Blackness Falls - Alien Invasion

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Its current enormous range seems to give no clue as to precisely where the family originated. However, Greenberg has pointed out that the Bantu languages of subequatorial Africa, once thought to be their own language family, are actually a subfamily of the Niger-Congo language family. Technically they're a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-subfamily. These Bantu languages today account for nearly half of the 1, Niger-Congo languages, and Bantu speakers account for more than half nearly million of the Niger-Congo speakers. Yet all Bantu languages are so similar to one another that they've been facetiously described as dialects of a single language.

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There are some other such Niger-Congo subfamilies, most of which are crammed into West Africa, a small fraction of the entire Niger- Congo range. Even the most distinctive Bantu languages, as well as the Niger-Congo languages most closely related to Bantu, are concentrated there, in a tiny area of Cameroon and adjacent east and central Nigeria. From Greenberg's evidence it seems obvious that the Niger-Congo language family arose in West Africa, while the Bantu subfamily arose at the east end of that range, in Cameroon and Nigeria, and then spread out over most of subequatorial Africa.

That spread must have begun sufficiently long ago that the ancestral Bantu language had time to split into daughter languages, but nevertheless recently enough that all those daughter languages are still very similar to one another. Since all Niger- Congo speakers--including the Bantu speakers--are black, it would be nearly impossible to infer who migrated in which direction just from the evidence of physical anthropology. To make this type of linguistic reasoning clear, let me give you an example: the geographic origins of the English language. Today the largest number of people whose first language is English live in North America, with others scattered over the globe in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries.

If we knew nothing else about language distribution and history, we might have guessed that the English language arose in North America and was carried overseas by colonists. But we know better: we know that each of those countries has its own English dialect and that all those English dialects make up just one subgroup of the Germanic language family.

The other subgroups--the various Scandinavian, German, and Dutch languages--are crammed into northwestern Europe. Frisian, the Germanic language most closely related to English, is stuck in a tiny coastal area of Holland and western Germany. Hence a linguist would immediately deduce--correctly--that the English language arose on the northwestern coast of Europe and spread around the world from there. Essentially the same reasoning tells us that the nearly million Bantu-speaking people now flung over much of the map of Africa arose in Cameroon and Nigeria.

Thus linguistics tells us not only that the Pygmies and the Khoisan, who formerly ranged widely over the continent, were engulfed by blacks; it also tells us that the blacks who did the engulfing were Bantu speakers.

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But what it can't tell us is what allowed the Bantu speakers to displace the Pygmies and Khoisan. To answer that question we need to look at a different type of surviving evidence, that of domesticated plants and animals. Why is this evidence so crucial? Because farming and herding yield far more calories per acre than does hunting wild animals or gathering wild plants. As a result, population densities of farmers and herders are typically at least ten times those of hunter-gatherers.

That's not to say that farmers are happier, healthier, or in any way superior to hunter-gatherers. They are, however, more numerous. And that alone is enough to allow them to kill or displace the hunter-gatherers. In addition, human diseases such as smallpox and measles developed from diseases plaguing domestic animals.

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The farmers eventually become resistant to those diseases, but hunter-gatherers don't have the opportunity. So when hunter-gatherers first come into contact with farmers, they tend to die in droves from the farmers' diseases see "The Arrow of Disease," October Finally, only in a farming society--with its stored food surpluses and concentrated villages--do people have the chance to specialize, to become full-time metalworkers, soldiers, kings, and bureaucrats.

Hence the farmers, and not the hunter-gatherers, are the ones who develop swords and guns, standing armies, and political organization. Add that to their sheer numbers and their germs, and it's easy to see how the farmers in Africa were able to push the hunter-gatherers aside. But where in Africa did domesticated plants and animals first appear? What peoples, by accident of their geographic location, inherited those plants and animals and thereby the means to engulf their geographically less-endowed neighbors?

When Europeans reached sub-Saharan Africa in the s, Africans were growing five sets of crops see map at right. The first set was grown only in North Africa, extending as far as the highlands of Ethiopia. North Africa's rain falls mostly in the winter months--the region enjoys a Mediterranean climate--so all its original crops are adapted to germinating and growing with winter rains. Archeological evidence tells us that such crops--wheat, barley, peas, beans, and grapes, to name a few--were first domesticated in the Middle East around 10, years ago.

So it makes sense that they would have spread into climatically similar and adjacent areas of North Africa, laying the foundation for the rise of ancient Egyptian civilization. Indeed, these crops are familiar to us precisely because they also spread into climatically similar and adjacent areas of Europe--and from there to America and Australia--and became some of the staple crops of temperate-zone agriculture around the world.

There's little rain and little agriculture in the Sahara, but just south of the desert, in the Sahel zone, the rain returns.

The Sahel rains, however, fall in the summer. So even if winter-rain-adapted Middle Eastern crops could somehow have crossed the Sahara, it would still have been hard to grow them in the summer-rain Sahel zone. Instead, here the Europeans found the second and third sets of African crops, both of which are adapted to summer rains and the area's less variable day length.

Set number two is made up of plants whose ancestors were widely distributed from west to east across the Sahel zone and were probably domesticated there as well. They include sorghum and pearl millet, which became the staple cereals of much of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as cotton, sesame, watermelon, and black-eyed peas.

Sorghum proved so valuable that it is now grown in hot, dry areas on all the continents. The wild ancestors of the third set of African crops are found only in Ethiopia and were probably domesticated there. Indeed, most of them are still grown only there: few Americans have ever tasted Ethiopia's finger millet beer, its oily noog, its narcotic chat, or its national bread, which is made from a tiny-seeded cereal called teff. But we all have the ancient Ethiopian farmers to thank for the domestication of a plant we know exceedingly well: the coffee plant, which remained confined to Ethiopia until it caught on in Arabia and then spread around the globe.

The fourth set of African crops was domesticated from wild ancestors in the wet climate of West Africa.

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Some of them, including African rice, have remained virtually confined there; others, such as African yams, eventually spread throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa; and two, the oil palm and the kola nut, spread to other continents. West Africans were chewing the caffeine-containing kola nut as a stimulant long before the Coca-Cola Company enticed Americans to drink its extracts.

The plants in the last batch of African crops are also adapted to wet climates. Bananas, Asian yams, and taro were widespread in sub-Saharan Africa when the Europeans arrived, and Asian rice was well established on the coast of East Africa. But these crops didn't come from Africa.

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They came from Southeast Asia, and their presence in Africa would be astonishing if the presence of Indonesians in Madagascar hadn't already alerted us to Africa's prehistoric Asian connection. Let's consider the four indigenous groups of crops. No wonder the Niger-Congo speakers, people who also came from north of the equator, were able to displace Africa's equatorial Pygmies and subequatorial Khoisan peoples. The Khoisan and the Pygmies weren't unsuited for the farming life; it was just that southern Africa's wild plants were unsuitable for domestication. Even the Bantu and the white farmers, heirs to thousands of years of farming experience, have rarely been able to develop southern Africa's native plants into food crops.

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Because there are so few of them, summarizing Africa's domesticated animal species is much easier than summarizing its plants. The list doesn't include even one of the big wild mammals for which Africa is famous--its zebras and wildebeests, its rhinos and hippos, its giraffes and Cape buffalo. The wild ancestors of domestic cattle, pigs, dogs, and house cats were native to North Africa but also to western Asia, so we can't be sure where they were first domesticated.

The rest of Africa's domestic mammals must have been domesticated somewhere else because their wild ancestors occur only in Eurasia. Africa's sheep and goats were domesticated in western Asia, its chickens in Southeast Asia, its horses in southern Russia, and its camels probably in Arabia.


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The one exception is the donkey, which is widely believed to have been domesticated in North Africa. Many of Africa's food staples and domesticated animals thus had to travel a long way from their point of origin, both inside and outside Africa. Some people were just luckier than others, inheriting suites of domesticable wild plant and animal species. We have to suspect that some of the "lucky" Africans parlayed their advantage into an engulfing of their neighbors. But all the evidence I've presented thus far--evidence from modern human and language distributions and from modern crops and domestic animals--is only an indirect means to reconstruct the past.

To get direct evidence about who was living where when, and what they were eating or growing, we need to turn to archeology and the things it turns up: the bones of people and their domestic animals, the remains of the pottery and the stone and iron tools they made, and the remains of the buildings they constructed.

This evidence can help explain at least some of the mystery of Madagascar. Archeologists exploring the island report that Indonesians arrived before A. This was no small canoeload of fishermen blown off course. Clues to how this expedition came about can be found in an ancient book of sailors' directions, the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, which was written by an anonymous merchant living in Egypt around A. The merchant describes an already thriving sea trade connecting India and Egypt with the coast of East Africa.

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