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AFRICA by John Reader

AFRICA

A Biography of the Continent

By John Reader

Pub Date: April 21st, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-40979-3
Publisher: Knopf

A grand attempt to illuminate the history of the “dark continent,” using an almost stunning blend of disciplines from geology to anthropology to agronomy.

Despite the breadth of the title, Reader (Missing Links, 1981, etc.) largely ignores Africa north of the Sahara—a significant lacuna. Still, any attempt to cover billions of years of history (never mind 50-plus countries), will always result in gaps, elisions, and exclusions. One can quibble with his extremely detailed treatment of human evolution—a subject he has written about extensively—or the relative short shrift he gives to modern African history, but it all comes down to a question of balance, and for the most part Reader does an admirable job of keeping his story rolling along. He begins right at the beginning with the formation of Earth and the primitive stirrings of life. Through an impressive mustering of scientific data, he recounts how changing conditions on the savanna opened a narrow niche that favored the evolution of hominids and eventually, through the relentless process of survival of the fittest, Homo sapiens. Reader is not so much a historian of dates and personalities, but of mass events and movements. He regards competition for resources, climatic shifts, geology and geography as infinitely more important in shaping history than any number of “great men” and their ideologies. For example, he sees slavery as a continent-wide catastrophe that drove everything from the rise of African kingdoms to the loss of the labor--and all that it could have created--of 11 million people, to the great South African diaspora that is usually attributed to the predations of Shaka Zulu. Once Africa entered the realm of formal, written history, the results have been almost unremittingly bleak. It’s an old mantra, but the price of European civilization has been enormously high. And the postcolonial era hasn’t been much better. That hairless hominid who spread out across the world has changed everything except his essential, animal self.

Formidably researched, always readable, but necessarily incomplete. (55 b&w photos and maps)