keeping in the Sahara, but it also turns up with people who don't keep cattle, for fishing. So you can open up people's minds to technology: why do you need pottery?


WHC: Why do you need pottery?

Ehret: It has to do with sedentarism. You need to store and prepare food. But that doesn't mean that people start with agriculture. When you look at pottery, you are talking about the different ways people responded to the end of the Ice Age, developing more intensive ways of collecting food, or using a more productive method of hunting. Africa gives us particularly good examples. We can see cattle raisers juxtaposed with people who intensively exploited an aquatic resource base. The aquatic resource base works for 2,000 or so years, before the climate gets drier.


WHC: You associate the development of agriculture and intensified hunting with four major cultural groups. You call these groups "civilizations." Why?

Ehret: This question comes down to the problem of what the word "civilization" really means. Unfortunately, the idea that comes most often to people's minds is to contrast "civilization" to "disorder." So it becomes a value judgment about behavior. Because being civilized is a good thing, we tend to credit ourselves with being civilized. This is unexamined baggage.

The word, of course, goes back to the Latin civis, and the idea of living in a town. So, again, we often think of a civilization as consisting of people who were urban, with more art, more culture, and more of the things we associate with towns and cities. So you can say, okay, let's say "civilizations" have towns and cities. This is the tack that Graham Connah takes in his book, African Civilizations.3 That book is very informative, because it reminds people of just how old urban life is in Africa. It develops long, long before European colonialism.

But there's a third meaning of civilization. We talk about "Islamic Civilization" or "Ancient Near Eastern Civilization" or "Western Civilization." But what are we talking about? We're talking about a bunch of different peoples who somehow have a something in common culturally, something which allows us to think of them as part of a wider grouping.

If we take this model of civilization and apply it to Africa, we quickly discover that there are big groupings of people across Africa which share in underlying historical commonalities. If we go really deep, we have four traditions which diffused throughout large regions of Africa. What we can see that each of them has its roots in some particular transition that gave that group some material or economic advantage.


WHC: How did these groups spread across Africa?

Ehret: If you look at early history, languages spread with social identity. It doesn't mean that a whole group of people come in and wipe out all the people who were there before them. Now, it may be that with the invention of metal working, some groups may develop the military advantage and the political or economic structure for conquest. But even then, the conquerors and the conquered have to accommodate one another..

In earlier eras, it's not going to be conquest that expands the frontiers of a language family. Something to keep in mind too is that always in early history, people didn't leap long distances, like the English leaped from Britain to Australia. Languages expanded directly from previously established bases of population. You had to have enough of a base to build a population outward from.

So why does this happen? Well, agriculture allows more people to be supported on the same amount of land. In the long term, the agricultural frontier will expand. That means that a language family with agriculture will tend to spread.

The African invention of agriculture is often poorly attested in the material evidence, because we're missing important archaeology. In the case of West Africa, it's hard to get archaeology which would prove early cultivation.


WHC: Why?

Ehret: Because wood tools would not have survived. And because yams don't have seeds which might be burnt and preserved so that we could know that they're domestic rather than wild cultivars. Also, there's a stage­ it might have lasted 2,000 years ­when African peoples moved between the wild and the cultivated crops. You don't necessarily go straight to domestic seeds; it's an uneven transition.

Well, the language evidence says that there was early agriculture. You go back to the word for "cattle-raising" in Nilo-Saharan. It's not in the proto-language, it's in one of the branches. A few hundred years later, you get words for "cultivation," so you know they're cultivating, not long after they begin to raise some cattle. All we have after the first cattle are some sorghum seeds, and people argue whether those were domestic or wild. But the language evidence says that they were cultivating the sorghum. And the archaeology indirectly supports the language evidence. The Nilo-Saharans have granaries, we know that. By 7200 or 7300 BCE, they've got sedentary sediments. Yeah, you can have people collecting wild grasses really intensively and putting the grasses in a granary. However, the intensive grass collectors we know about didn't have granaries this big. So the language evidence and the archaeology both provide evidence of cultivation.

In the case of the rainforests of West Africa, you have the language evidence and the development of polished stone axes. It looks like they're having to clear the land; the yams they're raising need the sunlight. There are yams in the rainforest that don't need much light, but the yams they're cultivating at this stage are from the savannah. There's a verb to "cultivate" pretty far back so, yeah, we've got the evidence there, and we've certainly got the words for "yams," thought they could be wild yams.

The older generation of scholars have trouble seeing that the archaeology is there. They try to find reasons that it's not there. They say, well, you don't have enough cattle bones. I want hundreds of cattle bones, not tens of cattle bones. They have all kinds of excuses, but I think it's the remnant thinking based on early western European racism and just the general assumption that African history didn't begin as early. People believe that everything in Africa had to come from somewhere else.


WHC: Can you talk about the way this approach works for the four African peoples you have explored?

Ehret: Well, first of all, there were surely other peoples besides these four, peoples who have been lost to history because they were assimilated and absorbed into agricultural societies. We're left with these four today, but there may well have been others, of course.

Anyway, we can start with the Nilo-Saharan languages. The Nilo-Saharan languages are spread across drier areas, with better preservation of archaeological materials. They're among the earliest inventors of pottery, so their archaeological sites have material that would survive even in tropical rain forests. When you make ceramics, that's a real lasting material.

So what we do is to go back in the Nilo-Saharan language family and try to reconstruct its linguistic history. What we find is the kind of evidence I mentioned a minute ago.

Then there are the Niger-Congo speaking peoples. In their language family, we can reconstruct a word for "yams" right back to the very earliest stage of the language. There's a deeper level, by the way, Niger-Kordofanian. There's a branch of that family over towards Sudan. There's no word for yams in that branch, but there is in the Niger-Congo branch. It also looks like they had a word for "cultivate," but it's not tested in enough places yet to feel very strongly about it. It could be that the word "to dig" became "to cultivate" in two separate places. I think that farming came very early in their history.


WHC: So most of the distinctions are based on agriculture.

Ehret: There's something else here too. One of the things I found most valuable for dividing up these distinct civilizations is religion. One of the most fascinating things is that a couple of these African civilizations were probably monotheistic before any other people, at least in the Middle East or European world, so far as we know.

The way we look at these religious beliefs is that we have two categories I find useful. One is, how do people categorize the realm of spirit. The second is how they deal with the problem of evil: why bad things happen to good people—or good things happen to bad people.

Let's look at the realm of spirit for Niger-Congo people. It seems that anciently ­linguistically we can demonstrate this back 6,000 or 7,000 years­ anciently there was a Creator God, a single god that created the world. On this level, it looks like God the Creator was much like the Deist god of the 18th century. Got his world going, or got her world going, and then sat back to look at it.

Interesting thing about Niger-Congo thinking, by the way: they have a single pronoun for he, she, and it. They don't make gender distinctions in the third person. So you don't know whether they're talking about the Creator God as a female or male. They've got subordinate names for God­attribute names­that may be female. And they've got other subordinate names that may be male. They don't see God as inherently gendered. For them, God is male in this context and female in that context.

But the earliest term we have isn't only non-gendered, it's not even human. They're not thinking of the Creator God as analogous to human beings.


WHC: How would you reconstruct the religious beliefs from linguistic evidence?

Ehret: The case of this oldest word for God in Niger-Congo is instructive. This word for God was nyambe. The ­amb was the verb. The ­e was a suffix you needed in order to make the verb into a noun. The category of noun, the singular/plural marker, was the ny-. In the Ashanti kingdom, it was nyame. In the kingdom of Kongo, it was zambe. These were sound changes, but it was the same word. Now, ny- signified a category for animals and things that don't fit into any other category. So we have here is a word that means "the beginner of things." Literally, God is the origin of things. The verb it comes from tells us these people already had the creator god concept.

Other terms for God come later. You get a term which means "the one who arranges and puts everything in order" in eastern Africa. In some languages, the word for God is the same word as for "potter"; the idea is of someone who molds human beings out of clay. It sounds like the Biblical story, though there's no historical connection.

Something that we don't have as well pinned down linguistically, but it seems to be across the area, is a second level of spirit, a spirit who had a territorial region of authority: some sort of lesser spirit, but not God. That particular spirit may originally have been associated with a particular watershed or with the source of a particular stream. Sometimes, though not always, this idea exists in an area where there aren't so many streams.

The third and most important level was the level of the ancestors. They were the people you had to show respect for. They were the people you might go to for help. God is distant. When Catholicism comes in, the ancestors may be viewed as saints. They were, in some sense, intermediaries. But they weren't only intermediaries. They had their own power. You had to pay respect to them and conduct rites to them, both communally and individually.


WHC: You describe two other groups. One of them is the Afrasans. Can you talk about them for a moment?

Ehret: These are people who have been called Afro-Asiatic and also Afrasian. I'm saying "Afrasan" because I'm trying to get "Asia" out. There is still this idea that the Afro-Asiatic family had to come out of Asia. Once you realize that it's an African family with one little Asian offshoot, well, that itself is a very important lesson for world historians.

We actually have DNA evidence which fits very well with an intrusion of people from northwestern African into southwestern Asia. The Y-chromosome markers, associated with the male, fade out as you go deeper into the Middle East.

Another thing about the Afrasans: their religious beliefs. Anciently, each local group had its own supreme deity. This is called "henotheism." In this kind of religion, you have your own god to whom you show your allegiance. But you realize that other groups have their own deities. The fact that they have deities different from yours doesn't mean their deities don't exist.

This kind of belief still exists. It's fading, maybe on its last legs, in southeastern Ethiopia, among people of the Omati group. They descend from the earliest split in the Semitic family. Way up in the mountains, they have this henotheism. They have a deity of their clan, or their small group of closely related clans. They have their priest-chief who has to see to the rites of that deity.

We see the same kind of thing in ancient Egypt. If we go to there, we discover that the Egyptian gods began as local gods. With Egyptian unification, we move from this henotheism to polytheism. To unify Egypt, after all, you have to co-opt the loyalty of local groups and recognize their gods. We have no direct evidence, but it's certainly implied by the things we learn about the gods in the written records we do have.


WHC: You seem to be suggesting that the Semitic monotheism ­ Jewish, Christian and Islamic monotheism ­ descends from African models. Is that fair?

Ehret: Yeah, actually it is. Look at the first commandment: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." It's not like the Muslim creed, which is "There is no God but God." It's doesn't say "there is no god but Yahweh, and Moses is his prophet." It is an admittance that there are other gods. It is an example of henotheism. And the Hebrew tribes are like the Omati clan groups. The tribes are clans writ larger. Like the Omati clans, they track their ancestry back ten or fifteen generations to a common ancestor. And these common ancestors were twelve brothers. (Actually, there are thirteen. They have to turn two of them, Ephraim and Manasseh, into half tribes, because thirteen wasn't a good number. I always loved that. There are really thirteen tribes, but you have to combine two of them).

The Canaanite cities have an alternative Semitic structure: polytheism. There's Astarte and Baal and the various gods that you'll find in South Arabia. So it looks like in the early Semitic world, you have two coexisting religions. You have polytheism among the ones who are really more urbanized. Then you have henotheistic groups.

What I see here is that earlier Middle Eastern polytheism is influencing Semitic religion. After all, the early Semites were just a few Africans arriving to find a lot of other people already in the area. So they're going to have to accommodate. Some groups, maybe ones who live in peripheries, in areas with lower population densities, may be able to impose the henotheistic religion they arrived with.


WHC: How does a small group of Semites coming in from Africa transform the language of a region in which they are a minority?

Ehret: One of the archaeological possibilities is a group called the Mushabaeans. This group moves in on another group that's Middle Eastern. Out of this, you get the Natufian people. Now, we can see in the archaeology that people were using wild grains the Middle East very early, back into the late glacial age, about 18,000 years ago. But they were just using these seeds as they were. At the same time, in this northeastern corner of Africa, another people ­ the Mushabaeans? ­ are using grindstones along the Nile, grinding the tubers of sedges. Somewhere along the way, they began to grind grain as well. Now, it's in the Mushabian period that grindstones come into the Middle East.

Conceivably, with a fuller utilization of grains, they're making bread. We can reconstruct a word for "flatbread," like Ethiopian injira. This is before proto-Semitic divided into Ethiopian and ancient Egyptian languages. So, maybe, the grindstone increases how fully you use the land. This is the kind of thing we need to see more evidence for. We need to get people arguing about this.

And by the way: we can reconstruct the word for "grindstone" back to the earliest stage of Afrasan. Even the Omati have it. And there are a lot of common words for using grasses and seeds.


WHC: You emphasize the importance of the Great Lakes as a cultural hearth for much of the rest of Africa…

Ehret: In the last thousand years BCE?


WHC: Right… and you focus particularly on the Bantu-speaking Mashiriki people. In the textbooks most of us use, the Bantu migrations start about 3,000 years ago, and end about a thousand years ago. The Bantu push the Khoisan southwest into African deserts. What does your work do that changes that picture?

Ehret: It's not just my work. Everyone who has worked on the Bantu language family more recently knows that it's a family that splits off from other Niger-Congo languages four or five thousand years ago, something in that range. It takes the first 2,000 years of expansion just to cross the equatorial rainforest. It's the arrival of certain Bantu in the Great Lakes area and the whole western Rift Valley, a geologically and environmentally varied area, which leads all kinds of varied adaptations. That encounter leads to what people have thought of as the Bantu expansion.

That's only eastern Africa. There's also a southern expansion from the rainforest in Cameroon at the same time. So it only looks like it's one migration. And in a way, they're interconnected.


WHC: You call this a "classical period" in African history.

Ehret: I call the last thousand years BCE a classical period.

WHC: Why?

Ehret: It is a classical age because it shapes all that follows it, even when people who come later aren't conscious of its influence. These ideas, then, get reshaped to create kingdoms in this area, town life in another area.


WHC: Was this classical era in the last millennium BCE a consequence of Bantu-speaking people encountering new environments, or encountering other peoples?

Ehret: The syncretism is very, very important. It shows up more strongly in the material culture. But often, this syncretism takes place because of the environmental context. Some changes in material life had to take place, or Bantu peoples would be limited to a particular environment. However, as you adopt material things, you may also adopt other ideas that go along with the material culture you've adopted. Maybe, because you have adopted new farming techniques from neighboring peoples, you also adopt their agricultural rituals and ceremonies as well.


WHC: What about the Khoisan? Didn't the Bantu expansion push them into the Kalahari, into Botswana and Namibia?

Ehret: "Push." This is a good term to bring up. I don't believe people ever "pushed" anybody else. The Bantu moved into areas that were good for farming. People didn't get pushed out. If you go back to the previous Bantu stage, about 3000-1000 BCE, in the rainforest, it looks like their expansion is a lot slower. Their farming technologies took that long to increase their populations enough. In the rainforest, there's a long interaction with the BaTwa—the so-called Pygmies. (You shouldn't use that word, by the way. It comes from a Greek myth, not from real people). Anyway, the BaTwa have a real impact on the rainforest Bantu, a long-term impact. The relationship between the Bantu and BaTwa show that two groups can coexist in the rainforest ­not only in different regions, but even in similar regions next to one another.

In East Africa, you've got areas where hunting and gathering leads to low density population, because the land won't support a lot of people. Hunter-gatherers want to keep down the population, so there's always plenty. Only in the worst years do things get problematic. This, at least, is what we've learned about Khoisan hunter-gatherers and what we've seen in later periods.

Bantu farmers move initially to areas in East Africa that are particularly favorable to agriculture—more rainfall, better soil and so on. As their populations grow, they're going they settle in villages with a hundred, two hundred, three hundred people. The hunter-gatherer band in the adjoining territory will include twenty-five or forty people, or maybe live in several bands that add up to forty or so.

The hunter-gatherers are increasingly going to be faced with pressure on their lands. One option: adapt and become farmers. If you do that, then your children grow up speaking a Bantu language and become part of the Bantu population.

In Southern Africa, it was a little different. The Khoisan adopted cattle and sheep-raising ahead of Bantu arrival. So the Cape Khoekhoe began growing in population too. If you look today at Nelson Mandela, you see this man has some Khoi-San ancestry.

So in some areas the Khoisan assimilated over a long period of time. In others, marginal to farming, hunter gatherers survived independently. But the Khoi-San were not "pushed" out, not then.


WHC: There are still a couple of Khoisan groups in Tanzania.

Ehret: Yes.


WHC: How do you explain that?

Ehret: One is the Sandawe. They lived in an environmental belt where a new disease vector, east coast fever, would have slowed the advance of agriculture. Otherwise, it's perfectly good highland grazing land. The Sandawe survived in an area that's more marginal than others, but agriculture was still possible. Even today, the Sandawe's cultural values are very strongly committed to hunting and gathering, but they now make a living with farming and stock raising. They gradually adapted this.

The Hadza are interesting. They're in a drier area with more tsetse fly. It's sort of low bush. The tsetse fly needs shade. With thirty or forty inches of rain, you get shade trees; with fifteen or twenty inches, you sometimes get low bush. Farmers came to this area late. The Hadza are now being threatened by people who are having problems finding farmland.

Now, the Hadza language shows layer upon layer of contact with other farmers, going back to the last four thousand years. They're in this little environmental niche. They know about farming, and they do trade for farm goods. These days, they are settling. But even twenty or thirty years ago, they were still, basically, hunter-gatherers.


WHC: Let's talk about Martin Bernal. His Black Athena has raised quite a controversy.4 What do you think?

Ehret: Well, Martin Bernal has done fine work. There's really nothing the matter with it. His grandfather was Alan Gardner, a famous and important Egyptologist. He went into other things, but has always been, at heart, an Egyptologist. He knows his Egyptian materials very, very well. And as he started looking at these materials, he became interested in the history of literature dealing with Greek-Egyptian connection. He saw that, as you moved into the 19th century, histories became increasingly distant from what the Greeks themselves said about their Egyptian connections. People imagined that Greece had this wonderful sort of Enlightenment before the Enlightenment. In many senses this wasn't wrong; the Greeks really had tremendous breakthroughs in thinking. But they didn't come up with all of this in isolation. We can't ignore, for instance, Euclid saying that he stayed in Egypt and, after he returned, wrote the Geometry.

A whole bunch of people in the Classics departments have made their careers - and they deeply feel this - the wonder of the Ancient Greeks. They get great joy and happiness from doing this. If you make any connection between Africa and what the Greeks were doing, our Western upbringing can come back to surface in a way people don't realize is taking place.

They don't realize it because they feel they have eliminated racism from their thinking. They're sure that Africans, given different circumstances, would have been just as advanced as everyone else. They don't realize that, actually, Africans were just as advanced. They have, maybe, more continent to move into; they have less dense population and only some areas move into urbanization. Societies develop more oral literature, so they don't have the written documentation—people choose alternative modes to develop their history. And then there's the thought of Egypt was this place that got great but then just stopped, stagnated. And that's not a correct reading of history either. The New Kingdom was doing things that were far different from the Old and Middle periods. Now, beyond the New Kingdom, nobody pays much attention. I want to fix up Civilizations of Africa to go into 7th century Egypt. There are important things, new things, happening there.

Anyway: the idea of all this Egyptian influence on Greece is threatening to people who fear that it challenges Greek uniqueness and originality. I don't think it does at all. After all, human societies invent new patterns through encounter with other societies. What Greeks achieved is all the richer if we understand that they were grappling with ideas from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and elsewhere.

And then you have a very different reaction from Afrocentrists. Some Afrocentrists are really out there, far beyond left field. Martin and I don't mind that they use our work, as long as they are grounded in the evidence. But Classicists say, well, Bernal is just an Afrocentrist. And he isn't. He's someone who's got real evidence, and who's got a valid critique of European scholarly understanding of Greece over the last century and a half or so. Of course, some of the people he criticizes are among the founding fathers of Classics.

But, yeah, it does look like the Middle Kingdom did have a big impact on the Mediterranean. Maybe there wasn't a circum-Aegean conquest from Egypt, but there was a cultural impact that was later remembered. I think basically Martin has really enriched things.

Now, as for the linguistic materials: some Greek words are going to turn out to be early borrowings. I want to get together with Martin on this issue. There are definitely word borrowings from Egypt into Greece, and there's certainly a lot vocabulary that comes from ancient Semitic languages.


WHC: Do you find connections between contemporary events and the work you've done in ancient Africa?

Ehret: There are immense connections. For Nilo-Saharan peoples, God is the source of good and evil. Evil is judgment or retribution for something done in the past. There are no other levels of divinity, there's just God. But in Niger-Congo thinking, good and evil are much more personal. The creator-god doesn't bring evil, though it's conceivable that you did things so horrible that they reached up to the level of the creator-god and must be answered for. But it's much more likely that you've neglected the ancestors.


WHC: So you seek the help of people you call "doctor-diviners."

Ehret: Yeah. These are the people called "witch doctors," but that's not really accurate. What the doctor does is divine ­diagnose—the cause of an illness. The cause may be witchcraft. It may be neglect of the ancestors. You divine the cause and you offer medicines to heal it. The doctor-diviner may have to dance or sing to make the medicines efficacious. There a man in Ghana who knew and used twelve hundred different plant-based medicines. Now, that's an extremely able person, but people often know four and five hundred different medicines. Everyday people know two or three hundred.

The medicine can heal. But there's also the question of why you were the one afflicted with the disease. Today, you may know that the disease was caused by a microbe. Still there's the question: why were you the one who got the microbe, while others didn't. You go to a diviner, and work out the religious or magical medicines you'll need.


WHC: Do you see this affecting political decisions at all?

Ehret: Certainly it did in the 18th and 19th century. Some kings manipulated these ideas, for instance, to get rid of their political opponents.


WHC: Do you find contemporary examples?

Ehret: Yeah. It's still relevant in a lot of the countries that are Bantu or generally Niger-Congo. It's not relevant in countries with other religious traditions. So in Sudan, they don't see the causes of illness in quite the same way.


WHC: You came to the field out of an intellectual and emotional excitement about independence. What do you make of what's happened since then?

Ehret: Colonialism lasted a very short period. Was it long enough to give people in each colony a sense of being in one country? No. Before colonization, a lot of northern Nigeria was under the Caliphate of Sokoto. And then, in southwestern Nigeria, there were a bunch of Yoruba city-states, all at odds with one another like the Greek city-states. The Igbo were the most important people in southeastern Nigeria. They had rather small city-states, which really were sort of town-states with various alliances among them. And within each of these three regions were other independent groups, some of whom were in city-states or even rural chiefdoms or small kingdoms. And now they've all got to go together as one country. So you've got a tremendous internal problem.

When these countries got independence, they needed, really, a lot of capitalization. They're starting to get it, but these societies are wide open for demagogues who want to manipulate the system, to become wealthier and to play people off against each other.

To succeed, you've got to have truly idealistic people to really work in the community.

That's what Tanzania had. They had Julius Nyerere. He got a group of people to carry his ideals through. So Tanzania is well on its way to the creation of a common identity. Young people are growing up not really knowing their parents' language, even way out in the rural areas.

Also, when people became leaders traditionally, they remained leaders until they died. They weren't elected for a short term. Well, they were in certain Ethiopia areas, where you have the age grade system. There, leaders were elected for a short period. But in most areas, no. The community decided that you were the person who should inherit or move into this position. Or, with your particular partisans, you seized the power.

One problem, then, is that you've got people who can't give up power, like Robert Mugabe. Mugabe should have given it up. If he had, that country would be thriving. He's just driving Zimbabwe into the dirt.

Mozambique and Angola had problems because South Africa meddled to make sure there would be rebel movements. The South Africans wanted to prevent Mozambique and Angola from making problems for South Africa. So the South African apartheid government kept the mess going.


WHC: And Congo?

Ehret: Congo was the greatest human disaster of any African country at the beginning of colonialism.

Before colonialism, Congo was divided up into many areas. Long distance trade linked them. Agreements to carry goods over vast distances, following the rivers, had developed over hundreds of years. There were institutions established to do this. In eastern Congo, for instance, there were secret societies—that is, their rituals were secret. You could go way down the river, 500 miles, and you could find somebody of your particular society, and that person would offer you hospitality and introduce you to others. Some of these others might belong to a different organization but share your ethnic identity. That would give you the basis for expanding your trade. The person who shared his contacts then got a share of your profits.

All along the Congo, there were a lot of different kingdoms, small chiefdoms, big chiefdoms, big kingdoms, highly centralized kingdoms, and very loose kingdoms. None of them had independent firepower. The crucial thing in world history is that Europeans developed repeating guns, and then Gatling guns and Maxim guns. That transition just blew everything out of the water. For at least a little period, Europeans create colonies.

So: The King of Belgium wanted to set himself up as an emperor. He couldn't do it in Belgium, where he was a constitutional monarch. But he was incredibly wealthy, so he could capitalize his own little armies to violently take power over areas. What you see in Heart of Darkness is not Congo, but European culture shock and European violence. Also, by the way, there were Arab-speaking Swahili war lords in Eastern Congo who really screwed things up in the 1880s to the end of the 1890s. King Leopold ­ it's really Leopold's Congo ­ made alliances with these people.

The idea was to turn all the Congolese laborers to increasing rubber production and export. The Belgians forced local people to work. This was slavery. The Belgians cut the hands off anyone who didn't work for them. Over a twenty or thirty year period, the population dropped, as diseases like sleeping sickness increased. Previously, people had known how to build their settlements so that they wouldn't get sleeping sickness. The Belgians, however, moved people around.

Congo became a great scandal of the early twentieth century, forcing the Belgian government took to take control from Leopold. They tried to make it a nice paternalistic colony. But they didn't have the wherewithal. Congo has a huge area. In the end, the Belgians didn't do anything to move people towards independence. While the French and British were granting independence to some of their colonial peoples, there were no such opportunities in Congo. So when the country gained its independence, in 1960, it was controlled by people with a secondary education. So it was a disaster … a disaster.


WHC: And Rwanda?

Ehret: That is inter-caste conflict. You had people without any of the political perks, any of the really good things that made for wealth. They were, maybe, 90%, of the population in both Rwanda and Burundi. Just 12-15% of the population owned all the cattle.


WHC: Weren't these two different peoples?

Ehret: Historically, maybe ­ in deep history. But not in recent history. You have people belonging to the same clans, some being Hutu, some being Tutsi. Some clans are Tutsi or Hutu, but there are cases where both people belong to the same clan. Basically, the precolonial period starts with feudalism, but it's caste-based feudalism.


WHC: Weren't these two different peoples?

Ehret: Historically, maybe ­ in deep history. But not in recent history. You have people belonging to the same clans, some being Hutu, some being Tutsi. Some clans are Tutsi or Hutu, but there are cases where both people belong to the same clan. Basically, the precolonial period starts with feudalism, but it's caste-based feudalism.


WHC: Apart from Tanzania, where do you see the greatest opportunities for change?

Ehret: Nigeria has an opportunity. We'll have to see. There is a problem: the rise of Muslim-Christian conflict in the North. We've had Muslims attacking Christians, with thousands being killed. In the last few years, we've had Christians killing Muslims in areas where Christians are the majority. Nigeria is going to have to work out accommodations. It depends on patience. They do have enough oil, if it's distributed right.


WHC: So you're hopeful.

Ehret: Yes.

Biographical note: Christopher Ehret is professor of History at UCLA, where he teaches a variety of courses on African History. He is the author of numerous books and articles on early African history, including The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (2002).  

1 Christopher Ehret, An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 B.C. to A.D. 400 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001 [first published 1998]), 23.

2 Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002).

3 Graham Connah, African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

4 Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol. I: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987) and vol. II: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence (London: Free Association Books, 1991). The Black Athena debate has generated a substantial literature. Most notable are Mary R. Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (New York: Basic Books, 1996); Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers (eds.), Black Athena Revisited (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); and Martin Bernal, Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2001).


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