THE LIBERATION OF THEIR CONTINENT MADE THE SECOND HALF OF the twentieth century a triumphant period for the peoples of Africa, but it ended in widespread disappointment with the fruits of independence. The new millennium has revived growth and optimism, reinforcing the need to understand the place of recent events in the continent's long history. That is the purpose of this book. It is a general history of Africa from the origins of mankind to the present, but it is written with the contemporary situation in mind. That explains its organising theme.
Africans have been and are the frontiersmen who have colonised an especially hostile region of the world on behalf of the entire human race. That has been their chief contribution to history. It is why they deserve admiration, support, and careful study. The central themes of African history are the peopling of the continent, the achievement of human coexistence with nature, the building up of enduring societies, and their defence against aggression from more favoured regions. As a Malawian proverb says, ‘It is people who make the world; the bush has wounds and scars.’ At the heart of the African past, therefore, has been a unique population history that links the earliest human beings to their living descendants in a single story. That is the subject of this book.
The story begins with the evolution of the human species in Africa, whence it spread to colonise the continent and the world, adapting and specialising to new environments until distinct racial and linguistic groups emerged. Knowledge of food production and metals permitted concentrations of population, but slowly, for, except in Egypt and other favoured regions, Africa's ancient rocks, poor soils, fickle rainfall, abundant insects, and unique prevalence of disease composed an environment hostile to agricultural communities. Until the later twentieth century, therefore, Africa was an underpopulated continent. Its societies were specialised to maximise numbers and colonise land. Agricultural systems were mobile, adapting to the environment rather than transforming it, in order to avert extinction by crop failure. Ideologies focused on fertility and the defence of civilisation against nature.