If you need an accessible version of this item please contact JSTOR User Support

The Aquatic Civilization of Middle Africa

J. E. G. Sutton
The Journal of African History
Vol. 15, No. 4 (1974), pp. 527-546
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/180989
Page Count: 20
  • Download PDF
  • Cite this Item

You are not currently logged in.

Access your personal account or get JSTOR access through your library or other institution:

login

Log in to your personal account or through your institution.

If you need an accessible version of this item please contact JSTOR User Support
The Aquatic Civilization of Middle Africa
Preview not available

Abstract

Between the ninth and third millennia B.C. wetter conditions prevailed over most of Africa. Lakes and rivers were fuller and some of the internal basins were temporarily linked, especially in the 'Middle African' belt. This comprises the southern Sahara and Sahel, stretching from the Upper Niger to the Middle Nile, with a south-easterly extension into the Upper Nile basin and the East African rift valleys. This situation was exploited by people who developed a decidedly aquatic economy and culture. From their waterside camps and settlements archaeologists have recovered bones of fish and aquatic animals which these people ate, as well as the distinctive harpoon-heads carved from bone with which they obtained them, and also pottery, bearing peculiar decoration executed with fish-bones and water-shells, made in imitation of (fishing-) baskets. Boating and other cultural developments are deducible. The harpoons date back to 7,000 B.C. at least; the pottery dates back to more than 6,000 B.C. and was clearly an African invention. It reflects important developments in gastronomy and home life. In the Kenya rift valley the main stage of Leakey's 'Kenya Capsian' culture is essentially the local manifestation of this far-flung 'acquatic civilization'. Its greatest extent was achieved during the wettest times of the seventh millennium B.C., and probably involved the expansion of Negroid peoples across this continent-wide savanna belt. Also explained perhaps is the extensive, though now fragmented, distribution of languages which Greenberg combines in his 'Nilo-Saharan' super-family. It is suspected that aspects of this ancient aquatic way of life may be maintained or reflected by latter-day isolated or 'unclean' lake or swamp communities. This subject has been largely neglected by African culture-historians. Drier conditions in the late sixth and fifth millennia B.C. signalled a decline of this aquatic civilization and, in particular, broke its geographical continuity. Nevertheless, there was a qualified revival in many parts in the fourth and third millennia. In the Kenya rift this later phase seems to equate with the first stage of the 'stone bowl cultures'. Around Lake Victoria a devolved relic survived until the eve of Bantu expansion about two thousand years ago. Other late or modified examples are known on the Nile and in the western Sudan. Generally, however, the viability and prestige of an aquatic way of life were undermined by the second millennium B.C. In the Sahara and Sahel as well as in the northerly parts of eastern Africa this decline was paralleled by the spread of pastoralism as a new basis of subsistence and prestige. Those who introduced cattle to Kenya from Ethiopia were Cushitic-speakers maintaining, significantly, a fish-taboo. This subject should prove of considerable historiographical interest. The aquatic way of life flourished through Middle Africa at the very time when grain-agriculture and stock-raising were being pioneered in the Near East; and the slow spread of agriculture in Africa, sometimes considered an indication of 'backwardness', may be partly explicable by the very success of the aquatic life and of its distinct cultural tradition which was ascendant for a while across the widest part of the continent.

Page Thumbnails

  • Thumbnail: Page 
527
    527
  • Thumbnail: Page 
528
    528
  • Thumbnail: Page 
529
    529
  • Thumbnail: Page 
530
    530
  • Thumbnail: Page 
531
    531
  • Thumbnail: Page 
532
    532
  • Thumbnail: Page 
533
    533
  • Thumbnail: Page 
534
    534
  • Thumbnail: Page 
535
    535
  • Thumbnail: Page 
536
    536
  • Thumbnail: Page 
537
    537
  • Thumbnail: Page 
538
    538
  • Thumbnail: Page 
539
    539
  • Thumbnail: Page 
540
    540
  • Thumbnail: Page 
541
    541
  • Thumbnail: Page 
542
    542
  • Thumbnail: Page 
543
    543
  • Thumbnail: Page 
544
    544
  • Thumbnail: Page 
545
    545
  • Thumbnail: Page 
546
    546