John Reader, Africa: Biography of the Continent

Reader, John. Africa: a biography of the continent. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. Print.

Often comes pretty close to depicting Africans as uniquely limited by environment–it’s the exact same intellectual framing as John Iliffe’s very similarly titled history of Africa in one sense, but Iliffe tells the environmental story as heroic (African agency and humanity triumphing over a uniquely hostile environment) as opposed to Reader, who tells a story of how Africans are produced by and identical to their environments–all of their societies until the modern period are depicted as a harmonious product *of* environment.

Chaps. 1-4

Geological particularities of Africa, most prominently ancient unchanged landmasses and exceptional deposits of mineral wealth.
Africa the “laboratory of mammalian evolution”.
Stable position in relation to other continents.
Rainforest ecology: rainforests are fragile, soil nutrients drained faster than they accumulate.

“There was nothing new in Africa. The human dynamic was continuous and unbroken.” p. 100

North-south axis rather than east-west, divided into two by equatorial rain forest.
Rainforest not the dominant biome. Desert 40% of land area.

Savannah, wooded plains, grasslands most common vegetation/environment type.

Deep fertile topsoils are rare due to year-round warm temperatures; bacteria and parasites do not have a winter hibernation.

Ecological specificity of plant-animal relationships on continent may turn out to be something that Western conservation of charismatic megafauna was largely inattentive to until post-1945 and maybe not even then.

Relation between human evolution in African environments and human societies in historical time in Africa stressed throughout, with occasionally uncomfortable immediacy (e.g., here lies the older tendency to view Africa as unchanging and Africans as ‘primitive’ or ‘backward’ in their close association with the evolutionary past of humanity). See for example Khoisan languages.

The debate over hunter-gatherers and its intersection with Enlightenment ideas about the foundations of human society. Pretty fair summary of the use of Khoisan in sparring over prehistorical human societies. Includes the round of critique kicked off by Wilmsen et al–this is a good demonstration of the difference between histories of environment/ecology that naturalize and universalize humans and those that insist that what is represented as natural and ecological is in fact sociocultural and historical.

r-strategy; K-strategy

Inching up to an argument that humans in their evolved habitat had firm limits on their numbers and material potential.

Good compressed version of the “agriculture was the beginnings of many burdens and fragilities” argument.

Question in Chs 11-19 in part is “is it possible to care about some of these issues (role of climate in human evolution, origins of agriculture in Africa, evolution of pastoralism, co-evolution of humans and animals, etc.) in a way that doesn’t predispose them to be deterministic preconditions of much more specific social and economic conditions in contemporary Africa? What would concern for such issues ‘in and of themselves’ look like, and is there any reason to demand conformity with such concern?

Diffusion v. parallelism (iron, agriculture, social formations thereof)

Niger River as major site for connecting ecology, environment and sociopolitical formations

pp. 229-230 Reader takes on the proposition that environments always produce harmonious human socioeconomic behavior in which people are always doing that which the environment dictates that they should–but not sure his alternative argument is anything more than a resituating of this point “it was the unpredictability of the delta regime itself which was responsible for the robust subsistence system that its inhabitants developed. In other words, the problems of making a living in the delta were so great that only sound adaptive strategies were effective” p. 230

So it’s not so much that the delta was harmonious and people lived harmoniously in it, but that they adapted to long-term unpredictability by creating resilient systems of urbanization (Jenne-jeno) at which point I’m not sure what the difference is between that and “people always adapt as they should/must”. The alternative seems to me is more, “Sometimes human systems are maladapted to environments and ecologies and yet manage to survive or continue”, which Reader assuredly doesn’t think describes the Delta.

Southern movement of herders, fishermen, cultivators as Sahara dries–another example of this point. Why not just ‘stay put’ and adapt to changing environments when the change is happening at an unpredictable but rather long-term level. This is a general question: if point-to-point migration, transhumanism and defiantly sedentary histories are all “explained” by environmental change, then does environmental change actually explain anything?

Marka rice cultivation and other secret knowledges (p. 232): maybe the issue is partly that some environmental economies have very high expertise burdens

Myths and legends as “ecological abstractions”: e.g., both as evidence OF the ecological character of distinctive cultures and as the means by which those cultures instruct their successors on ecological adaptation. Again, there’s something tautological in here.

“Groups congregated by choice”: but if they congregated because this was the ideal system for managing the long-cycle unpredictability of the delta ecology, isn’t ‘choice’ a strange thing to invoke? Where does ‘choice’ live in this sense?

pp. 229-233 worth working over in detail in class–some very key claims being made here, in a rather modest or backhanded way

Decline and absence become things to explain with or through ecology–but it begs the question of why we perceive or imagine continuity and continuation in other places. “France” in the 12th Century is about as related to the present day “France” as “Jenne-jeno” is related to Djenne Mali.

Ch 24: ok, here we go: this is the clearest summary of the co-adaptation argument about why human populations in Africa have had adverse developmental histories. Diseases that were highly adapted to human beings capped fertility, produced greater disability, and generally slowed economic and technological progress until human populations that had flourished in other environments were able to return bearing ‘foreign ideas of how it should be done’

examples are malaria and tsetse fly

Concept of “carrying capacity” at play in Ch. 25: the difference between the theoretical productivity of land under agriculture and its reality; Reader tries to explain that by reference to environment (e.g., that the ‘real’ carrying capacity is not a product of human failure to exploit or develop it properly but a ‘reality’ of environment that is not immediately evident until the specificity of African environments–soils, climatic unpredictability, disease–are considered.)

Africa as “land-rich” and “people-poor”, compared to Western Europe–e.g., that land is almost never scarce in relation to human communities in Africa until very recent times, that the deep environmental imagination of African societies never casts land as scarce or lacking and is instead deeply drawn to the challenge of fertility

Terracing as another example: it appears where it is adaptive, not where it isn’t; he’s especially engaged by cases where environmental conditions essentially dictate political structures (you don’t have chiefs or centralized states unless you adaptively need chiefs or centralized states)

Elephants and people in a long-term environmental struggle that only favors people in the 1950s; environmental ‘deep histories’ that recast or reinterpret the present as the cultural outcome of a material ‘rationality’ rather than an irrational byproduct of market greed or cultural ideology p. 261-262

Functionalism, p.266: gerentocracy as adaptive necessity for managing cropping/herding/iron economy, another tautological loop–you have cropping/herding/iron because that’s what environment dictates, you have gerentocracy because that’s what that socioeconomic system requires, you have them because gerentocracy secures them and because they demand gerentocracy.

consent/compromise important tropes: that precolonial systems of power made sense, were not maladaptive or out of control. But note p. 267 even “aggression” and “avarice” as they appear in political and economic behavior are ‘controlled’ and related to instinctive cost/benefit analysis, to an intuitive calculation of what is needed and not needed. –society as equilibrium; “imperfections and abuses were contained” p. 269

Trade as the sort of extrinsic disruption to highly adapted human ecologies, but also as having an ecological motivation when the good sought is a physiological necessity (salt). Why not just live where there is salt? A: because then you would be leaving otherwise inviting environments uninhabited–or preferring very harsh environments that just happen to have salt (e.g., Saharan core). Cost/benefit calculations again: raises the question, just how do people DO that? But note even further, it’s not just a calculation of: live where no salt, trade; live where salt, cope; it’s “live where no salt IF there’s an animal (camels) that provides a material precondition of trading for salt”. Which begs the question: why do some people ride camels and produce salt and other people grow crops and trade for it? How does differentiation actually happen? Why does it persist? Path-dependence a possibility? But note if that’s the way we want to talk about it, the specter of non-adaptive or maladaptive social ecologies comes back into view–things that were adaptive and then aren’t but where it’s impossible to shift to another ‘path’ (arguably this is a way to talk about extinction in genetic or evolutionary terms)

“Ecology, not conquest, brought about the fall of Ghana. The herds were too big, there were too many people. The more successful they were, the more certainly their fate was sealed”. p. 284; Arab chroniclers paid more attention to ‘dramatic events’. What do you think it means to say that Ghana ‘fell’? What does an ecological ‘fall’ look like?

How can we explain a trade in gold in ecological terms? (p. 288: because it was easy to do at times when ‘labor demands for food productivity were relatively slight’)–but note how this places drivers of ecologically meaningful change outside of the domain of the ecology being described–why is “Ghana” the unit of the analysis rather than “the ecology of gold production, circulation and consumption”?

Slavery: a third rail in this whole conversation. Rights-in-persons and the management of social violence in kin-based societies; but is slavery ‘ecologically normal’? What to do with a social practice which is not tautologically fit into the environmental picture that Reader is drawing? the dangerous potential to do exactly that

Now “choice” turns back on itself: p. 296. Earlier stresses on how ecological provisions allowed models of political organization that were not coercive but chosen give way to asserting that individuals had to organize in kin groups and communities. Why are “a succession of good harvests” a “distortion”? Same for “large influx of impoverished individuals”? p. 296–all non-equilibrium histories are being pushed to the outside as intrusions on the ‘normal’

Environments as maintained and shaped by humans (Bananas): here is a different emphasis where what Europeans take to be natural, unchanging, providential, is in fact the result of long human shaping of environment, in this case in Asia and then Africa

Clues on what “fall” looks like: the ‘centre could not hold and political authority gravitated to the periperhy’: why doesn’t an environmental history actually tell us, ‘don’t pay so much attention to transient political histories, pay attention to long-term continuities of material and economic practice’ period, in all cases?

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