Old Africa Rediscovered, Basil Davidson. Gollancz (25/-).

ten years ago, I was walking along a valley floor in southern Tanganyika when I suddenly became aware that I was continually climbing and descending small ridges as I walked along. When I stopped to take a good look at the surface of the ground, I could see that the valleybottom was covered with rectangular terraces with channels between them. Later I was to find that this system of agricultural terraces, apparently once irrigated, and far larger than the small mounds hoed up by the Hehe people who now inhabit that region, extended for a great distance and occurred also in other nearby areas. With it were associated cairns of stones, abundant evidence of iron-working, and what looked like the remains of an ancient road. These are but a few of the fragments of similar terracing and vestiges of former roads reported from various parts of East Africa. Whether any connection formerly existed between them is still uncertain. But it is becoming more and more evident that important archaeological finds are not hard to come by in Africa, and that they frequently indicate the existence of very much higher levels of culture in past centuries than were encountered by Europeans who arrived in Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Indigenous oral tradition does not always take one very far, though it often provides crucial hints and certainly, when intelligently handled, reveals much more than many specialists assume. Hehe royal history, for example, peters out into mythological beginnings that place the foundation of their society somewhere back in the seventeenth century. The terraces I noticed were not the remains of a very high civilisation; but this is not all that eastern and southern Africa have to offer in the way of remains of pre-European cultures. No one who has visited the ruins of Great Zimbabwe in Southern Rhodesia, with its impressive ‘Citadel’ and ‘Temple’ can fail to respond to the contrast between the majesty of these ruins and the simple life of the Shona herdsmen who graze their animals round about. It is not so long, either, since the West African sculptures and carvings which injected a new flow of inspiration into European art were believed to have been the work of unknown immigrants to Africa.

In other parts of Africa the archaeological record is quite as striking. But the writer who seeks to piece together the story of the history of Africa is not dependent on stones and bones alone. He has, for many areas, abundant Arabic records, many of which, however, are still unpublished. No less than 15,000 Portuguese documents also await publication in the near future. Plainly, the next few decades will see a massive development in African historical studies. The new, emerging African states, moreover, are deeply concerned with studies of African culture and history. “Négritude” has a powerful intellectual appeal. So it is not surprising that a lot of the most significant and exciting work on the revaluation and synthesis of non-European history has been carried out, not by academic specialists, but by nationalist intellectuals such as Nehru and Panikkar, or by men with internationalist leanings such as Needham, or (for Africa), Hodgkin.

Basil Davidson is firmly in the latter tradition. He would not probably claim to be attempting anything like the enormously erudite work of synthesis that Needham is performing for Chinese science. He specifically emphasises the tentative nature of his findings, in this book aimed at the intelligent general reader. But this is no mere work of journalism, or a popularisation of themes already dealt with by the specialist. It is an original and valuable work, pioneering where nobody else has yet stepped, based on a careful study of existing anthropological, archaeological, historical and other literature, and especially on the Arabic and Portuguese sources. It is the first serious attempt to bring together all the scattered scraps of knowledge we possess to form a coherent account of the cultural history of the continent.

And yet, precisely because one knows that Davidson is an internationalist and a friend of emerging Africa (as his two excellent earlier books, Report on Southern Africa and The African Awakening, showed), one approaches this present study with a certain wariness. Yes, maybe we have got beyond the stage where every piece of evidence of advanced culture in Africa was attributed to Phoenicians, Arabs, Egyptians and almost anyone other than Africans themselves. We can afford now to dismiss with a shrug the wild diffusionist theories of Elliot Smith and Perry, who traced a world-wide network of cultural achievements back to ancient Egypt. Now, rather, the danger seems to be that we will be overwhelmed with a rash of fantastic theories about enormous bygone African civilisations all over the continent, based on little more than a few pieces of pot and a lot of wishful nationalist thinking. People point to the fact that ancient Ghana was, in fact, situated a long way from the modern state that took its name. One looks suspiciously for that gleam of fanaticism in the writer’s eye.

I do not think that Davidson has fallen into this trap. I did begin to wonder, as I read on, whether the ancient civilisation of Meroe in the present-day Sudan was not going to prove the equivalent for him of what lower Egypt signified to Elliott Smith and Perry: the centre from which civilisation spread outwards in all directions. Perhaps Meroe is overplayed, but there is evidence enough of major migratory and cultural movements westwards across the Sudan, and southwards into Bantu-speaking Africa to make one pause before tolerantly dismissing the notion. And, of course, we still know very little of this “Birmingham of ancient Africa” at the junction of the White and Blue Niles whose extensive remains are still only slightly excavated and whose inscriptions remain undeciphered.