Forgotten Africa; how and why an oversimplified history dominates a diverse continent

Perspectives on Africa, its peoples and various parts, often oversimplify the continent. The fact that I can even, in my opening sentence and title, refer to a singular “Africa” rather than a more specific part, and yet be confident that readers will have an already formed image and understanding of this “Africa,” shows how we tend to group this vast continents’ diverse histories and peoples into a singular entity.

So why do we have this oversimplified view of the continent? Many pan-Africanists talk about the role of colonialism in not only destroying a lot of Africa’s past, physically and culturally, but also in contributing to the contemporary socio-political scene, where Africa almost always comes off second best.

Archaeologists and historians have, in more recent times, been uncovering more and more history about pre-colonial Africa, and shedding light on how and why these pasts are not always remembered.

Firstly, the historical archaeological approach to Africa can be exemplified through examples such as Great Zimbabwe or The Ife Kingdom in West Africa. These well-known, impressive monuments and remnants of past societies were at first attributed, by early European explorers, to belong to more civilized societies from further north, rather than of being of African origin. The Ife Kingdom in modern day Nigeria was thought to be the lost city of Atlantis by German explorer Leo Frobenius, who refused to accept that the complex and ornate bronze sculptures he found were made by Africans. This diffusionist explanation has gradually been replaced by a more processual one, and places like these have been shown to originate from local cultures and histories as opposed to more northern, “higher centres.”


Image 1: Examples of the bronze sculptures of the Ife Kingdom. Leading art experts believe they are among the most aesthetically striking and technically sophisticated in the world.

Apart from this early trend in attributing African monuments to non-African sources, there was a subsequent and wider spanning history of the systematic destruction of African societies.

In the period between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, known as the “scramble for Africa,” European powers invaded, occupied, colonized and annexed parts of the continent. The political justification for this manifested early on under the “Terra Nullius’ law, which stated that any land which lacks sovereignty by any state is open to acquisition by occupation. When it became clear that Africa was not “Terra Nullius,” the justification shifted to the duty of colonial rule over societies of savages and uncivilized peoples. This too was a short-lived agenda as colonialists discovered the aforementioned monuments and cities that indicated anything but savagery or lack of civilization. The resulting approach was to destroy these physical manifestations of civilization in order to create not only a landscape lacking the signs of sophisticated society but also the segmentation of these societies by the destruction of their physical centres.


Image 2: What survives today of the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali. In the 14th century Timbuktu was five times bigger than the city of London at that time, and was the richest city in the world. Today it is 236 times smaller than London and has nothing of a modern city.

Modern archaeology and historical review has done much to broaden our knowledge of Africa’s past. These more accurate, and enlightened, historical perspectives are critical in helping address the current social regard for Africa, not as a singular entity, but as a continent filled with widespread and diverse peoples, cultures and histories.


Additional Reading:

100 African cities destroyed by Europeans:

100 African Cities Destroyed By Europeans: WHY there are seldom historical buildings and monuments in sub-Saharian Africa!


How Europe under-developed Africa by Walter Rodney:



Renfrew, C and Bahn, P. Archaeology Essentials. Thames & Hudson, London, 2010: pp 271.

Mawuna Remarque Koutonin. 100 African Cities Destroyed By Europeans: WHY there are seldom historical buildings and monuments in sub-Saharan Africa!” 16 November 2014.

Stephanie Busari. The African Sculptures mistaken for remains of Atlantis.” 16 November 2014.

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The ethics of population and society

Biologists often study the population dynamics of other animal species. Population sizes are described as being controlled by factors such as resource availability and prevalence of predators. Populations fluctuate in size based on the combined effects of these various influencing factors.

The world’s human population, in the last several hundred years, has been increasing exponentially and relatively undeterred. This has contributed to many contemporary problems. There is major strain on natural resources which has resulted in extensive ecological destruction. There is much social and political strife, often by way of the aforementioned environmental pressures.

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Image 1: World population growth over the last 12 000 years. Population size is correlated with types of society over the time scale.

However, human populations across the globe and through time have existed in varying types of societies. One major characteristic of a society is its population size. The relationships between population dynamics and society are intricate. Does the size of a population influence the type of society in which it is found? Or conversely, does a type of society influence its population size?

One common question refers to whether human populations can exist in a more “natural” or “balanced” state, more similar to those of other animal species. And if so, what does this mean for the type of society in which such a population would have to exist?

The San peoples of Southern Africa are the last living remnants of a wide group of peoples that pre-existed even the Bantu-speaking nations of Africa, let alone the Europeans. This wide group of peoples were Stone Age hunter-gatherers who inhabited most Africa for thousands of years. The hunter-gatherer way of life which these peoples employed is still in existence today in the remote populations of San peoples.

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Image 2: A group of San men in Namibia. Note the arrows (one being prepared) which are used in hunting.

This hunter-gatherer lifestyle encourages a small population size to exist. The nomadic lifestyle is certainly more easily achieved with a smaller group size and, even more importantly, a small population size allows for the ability to “live off of the land” in the gatherer fashion. Conversely, this heavy reliance upon already limited natural resources also acts as a population check, keeping the size of the population fluctuating but small.

Lifestyles such as that of the hunter-gatherer San peoples are easily romanticised. In comparison to overpopulated, stately societies around the world, they appear to conduct a lifestyle much more near a balance with their surroundings. Or at least they appear to have much less of a negative impact upon their environment.

However, many people view the modern way of life in more state-orientated societies as simply better. There are even opinions, similar to those of social Darwinism, that describe a progression over time from more basic nomadic societies to intricate and large state societies. The reality is that small mobile hunter-gatherer groups still exist today, descended from societies that have existed for thousands of years. Is that simple fact perhaps enough proof of a successful, less destructive, way of life? Ultimately, as contemporary state societies face ever-increasing problems from the socio-political and environmental arenas, time will indeed shed more light upon the situation.

Additional sources of information:

The novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn explores types of societies, their origins, and ultimately compares them in search for a better, more ideal way of life. The book is available from the Vassar College Main Library:

For more information about the San peoples, their history, lifestyle and archaeology, visit South African History Online:


Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology essentials: theories, methods, and practice. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2010.

South African History Online. “The San.”

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