The frontiersmen of mankind

The frontiersmen of mankind
the liberation of their continent made the second half of
the twentieth century a triumphant period for the peoples of Africa, but at
the end of the century triumph turned to disillusionment with the fruits of
independence. This juncture is a time for understanding, for reflection on
the place of contemporary problems 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. Social organisation also
sought to maximise fertility, especially through polygyny, which made generational conflict a more important historical dynamic than class conflict. Sparse
populations with ample land expressed social differentiation through control

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