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date: 19 April 2019

Documentary Sources and Methods for Precolonial African History

Summary and Keywords

The goal of African history is not only to establish a chronology of events but also to recover the past from the local African perspective. The challenge is how to recover local ways of knowing and being in societies far different from the perspectives of both the contemporary scholar and the authors of many of the sources used to write history. For written documents, the question is how to extract meaningful data from sparse, biased, or unreliable texts. In a historical context, a documentary source is writing, whether ink or inscription, on material such as paper, papyrus, ceramic, stone, or any of the other surfaces upon which, in relation to Africa, Africans and travelers to Africa have chosen to write the continent’s history. While more and more written evidence from precolonial Africa is coming to light, the relative dearth of documents remains a major challenge for scholars seeking to investigate Africa’s past. This paucity also means that those sources available should be examined especially carefully with an eye to bias and to context. Such careful, grounded examination has not always been a strength of the field, which was initially divided between scholars who dismissed documentary sources (perceived as written by outsiders) as unreliable, and those who uncritically accepted them as eyewitness observation. Neither approach is helpful for historians seeking a nuanced understanding of Africa’s past. Used critically, written documents can provide a window into how human actors understood themselves, their history, specific events, and the world around them, which is difficult to discern in the absence of textual or visual representation. Scholars have developed to major strategies to utilize the unique strengths of documentary sources whilst minimizing their weaknesses. Firstly, historians pay close attention to local context, cultural bias, and pre-existing genealogies of knowledge about Africa and Africans evident in textual sources. Secondly, historians triangulate between different kinds of historical methods and sources such as archaeology, linguistics, ethnography, oral tradition, and even genetics and palynology.

Keywords: precolonial Africa, historical documents, primary historical sources, methods, sourcs, and historiography in African History, methodology, historical ethnography

Scholars often view the history of written documents in Africa as the history of the spread of external influences, from ancient Egypt and North Africa southward, covering the entirety of the continent by the end of the 19th century. It was at that time the word Africa, originally the name of the Roman province in North Africa, began to be used to refer to the continent. The word, like the history itself, is inseparable from ideas about Africa and Africans going back to antiquity: Egyptian descriptions of the Lebu or Libyans, Nuba, and Puntites; Greek descriptions of Libyans and “other” Aithiopians; Arab descriptions of the Zanj, the Habash, the Zaghawa, and the Nuba; and European inquiries into the savage and the primitive. The “invention” of Africa as a continent was both the culmination of two millennia of ideas about Africans and the discursive product of the transatlantic slave trade and European imperialism, namely, the invention of the modern concept of race.1

Much ink has been spilled on the paucity and challenging nature of using documentary sources for precolonial African history. Documents authored by Africans—whether Egyptian papyri, Nubian Meroitic writing, or the epigraphs at Gao—are difficult to interpret. Firstly, there is the problem of language; scholars have yet to decipher Meroitic script. The script known as Old Libyan or Numidian used by so-called Berbers in the ancient period is likewise poorly understood. Sources in known languages are no less problematic, the product of a small elite who used writing as a tool of political, economic, and spiritual power. Like all historical sources, documentary sources provide a partial view of the past conditioned by power relations, cultural bias, and reliability. This is equally true of documentary sources written by cultural outsiders and cultural insiders, whether the rulers of African polities or Arab and European merchants, geographers, and missionaries.

However, documentary sources have an advantage for historians in that, unlike archaeology, linguistics, and genetics, which concern long-term historical processes, textual evidence can provide data on specific times, people, places, and historical events. Furthermore, unlike oral traditions, written sources record events at the time they occurred or, even when they record, as ancient texts did, oral traditions, they are still important in preserving historical knowledge going back five thousand years that no doubt would not have survived otherwise.2 On a material level, writing made possible the transmission of information from one generation to the next, and thus the creation of a genealogy of knowledge that transcended a particular region or language.

Scholars have developed sophisticated methodologies to use written documents to recover local voices, ideas, and concepts. The first is by triangulating with types of historical sources, including oral traditions for the recent past and linguistics and archaeology for earlier periods of African history. The method of triangulation is challenging because it requires scholars to become “literate in the methodology and epistemology of disciplines far removed from our own.”3 Wyatt MacGaffey aptly refers to the multidisciplinary nature of African studies as “the decathlon of social science.”4 Done well, it allows scholars to maximize the strengths of each source base and, because each type of source or method informs the reading of the other, produce knowledge that is more than the sum of its parts.

A second way scholars of Africa use documentary sources, particularly those written by authors in antagonistic positions vis-à-vis the subject, is by contextualizing texts within the broader genealogies of knowledge about Africa and Africans. Knowledge about Africa and Africans prevalent in the 19th century was part of a genealogy of knowledge that stretched back to the ancient Greeks and beyond, to ancient Egyptians and Nubians. Classical and medieval sources were as much works of self-reflection, paradoxography (descriptions of preternatural phenomena), and cosmology than modern geography or history.5 The ancient Greeks represented Africa as consisting of two halves, one civilized and one populated by barbaric, man-eating, half-monstrous tribes. They did so because, according to the ancient Greek understanding of the world, the further one traveled from temperate climates, the stranger the inhabitants became, culminating in the barbarians living in the extreme hot and cold climates. Ancient ideas about Africa had incredible inertia because from the ancient to the early modern period, documentary sources were characterized by compilation and repetition.

As a result, many of the ideas about Africans that gained the appearance of scientific truth in the early modern period preserved and reinterpreted mythical narratives that predated the European arrival on the coast of West Africa in the 15th century.6 However, disciplinary and linguistic limitations mean that the long history of the “invention” of Africa is not always readily visible to scholars of later periods, who can easily mistake data in travel narratives and maps for eyewitness accounts. For this reason, the authors of one of the earliest works on critical approaches to using European documents concluded that “in order to understand African history we need (among other things) to do more European history, particularly with reference to thought categories.”7

Scholars of Africa have shown it is possible to use documentary sources because many so-called outsider or antagonistic sources were created from interaction with local inhabitants. Moreover, many of the writers and informants were cultural intermediaries who cannot easily be categorized as insiders or outsiders: Africans who spoke European languages, people of mixed African and European background, Europeans who spoke African languages. Documentary sources therefore contain knowledge that was co-produced in dialogue with local people and ideas. To use documentary sources, particularly early modern European texts, fruitfully, scholars contextualize them within pre-existing genealogies of knowledge about Africa and Africans in order to identify and then deconstruct cultural biases. Scholars then draw on oral, ethnographic, and linguistic information to reread written documents “against the grain” to recover local voices, ideas, and concepts.8 Reading sources against the grain, simply put, means to recognize and go beyond the elite bias of documentary sources in order to write the history of non-elite people.9

This article outlines the challenges and opportunities posed by documentary sources for precolonial Africa as well as the methods developed by historians. In order to practice source criticism, it is necessary to understand the corpus of written sources within a broad chronological and geographical framework. Chronologically, the history of documentary sources for precolonial African history covers roughly five thousand years, from the invention of writing in Egypt c. 3250 bce to the dawn of European colonization in the 19th century. Geographically, Africa is defined as concerns the entirety of the African continent. Viewing documentary sources from the longue durée and from the perspective of the entire continent is important because knowledge about Africa and Africans prevalent in the 19th century was part of a genealogy of knowledge that stretched back to the ancient Greeks and beyond, to ancient Egyptians and Nubians.

What Is Writing?

For most of human history, humans did not use the technology of writing. Beginning in the 4th century bce, writing was invented independently at least four times.10 In Egypt, as in other early adopters of writing, an estimated 1 percent of the population of the latter Old Kingdom could write.11 The exclusivity of writing persisted for millennia; even at the time of the Ptolemaic pharaohs (323–30 bce), when Alexandria’s celebrated library was the center of the learned world, only 1 percent of the population of Egypt was literate in any of the local scripts (hieroglyphics, hieratic, demotic).12 The ability to write was an exclusive privilege in most parts of the world in most periods of history, including in Europe.13 In 1820, only an estimated 12 percent of the world’s population over the age of fifteen was literate.14 Thus while literacy is taken for granted today, the reverse was true in the past.

It is clear that the technology of writing did not historically appeal to all groups. Nubians, meaning the diverse group of populations residing south of the first cataract at Aswan, were aware of Egyptian writing as early as contact with C Group by the Sixth Dynasty, and perhaps as early as contact in the First Dynasty. Despite the fact that they were clearly aware of writing and later used it in an official capacity to correspond with Egyptian, Kushite, and later Greek ruling elites, none of the pastoralist Nubian populations adopted writing. As a result, scholars still do not know how the populations inhabiting the region of Nubia referred to themselves.15 Perhaps writing was not important to the cattle-raising pastoralists of Lower Nubia because their pastoralist societies valued reciprocity and social equilibrium rather than the kind of centralized, bureaucratic social organization that produced writing in Egypt.

The relative absence of writing from human history raises the question of why certain people decided to write and what those sources can tell us. From its invention, writing was highly exclusive, knowledge held by a privileged elite. It was a source of power, specifically centralized political, economic, and spiritual power, which were themselves intertwined. The texts produced by this elite must be understood in connection with the context in which they were written and the purpose they were intended to serve. Who wrote the source, when, and with what purpose and audience in mind? Is the source mediated by an editor or subsequent editions? In what historical context was the document, inscription, or ostraca produced? What kinds of evidence, literary tropes, or conceptual categories and assumptions underpin the text?

Documentary Sources for Precolonial African History

Ancient Sources

Ancient Egyptians independently invented two forms of writing (c. 3250–2700 bce): hieroglyphics and a cursive script known as hieratic.16 Arising in roughly the same period as the development of complex society and political unification in Egypt, the invention of writing facilitated both a cultural and a political unity in the region and later served the administrative needs of a centralized state.17 The hieroglyphics found on monumental architecture, and writing more generally, was more than a means of communication. The earliest hieroglyphs expressed ideas of royal authority connected with an ordered cosmos.18 The words themselves were believed to have the power to bring about what they recorded, in image and speech. Egyptian cursive—hieratic and its later form demotic scripts—articulated religious doctrine as well as recording the work of the professional bureaucracy.19 As one surviving papyrus from the Middle Kingdom makes clear, the scribe was the central figure in the administrative life of ancient Egypt.20

The scribe, he alone, records the output of them all. Take note of it!21

The scribe’s description underscores the fact that even in literate societies, the written and oral were never far apart. The power of the “sacred carving” of Egyptian hieroglyphics and later the prayer scrolls of the Egyptians and Ethiopians derived from the power of the spoken word to bring about that which it described. If the role of the scribe highlights the intersection of oral and written sources, however, writing was nonetheless an exclusive, rather than inclusive, technology that served to limit access to “representational and symbolic” forms of wealth and power.22 The extant texts shed light on public and private life, the governmental and ceremonial as well as the everyday. However, they also reproduce the power relations and point of view of the elite vis-à-vis Egypt’s lower classes and neighbors.

Egyptian sources provide nearly all of the extant textual material about Egypt’s neighbors, posing the challenge of identifying to what people and places texts refer as well as overcoming bias towards them. In times of prosperity, Egyptian sources portrayed their neighbors as sources of trade goods, particularly luxury items and slaves. In times of political upheaval or famine, sources depicted their neighbors as uncivilized threats to Egyptian civilization.23 Egyptians’ conceptions of their neighbors were affected by their own self-image. For the ancient Egyptians, as for many cultures, the world was surrounded by water. At the center was Egypt, a black land on the Nile surrounded by the red of the desert in the east and west. The Egyptian worldview is best represented on the Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of the Visier Rekhmire. Egypt is the center of the world and the four cardinal directions are represented by Egypt’s neighbors: the south by Nubia, the west by the Aegean, the north by Syria, and the east by Punt.24 In paintings, Egyptians represented themselves in a reddish brown, creating a pigmentary distinction between themselves and the inhabitants of the geographical west and south: the Lebu of the western desert, whom they represented with long hair, beards, and tattoos; and the Nubians or “southerners” who were black.25

Egyptian documents show the widespread nature of long-distance trade in Africa in the ancient period, which clearly extended east along the coast of the Red Sea and Horn of Africa and south along the Nile. However, the descriptions of long-distance trading partners Punt and Yam—the “Palermo Stone” of the Fifth Dynasty ruler Sahure (2458–2446 bce), the portrayal of Punt on the walls of the temple of Queen Hatshepsut (1473–1458 bce), and the autobiography of Sixth Dynasty Aswan nobleman Harkhuf—are too vague to identify either location without archaeological material.26 Documentary evidence about the products available in Yam suggests the Egyptian trading partner was an emporium of goods from long-distance trade routes stretching into equatorial Africa.27 The mysterious Punt, Pwnt, which likely existed c. 2500–600 bce, has been located thanks to excavations by Rodolfo Fattovich and Kathryn Bard of the Middle Kingdom harbor at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis (Egypt) on the Red Sea, where they found evidence that Punt was located in the southern Red Sea region, in the northern Horn of Africa, and that Bia-Punt (the “mine” of Punt) lay in the region’s hinterland.28 Knowing where Punt was located allows scholars to reread textual evidence, particularly the reliefs on the temple of Hatshepsut, alongside rock drawings and ceramics. This evidence suggests that the inhabitants of Punt were shorthorn cattle-herders (distinct from the longhorn cattle-herders living in the hinterland), some of whom lived in small-scale hierarchical societies.29 The new information about Punt highlights the fruitfulness of triangulating between different types of historical sources.

Egyptian sources represented, historically, the major source of information about the southern neighbors in Nubia, resulting in the repetition of Egyptian claims to have a colonial relationship, politically and culturally, with the ancient polities south of the first cataract. The term Nubia refers to the 1,100-mile southern stretch of the Nile River between the first cataract at Aswan and the sixth cataract near modern Khartoum. During classical antiquity, the region was known as Kush, a term that now generally refers to the people of the Middle Nile Region, especially the inhabitants of the lush agricultural land between the third and fourth cataracts, which was inhabited by a series of states from 2500–325 bce: the Kingdom of Kush at Kerma (c. 2500), Napata (c. 800–300 bce), and Meröe (300 bce–325 ce). Despite some cultural similarity between the inhabitants of Nubia and Upper Egypt in the Holocene wet period, Old, and Middle Kingdoms, relationships with their southern neighbors were antagonistic. The hostile relationship is reflected in the fact that the earliest Egyptian sources refer to Nubia as Ta-Seti or “the land of the bow” because the inhabitants were skilled archers and warriors who posed a threat to Egyptian security.30 The earliest locally written Nubian sources are from the New Kingdom (15th–11th centuries bce) period of Egyptian occupation, when local elites adopted Egyptian writing and served as scribes. However, Nubians did not continue writing following the disintegration of the New Kingdom, suggesting the technology was not important to them. There are even fewer documentary sources about the Kingdom of Kush, whose capital lay at the low-lying floodplain of Kerma between the third and fourth cataracts, home of cattle-raising pastoralists. Kerma flourished before and after Egyptian occupation during the Middle Kingdom (from 1450 bce) when occupying Egyptian officials kept records. However, though clearly aware of writing, the inhabitants of Kerma did not adopt writing following the end of Egyptian occupation (around 1069 bce).

As a result, their history has been written using ancient Egyptian texts, resulting in the repetition of Egyptocentric views of early Nubians as an uncivilized or colonized people, essentially a “remote outpost of Egyptian civilization doomed to ultimate decline and extinction because of its location in the interior of Africa.”31 Following excavations carried out by UNESCO in advance of the flooding of Lower Nubia by the Aswan Dam project in the 1960s, a new historiography emerged which views Nubia as a distinct entity with complex social institutions. Scholars now emphasize the continuity of indigenous religious practices and economic redistribution, concluding “Egyptianization remained selective in all segments of Nubian society.”32 However, the use of Egyptian sources to write the history of Nubia was especially problematic not only because it resulted in the repetition of political and cultural biases that presented Nubians as inferior, colonized groups but also because the articulation of Nubian inferiority laid the groundwork for later portrayals of sub-Saharan Africans, particularly in Greek and Arabic writing.

It is important to remember that written documents, or the lack thereof, do not give a complete picture of state formation in ancient Africa. The comparative wealth of documentation about Egypt obfuscates non-Nilotic peoples and polities from scholars’ view. This is especially true in the Horn of Africa, where the first-millennium ce Ethio-Christian polity Aksum later produced a wealth of documentation. Thanks to archaeological and linguistic research, scholars now know Aksum was preceded by a state in inland northern Ethiopia and Eritrea that by the first millennium bce appears in epigraphic evidence as D’MT or Daamat. Damaat, centered at Yeha, was long understood in connection with political and economic contacts with ancient Egypt and Saba in South Arabia as well as the expansion of Roman trade into the Indian Ocean in the early first millennium ce. Saba is generally associated with the biblical Sheba, the famous queen said to reign in the early 10th century bce, at the same time as Solomon. Until the 1980s, scholars viewed the emergence of the state as the consequence of the colonization of the Horn of Africa by Sabaeans from South Arabia in the early first millennium bce. According to this narrative, South Arabians colonized indigenous populations and, after the decline of the kingdom of Saba in Yemen (4th–3rd centuries bce), they created the kingdom of Aksum in Tigray. The assumption derived from the early modern myth that Africans were not capable of producing complex states themselves, and thus state formation must have been the result of external colonization or influence.

In fact, neither archaeological, epigraphic, nor linguistic evidence supports Sabaean influence or the sudden rise of a polity that would suggest colonization. Rather, evidence demonstrates Damaat was preceded by complex societies dating back to the beginning of the third millennium bce. This is significant because it demonstrates that the formation of the states of Damaat (and later Aksum) were the result of local historical developments, likely driven by the integration of the Horn of Africa into the economic networks of the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Mediterranean Sea, a process that began in late prehistoric times, rather than external colonization or influence.33

Influenced by the same assumptions of African inferiority, early linguists postulated that Ge’ez and its predecessors spoken (and written) in ancient Ethiopia and Eritrea were related to the South Arabian Sabaean. In fact, Ge’ez and its predecessors were Semitic languages of the Afro-Asiatic family and not related to Sabaean. Likewise, early linguists assumed Semitic languages found in both Africa and Arabia must first have developed in Arabia despite the historical populations originating in Africa. Linguists now recognize the presence of Semitic languages such as Ancient Egyptian in Africa as early as 3,000 bce, from where they spread to the Arabian continent.34 The connection erroneously postulated between the states of the Horn of Africa and those of the Arabian Peninsula is an example of the influence of preconceived ideas about African inferiority on early scholarship, namely the assumption that historical developments in sub-Saharan Africa were necessarily the result of external colonization.

Classical Sources

The classical period of African history begins with the end of the Third Intermediate Period of Egyptian history, when Egyptian unity was restored with the Napatan Dynasty from c. 750 bce. The end is traditionally the arrival of Arabs and the adoption of the Arabic language and Islam, which happened at different times in different places, ranging from the 7th century in Egypt to the 13th and 14th centuries in Nubia. Following Alexander the Great’s invasion of Egypt in 332 bce, the use of the Egyptian language and script was eclipsed by that of ancient Greek. The process of language change was gradual. In the mid-first millennium bce, the Egyptians developed a cursive script known as demotic (c. 650 bce–452 ce). The term “demotic” comes from the Greek word for “popular,” first used by Herodotus (5th century bce) to distinguish demotic from “sacred” hieratic and hieroglyphic texts.35 Egyptians initially used demotic for legal and commercial texts. During the Ptolemaic period (332–30 bce), when Greek was the official language of government, demotic became associated with Egyptian culture, history, and nationalism; Ptolemaic texts written in Greek refer to demotic as “Egyptian.”36 For example, early 3rd-century Egyptian priest Manetho of Sebennytus wrote a history of Egypt in Greek drawing on Egyptian sources; the kinglist he compiled is still the central chronology of the ruling dynasties of ancient Egypt. Manetho’s text highlights the use of Egyptian language and writing throughout the Ptolemaic period, a practice that, according to Diodorus, continued at least into the 2nd century ce.37

After the ancient Egyptians, Greek classical sources established ideas about the geography and ethnography of Africa that dominated European and Arabic discourse about the continent for two millennia. Ancient Greeks represented the continent of Libya as divided into two halves, one civilized and one barbarous populated by various man-eating, half-monstrous tribes. The latter was known as Aithiopia, meaning “burnt-face,” a marker of difference from Greeks and Egyptians.38 The earliest known description of Aithiopia is in Homer (9th or 8th century bce), though the concept certainly existed before.39 The Homeric tradition articulated a vision of one continent divided in two, one half situated towards the sunrise, the other towards the sunset, both at the ends of the earth.40 The Homeric notion of the black people (“face burned”) of the distant Aithiopia was part of a broader understanding of the relationship of the inhabited world, oikoumenè, to the cosmos. The use of the term Aithiopia changed over time, referring, in epic poetry, to the lands and peoples of Africa and Asia, places conceived of as being home to “burnt” skinned people or Aethiops, including Arabia, Mesopotamia, Persia, and India.41

The idea of Aithiopia was both geographical and ethnographic (and for early modern Europeans, racial). The two concepts were fundamentally intertwined; the properties of the land Aithiopia and its inhabitants the Aethiops were connected through the Greek understanding of the climate and the world more broadly. Like the Egyptians, the Greeks understood Africa, particularly the unknown regions south of the Nile River, as the product of ideas about self-representation, the world, and the cosmos more broadly. Ancient Greeks represented the world as the continents of Europe, Asia, and Libya on a disk surrounded by a body of water, “the mighty river of Ocean.”42 The world consisted of two land masses, northern and southern, divided by the hot equator in the middle and bounded by frigid polar zones on the edges of the world. The features of each region corresponded to the climate system (climata). The equatorial and polar zones were uninhabitable due to extreme hot and cold. The northern temperate climate zone held the known world—the oikoumenè. The southern hemisphere was an inverted mirror of the oikoumenè, an unknown land mass divided into climate zones inhabited by the antipodes.43 The climate zones were more than astronomical tools; they were also ideas about the nature of the world and its inhabitants. The further one traveled from temperate climates, the stranger the inhabitants became, culminating in the barbarians living near the extreme hot and cold climates.

The first written description of barbarians in Africa comes from the Greek historian Herodotus. Born around 484 bce in Halicarnassus (modern-day western Turkey), to later authors Herodotus was himself half-barbarian.44 Herodotus traveled around the eastern Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, the Black Sea, and Egypt, perhaps as far south as Aswan. The work he produced, Histories, is an important source for precolonial African history for the enormity of material he collected as well as the tropes he introduced or popularized. Herodotus’ work provided an important confirmation of the pre-existing Greek notion of Africa (or Libya) as a continent divided into two parts, known as the two Aithiopias, one civilized and one barbaric. The civilized Aithiopia consisted of Egypt and the first-millennium bce Nubian states of Kerma, Kush, and Meroë.45 The “other Aithiopia” referred to the land south of Aswan as well as the fantastical interior west of the Nile. Herodotus’s description of the “other Aithiopia” was at once historical, geographical, and mythical.46 He populated the “other Aithiopia” with Libyans and, further inland, man-eating, half-monstrous tribes of barbarians drawn from Greek mythology.47 The monsters included the monopods (or sciapods) with a single foot so large it could be used as a sunshade, the dog-headed cynocephali, the Astomi with no need to eat or drink, and the man-eating anthropophagi.48

Herodotus claimed his work was based on oral interviews and observation as well as pre-existing knowledge about the world.49 Research suggests his information about Egypt, Lower Nubia, and Kush came from priests of the Ptah sanctuary in Memphis.50 From Greek settlers in Cyrenaica he learned about the northern Sahara. From Phoenician settlements from Tripoli to the Atlantic, he gained general knowledge of North Africa, including Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.51 As for the “other Aithiopia,” Herodotus claimed to have “Libyan” informants, writing “as far as Elephantine I speak as an eye-witness, but further south from hearsay.”52 In reality, Herodotus’s description reflected the Greek notion of paradoxography in which the closer to the edges of the earth one traveled, the stranger the phenomena one encountered. Herodotus explained the concept thusly: “The most outlying lands, though, as they enclose and wholly surround all the rest of the world, are likely to have those things which we think the finest and the rarest.”53 The mythical nature of his sources perhaps explains why Herodotus’s description of the “other Aithiopia” became increasingly ambivalent the further from Egypt and North Africa the place he was describing was located.54 Despite Herodotus’s ambivalence, Histories became a canonical text for millennia, copied and critiqued by subsequent authors, who saw him as either the “Father of History” or the “Father of Lies.”55

Ancient Greek interest in and knowledge of the known world, particularly Aithiopia, increased dramatically following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 bce and the establishment of the Library of Alexandria in c. 300 bce. The library attracted the best minds of the time, including the Athenian and Sicilian mathematicians Euclid (c. 325–265 bce) and Archimedes (c. 287–212 bce). From Libya, poet Callimachus (c. 310–240 bce) and astronomer Eratosthenes (c. 275–195 bce) traveled to Alexandria.56 Alexandria, in one way or another, helped produce the most important Greek and later Roman sources about Africa. Sicilian Greek Diodorus Siculus’s (1st century bce) general history of mankind (from 59 bce) is one of the earliest extant sources on Nubia and eastern Egypt, describing gold mining and slave labor (III. 12–14). In the Roman period, Greek philosopher Strabo penned an important account of the battles between the Kandake or Queens of Kush and the Romans (22 ce). The oldest surviving description of the East African coastline, “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,” was written by an Egyptian Greek merchant around 40–70 ce in Alexandria.57 The library played a key role in the propagation and development of the Greek idea of the “other Aithiopia.” Scholars at the library copied and commented on the work of Homer. It is therefore not surprising that Homer was central not only to Herodotus but also to Diodorus, Josephus, and Dion Cassius as well as geographers Hectaeus, Ephorus, Eratosthenes, Agatharchides, and Strabo, who referred to Homer as “the first geographer,” and the naturalist Pliny the Elder.58 As a result, the library helped perpetuate ancient Greek cosmological understandings of African geography and ethnography.

The influence of the Library of Alexandria was as much a curse as a blessing; the tradition of copying earlier texts means that many extant sources are as much repetitions of earlier narratives as eyewitness testimony, often amalgamating previous material. The name of Diodorus’s work, Bibliotheca historica, acknowledges his compilation of many sources, especially Agatharchides. Likewise, much of the work of famous Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23–79 ce) is mere repetition of earlier sources. While the practice of borrowing from earlier texts means that many sources that are no longer extant survive thanks to the copying of later authors, copying makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction in narratives.59

The earliest texts, such as Herodotus’s Histories, created an archetype not only copied but also creatively elaborated upon by subsequent authors. Much of Diodorus’s work was repetition of Herodotus, including mythical monsters such Gorgons, Ichthyophagi (fish eaters), Hylophagi (wood eaters), Spermatophagi (seed eaters), Stnithophagi (bird eaters), and Amazons. However, Diodorus introduced physical appearance, writing that the other Aithiopians were

black in colour and have flat noses and woolly hair. As for their spirit they are entirely savage and display the nature of a wild beast […] cultivating none of the practices of civilised life as these are found among the rest of mankind, they present a striking contrast when considered in the light of our own customs.60

Diodorus’s use of physical appearance, especially blackness, as a marker of barbarity highlights the incipient racial logic of classical sources central to early modern invention of race. For Diodorus, the most barbaric custom of the “savage” Aithiopians was not man-eating but the inverted gender role of men, who behaved “like our married women,” did housework, raised children, and were subordinate to their wives, who included warriors known as Amazons.61 His account of the latter drew from Herodotus’s description of northern Scythia, which he conflated with southern Aithiopia. Diodorus, like many authors after him, based his work (much of which does not survive) on a variety of pre-existing sources, many of which he mixed together, leading one scholar to describe him as “an expert with scissors and paste [who] paraphrased the work of better men.”62

Like Diodorus, Greek philosopher Strabo’s geography mixed old and new sources. The word Blemmyae, which he used to refer to nomads, was in fact an indigenous ethnonym. His account of the battles between Augustus’s Egyptian prefect Petronius and the Meroitic rulers is particularly important. Strabo’s claim that Libya’s early history was dominated by a race of Amazons, however, is less reliable. Strabo’s mixture of fact and fiction makes his work “both a mine and a mess.”63 Though, to be fair to Strabo, he followed Herodotus’s practice of offering a disclaimer:

Most of the peoples of Libya are unknown to us, for not much of it is visited by armies, or yet by men of outside tribes; and not only do very few of the natures from far inland ever visit us, but what they tell is not trustworthy or complete either.64

The practice of compilation was employed even by authors who traveled to Africa. Pliny the Elder, whose Natural History was a major source for medieval European writers, likely served as a Roman official in North Africa. Nevertheless, his description drew heavily on earlier material, much directly copied from Herodotus.65 Like his predecessors, Pliny included a lament about the difficulty of describing Libyans, writing: “The names of [Libya’s] peoples and towns are absolutely unpronounceable except by the natives.”66

The fabulous, if not ridiculous, nature of descriptions of the “other Aithiopia” was bemoaned and mocked by authors from Herodotus to Strabo.67 Yet both not only included barbarians and man-eaters in their descriptions, but also suggested information was based on eyewitness accounts, moving the idea of the barbarian from the philosophical to the material realms. To use classical Greek sources fruitfully, it is therefore necessary to understand, firstly, that Greek conceptions of the unknown were based on myth and ideology rather than observation, and secondly, that the major source of classical knowledge was previously published sources. For this reason, scholars must triangulate their claims with other types of historical evidence, such as archeological or linguistic.

The culmination of ancient Greek knowledge was astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus’s astronomical and geographical treatises, the Almagest and the Geography (150 ce). Writing from Alexandria, Ptolemy’s work was compilation rather than revelation. Ptolemy’s Geography drew on a millennium of ancient Greek knowledge from Homer to the work of scholars such as Marinos of Tyre and Eratosthenes.68 Ptolemy had fairly accurate information about the course of the Nile as far as Meroë and the East African coastline to the Bay of Avalites (north of the Horn of Africa) and unlike later Arab geographers, Ptolemy knew the land south of the equator to be inhabited. Three aspects of Ptolemy’s enormous work persisted into the early modern period: the role of astronomy in geographical investigations, a cartographic methodology, and the topography (and ethnography) of Europe, Asia, and Africa.69 Ptolemy’s location of the source of the Nile at a Crystal Lake in the interior of East Africa next to the Mountains of the Moon persisted until Europeans finally located the source of the Nile in the 19th century. His inclusion of the “other Aithiopia,” complete with the Garame, Agisymba, and Troglodites, likewise persisted into the modern period, even as the representation of barbarians transformed over time into savages and then primitives. The fact that it did so is ironic given that scholars are unsure whether Ptolemy’s treatise included actual maps,70 something that remains unknown because the work of Ptolemy, like the work of many ancient Greeks including Aristotle (384–322 bce), was unknown in Europe until being translated into Latin in the 12th century. Fortunately for scholars, Greek knowledge was preserved by Arabic and Byzantine writers throughout the classical period and Middle Ages.71

The intellectual practice of compilation and repetition resulted in the ancient Greek notion of the “other Aithiopia,” its geography and its inhabitants, persisting until the early modern period. From the classical period through to the 16th century, the idea of the barbarian was always an inversion of the self-definition of the insider community of Greeks, Romans, Christians, and Europeans.72 In ancient Greece, the word barbarian referred to someone without speech, who stuttered like an idiot or grunted like an animal, emerging not coincidentally at the same time as the unification of the Greeks of the Peloponnesus.73 In opposition to the civilized, democratic, politically unified Greeks, the barbarians were nomadic, lived through warfare, spoke unintelligible languages, and practiced inhumane cruelties. For more than a thousand years, the word barbarity stood as the antonym to civility. For Aristotle, the Greeks were free, while the barbarians were slaves.74 For the Romans, the barbarity of their enemies contrasted with their own civility. With the advent of Christianity, the Church contrasted the superiority of Christian Truth against the superstitions of pagan barbarians.75 In this way, the concept of the barbarian was fundamentally political. Thanks to the tradition of compilation and copying, the Greek idea of the barbarian as an inversion of humanity would dominate European representations of Africa for over two millennia, until Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas produced the word “cannibal.”

Classical Christianity in Nubia

In the classical period, Nubians in the Upper and Middle Nile River Valley and Aksumites in the Horn of Africa enter the written record. However, Egyptian, Greek, and Latin texts have remained central sources for historians. As a result, the history of religion and state formation in Nubia and the Horn of Africa has traditionally been viewed as the product of external colonization, cultural and political. For Nubia, this took the form of Egyptian colonization followed by Hellenization after the adoption of Christianity. For the Horn of Africa, the state of Aksum was, like its ancient predecessor Damaat, assumed to be the product of South Arabian colonization and later the influence of Greek Christianity. Archaeological and linguistic evidence, as well as the increasing reliance on locally produced texts, has led to a new generation of scholarship that has overturned previous assumptions about historical developments being caused externally or the adoption of Christianity as being evidence of external cultural hegemony.

In the 8th century, the rulers of the Nubian polity of Kush centered at Napata adopted writing after conquering Egypt, which they ruled for nearly a century in the Napatan Dynasty (744–657 bce).76 As in Egypt, the use of writing was limited to the royal elite and priesthood who used hieroglyphics as a tool of political, economic, and spiritual power.77 Following the end of the Napatan Dynasty and the destruction of the capital at Napata, the rulers of Kush increasingly used hieroglyphics to express local political and legal traditions and venerate local deities such as Apedemak. The culmination of this process was the development of Meroitic, which employed the demotic Egyptian script to write the local language.78 Unfortunately Meroitic, the oldest written language in Africa after Egyptian, has yet to be deciphered.79

As a result, scholars are forced to rely on external sources, albeit with recourse to archaeological evidence. With Rome’s defeat of Ptolemaic Egypt in 30 bce, Egypt, Nubia, and North Africa enter into Roman sources, which provide accounts of the battles between Augustus’s Egyptian prefect Petronius and the Meroitic rulers.80 Read against Kushitic sources, it is clear that the female ruler classical sources referred to as “Queen Candace” in fact referred to a series of female rulers known by the title Kandake, particularly Queen Amanirenas. Other aspects of classical accounts, however, can be confirmed using Kushite sources, such as the defeat of Aswan and the subsequent placement of a bronze head of Augustus at the entrance of the Royal Enclosure at Meroe so it could be stepped upon by everyone entering the temple.81

At the end of the classical era, the use of Greek, specifically Byzantine Greek, became increasingly common in Egypt, Nubia, Kush, and Aksum, leading one scholar to argue that “Greek was an African Language.”82 Roman rule reinforced the use of ancient Greek for administration and law. In Nubia, the use of the Greek language was traditionally understood, following Diodorus, as proof of cultural Hellenization.83 The Greek bias against Nubians is clear. For example, Greek-educated Nubian cavalry officer Paccius Macimus referred to his native Nubian language as “barbarian.”84 Macimus was an exception, however; the majority of the population did not interact with the Greek language outside of legal and economic spheres. The use of Greek on the victory stela commemorating King Ezana of Aksum’s defeat of Meroë in 325 ce suggests the language was understood. However, Meroitic was the language of government, religion, and administration.85 The disintegration of the Meroitic state in the 4th century was accompanied by the disappearance of writing, highlighting the connection between writing and central authority, political, religious, and economic. The practice of writing returned to Nubia following conversion to Christianity in the 6th century with the adoption of Greek, Coptic, and a written form of Old Nubian.

Scholars debate the significance of the Greek language in Nubia in the Middle Ages. Many historians interpreted Greek and Arab texts as evidence the Middle Ages were a “golden age of Greek culture” in Nubia, with Greek being the official language of government and religion. Arab geographer al-Aswani (10th century) wrote that Nubians prayed in Greek and had Greek books which they translated into Nubian. UNESCO archaeological excavations confirm the existence of extensive Christian, including Greek, texts and inscriptions in Nubia from the 6th century ce (well after Diodorus’s account). Excavations of the cathedral library at Qasr Ibrim (destroyed in 1173 ce) discovered hundreds of inscriptions and graffiti in Greek. Even more remarkable is the 12th-century tomb of Archbishop Georgios in the capital of Makuria, Old Dongola, whose walls are covered in “religious formulae, magical signs, the beginnings and ends of all four gospels, the Greek text of an extra biblical text known as the ‘speech of Mary to Bartos,’ and Coptic homilies.”86 On the surface, these texts support the view that the Greek language thrived in Nubia and was central to the monophysite Christianity practiced in the region until the conversion to Islam in the 13th and 14th centuries.

On closer inspection, Greek was not a dominant language. Inscriptions and graffiti at Qasr Ibrim were “either in Greek or Coptic or a mixture of both, which words and phrases in Old Nubian frequently interspersed.”87 Greek, Coptic, and Old Nubian were often used in combination in inscriptions from the Middle Ages. The mixture of languages, all in the Greek script, highlights the practical reason for the adoption of Greek. Unlike Egyptian, Greek script possessed vowels, allowing for phonetic writing, likely the reason why Egyptians and Nubians adopted the Greek script to write Coptic and Old Nubian in the first half of the first millennium. Greek was also the most widely spoken language in the Nile River Valley. Moreover, excavations provide evidence that the process of conversion in Nubia was gradual and local, with pre-Christian and Christian funerary practices coexisting for centuries.88 The disconnect between historical narratives that stress Greek influence and the diversity of texts discovered by archaeologists underscores the need to use documentary sources in conjunction with other forms of historical sources.

Aksum and Ethiopia

The Horn of Africa is well known for the adoption of Christianity in the 4th century by King Ezana of Aksum. Aksum and successor state Abyssinia occupied an important place in the medieval European imagination, associated, by the 14th century, with the legendary kingdom of Prester John.89 Early scholarship erroneously assumed that Aksum, like Damaat, was founded by Sabaeans. In fact, local and regional dynamics led to the development of the polity of Aksum (50 bce–650/700 ce) in the Ethiopian highlands. Pliny the Elder (60 ce) and the Periplus of the Erythrian Sea (mid-1st century ce) provide evidence of Aksum’s early commercial connections. The Periplus is incredibly important, providing most of the extant information about early trading networks, much of which has been confirmed with archaeological evidence. The claim that Mediterranean trade reached as far south as the Tanzanian coast corresponds to the discovery of Ptolemaic and Roman coins on the East African coast as far south as Dar es-Salaam. A hoard of Indus region coins found in an Aksumite box in a monastery near Aksum dating from before 220 ce, before Christianity, likewise attests to Aksum’s central position in long-distance trade.90 Later information comes from Kosmas Indicopleustes’s Christian Topography (c. 547 ce), one of the few documentary sources that describes East Africa in the Middle Ages.91 Kosmas’s claim that there was an inscription dedicated by Ptolemy III of Egypt (ruled 246–221 bce) in the port of Adulis, commemorating elephant-hunting expeditions, corresponds with pottery and ivory found in the region. Both archaeological and textual evidence highlights the commercial importance of Aksum, which by the middle of the first millennium had expanded eastward to the Red Sea and across to the Arabian coast, becoming a central intermediary in long-distance trade and the main East African trading partner of the Roman and Byzantine empires.92

These sources suggest it was Aksum’s important role in regional trade that brought about the initial introduction of Christianity. The story, related in Rufinus’s Church History, is that two shipwrecked Syrian Christians, Frumentius and Aedisius, converted Ezana to Christianity. Whether or not the story is accurate, coins and inscriptions from c. 330 ce attest to the adoption of Christianity in Aksum.93 Aksum subsequently produced a wealth of local texts in Ge’ez as well as in Greek. (No longer spoken, Ge’ez is still the liturgical language of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo churches.) The earliest sources are religious texts and royal inscriptions dating from the 3rd century ce, including a Ge’ez translation of the Bible in the 5th century ce. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church produced Ge’ez translations of religious texts from Greek, Coptic, and Arabic, such as the lost book of Enoch. Textual production declined following the disintegration of Aksum in the 6th and 7th centuries.

The golden age of Ge’ez literature was from the 14th to 17th centuries, during the Solomonid Dynasty (from 1270 ce). The most famous medieval Ge’ez text is the Kebre Negast (The glory of the kings), which relates the travel of the Ethiopian ruler Makeda, Queen of Sheba, to King Solomon of Israel. The pair had a son, Menelik I, who became the first ruler of Ethiopia. The implication was that the Zagwe rulers who overthrew the Aksumite descendants of Menelik were illegitimate as they did not belong to the Solomonic line. Scholars debate the origin of the text, which was penned by six Tigrayan scribes in the 14th century. The chief compiler, Yishak, claimed the Ge’ez text was a translation of an Arabic version of a classical Coptic work. However, research suggests no prior text existed. Rather, the compilers combined “local and regional oral traditions and style and substance derived from the Old and New Testaments, various apocryphal texts, Jewish and Islamic commentaries, and Patristic writings.”94 The combination or oral and textual sources is not uncharacteristic of medieval documentary sources. What is clear is that the Kebre Negast’s primary goal was to create (or use) a myth to legitimate the new Emperor Yekuno Amlak by claiming to restore a Solomonic line.

The Kebre Negast’s use of religion to consolidate political power sheds light on the way the Solomonids used the power of the church to incorporate conquered people into the state. The close connection of the church and state is reflected in the production of medieval chronicles detailing the lives of monarchs from the 14th century. (Neighboring Muslim populations also wrote chronicles.) The chronicles must be viewed as biased sources. They were written at the behest of the court; many not only glorified the actions of the king but also explained their lives through those of saints. Some were written from memory after the death of the monarch. However, the chronicles provide data about state expansion, tribute payments by conquered people, trade, conflicts with neighboring Muslim groups, the army, and regional government, as well as the actions of the court and church. Moreover, the quantity of chronicles, Christian and Muslim, can be read against one another to mitigate bias. For example, the Arabic chronicle of Ahmad Grañ’s campaign against Abyssinia, Futūḥ al-Ḥabaša, can be read in conjunction with the Ethiopian account, the Chronicle of Gälawdewos, to reconstruct the Muslim–Christian wars in 16th-century Ethiopia. The latter provides information about the Jesuit mission to Ethiopia, which presented a serious challenge to medieval Ethiopian Christianity.95

The largest number of Ge’ez sources are Ethiopian hagiographies, gadel (or gädl): more than two hundred are known, including six about women. The earliest concern early Christian martyrs. Medieval hagiographies concern local saints. Neighboring Muslim scribes composed hagiographies in Arabic as early as the 13th century. Ethiopian hagiographies provide the “earliest known book-length biography” of an African woman: the Gädlä Wälättä Petros, written in 1672. Walatta Petros became famous for resisting Jesuit attempts to convert the people of highland Ethiopia to Roman Catholicism, a battle that earned her sainthood in the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahedo Church.96 The hagiographies are important, if problematic, sources. The date of composition is often unknown, and many were written from memory after the death of the saint and subsequently copied and rewritten.97 However, used critically, the Ge’ez chronicles and hagiographies provide a rich trove of documentary sources about medieval Ethiopian history. They are particularly valuable in presenting an Ethiopian counterpoint to Arabic chronicles of the Muslim–Christian wars and European sources about the encounter between the Portuguese and Ethiopians.

The Arab Invention of Africa

After the ancient Greeks, medieval Arabic texts perpetuated tropes about the geography and inhabitants of the African continent that influenced European portrayals, textual and cartographic, until the 19th century.98 Arab texts were deeply indebted to ancient Greek texts, including works lost to European scholars. For example, Ptolemy’s work survived thanks to the translation of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (c. 813–842 ce), the first Arab writer to address sub-Saharan Africa. Writing in Baghdad at a time when ancient Greek works were being translated into Arabic, al-Khwārizmī’s Depiction of the Earth systematized and corrected Ptolemy based on new information, though the bulk of the text was a transliteration of Greek names into Arabic. Through al-Khwārizmī, the Arabic-speaking world adopted the ancient Greek system of geography, astronomy, and climate zones.99 Ptolemy’s survival thanks to Arabic scholars is reflected in the fact that when Ptolemy’s astronomical treatise was rediscovered by Europeans five hundred years after Al Khwārizmī’s work, it was known by its Arabic name, the Almagest.100

The earliest sources by Arab authors, meaning authors who came from the Muslim world north and east of Saharan Africa, are travel narratives or works of geography or history that vary in reliability.101 Only a handful of verifiably first-hand accounts of sub-Saharan Africa are extant: Ibn Said, Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun. Many first-hand reports have been lost. A central document for the medieval history of Nubia, the report of the aforementioned 10th-century Fatimid envoy al-Aswani, survives only in the 15th-century summary of Al-Maqrizi.102 The majority of Arab narratives were, like Greek texts, the work of compilers. Some are nonetheless useful; for example, Arab historian Shihab al-Umari’s work is an important source about Malian history despite the fact al-Umari did not travel to the west African polity. The reason is that al-Umari collected oral testimony from Egyptian officials who had met Mansa Musa and informants who had travelled to Mali during his time in Cairo.103

For the East African coastline, after the Periplus, Arab historian and geographer Al-Masudi (c. 856–956 ce) provides an early description of the Swahili city state’s commerce with the Indian Ocean world and African hinterland. Subsequent visits from the 10th century by Persian Al-Istakri, compiler Buzurg ibn Shahriyar, and Ibn Battuta (1331) document trade in ivory, tortoise shell, ambergris, slaves, leopard skins, gold, iron, gum, myrrh, cotton, and grain in exchange for weapons, glass, cloth, grain, porcelain, and copper.104 However, the religious biases of these texts mean they must be read in conjunction with other sources, particularly archaeological and linguistic.

Two Arab writers, Al-Sharif al-Idrisi and Leo Africanus, were particularly influential for medieval Europeans.105 Al-Idrisi wrote a universal geography for the Norman king Roger II of Sicily in 1150, the earliest work of its kind published in Europe. His work remained influential until the 19th century.106 Moroccan-Andalusian al-Hasan b. Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Zayyani, known in Europe as Leo Africanus, penned a 16th-century account of North Africa, West Africa, and Egypt. Though he had traveled to West Africa, he had not visited as many places as he claimed; his debt to earlier Arab writers such as al-Idrisi, to whom he refers by name, is clear.107 Through his work Europeans acquired descriptions of Timbuktu, Gao, Agades, Hausa city states, and Borno as well as confused descriptions of African geography and hydrography, described below.108

Like classical authors, Arab writers privileged copying information from ancient authorities and biblical stories about Noah’s sons Shem, Japeth, and Ham, reconciling rather than contradicting received wisdom when faced with new information that did not fit into the pre-existing framework. Arab geographers detached the land masses of Africa and Asia, whose separation was known from the accounts of seamen who traded at the Swahili city states, particularly in Mombasa, Kilwa, and Sofala. They continued to represent the unknown southern half of the African continent, however, as uninhabited. The so-called Arab conquests of North Africa produced ideas about peoples living “beyond the sea of sand”—the Sahara: the Fezzan had been home to the Garamantes who had raided “the troglodytic ‘Ethiopians’ who may have been the ancestors of the Tebu of Tebisti.” If these names sound familiar it is because they derive from classical sources, with a few additions such as “Ghāna” and “Kawkaw [Gao].” The former was known to al-Fazārī as the “land of gold.”

Arab geographers’ most significant derivation from Ptolemy’s representation of Africa was the creation of a two-Nile hydrographic system in which all rivers led to the Nile. For this reason, they referred to the Wabi Sebelle in the Ethiopian highlands as the “Nile of Mogadishu.” When Arab geographers learned of the existence of a great river in West Africa, they assumed it to be a branch of the Nile which they referred to as the “Nile of the Blacks” but it was in fact a conflation of three separate rivers: the Senegal, the Niger, and the Komadugu Yobe. The most influential Arab geographer, Muhammad al-Idrīsī (1100–1165), popularized the idea of the two-Nile hydrographic system in Africa.109 When Ibn Battuta arrived at the Niger near Segu in 1352, he was so sure he had arrived at the Nile that he neglected to ask the river’s name.110

The Nile (and the other rivers identified as the Nile) served as symbols of the divide between the lands of Islam and the unknown. The rivers represented a rubicon, a point of no return, beyond which their language and camels could not carry them home. The lands beyond the Nile were dangerous spiritually as well as physically, said to be inhabited by cannibalistic pagans. The Arabic conception of the lands beyond the Nile echoed the Greek tradition of paradoxography. Much like the idea of the “other Aithiopia” in classical texts, Arab ideas surrounding the unknown interior of Africa beyond the Nile(s) was symbolic rather than literal. As in medieval European cartography, space operated symbolically, a moral cartography of the world and the author’s place in it. However, the European reliance on Arabic texts about Africa meant that philosophical or mythological ideas about Africans continued into the early modern period.

The Arab Invention of Race

As with the Greeks, Arab notions of geography influenced their construction of African ethnicity and ideas about skin color. Explanations of perceived physical, moral, and intellectual differences associated with skin color changed throughout the medieval period, from climate to religion, though they remained highly gendered and derogatory. For Arab geographers, the Greek climate system was, as for the Greeks, the basis of cosmological and philosophical understandings of the world.111 For example, Al-Dimashqī (d. 1321) theorized that the farther south one traveled, the hotter the climate became, so that in the “land of the blacks” just north of the equator the inhabitants’ brains “almost boiled from the heat.” As no one could live in heat hotter than that which boiled brains, no one lived south of the equator. Likewise, the extreme cold of the seventh clime north of Europe caused brains to freeze and skin to bleach.112

For later authors, the system of climes and regions (iqlīm and kishwar) became the basis of theories about skin color and its relationship to moral and intellectual character. The repetition of the Greek association of blackness with “burnt” continued throughout the period.113 One 10th-century Persian geographer wrote that the people of Iraq and even the “Slav women” were superior because “the wombs of their women do not overcook them until they are burnt,” unlike the “Zanj,” “Ethiopians,” and “other blacks” who “comes out something black or pitch-black, malodorous and pungent-smelling with peppercorn hair, unbalanced limbs, a deficient mind, and depraved passions.”114 The (highly gendered) Arab descriptions of skin color articulate a worldview in which both whiteness and blackness, associated with extreme cold and heat, were aberrations from the normative Arab physical traits, associated with the balance induced by a temperate climate.

The expansion of the slave trade led to increasingly negative portrayals of Africans as well as the growing association of blackness with enslavement. “Barbar” referred to various groups across Africa, derived from the Greek barbaroi (barbarian). By the medieval period, generic terms such as “Zanj” referred to perceived stereotyped characteristics of sub-Saharan Africans. Later ethnonyms corresponded to the “races” of slaves in the medieval Arab world: the Zanj, the Habash, the Zaghawa, and the Nuba. The terms correspond to the four trade routes through which slaves entered the Arabian Peninsula: East Africa (the Zanj), the Horn of Africa (Habash), Lake Chad (Zaghawa), and the Nile valley (Nuba). The stereotypes associated with race were wholly negative, creating and perpetuating popular perceptions in connection with blackness that persisted into the 19th century.115

The work of Ibn Khaldun marked a turning point from the association of barbarism with geography, climate, and skin color to the association of barbarism with religion. Khaldun’s travels in Africa forced him to acknowledge that the idea that all sub-Saharan Africans were barbarians was untrue. Khaldun knew of the empire of Mali and personally met men who had contact with Mansa Musa, whose famous pilgrimage through Egypt brought Mali to the attention of the wider Mediterranean world. The existence of rich Muslim empires south of the Sahara posed a challenge to received wisdom. Khaldun resolved the paradox by attributing differences in character to religion rather than climate. For Khaldun, barbarians were those “ignorant of prophecy” who were redeemable through acceptance of the true religion, Islam.116

The lack of knowledge, cultural bias, and unreliability of traveler’s accounts (particularly those of Leo Africanus) makes Arabic texts poor sources of information about local ethnicity, itself a fraught concept.117 Even Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Battuta, perhaps the most widely traveled Arab writers, drew heavily on classical and contemporary sources, particularly al-Bakri and al-Idrisi.118 As with the ancient Greeks, the practice of copying from earlier sources created a repetition of knowledge which, taken together, gave the appearance of truth when it was in fact merely plagiarism and compilation. Like Europeans after them, Arab geographers continued to draw on the knowledge of the ancients for unknown regions of Africa, supplementing it with observations drawn from participation in the trans-Saharan trade. Arab writers did not question the existence of barbarism in Africa, but rather found new ways to explain what they already knew to be true. Barbarians became heathens, a state punishable by enslavement. Slavery reinforced ideas about African inferiority long before the arrival of Europeans, both inside and outside the continent.

Arabic Language and Script in Africa

The conquest of Egypt in 639–641 ce marked a turning point in the documentary record of Africa. As Islam spread across the Sahara, particularly from the 9th century, so too did the Arabic language, leading some scholars to refer to Arabic as “the Latin of Africa.”119 As a result, the medieval and early modern periods saw an efflorescence of Arabic writing in North, West, and East Africa. In West Africa, scholars and merchants used Arabic in Timbuktu as well as in Kano, Sokoto, and Bornu in modern-day Nigeria by the 18th century.120 The early modern period also saw diverse African societies adapt the Qur’anic script to write local languages for intellectual activities, correspondence, and commercial transactions. The texts are known as ajami.121 In West Africa, the oldest and largest corpus of ajami come from 17th-century Kanem and Hausaland, followed by 18th- and 19th-century documents in Fulani (Fulfulde), Nupe, and Yoruba.122 In East Africa, the earliest Swahili manuscripts date from the 16th and 17th centuries, becoming widespread in the 18th century.123 Written Swahili enabled rulers and elites to correspond, write oral traditions and genealogies, and especially codify trade agreements. The latter would become a hallmark of the Indian Ocean and trans-Saharan trades.124 By the early modern period, many Africans were literate in the Arabic language and Arabic script was used to write African languages, providing an important corpus of locally produced documentary sources.

The best-known Arabic-language sources, the Timbuktu Manuscripts, date from the 13th to the 19th centuries. The two most famous texts are the 17th-century Tarikh al-fattash of Ibn al-Mukhtar (c. 1664) and the Tarikh al-Sudan of al-Sa’di (1653, updated 1656). The Tarikh manuscripts have historically been the major historical source for the medieval empires in West Africa. However, despite their claim to represent a local tradition of historical knowledge, the Tarikhs represented a fundamentally new literary genre in Timbuktu which produced numerous texts, many of which have been lost. They did so to rearticulate a new national myth in the context of the defeat of Songhay by Morocco in 1591. The Tarikhs must therefore be seen as an example of the use of history for intellectual purposes in the context of a specific moment in time.125 The religious and political bias of the Tarikh narratives creates a false coherence that obfuscates non-Islamic people and traditions as well as periods of conflict. Furthermore, a forgery of the Tarikh al-fattash inserted racial categories in order to provide justification for enslavement of groups defined as black.126

One of the earliest uses of Arabic writing in Africa was inscriptions on tombstones in Gao from the 11th century. Previously known, epigraphic evidence has only recently been reappraised by scholars due to their careful collection, transcription, and publication by Paulo de Moeaes Farias.127 One reason the Gao inscriptions were previously ignored is they provide epigraphic evidence that contradicts the hegemonic narrative created by the Tarikhs of Timbuktu. Where the Tarikhs emphasized Islam and provided a coherent historical narrative, the epigraphs provide evidence of both Islamic and non-Islamic religious, political, and legal traditions from within and across the Sahara. In so doing, the Gao epigraphs complicate the endogenous–exogenous dichotomy so often ascribed to African history, whether North African versus sub-Saharan African, or Islamic versus traditional African religion.128

By contrast, the Gao epigraphs are a reminder that textual evidence does not provide a comprehensive picture of trans-Saharan exchange. The fact that documentary sources for the trans-Saharan trade appeared following the arrival of Islam in North Africa during the 7th century led scholars to conclude the trans-Saharan trade did not exist in earlier periods. More recently, scholars have drawn on archeological evidence, particularly on the Garamantes of the Libyan Sahara, which demonstrates that trans-Saharan trade existed in some form by the mid-first millennium bce. The implications of this research are that the Sahara was never an impermeable barrier and the inhabitants of the regions in and south of the Sahara were not isolated as previously thought. The coexistence of local and trans-Saharan influences evident in the Gao epigraphs are a powerful examples of the way in which the division between sub-Saharan and North Africa obfuscates more than it illuminates.129

Documentary sources from the Sahel demonstrate how local scholars understood and responded to Arabic ideas about “race.” In the Maghrib and the Sahara, for example, Berber scholars refuted Arab myths about African inferiority, whether due to climate or descendance from Ham, from an early date. Faced with “subjugation by the ethnically conscious Arab-Islamic Conquerors of the Maghrib,” Berber scholars used familiarity with Arabic literature to articulate genealogies that connected them to important Islamic populations, including the legendary pre-Islamic Yemeni Himyarite people. In the 17th century, Timbuktu jurist Ahmad Baba (d. 1627) wrote a treatise refuting the association of blackness with slavery that he encountered in North Africa. Baba used Ibn Khaldun’s argument that the only important difference between humans was religion, not skin color, to argue that the latter should not be used to judge moral characteristics. The engagement of Sahelian authors with Arabic discourse about race demonstrates both their sophisticated understanding of and resistance to negative associations with blackness.130

Like the Tarikhs and the Kebre Negast, documentary sources from East Africa provide examples of local intellectuals using claims of descent from prestigious Arab, or in this case Persian, ancestors to legitimate political authority and refute negative preconceptions of colonizing Europeans. When Europeans encountered Swahili city states in the 15th century, many assumed that the prosperous, stone trading hubs had been built by Arab colonizers, a claim repeated in later sources and scholarship. Archaeological and linguistic research conclusively demonstrates that the Swahili people and language arose locally and were not descended from the Arabian Peninsula.131 However, one of the earliest examples of East African writing, the Kilwa Chronicle, presents a five-hundred-year history of the kings of Kilwa, tracing them back to Shirazi origin in Persia.132 Why would the Kilwa Chronicle claim Shirazi origin? The answer to that question lies in the context of the text’s production, or rather co-production, following the arrival of the Portuguese. The Chronicle was first published in Portuguese chronicler João de Barros’s Decades in Lisbon in 1552. An Arabic version referred to as the Kitab al-Sulwa dates to c. 1837. The discrepancies between the two manuscripts suggest the Chronicle published by Barros was “co-written” in the 16th century. The Chronicle must therefore be understood as a co-production by the rulers of Kilwa and the colonizing Portuguese, which explains the text’s direct engagement with Muslim and European ideas circulating in the early modern period.133

The Swahili Chronicles must be understood within the power dynamics of the time, when Omani origin served a political purpose. The claim of Shirazi origin in the Kilwa Chronicle, though historically inaccurate, reveals much about why such a claim would be useful to Swahili elites in the context of Portuguese colonization. Like the Kilwa Chronicle, the Pate Chronicle, lauded as one of the most important “indigenous sources for Swahili history,” presents a list of thirty-two kings allegedly descended from Oman. Despite claiming to be a medieval text, the Chronicle was not written until the early 20th century. All eight known versions are attributed to a single author, a member of Pate’s ruling family, Muhammad bun Fumo Umar Nabahani (known as Bwana Kitini). These contradictions seem to invalidate the reliability of the Chronicles as historical sources. Linguistic research has shown that the development of the Swahili language, like the Swahili city states, was endogenous rather than exogenous and far predated the arrival of either Arabs or Persians, both of which groups are frequently cited as a point of origin in Swahili texts. Furthermore, the millennia-long interaction between the East African coast and the Indian Ocean world makes it impossible to create a dichotomy between internal and external influences.134 Read within the power dynamics in which they were produced, however, the Chronicles have much to tell about the way in which Swahili elites used identity, culture, and literacy to navigate times of political turmoil.135

More broadly, African-language or ajami texts are important because, unlike European or Arab texts, they express local intellectual, commercial, and political developments. Ajami such as the Swahili Chronicles challenge simplistic divisions between oral and textual, African and non-African, exogenous and endogenous causality. In doing so, they remind scholars that Africans were not only capable of engaging in broader intellectual discussions, they did so for contemporary, local purposes. By the eve of colonization, trade across the Sahara and Indian Ocean produced a huge circulation of texts. The 19th-century documents demonstrate that sources are not restricted to chronicles of history produced by the elite but also include seemingly mundane economic and legal documents which, studied closely, can produce fundamentally new knowledge about both local and global processes that transformed the economy in the modern era.136

European Sources

The corpus of European sources begins with the arrival of the Portuguese on the coasts of East and West Africa and the rise of trade in the Atlantic Ocean culminating in the transatlantic slave trade.137 Documentary sources by merchants, slave traders, soldiers, missionaries, and others increased exponentially with the increase of the transatlantic slave trade. These sources document the quantity and process of coastal trade. They also illuminate coastal relationships, particularly between Europeans and African rulers and merchants, as well as people of mixed ancestry, many of whom became traders. By the onset of colonization, the spread of traders, travelers, and missionaries meant that documentary sources covered many areas of the African continent.

In the early modern period, a greater number of African voices enter into documentary sources, albeit often mediated by non-African authors. Moreover, the rulers of African polities, notably in Kongo and Angola, produced texts. The most famous are the letters between Afonso I of Kongo (1509–1542) and King João III of Portugal which address the impact of the slave trade on the polity.138 On a deeper level, Afonso’s letters reveal his attempts to create a European-style centralized kingdom, which set the stage for the destructive consequences of the slave trade.139 Likewise, the subsequent correspondence of the rulers and elite of the Kongo and Angola were “deeply conditioned” and “shaped by political considerations.”140 Thus, scholars must not assume documents created by the African elite are unbiased accounts. Rather, sources written by “insiders” pose many of the same problems, being the product of elite expressions of power or reactions to external conditions.

It is worth noting two remarkable Central African women of the period. The first is the politically adept Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba (1583–1663), who successfully maintained independence from the colonizing Portuguese in 17th-century Angola. Historical sources include a dozen of her own letters as well as the descriptions of a Portuguese governor, a chronicler, and two Italian Capuchin priests.141 The second is elite Kongo woman Beatriz Kimpa Vita, who founded a popular religious protest movement in the name of Saint Anthony (who she claimed had possessed her) in 1704, resulting in the brief occupation of the ruined capital São Salvador by thousands of Kongo followers before she was arrested and executed for witchcraft. Kimpa Vita’s life appears in the descriptions of Italian Capuchin missionaries.142 Though exceptional, the lives of both women, and the documentation about them, sheds light on the status of women in Central Africa in the early modern period.143

New Worlds, Medieval Wonders

The largest body of sources, European documents written in the early modern period, pose the biggest challenges as well as opportunities for scholars. Cultural biases, conceptual limitations, repetition of earlier genealogies of knowledge, and unreliability are only a few of the problems presented by European documents. Many were at best written by people with little knowledge of the languages or people they described and at worst by outright frauds.144 The earliest published European sources about Africa were secondary or tertiary accounts reporting what they already believed to be true rather than actual observations. What they believed to be true about Africans, in turn, derived from classical and medieval narratives about anthropophagi and other barbarians inhabiting the torrid zones along the peripheries of the known world. During the formative colonial encounters, travelers repeated the “rhetorically elaborate” claims of medieval narratives. As a result, many of the ideas about Africans that gained the appearance of scientific truth preserved and reinterpreted mythical narratives dating back to antiquity.

By the time Europeans arrived on the coasts of East and West Africa in the 15th century, they had two millennia of knowledge about Africa and Africans upon which to draw. Apart from the work of al-Idrisi and Leo Africanus, medieval European scholars were familiar with the Greek writings through the Roman encyclopedic writing of such authors as 1st-century Roman Pliny the Elder, in his massive Naturalis Historia (c. 77–79 ce), and Solinus. A second major source was literature associated with Alexander the Great.145 In the absence of first-hand knowledge, medieval writers drew on the classical tradition of paradoxography creatively, describing fabulous encounters with fantastical creatures, man-eaters and monsters, marvels and miracles.146 However, if medieval travel writers and mapmakers invoked the knowledge of the ancients, they did so for decidedly contemporary purposes. Readers of the two most common forms of medieval travel writing—the pilgrimage and the morality tale—would have understood supernatural events as metaphorical, symbolic, and mnemonic, until at least the late 16th century.147

Travel, like space itself, was understood as ideological rather than physical. This explains why the High Middle Ages mappae mundi represented the three known lands of Asia, Europe, and Africa in a T shape within a circle, O, earning them the name Isodorean or T-O Maps. The well-known Hereford mappa mundi followed the classical tradition by populating Asia with fire-breathing dragons and griffins and dividing Africa into two parts, the outer edges of which were populated with the monsters described in Pliny the Elder, including Blemmyes, Sciapods, Troglodites, dog-headed Cynocephali, and of course anthropophagi.148 The inscriptions of marvels and monsters from the ancients were metaphorical, and the map itself an allegorical representation of moral understanding of the world in which space was fundamentally symbolic rather than geospatial.149 However, the arrival of Europeans in the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa would give the appearance of eyewitness observation to reports rooted in myth.

The Colonial Encounter and Cannibal Talk

During the colonial encounter, travelers continued to invoke ancient and medieval texts as part of a rhetorical assertion of truth, even when they contradicted observed reality or testimony from travelers.150 There is no better example than the creation of the word “cannibal” itself, which entered European languages as a local name for a group of Caribs in the Antilles, whom Columbus claimed his informants connected with the practice of eating human flesh.151 Columbus was not unique but rather characteristic of early European descriptions of non-Europeans in Africa as well as the Americas. In 1488, just before Columbus’s arrival in the New World and just after the Portuguese mariner Diogo Cão’s arrival at the mouth of the Congo River, his companion Duarte Pacheco Pereira explored the Atlantic coastline of Africa. Between 1505 and 1508, Pereira wrote that a group of man-eaters called the Anzichi inhabited the interior of Central Africa, north of the Kongo.152 The fact that both Columbus and Pereira claimed to encounter man-eaters demonstrates the influence of medieval conceptions of geography which conceived of the Americas and Africa together. Their accounts also highlight the way European explorers understood new people and places with reference to fantastical ancient and medieval descriptions of Africa (Libya in the classical sources).153 Europeans portrayed the people they encountered on the margins of the known world—Taino and African alike—as man-eaters, in the process giving ethnographic concreteness to the classical trope that the continent south of the Sahara (or Nile River) was inhabited by closely related groups of nimbly nomadic, cruelly cannibalistic warriors.

European preconceptions about Africans created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whenever the Portuguese (or other Europeans) encountered—or more often heard about—Africans, they were quick to accuse them of belonging to this legendary group of rampaging cannibalistic savages: the Galla in Ethiopia, the Mane in Sierra Leone (also called the Sumba, 1540s–1560s in Upper Guinea), the Zimba on the Zambezi and in Mombasa (1580s–1600), and of course the dreaded Jaga in the Kongo (1568) and Angola (17th century). João Bermudes, Portuguese ambassador to the Christian polity of Abyssinia, claimed that barbarians called the Galla had invaded in the 1540s:

they are a fierce and cruel people, who make war on their neighbors […] they slay all the men, cut off the privy parts of the boys, kill the old women, and keep the young for their own use and service.154

Bermudes claimed the Galla were the source of the “Sumbas” seen shortly thereafter in Sierra Leone, writing that “in cruelty they are alike.” Bermudes’s description introduced key elements of the trope that would be applied to other groups: bloodthirsty warriors who make war for its own sake, kill indiscriminately, and reproduce their numbers not through childbirth but by capturing young boys.

The foundational descriptions of Africans were often written decades after the purported sightings, and the authors of these accounts rarely, if ever, witnessed either the alleged cannibalism or even saw the groups themselves. Nonetheless, the earliest reports of these roving anthropophagi stubbornly persisted to lay the foundation of subsequent European ideas about “cannibals” in Africa. Filippo Pigafetta’s description of Central Africa, which popularized both the trope of butchers of human flesh as well as the story of the 1568 invasion of the polity of Kongo by a man-eating group of warriors called the Jaga, is a perfect example.155 He claimed a “cruel and murderous race” of marauding warriors called the Jaga from somewhere in the interior of Central Africa attacked the Kongo.156 The Jaga epitomized the European idea of barbarism, the inverse of all that was civilized. They lived naked in the forest and answered to no authority. They engaged in no “productive” activity but rather survived by laying waste to the surrounding country, “wandering up and down, putting to fire and sword, and spoiling and robbing every part of the country through which they passed, till they reached the Congo.”157 The Jagas lived not only off pillage but also off the actual flesh and blood of their slain enemies. In other words, they were literally bloodthirsty warriors. The good Christian inhabitants of the Kongo were saved thanks only to the military intervention of the Portuguese, which conveniently consolidated Portuguese commercial access to the Kongo.

Pigafetta did not witness the events he described; instead, he based his narrative on the memoire of a Portuguese trader named Duarte Lopes, who also did not witness the events in question. In the absence of an eyewitness account, Pigafetta augmented Lopes’s account with things he knew to be true about Africa from earlier travel narratives, ancient texts, and medieval myths: that the deep interior of Africa, its heart of darkness, was populated by a nomadic group of anthropophagi warriors.158 Note Pigafetta’s strategic use of the unattributed passive voice about the Anziques (taken from Pereira’s 1488 account): “of whom truly strange stories are told.”159 Nevertheless, Pigafetta’s account popularized one of the most-repeated tropes of the early modern and even modern period. In the centuries following Pigafetta’s account, numerous Europeans claimed to encounter Jaga-related groups or witness butchers of human flesh among various unrelated groups throughout the region.160

Beginning in the 17th century, travel writing underwent a significant generic change away from medieval myths towards expectations of scientific observation as the definition of authenticity and truth.161 As a result, a central way compilers established credibility and contributed to knowledge was through citing eyewitness accounts. For example, Anglican clergyman Samuel Purchas, inspired by Francis Bacon and Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, dedicated himself to establishing authenticity by using eyewitness accounts to establish credibility. Purchas’s description of the Jaga purportedly came from the account of English sailor Andrew Battell who claimed to live with Jaga-related cannibals called the Imbangala. In fact, Purchas’s account drew on a myriad of previously published materials to elaborate on Andrew Battell’s testimony, of which no direct transcription exists.162 The adoption, in the early modern period, of eyewitness testimony and direct observation as a way to make truth claims obscures whether or not the information they related actually came from the purported narrator. As a result, it can often be difficult to separate “fact” from “fiction” in travel narratives from the period.163

The Invention of Africa

As philosophers set about systematically dividing and categorizing the natural world, they drew on both a European discourse rooted in the mythology of the past and a contemporary discourse rooted in the transatlantic slave trade. In the 17th and 18th centuries, these dubious travel narratives were compiled and printed in fashionable Universal Histories and Enlightenment encyclopedias. Indeed, authors who had never visited the places they described wrote the most popular publications about Africa. For example, Dutch doctor Olfert Dapper’s synthetic work (1668, French translation 1668) was the major source of knowledge about Africa for a half-century.164 In the 18th century, Martiniquais slave owner Father Labat’s book on Africa captured the French imagination and became the main authority on the continent despite the fact that Labat had never been to Africa.165 Labat put a poetic spin on the matter: “I have seen Africa, but I have never set foot there […] I will thus speak about Africa only on the faith” of enlightened men of letters who had spent time on the continent.166 Labat’s misplaced faith in dubious travel narratives demonstrates the way that new knowledge was created using old sources.

There was a reciprocal relationship between European philosophy, descriptions of Africans, and the slave trade that contributed to an increasingly negative portrayal of Africans.167 After all, Father Labat was a plantation owner in Martinique. If the Enlightenment was one of the major French accomplishments of the 18th century, the other was the slave trade.168 As one abolitionist lamented in 1789: “We owe most of the details that we have about the inhabitants of Guinea to travelers with a direct or indirect interest in the slave trade.”169 These sources, in turn, formed the basis of European knowledge about non-Europeans in Enlightenment social science thought.170 Natural philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Diderot drew on their substantial collections of travel narratives to articulate a new vision of human origins in which humanity progressed from a primal, natural state of savagery toward enlightened civilization.171 In the 18th century, Diderot and D’Alembert used the same method to create the era’s biggest intellectual accomplishment, the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers.172 Far from representing rupture with the past, the Enlightenment’s greatest achievement was, on the contrary, merely a new articulation of the medieval worldview, ordered and historicized but nonetheless recognizable.173

Over the course of the early modern period, natural philosophers reinvented the barbarian as the savage and the primitive without fundamentally questioning the validity of the existence of these mythical groups. Beginning in the 16th century, European philosophers began to advocate reinterpreting barbarians described in travel narratives with scientific reason and observation. As a result, the encounter with non-Europeans did not dispel medieval myths but, on the contrary, led to the creation of a new monster: the savage. From the French word sauvage, meaning wild and undomesticated, the concept of the savage merged medieval myths about barbarians and half-animal monsters with new accounts of people in the Americas and Africa. From its origins, the idea of the savage, like that of the barbarian, was principally a vehicle for European self-reflection. For example, In 1578, Michel de Montaigne’s essay about the native inhabitants of Brazil called “Of Cannibals” asserted “there is nothing barbarous and savage in that nation, from what I have been told, except that each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice [.]” Montaigne undermined the idea of the barbarian by referencing the Greek King Pyrrhus who, upon meeting the Roman army, declared, “I do not known what barbarians these are.” Montaigne’s point was that Europeans, like the Greeks before them, portrayed all unknown foreigners as barbarians, whether the terms was warranted or not. “Thus we should beware of clinging to vulgar opinions and judge things by reason’s way, not by popular say.” Montaigne’s argument was not that barbarians did not exist but that Europeans should interpret then through reason rather than wonder. Though Montaigne’s essay was intended as an ironic critique of the French’s own barbaric practices, it nonetheless reflective of the way medieval ideas of barbarism were reinterpreted in the context of the discovery of the Americas and a new emphasis on reason in knowledge.174

However, not all Europeans showed the same appreciation of cultural relativism as Montaigne. In the century following his essay, European writers continued to employ the binary characterization of European versus non-European going back to Herodotus, equating European society with civility and non-European society with the inverse. By the 17th century the barbarian had become the savage, regarded as earlier stage of human development. In the 18th century, Europeans developed the neologisms of civilization and progress in an act of self-representation. The relationship with the savage, as with the past, was historical. Civilization was the opposite of savagery; progress attained through literacy which led to the triumph of reason. By the 19th century, savages had become primitives, those humans who, lacking reason, could not progress and thus existed outside of history, stuck in an earlier stage of development. By the turn of the 19th century, Europeans had both “invented” Africa and written it out of history in a process stretching back to the Ancient Greeks.175

Discussion of the Literature

The use and existence of documentary sources is a foundational debate in the field of precolonial African history. The perceived lack of textual sources written by Africans, particularly sub-Saharan Africans, contributed to the idea infamously expressed by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: “[Africa] is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit.”176 As late as the mid-1960s, it was still possible for renowned University of Oxford professor of history Hugh Trevor-Roper to declare that African history was nothing but:

“the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque, but irrelevant corners of the globe… There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness and darkness is not a subject of history.”177

Beginning in the mid-20th century, historians worked to overturn the notion that Africa did not have a precolonial history. To reconstruct the continent’s past perceived not to be preserved in written records, African historians turned to oral traditions, linguistics, archaeology, oral tradition, and ethnography, as well as, in the 21st century, fields such as genetics and palynology.178

In spite, or perhaps because of, the proliferation of sources and methods, the use of written texts received comparatively little attention in African history, particularly for early periods.179 Despite the fact writing was independently invented in Egypt, most sources for African history were, ironically, written by non-Africans. In the face of this contradiction, academics traditionally fell into two camps. The first included scholars, especially those who studied the early modern period, for which the most documentary evidence exists, who viewed written sources as “on-the-spot eyewitness documentation.”180 On the other side of the debate were scholars who argued the idea of Africa was “invented” by Europeans, and that due to cultural biases sources written by “outsiders” were not useful.181 In response, scholars argued that if documentary sources are the sine qua non for historians of Africa, source criticism requires triangulation with other types of historical evidence.182

Triangulation is a useful methodological strategy because each kind of historical source has particular strengths and weaknesses. Comparative linguistics provides a way to investigate “genetic” relationships between groups and their divergence or interaction over time. If comparative linguistics covers long chronological periods, it cannot give precise information about people in specific times or places in the absence of written documents. Archaeology has the advantage over linguistics in the ability to date objects, but is considerably weaker in analyzing change over time due to the fact that material objects often do not provide information about why a change occurred, resulting in analyses which often assume that African societies remain constant in the absence of external stimuli, thus tending toward exogenous models of historical change at the expense of endogenous change.183 Ethnography faces the problem of upstreaming, using data from later time periods to draw conclusions about earlier ones. Oral traditions likewise face the problem of change over time. Historical documents have the advantage of providing dates, authors, and accounts of specific historical events, even as they pose problems of reliability and bias.184

By triangulating with other kinds of historical evidence, including oral tradition, ethnography, linguistics, archaeology, and genetics, scholars have gained new tools to overturn assumptions about Africans and re-read documentary sources for local voices and ideas. For example, alongside archaeologists and linguists, historians challenged colonial European notions of African inferiority. The excavation of Jenne-Jeno and the Swahili city states disproved the idea that Africans were not capable of creating complex societies without outside influences.185 Archaeological research has likewise allowed scholars to shed new light on evidence in ancient and classical sources that interaction within and across the Sahara long predated the arrival of “Arabs” in the 7th century.186

Historians have shown that language can be used as a tool to uncover the history and worldview of Africans in regions for which there are few or no documentary sources before the colonial era, such as equatorial Africa. Following the groundbreaking work of pre-eminent historian Jan Vansina in the late 20th century, scholars pioneered the use of linguistics in conjunction with contemporary ethnography and traditional oral and written historical sources to reconstruct the African past in the absence of written documents, a methodology known as “words and things.” According to Vansina, a sociolinguistic methodology is appropriate because African societies are best understood through what can broadly be termed “culture” and that culture is understood and expressed through language. In the absence of written documents, language itself becomes a historical source, and it constitutes a particularly useful one at that, because languages are complete, unified systems and they do not change easily.187

By the 21st century, scholars developed sophisticated methods to use documentary sources to produce a nuanced understanding of the African past. Part of the impetus to do so came from the recognition that founding notions of African history were rooted in what Wyatt MacGaffey termed “the ideological jetsam of imperialism.” The problematic categories inherited include assumptions about primitive society—tribe, matrilineal, kinship, animism—and post-Enlightenment ideas about politics and religion such as kingdom, priest, royalism, Christianity, and the separation between church and state. At the turn of the 21st century, Stephen Ellis lamented that the old categories “have not been replaced by more up-to-date themes.”188 By viewing sources within the long genealogy of knowledge about Africa and Africans, scholars have overturned old assumptions and categories of knowledge inherited from early modern sources.

A major intervention is the recognition that traditional divisions between African and non-African, insider and outsider, even oral and textual sources are fundamentally false dichotomies. In the last decades of the 20th century, scholars from a variety of fields challenged the notion of an authentically African person, idea, or practice. Kwame Appiah argues, “ideological decolonization is bound to fail if it neglects either endogenous ‘tradition’ or exogenous Western ideas, and that many African (and African-American) intellectuals have failed to find a negotiable middle way.”189 Subsequent scholars have questioned the notion of an authentically “African” source, challenging the false division of “insider” and “outsider” knowledge in the production of documentary sources. Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia argues the research on African texts—from the Gao epigraphs, Tarikhs, and Swahili chronicles—challenges the notion of authentically African intellectual history defined by orality, isolation, and indigeneity.190 Scholars such as Bruce Hall have demonstrated the way in which African scholars interacted with broader intellectual currents while producing distinctly local intellectual histories.191 Moreover, these examples demonstrate the interconnection of oral and textual knowledge in the production of documentary sources.

Similarly, scholars have shown how sources written by so-called “outsiders” such as missionaries were created in the historical context of interaction with local inhabitants. European sources are therefore “not necessarily poorly informed” while at the same time “African sources would not necessarily be able to give us a bias-free description,” written or oral.192 Moreover, many authors were cultural intermediaries who do not fit comfortably into either category. This “grey zone” makes it difficult to distinguish what information came from local or oral information, but also provides an opportunity to recover local histories in written documents.193

Moving beyond the insider–outsider authorial paradox opens up new possibilities for scholars by acknowledging the co-production of knowledge in written texts.194 The scholarship on co-production of knowledge has shown that if texts were the product of the colonial counter, it is possible to use other kinds of historical evidence—linguistic, oral, ethnographic, archaeological—to reread written documents for “local perceptions” and “understanding of specific historical events” in precolonial African history.195 For example, scholars have shown how the cannibalism myths of Central and East Africa were co-produced by Europeans and local elites. The myths functioned to deflect blame and obfuscate violence on the ground. In both cases, cannibalism accusations were underpinned by local understandings of violence rooted in conceptions of witchcraft.196 Taken together, these authors demonstrate the possibility of using documentary sources critically in conjunction with other kinds of historical evidence to recover African ways of knowing and being in the past.

Primary Sources

The African continent enters the documentary record with the independent invention of writing in Egypt around 3250 bce. For ancient history, nearly the only extant textual sources are ancient Egyptian writing, in addition to largely ignored epigraphic evidence such as at Damaat. For the classical period, diverse African societies adopted writing, including Nubians in Meroitic and Ethiopians in Ge’ez. However, the largest corpus of sources used by historians are the accounts or compilations of Greek and Roman authors which vary in reliability. For the medieval period, Arabic sources dominate, though locally produced texts exist in the Horn of Africa, the Nile River Valley, and the Niger River Valley. The largest number of documentary sources are European documents in the early modern period. Though European documents contain traces of African voices and ideas, the widespread practice of repetition of mythological descriptions of Africans from ancient and medieval sources, as well as the cultural bias of authors, presents a challenge to historians, particularly those unfamiliar with the long genealogy of knowledge about Africa and Africans.

As a corpus, documentary sources for precolonial African history are the product of asymmetrical power relations as well as genealogies of knowledge that culminated in the invention of Africa. How outsiders, from Egyptians to Enlightenment philosophers, represented unknown parts and peoples of the African continent was fundamentally related to how they envisioned the unknown. In the absence of direct knowledge about Africa south of the Nile cataracts and Sahara desert, the question of who and what lay beyond these boundaries was ontological rather than empirical, at once a question about the universe, the place of the world in the cosmos, and the inhabitants of the peripheries of the world. Ideas about inhabitants of unknown parts of Africa were rooted in ancient notions of paradoxography which held that the farther one traveled the stranger and more fabulous (and monstrous) inhabitants became. Ancient descriptions of barbarians created tropes that were repeated for over two millennia; each iteration fundamentally related to the self-definition of the author. Over the medieval and early modern periods, ancient barbarians became savages and primitives. The culmination was the invention of Africa, as a continent and a primitive race.

For scholars, the inheritance from ancient sources is both historical and conceptual. The most problematic are categories of ethnography and geography, both underpinned by assumptions about society and race. Richard Smith argues that the categories inherited from ancient sources that early scholars interpreted as ethnicity did not function for ancient and medieval authors in the same way they do for contemporary academics.197 Historically, classical and medieval authors divided people based on their way of life; mode of subsistence was a primary marker of difference used to separate the civilized from the uncivilized.198 Ethnonyms referred to social features rather than indigenous self-identification—Berber from barbarian, Numidian from nomad. Inherited words such as pygmy are equally derogatory.199 Scholars must therefore be extremely careful with ethnonyms; this is especially true of historians of the African diaspora.200

Equally problematic is the division of Africa in two. At its root, the concept of sub-Saharan Africa is founded upon assumptions of African isolation and difference, from the Greek idea of the two Aithiopias to the early modern invention of the Africans as black in race and primitive in evolution. The notion is compounded by the fact that widespread documentary evidence of trans-Saharan trade does not begin until the 7th century, leading scholars to conclude that the arrival of Islam, if not the arrival of the camel, was the impetus for the development of the trans-Saharan trade. The archaeological record contradicts this narrative. The most important evidence comes from the Garamantes of the ancient Libyan Sahara mentioned by Herodotus, Strabo, and Pliny.201 Evidence from the Garamantes and other Saharan populations shows a “considerable quantity and variety of goods circulating in the Sahara” from the mid-first millennium forward. The timeline for the circulation of goods makes sense in the context of the Sahara’s climate history.202 There is little evidence of long-distance trade during the wet period (before 3000 bce); by the first millennium bce, however, when the desert was very dry, the inhabitants of oases needed goods brought from long distances, facilitated by the introduction of the horse. It is therefore not surprising that rock illustrations from the mid-first millennium show Saharans using draft animals and wheeled vehicles.203

The archaeological evidence challenges the narrative in classical sources of the Sahara inhabited by nomadic, warlike barbarians. On the contrary, scholars now know the Garamantes practiced sedentary oasis cultivation, which expanded following the adoption of irrigation. They lived in complex, hierarchical societies centered in towns and urban centers. Urban farmers lived in a symbiotic relationship with pastoralists, whose mobility provided essential knowledge of how to navigate and survive in the desert. Neither oasis dwellers nor pastoralists could survive without the other, necessitating exchange, including over long distances for goods such as salt. The early and widespread nature of exchange challenges the notion of Africans as isolated groups organized around kinship. By contrast, skeletal evidence shows the Garamantes were a mixed population including Berber, Saharan, and sub-Saharan elements.204 The heterogenous nature of the Garamantes human remains highlights the interconnection of the populations of north Africa, the Sahara, and sub-Saharan Africa from ancient times, providing further evidence against the utility of those categories.

From Egyptian trade across the Sahara described by Herodotus to the secretive gold trade of the Carthaginians it is clear that the Sahara was a crossroads rather than a barrier.205 The arrival of the camel greatly expanded the trans-Saharan trade. In so doing, it facilitated the gradual adoption of Islam and the Arabic language in West Africa from the 8th century onwards.206 That it did so is testament to the Sahara as a space of movement of people, goods, and ideas. On a practical level, the division is a consequence of the creation of African studies and the categorization of North Africa with the study of the Arabic language and Islamic religion of the Middle East. However, the result is the perpetuation of the division of Africa into North and sub-Saharan and the repetition of derogatory names used to describe groups that ancient and classical authors considered barbaric or monstrous.

In order to practice source criticism, scholars must therefore understand the corpus of written sources within a broad chronological and geographical framework. Doing so allows scholars to identify and move beyond derogatory ethnonyms and the false division of Africa into north and south of the Sahara. More broadly, such careful source criticism is the first step in deconstructing cultural biases in order to recover African voices and ideas by triangulating documentary sources with types of historical evidence.

List of Primary Sources


Collins, Robert O., ed. Documents from the African Past. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2001.Find this resource:

Arabic and Arabic Script

de Moraes Farias, P. F., ed. Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali: Epigraphy, Chronicles and Songhay-Tuareg History. London: British Academy, 2003.Find this resource:

Hopkins, J. F. P., and N. Levtzion, eds. Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.Find this resource:

Jeppie, Shamil, and Souleymane Bachir Diagne, eds. The Meanings of Timbuktu. Cape Town: HSRC Press in association with CODESRIA, distributed in North America by IPG, 2008.Find this resource:

West and Central Africa

Bellagamba, Alice, Martin A. Klein, and Sandra E. Greene, eds. African Voices on Slavery and the Slave Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Condé, Djanka Tassey, and David C. Conrad, eds. Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2004.Find this resource:

Fage, J. D. A Guide to Original Sources for Precolonial Western Africa Published in European Languages. Studies in African Sources 2. Madison: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1987.Find this resource:

Fage, J. D. “A Supplement to a Guide to Original Sources for Precolonial Western Africa: Corrigenda Et Addenda.” History in Africa 19 (1992): 201–236.Find this resource:

Newitt, M. D. D. The Portuguese in West Africa, 1415–1670: A Documentary History [in English, Portuguese (translated from)]. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Obenga, Théophile, ed. Readings in Precolonial Central Africa: Texts & Documents. London: Karnac House, 1995.Find this resource:

Louis Jadin and Bishop Cuvelier produced numerous translations of documents for Central African history, including the letters of Afonso and missionary reports.

East Africa and the Horn of Africa

Beyene, Solomon Gebreyes. “The Chronicle of King Gälawdewos (1540–1559): A Critical Edition with Annotated Translation.” PhD dissertation. University of Hamburg, 2016.Find this resource:

Brooks, Miguel F. A Modern Translation of the Kebra Nagast (The Glory of Kings). Red Sea Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Collins, R. O. Eastern African History (A History in Documents). Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2016.Find this resource:

Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. The East African Coast: Select Documents from the First to the Earlier Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.Find this resource:

Gälawdewos. The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman [in English, translated from Ethiopic (Geez)]. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Tolmacheva, M., C. H. Stigand, and D. Weiler. The Pate Chronicle: Edited and Translated from Mss 177, 321, 344, and 358 of the Library of the University of Dar Es Salaam. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

South Africa

Beach, D. N. “Documents and African Society on the Zimbabwean Plateau before 1890.” Paideuma 33 (1987): 129–45.Find this resource:

Williams, John A. From the South African Past: Narratives, Documents, and Debates. Sources in Modern History Series. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.Find this resource:

Egypt and Nubia

Bagnall, R. S. Hellenistic and Roman Egypt: Sources and Approaches. Aldershot: Ashgate/Variorum, 2006.Find this resource:

van Gerven Oei, V. W. J., and V. P. Laisney eds. The Old Nubian Texts from Attiri. Goleta: Punctum Books, 2016.Find this resource:

Plant, Ian, and Boyo G. Ockinga. Egyptian Religion: The Greek and Latin Sources in Translation. Sheffield: Equinox, 2018.Find this resource:

Further Reading


Brett, Michael. Approaching African History. Rochester, NY: James Currey, 2013.Find this resource:

Delius, Peter, and Shula Marks. “Rethinking South Africa’s Past: Essays on History and Archaeology.” Journal of Southern African Studies 38, no. 2 (2012): 247–255.Find this resource:

Falola, T., and C. Jennings. Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Heintze, Beatrix, and Jones, Adam. eds. Special Edition: Proceedings of the symposium “European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa before 1900.” Paideuma 33 (1987).Find this resource:

Miller, J. C. The African Past Speaks: Essays on Oral Tradition and History. Folkestone: Dawson, 1980.Find this resource:

Philips, John Edward, ed. Writing African History. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Schwartz, Stuart B., ed. Implicit Understandings: Observing, Reporting, and Reflecting on the Encounters between Europeans and Other Peoples in the Early Modern Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Genealogy of Knowledge about Africa and Africans

Cohen, William B. The French Encounter with Africans: White Response to Blacks, 1530–1880. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.Find this resource:

Hansberry, William Leo, and Joseph S. Harris. Africa and Africans as Seen by Classical Writers. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1977.Find this resource:

Kuper, Adam. The Reinvention of Primitive Society: Transformations of a Myth. Florence: Taylor & Francis, 2017.Find this resource:

MacGaffey, Wyatt. “Constructing a Kongo Identity: Scholarship and Mythopeosis.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 58, no. 1 (2016): 159–180.Find this resource:

Mark, Peter. Africans in European Eyes: The Portrayal of Black Africans in Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Europe. Syracuse, NY: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, 1974.Find this resource:

Mbembe, Achille. Critique of Black Reason. Translated by Laurent Dubois. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Mercier, Roger. L’afrique Noire Dans La Littérature Française; Les Premières Images, XVIIe-XVIIIe Siècles. Université De Daker. Faculté Des Lettres Et Sciences Humaines. Publications De La Section De Langues Et Litteratures, No. 11. Dakar, 1962.Find this resource:

Mudimbe, V. Y. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. African Systems of Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.Find this resource:


(3.) Thomas Spear, “Methods and Sources for African History Revisited,” review of Writing African History, John Edward Philips, Journal of African History 47, no. 2 (2006): 306.

(4.) Wyatt MacGaffey, “African History, Anthropology, and the Rationality of Natives,” History in Africa 5 (1978): 103.

(5.) It is important to note that the term “paradoxography” is a modern invention and that in ancient and classical periods there was no distinct literary genre known as “paradoxography.” What modern readers understand as paradoxography, or descriptions of the fantastic or miraculous, in antiquity was known broadly as geography, a field that encompassed descriptions of places and people, to name “the mythological, zoological, ethnographic, and geological mirabilia and even organize them geographically or topologically, i.e. according to place.” The importance of place in ancient Greek ordering of the world reflects the understanding of the world in which paradoxa or “‘strange things’ only and always happen at certain places,” namely the peripheries of the world. Klaus Geus, “Paradoxography and Geography in Antiquity: Some Thoughts about the Pa­radoxographus Vaticanus,” in La letra y la carta: De­scripción verbal y representación gráfica en los diseños terrestres greco­la­ti­nos. Estudios en honor de Pietro Janni, ed. Francisco J. González Ponce, Francisco Javier Gó­mez Es­pe­lo­sín, and Antonio L. Chávez Reino (Sevilla: Universidad de Sevilla, 2016).

(8.) John Thornton, “Cannibals, Witches, and Slave Traders in the Atlantic World,” William and Mary Quarterly 60, no. 2 (2003): 273–294; and Gai Roufe, “The Reasons for a Murder: Local Cultural Conceptualizations of the Martyrdom of Gonçalo da Silveira in 1561,” Cahiers d’études Africaines 55, no. 219 (2015): 467–487.

(9.) The term originates from Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (written 1940) in which he rejected the idea of history as the continual march of progress, the opposite of barbarism. By contrast, Benjamin argued the European imposition of “progress” was itself barbaric. History, or the production of “tradition,” was a “tool of the ruling classes” to oppress the masses. In other words, history was written by the victors. As a result, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” To go beyond the elite version of the past, the historical materialist must “brush history against the grain.” A related concept is “history from below,” a largely Marxist approach to history which appeared contemporaneously in Great Britain. Beginning in the 1980s, members of the South Asian historiographical movement known as Subaltern Studies, particularly Ranajit Guha, applied the idea of reading sources “against the grain,” as a methodology to use colonial documents and historiography to recover the history of peasants, from the peasants’ point of view. The use of the term “subaltern” was coined by Antonio Gramsci in Prison Notebooks (written between 1929 and 1935) and subsequently developed by Marxist theory, postcolonial theory, and Subaltern Studies, particularly Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), Homi Bhabha’s essays (1996), and Gayatri Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak? (1988). Benjamin in: W. Benjamin and H. Arendt, Illuminations (New York: Random House, 1986); Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983); E. W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978); and Gyan Prakash, “Subaltern Studies as Postcolonial Criticism,” American Historical Review 99, no. 5 (1994): 1475–1490.

(10.) In Egypt and Mesopotamia in the late 4th century bce, China and Mesoamerica at the end of the second and first millennia bce respectively.

(11.) In the earliest states, less than 1 percent of the population was literate. J. Baines and C. J. Eyre, “Four Notes on Literacy,” Götinger Miszellen 61 (1983): 67 cited in Regulski, Ilona. 2016 “The Origins and Early Development of Writing in Egypt." Oxford Handbooks Online. 2 Oct. 2018; and Gil J. Stein, “Foreword,” in Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond, ed. C. Woods, G. Emberling, and E. Teeter (Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2010), 7.

(12.) John Dillery, “The First Egyptian Narrative History: Manetho and Greek Historiography,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 127 (1999): 110.

(13.) It is important to remember that the ability to write as an exclusive privilege was also the norm in Europe in most periods. In medieval Europe, literacy defined as the ability to read and write in Latin was restricted to around 2 percent of the population. Charlemagne could speak Latin but not write it. (He also spoke Old French and Old German, but neither was a written language at the time.) Even Tudor and Stuart England, as Keith Thomas pointed out years ago, was marked by the irony that the society produced Shakespeare, Milton, Locke, and Newton at “a time when a large, but as yet unknown, proportion of the population (perhaps between half and two thirds or adult males in the mid seventeenth century) was unable to read, or at least signed with a mark.” Literacy in Europe, particularly northern Europe, increased dramatically from the 17th century onward. Furthermore, even in Europe, until the 19th century, the spoken and written words were never far apart; writing was consumed orally, read aloud to a group. This was part of a tradition that stretched back to ancient Greece, where ancient documents were read aloud or performed orally. Franz H. Bäuml, “Varieties and Consequences of Medieval Literacy and Illiteracy,” Speculum 55, no. 2 (1980): 240. Medieval literacy rates are notoriously difficult to estimate. Building on decades of work on the subject, David Cressy estimates that in 16th-century England, 90 percent of men and 99 percent of women were illiterate in English. In the 1640s, 70 percent of males could not write their own names. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 4; D. Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); David Cressy, “Levels of Illiteracy in England, 1530–1730,” Historical Journal 20, no. 1 (1977): 4; David Cressy, “Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England: More Evidence,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 8, no. 1 (1977): 144; Matthew Innes, “Memory, Orality and Literacy in an Early Medieval Society,” Past & Present, 158 (1998); and Rosalind Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece, Key Themes in Ancient History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

(14.) Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, “Literacy,” (2018).

(15.) Vague designations such as A, C, and X Group, Pan Grave, and Kerma culture reveal the imprecise nature of our knowledge concerning the populations that were resident in Nubia over the centuries. It is not yet clear how the Blemmyes, first mentioned in Greek and demotic documents in the 3rd century bc, related to their predecessors in Nubia: the A Group (3500–3000 bce), the C Group (2500–1500 bce), the Pan Grave culture (1800–1600 bce), and the Kerma peoples (2500–1500 bce). The arrival of the Noubade people from an area west of the Nile, perhaps as early as the 3rd century bce, further complicated the picture as attributing sites and inscriptions to the Blemmyes or Noubade during the period in which the Nubian inscriptions were dedicated is still a contentious issue. Solange Ashby Bumbaugh, Calling Out to Isis: The Enduring Nubian Presence at Philae (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2016), 1; Stanley M. Burstein, “When Greek Was an African Language: The Role of Greek Culture in Ancient and Medieval Nubia,” Journal of World History 19, no. 1 (2008); and László Török, The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization, Handbuch der Orientalistik. Erste Abteilung, Der Nahe und Mittlere Osten; Handbook of Oriental studies. The Near and Middle East (Leiden and New York: Brill, 1997).

(16.) The Naqada III-era Tomb U-j at Abydos (c. 3250 bce) is the earliest known site of hieroglyphic writing. The resemblance between the hieroglyphics at Abydos and earlier cylinder seals from the Naqada II–III period (3800–3300 bce) indicate that Egyptians invented writing independently during this period. The orientation of Egyptian writing to speech took place gradually over the course of nearly a millennium, with the earliest example from c. 3250 bce and the earliest known complete sentence dating to around 2690 bce. The designation of Tomb U-j as the oldest site of writing has to do with how scholars have defined writing, as the use of signs for phonetic value, in other words, as “the ability to represent language graphically, to make language visible, stands as one of humanity’s greatest intellectual and cultural achievements.” Precisely when writing was invented depends on one’s definition of writing. The famous Narmer Palette, for example, may or may not be considered writing. The text on the object is interpreted to represent the unification of Egypt in Dynasty 0 before c. 3150 bce. The text itself, however, “can be read as no more than ‘King Narmer’.” This debate raises the larger question of decorated ceremonial objects, which scholars use to investigate the relationship between texts and images in “the nascent stages of both mediums.” Elise V. MacArthur, “The Conception and Development of the Egyptian Writing System,” in Visible Language, ed. Woods, Emberling, and Teeter, 118; Christopher Woods, “Visible Language: the Earliest Writing Systems,” in Visible Language, ed. Woods, Emberling, and Teeter, 15; and Janet H. Johnson, “Egyptian Hieroglyphic Writing,” in Visible Language, ed. Woods, Emberling, and Teeter, 150.

(17.) See notably the work of Günter Dreyer, who claimed to have discovered the origin of writing during excavations of tomb U-j. His claim was based on the discovery of inventory tags made from bone or ivory inscribed with signs representing people and animals as well as numbers. The tags are believed to have been attached to commodities, denoting type and quantity of the goods. Dreyer argued the inscriptions, which dated to the Nagada IId period, corresponded to a tradition of record keeping found on cylinder seals. The inscriptions, therefore, were a predecessor to the later development of hieroglyphics, a kind of proto-hieroglyphics dating from the Nagada IId period. Dreyer’s thesis was initially controversial due to the prevalence, at the time, of the notion that writing was invented in Mesopotamia, from where it spread to Egypt. Scholars now agree that Egypt independently invented writing and the invention took place over a long period of time. G. Dreyer, Umm el-Qaab I: das prädynastische Königsgrab U-j und seine frühen Schriftzeugnisse (Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1998). On the controversy, see: Mattessich, Richard. “THE OLDEST WRITINGS, AND INVENTORY TAGS OF EGYPT,” The Accounting Historians Journal 29, no. 1 (2002): 195–208; For a more recent interpretation, see: MacArthur, Elise V. “The Conception and Development of the Egyptian Writing System,” in Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond, ed. C. Woods, G. Emberling, and E. Teeter. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2010, 115–136.

(18.) John Coleman Darnell’s recent (2014–2015) discovery of the earliest monumental hieroglyphs at El-Khawy, near the ancient Egyptian city of Elkab, located across the Nile River from Hierankonpolis, demonstrates that the use of hieroglyphs was more widespread than previously known and that writing was not developed primarily for bureaucratic use. See the Elkab Sesert Survey Project (EDSP).

(19.) The largest body of early cursive writing in Egypt, and almost half of the inscribed stone vessels from the First and Second dynasties, come from the 40,000 stone vessels discovered under the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Those from the Second Dynasty mention individuals, provenances, destinations, and accounts, as well as references to the ceremonies in which the vessels were used. The earliest surviving papyrus roll, from the First Dynasty tomb of Hemaka (c. 2900 bce), is blank. The oldest surviving papyrus rolls with text are administrative documents from the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2500 bce). Ilona Regulski, “The Beginning of Hieratic Writing in Egypt,” Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 38 (2009): 262.

(20.) Johnson, “Egyptian Hieroglyphic Writing,” 150–154.

(21.) A letter (probably Twelfth Dynasty c. 1839–1878 bce) of instruction from the royal scribe, Nebremare-nakht, to his apprentice Wenemdiamun, not only highlights the prestige attached to being a scribe but also describes the lives of the washerman, the maker of pots, the cobbler, the watchman, the merchants, the ships crews, the carpenter. The message of Nebmare-nakht’s advice is clear: it is better to be a scribe than any other profession. Nebmare-nakht, “Advice from a Royal Scribe to his Apprentice Middle Kingdom Egypt, Twelfth Dynasty,” in Africa in World History: From Prehistory to the Present, ed. E. Gilbert and J. T. Reynolds (Pearson, 2012), 72–73.

(22.) John Baines, “The Earliest Egyptian Writing: Development, Context, Purpose,” in The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process, ed. S. D. Houston (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 184–185.

(23.) Jacke Phillips, “Punt and Aksum: Egypt and the Horn of Africa,” Journal of African History 38, no. 3 (1997).

(24.) Phillips, “Punt and Aksum: Egypt and the Horn of Africa.”

(25.) Brett, Approaching African History, 96.

(26.) If the most famous portrayal of Punt is on the walls of the temple of Queen Hatshepsut (1473–1458 bce), the earliest reference is a millennium earlier. The “Palermo Stone” of the Fifth Dynasty ruler Sahure (2458–2446 bce) lists Puntite imports: “There was brought from … Punt: myrrh ('ntyw), 8o,ooo [measures]; electrum, 6,ooo [measures]; sn-ssmt, 2,000 [measures]; staves, 23,020.” Together, Egyptians refer to Punt as a “mining region” from which one could procure myrrh, sn-ssmt (yet unidentified, probably wooden staves or ebony), herbs, ivory, baboons, monkeys, hounds, southern leopard-skins, and slaves including a “pygmy.” One reason it is difficult to locate Punt is because the latter was often associated (or confused) with another of Egypt’s southern neighbors, Yam. For example, the reliefs on Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri describe bringing back gold from ‘m, or Yam. A Sixth Dynasty nobleman from Aswan named Harkhuf described Yam, I’m, in his autobiography. Harkhuf claimed he reached Yam by traveling south of Aswan for seven and eight months respectively, returning to Egypt with trade goods including incense, ebony, heknu (oil), grain, panthers, ivory, throw-sticks, and dwarf/pygmies. Phillips, “Punt and Aksum: Egypt and the Horn of Africa.” On extant descriptions of Punt, see Phillips, “Punt and Aksum: Egypt and the Horn of Africa”; Stanley Balanda, “The So-Called ‘Mine of Punt’ and Its Location,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 42 (2005); Pearce Paul Creasman, “Hatshepsut and the Politics of Punt,” African Archaeological Review 31, no. 3 (2014); and T. Shaw, The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns (Routledge, 1993), ch. 35. On Yam, see B. Sall, “Herkouf et le pays de Yam,” Ankh. Revue d’egyptologie et des civilisations Africaines no. 4–5 (1996): 56–71; and Julien Cooper, “Reconsidering the Location of Yam,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 48 (2012): 5–6.

(27.) Cooper, “Reconsidering the Location of Yam”; Kathryn A. Bard and Rodolfo Fattovich, “The Land of Punt and Recent Archaeological and Textual Evidence from the Pharaonic Harbour at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Egypt,” in Human Expeditions, Inspired by Bruce Trigger, ed. Costopoulos Andre and Chrisomalis Stephen (University of Toronto Press, 2013); and Kathryn A. Bard and Fattovich Rodolfo, “Mersa/Wadi Gawasis and Ancient Egyptian Maritime Trade in the Red Sea,” Near Eastern Archaeology 78, no. 1 (2015).

(28.) They uncovered hieroglyphic and hieratic texts on stelae, seal impressions, ostraca, and pottery dating from the Twelfth Dynasty. They conclude that the “location of Punt” was “somewhere in the Mareb/Gash or Barka valleys as far as the western slope of central Eritrea in the mid-second millennium bce. The name of the population (Hbsty.w) might correspond to that of the Habashat, who were incorporated into the Aksumite kingdom in the mid-First millennium.” Kathryn A. Bard and Rodolfo Fattovich, “The Middle Kingdom Red Sea Harbor at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 47 (2011); Rodolfo Fattovich, “The Northern Horn of Africa in the First Millennium bce: Local Traditions and External Connections,” Rassegna di Studi Etiopici 4 (2012): 13; and Bard and Fattovich, “Mersa/Wadi Gawasis and Ancient Egyptian Maritime Trade in the Red Sea.”

(29.) Descriptions suggest there was a “king” and “queen” of equal status. The New Kingdom inscription about wrw (chiefs) further suggests “the existence of small-scale hierarchical societies in that region.” Fattovich, “The Northern Horn of Africa in the First Millennium bce,” 13.

(30.) It is unclear whether this referred to A Group or C Group. Török, The Kingdom of Kush, 39.

(31.) Burstein, “When Greek Was an African Language.”

(32.) László Török, Herodotus in Nubia, Mnemosyne, supplements; Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava Supplementum (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014), 4–5; and Burstein, “When Greek Was an African Language,” 43.

(33.) Fattovich, “The Northern Horn of Africa in the First Millennium bce.”

(34.) The spread of Afroasiatic languages across Africa is contested. Dimmendaal suggests that population movement during the desertification of the Sahara to Wadi Howar led to contact between Afroasiatic speakers and Nilo-Saharan speakers, resulting in the unique distribution of shared typological features shared by Afroasiatic Ethiopian languages and Nilo-Saharan languages. Ehret, by contrast, proposes that an initial expansion westward across the northern Sahara was followed by a southward migration to the Lake Chad Basin, and from there throughout northeast Africa. Either way, Semitic languages developed in Africa, not the Middle East. Rodolfo Fattovich, “The Development of Ancient States in the Northern Horn of Africa, c. 3000 bc–ad 1000: An Archaeological Outline,” Journal of World Prehistory 23, no. 3 (2010): 147; Fattovich, “The Northern Horn of Africa in the First Millennium bce,” 4–5; and Gerrit Jan Dimmendaal, “A Note on the Spreading of Afroasiatic,” in 5000 Jahre Semitohamitistik, ed. Rainer Voigt (Cologne: Shaker Verlag, 2016).

(35.) Janet H. Johnson, “Egyptian Demotic Script,” in Visible Language, ed. Woods, Emberling, and Teeter, 149–151.

(36.) Dillery, “The First Egyptian Narrative History.”

(37.) First-century author Diodorus (1.81.1–6) noted that Egyptian priests taught their sons sacred writing (hieroglyphics or hieratic) as well as demotic.

(38.) Christopher L. Miller, Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 8.

(39.) In the Odyssey, Homer wrote (i.21–25): But now

  • Poseidon had gone to visit the Ethiopians worlds away.
  • Ethiopians off at the farthest limits of mankind,
  • A people split in two, one part where the Sungod sets
  • And one part where the Sungod rises. There Poseidon went
  • To receive an offering, bulls and rams by the hundred –
  • Far away at the feast of the Sea-lord sat and took his pleasure.

An alternative translation reads “a race divided, whom the sloping rays; the rising and the setting sun surveys.” Homer’s Odyssey (i.22–24), in Homer: The Odyssey, ed. Robert Fagles and Bernard Knox (New York: Penguin, 1999). For Greek monsters before Herodotus, see Jenny Strauss Clay, “The Generation of Monsters in Hesiod,” Classical Philology 88, no. 2 (1993). Information on the “two Ethiopias” draws heavily on: Malvern Van Wyk Smith, “‘Waters Flowing From Darkness’: The Two Ethiopias in the Early European Image of Africa,” Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, 68 (1986): 68–69; and William Leo Hansberry and Joseph S. Harris, Africa and Africans as Seen by Classical Writers, The William Leo Hansberry African History Notebook, Vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1977).

(40.) Homer refers to Aithiopia twice in the Iliad and three times in the Odyssey. Later in the Odyssey, Homer describes Menelaus’s eight-year peregrination to “Cyprus, Phoenicia, even Egypt, I reached the Ethiopians, Sidonians, Erembians – Libya too” (4.81–84).

(41.) Many of these works are no longer extant, such as the Ethiopis of Arctinus Miletus (c. 775–741 bce), said to have been a pupil of Homer, Scylax of Caryanda’s mention of “Aethiopians” in 515 bce. Hecataeus of Miletus’s (c. 500 bce) book on Aethiopia is lost, though later authors quote him as stating Aethiopia was located east of the Nile, inhabited by Sciapods, whose feet were large enough to serve as umbrellas to shade them from the equatorial sun. Apollonius’ Argonautica (3rd century bce): Far in the west the sun was sinking beneath the dark/earth, beyond the farthest hills of the Ethiopians.” Hansberry and Harris, Africa and Africans as Seen by Classical Writers, 5–8.

Extant works include Hesiod’s (c. 750–650 bce) Theogony and Works and Days in which he referred to Memnon as the “King of Aethiopia”; Aeschylus’s (c. 525–456 bce) Prometheus Bound describes:

  • To a far land, a dark-skinned race, that dwell
  • Beside the fountains of the sun, whence flows
  • The river Ethiops: follow its banks
  • Until thou comest to the steep-down slope
  • Where from the Bibline mountains Nilus old
  • Pours the sweet waters of his holy stream.
  • And thou, the river guiding thee, shalt come
  • To the three-sided, wedge-shaped land of Nile

Additional works include Quintus’s 4th-century Posthomerica and Virgil’s Aeneid (c. 29–19 bce). Török, Herodotus in Nubia, 91–92.

(42.) Homer’s notion of geography is best represented by the shield of Achilles described in the 8th-century bce epic poem the Iliad. Jerry Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps (New York: Penguin Books, 2014). In the Iliad, Homer located the “Aethiopians” geographically with the edges of the earth, next to the “Ocean River” that surrounded the world. Iliad 1.423–424:

Only yesterday Zeus went off to the Ocean River

to feast with the Aethiopians, loyal, lordly men,

and all of the gods went with him.

Iliad 23.205–207:

No time for sitting now. No, I must return

to the Ocean’s running stream, the Aethiopians’ land.

They are making a splendid sacrifice to the gods—

I must not miss my share of the sacred feast.

On the narrative purpose of Ethiopia in the Iliad, see Ruth Scodel, “The Gods’ Visit to the Ethiopians in ‘Iliad’ 1,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 103 (2007).

(43.) Beginning with Parmenides (c. 540–480 bce) and later articulated by Aristotle (4th century bce), ancient Greeks divided the world into seven climate zones (climata) delimited by horizontal parallel lines. M. T. Nurminen and J. Nurminen, The Mapmakers’ World: A Cultural History of the European World Map (Oxford: Pool of London Press, 2015), 37.

(44.) At the turn of the 2nd century ce, Plutarch would look back on Herodotus as philobarbus, barbarian lover, for his (relatively) sympathetic portrayal of barbarian groups. Herodotus’s mother was a Carian from western Asian Minor, making Herodotus half-barbarian in the eyes of his contemporaries. Kuper, The Reinvention of Primitive Society, 17.

(45.) Herodotus’s portrayal of Nubians was largely positive, writing that Meroë was “said to be the capital city of the Ethiopians” and Nubians were “said to be the tallest and handsomest men in the whole world” (3.114.1). Herodotus, Histories iii.17–24 A. De Sélincourt, Herodotus: the Histories (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1954), 182; Van Wyk Smith, “‘Waters Flowing From Darkness’”; D. A. Welsby, The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires (London: British Museum Press, 2002); and David N. Edwards, “Meroe and the Sudanic Kingdoms,” Journal of African History 39, no. 2 (1998).

(46.) Herodotus’s historical narrative of Libya began with the story of the discovery of Libya first by the Phoenicians, followed by the Carthaginians under the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia, when King Xerxes gave Sataspes a punishment worse than impalement in ordering him to circumnavigate Libya. Sataspes reported “that at the most southerly point they had reached they found the coast occupied by small men, who wore clothes made from palm leaves.” These “pygmies” possessed cattle. Another historical story is about the Persian emperor Cambyses’s planned expedition against the “Ethiopians” south of Egypt; he claims that Cambyses sent for Ichthyophagi or Fish-Eaters “from the city of Elephantine who understood the Ethiopian language” to travel to the king of Ethiopia as spies (3.20).

(47.) Török, Herodotus in Nubia, 113.

(48.) For Greek monsters before Herodotus, see Clay, “The Generation of Monsters in Hesiod.”

(49.) On the historical methodology of Herodotus, see D. Lateiner, The Historical Method of Herodotus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989).

(50.) Török, Herodotus in Nubia, 113.

(51.) Brett, Approaching African History, 96.

(52.) Herodotus, Histories, 2.29.1

(53.) Herodotus, Histories, 3.116.3.

(54.) Herodotus was most detailed in his description of the “sand-belt” of eastern Libya which was inhabited by pastoral tribes, including the Giligamae, the Asbystae, and the cattle-rearing Nasamones. Regarding the Libyans of North Africa, Herodotus claimed “thus far I am able to give the names of the tribes who inhabit the sand-belt, but beyond this point my knowledge fails.” Further south and inland “in the part of Libya where the wild beasts are found, live the Garamante” who “hunt the Ethiopian hole-men, or troglodytes, in four-horse chariots, for these troglodytes are exceedingly swift on foot … they eat snakes and lizards and other reptiles and speak a language like nothing upon earth —might be bats screeching.” There were also the Atarantes, “the only people in the world without names.” As for the coast of Libya, inhabited by nomads, he said “I only repeat in all this what is said by the Libyans” (305). The interior of Africa was more mysterious and Herodotus’s description therefore more ambiguous:

the country round here, and the rest of Libya to the westward, has more forest and a greater number of wild animals than the region which the nomads occupy … It is here that the huge snakes are found—and lions, elephants, bears, asps, and horned asses, not to mention dog-headed men, headless men with eyes in their breasts […] wild men and wild women, and a great many other creatures by no means of a fabulous kind. (4.191)

Herodotus’s descriptions of the fabulous included another warning: “I don’t vouch for this, but merely repeat what the Libyans say” (4.191).

(55.) On the historical methodology of Herodotus, see Lateiner, The Historical Method of Herodotus.

(56.) Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps.

(57.) L. Casson, The Periplus Maris Erythraei: Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Princeton University Press, 2012), 7.

(58.) Hansberry and Harris, Africa and Africans as Seen by Classical Writers, 5–8.

(59.) Hansberry and Harris, Africa and Africans as Seen by Classical Writers, 5–8; and Richard L. Smith, “What Happened to the Ancient Libyans? Chasing Sources across the Sahara from Herodotus to Ibn Khaldun,” Journal of World History 14, no. 4 (2003): 464.

(60.) Like Herodotus, Diodorus did visit the Upper Nile River Valley. Like Herodotus, Diodorus drew on Homer, quoting the Iliad’s description of Ethiopia, as well as his own creativity to describe Libyans and Ethiopians. F. Hartog and J. Lloyd, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009).

(61.) C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus of Sicily: The Library of History Books II.35–IV.58 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), iii.247; and Hartog and Lloyd, The Mirror of Herodotus.

(62.) P. E. Tillinghast, Approaches to History: Selections in the Philosophy of History from the Greeks to Hegel (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 8.

(63.) Quoted in Smith, “What Happened to the Ancient Libyans?,” 465.

(64.) (Geography II, 5.33) Quoted in Smith, “What Happened to the Ancient Libyans?”

(65.) Smith, “What Happened to the Ancient Libyans?,” 465.

(66.) Quoted in Smith, “What Happened to the Ancient Libyans?,”483.

(67.) Herodotus dismissed ideological projections of geographical realities, writing “I cannot but be surprised at the method of mapping Libya, Asia, and Europe,” one that was based on philosophy rather than observation. Strabo explained that writing “the science of Geography” is “a concern of the philosopher” because the knowledge required was “possessed solely by the man who has investigated things both human and divine.” Herodotus paused a discussion of Persia to gest: “I cannot help but laugh at the absurdity of all the map-makers—there are plenty of them—who show Ocean running like a river round a perfectly circular earth, with Asia and Europe of the same size.” De Sélincourt, Herodotus: the Histories, 253; Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps, 27–28; and Strabo, The Geography of Strabo, 1.1.1., trans. Horace Leonard Jones (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1917–1932) quoted in Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps, 22. For Strabo’s own conception of the world, see J. Lennart Berggren and Alexander Jones, Ptolemy’s Geography: An Annotated Translation of the Theoretical Chapters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 32–33.

(68.) The work of the latter, Eratosthenes, though no longer extant, according to Ptolemy was the major source of geographical knowledge for the ancient works of geography. Indeed, Ptolemy wrote in the Almagest that the understanding of the known world, the oikoumené, had not changed since that of Eratosthenes.

(69.) Ptolemy introduced, as far as we know, the use of latitude and longitude for plotting features of the known world as well as devising a method for projecting a two-dimensional representation of the earth’s curvature. Ptolemy assumed his reader understood the two-sphere model of the cosmos, in which the heavens rotated around the earth. The earth itself did not move, and thus the horizon was a fixed tangent plane along the axis of rotation of the celestial sphere, known as latitude. Ptolemy’s Almagest applied mathematical calculation to the movement of the heavenly bodies, essentially a system of latitude and longitude, which he later applied to cartography in the Geography. Ptolemy’s Geography set out instructions for map making, addressed the problem of projecting the globe onto a two-dimensional surface, and provided a catalogue of latitude and longitude for over 8,000 locations in the known world. This system allowed Greek astronomers to calculate latitude using the sun or North Star; they fairly accurately defined the latitudes of the equator, the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and the North and South poles. Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps; and Berggren and Jones, Ptolemy’s Geography.

(70.) Some historians believe the 13th-century Byzantine copies of the Geography contain the first cartographic illustrations. Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps, 20.

(71.) Nurminen and Nurminen, The Mapmakers’ World: A Cultural History of the European World Map, ch. 1; and Berggren and Jones, Ptolemy’s Geography, 19.

(72.) Edith Hall in her seminal study writes that “Greek writing about barbarians is usually an exercise in self-definition.” Chauvot reminds scholars that it is impossible to create a single definition of the word “barbarian” to encompass the way it was used by every author. Yet insofar as generalization is possible, the concept of the barbarian was tied, throughout this history, to the self-definitions of the groups invoking it. A. Chauvot, Opinions romaines face aux barbares au IVe siècle ap. J.-C (De Boccard, 1998). A good discussion can be found in Marie-Claude L’Archer, “Les Barbares dans le De gubernatione dei de Salvien de Marseille” (Master’s Thesis, Department of History, Université de Montréal, 2010), 50. Hall quoted in Kuper, The Reinvention of Primitive Society, 16; and E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition Through Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

(73.) Kuper, The Reinvention of Primitive Society, 17.

(74.) Aristotle articulated a main characteristic of the barbarian: barbarians lived in tyranny “because the people are by nature slaves.” Aristotle quoted in Kuper, The Reinvention of Primitive Society, 18.

(75.) Timothy Fitzgerald, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 109.

(76.) The Napatan Dynasty was previously known as the Ethiopian Dynasty, the Black Pharaohs, or, following Manetho, the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty. Following criticism the latter term merely incorporated Nubian history into that of ancient Egypt, the term “Napatan Dynasty” was adopted.

(77.) Such as the inscription of Aspalta becoming King of Kush c. 600 bce.

(78.) The latest-known example of demotic writing is a graffito at the temple of Isis at Philae dated 452 ce. Bumbaugh, Calling Out to Isis.

(79.) The earliest surviving Meroitic hieroglyphic inscription is the name of Queen Shanakdakheto in Temple F at Naqa which can be dated to the late 2nd century bce. L. Török, Der Nahe und Mittlere Osten (New York: Brill, 1997), 62–64.

(80.) Strabo, Geography, XVII.i.52–53, ii.4–5; IVIII.i.12–13; Pliny, Natural History, XXIX; Dio Cassius, History of Rome, LIV.v.4–6; Procopius of Caesarea: History of the Wars, c. 550 ce. Book I.xix.1, 17–22, 27–37, xx.1–13. See the Fordham Sourcebook for African History.

(81.) The Kushite account of the battles survives in the British Museum, in Meroitic, as well as on inscriptions on a memorial temple (M 292) in the Royal Enclosure at Meroe, which not only depicted the queen seated over bound Roman prisoners but also was built upon a bronze head of Augustus taken from Syene (Aswan). Török, The Kingdom of Kush, 448–467, 452 n. 246; Burstein, “When Greek Was an African Language,” 51.

(82.) Evidence of Nubians in the Aegean goes back to the second millennium bce. However, direct contact with Greek speakers began in 593 bce when the Egyptian king Tsamtek II (Twenty-Sixth Dynasty) hired Greek mercenaries to attack Nubia. Their role is immortalized in graffiti on the colossi of Ramses II at Abu Simbel. Burstein, “When Greek Was an African Language.”

(83.) Diodorus’s description (3.6) of the confrontation at Meröe between the Greek-educated king, Ergamenes—Arqamani—and the priesthood of Amon, attributed Ergamene’s victory to his Greek learning. He went so far as to call Meröe a “little Nubian Alexandria.”

(84.) Examples of his poetry survive in inscriptions on the walls of local temples at Kalabsh and Hiera Sycaminos. Macimus quoted in Burstein, “When Greek Was an African Language,” 51.

(85.) Meroitic itself appears to have been limited to royal and religious spheres; the most numerous Meroitic texts were funerary inscriptions followed by royal texts and administrative documents. David N. Edwards, The Nubian Past: An Archaeology of the Sudan (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 160–161; 76–79.

(86.) Burstein, “When Greek Was an African Language,” 61.

(87.) It is interesting to note that all but two tombstones at Qasr Ibrim commemorate women, and use of Coptic in funerary inscriptions suggests Coptic came into use in the 7th century, and the inscriptions themselves have much in common with funerary inscriptions from Aswan. There is also evidence of Islamic influence on earlier stela. One stela from the 9th century, to a woman Semne, uses both the Islamic opening bismillah and the Coptic language. J. van der Vliet, The Christian Epigraphy of Egypt and Nubia (London: Taylor & Francis, 2018); and Alain Delattre, Jitse Dijkstra, and Jacques van der Vliet, “Christian Inscriptions from Egypt and Nubia 1 (2013),” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 51 (2014).

(88.) The excavation of Qasr Ibrim shed light on over a millennium of religious change in Nubia. Located along the major trade route between Nubia and Upper Egypt, Qasr Ibrim was the site of a temple to local deity Taharqo in the Napatan Dynasty (7th century bce). Roman prefect in Egypt Petronius’ sacked Qasr Ibrim during campaigns against the Meroites in the 1st century ce. Under Roman rule, temples were rebuilt to a variety of cults including Amun, which became a pilgrimage center for Meroitic and Egyptian pilgrims (2nd–5th centuries ce). Qasr Ibrim was one of the last centers of the old Nubian religion following the conversion to Christianity in the 6th century, after which it was home to a cathedral, twice captured by the Egyptians (956 and 1173). In the chaotic post-Meroitic period, Qasr Ibrim was an important population center throughout the early medieval period, as well as a stronghold against Islamic rule, which it successfully resisted until the 16th century Ottoman invasion. An archaeological trove, Qasr Ibrim was home to the majority of Meroitic texts discovered during excavations in addition to Egyptian demotic texts, including letters to the oracle of Amun. It is home of latest dated documentary source, of 1484, which names numerous Christian officials including the Bishop of Qasr Ibrim. Edwards, The Nubian Past, 128, 216, 248.

(89.) The gradual movement of Prester John from India to Ethiopia, two continents which were often represented as connected, occurred between the 14th and 16th centuries. The earliest map to locate Prester John in Ethiopia is that of Giovanni da Garigano, Rector of the Church of Saint Mark, who met King Wadem Ar’ad of Ethiopia around 1306. His treatise based on the meeting is lost but his map, 1329, showing Prester John in Ethiopia is extant. Benjamin Braude, “The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods,” William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (1997), 126; and Peter Mark, Africans in European Eyes: The Portrayal of Black Africans in Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Europe (Syracuse, NY: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, 1974), 27.

(90.) Phillips, “Punt and Aksum: Egypt and the Horn of Africa.”

(91.) Evidence indicates that Kosmas did visit Ethiopia, though he drew on Greek and Biblical geographical knowledge. Selections of the Periplus and Kosmas Indicopleustes are translated in R. O. Collins, Eastern African History (New York: Markus Wiener, 1991).

(92.) Fattovich, “The Northern Horn of Africa in the First Millennium bce”; Eivind Heldaas Seland, “Early Christianity in East Africa and Red Sea/Indian Ocean Commerce,” African Archaeological Review 31, no. 4 (2014); and Fattovich, “The Development of Ancient States in the Northern Horn of Africa, c. 3000 bc–ad 1000.”

(93.) The story told in early sources was that two shipwrecked Syrian Christians, Frumentius and Aedisius, converted Ezana to Christianity. Though Syrians, the pair were members of the church in Alexandria. Frumentius returned to Egypt, called for a mission to Aksum, and was named the first bishop of the Upper Nile region. The earliest documentary source is the Church History of Rufinus, c. 400 ce, which the author claimed was based on the testimony of Aedesius of Tyre. Rufinus’s narrative is repeated in the later Ge’ez liturgical text of the Synaxarium of the Ethiopian Church. Additionally, a letter dated c. 353 ce refers to Frumentius as the Bishop of Aksum. Seland, “Early Christianity in East Africa and Red Sea/Indian Ocean Commerce,” 639; and Steven Kaplan, “Dominance and Diversity: Kingship, Ethnicity, and Christianity in Orthodox Ethiopia,” Church History and Religious Culture 89, no. 1/3 (2009).

(94.) Historians debate the origins of the myth related in the Kebre Negast. Steven Kaplan argues the Kebre Nagast as Ethiopian national legend was composed in the 6th century by the Aksumite ruler Kaleb. H. G. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia (University of California Press, 1994), 17; Kaplan, “Dominance and Diversity”; and Stuart Munro-Hay, “A Sixth Century Kebra Nagast?,” Annales d’Éthiopie XVII (2001): 43–58.

(95.) For critical editions of both Chronicles, see S. D. A. A. Q. ʻArabfaqīh, P. Stenhouse, and R. Pankhurst, The Conquest of Abyssinia: 16th Century (Tsehai Publishers & Distributors, 2003); and Solomon Gebreyes Beyene, “The Chronicle of King Gälawdewos (1540–1559): A Critical Edition with Annotated Translation,” PhD diss. (University of Hamburg, 2016).

(96.) Gälawdewos, The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015). See also Selamawit Mecca, “Hagiographies of Ethiopian Female Saints: With Special Reference to ‘Gädlä Krestos Sämra’ and ‘Gädlä Feqertä Krestos’,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 18, no. 2 (2006).

(97.) S.A. Getahun and W.T. Kassu, Culture and Customs of Ethiopia (ABC-CLIO, 2014), 60–64.

(98.) John O. Hunwick, “A Region of the Mind: Medieval Arab Views of African Geography and Ethnography and their Legacy,” Sudanic Africa 16 (2005), 103.

(99.) The system of astronomy divided the world into calculable rectangular areas of latitude and longitude. Ptolemy defined but did not use it in the Geographia, and applied it to the terrestrial sphere in the Almagest. John O. Hunwick, “A Region of the Mind: Medieval Arab Views of African Geography and Ethnography and their Legacy,” Sudanic Africa 16 (2005), 107; and J. F. P. Hopkins and N. Levtzion, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2000), xviii.

(100.) Ptolemy was reintroduced to Europe in the early 13th century by English-born monk Johannes de Sacrobosco (c. 1195–1256) who adopted Ptolemy’s doctrines, adapting them for a Christian audience in Tractatus de Sphaera.

(101.) Hunwick divides Arabic-language documentary sources for precolonial African history into categories: those conceived of as practical guidebooks for travelers such as Ibn Khurradadhbih (c. 885), Ibn Hawqal (c. 977), and al-Bakri’s (1087) account of the region between the River Senegal and the River Niger; historical works such as Ibn Abd al-Hakam (d. 871), al-Yaqubi (written 891), or the most well-known Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406); others such as Abu ‘l-Fida (written 1321), al-Dimashqi (d. 1321), al-Umari (written 1337), and al-Qalqashandi (d. 1418) were “arm-chair encyclopaedists.” Hunwick, “A Region of the Mind,” 108.

(102.) H. M. Kheir El-Hag, “A Contribution to a Textual Problem: ‘Ibn Sulaym al-Aswwani’s Kitab Akhbar al-Nuba wa-l-Maqurra wa-l-Beja wa-l-Nil’,” Arabica 36, no. 1 (1989).

(104.) D. Nurse, T. Spear, and T. T. Spear, The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800–1500 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 28; and Edward Pollard and Okeny Charles Kinyera, “The Swahili Coast and the Indian Ocean Trade Patterns in the 7th–10th Centuries ce,” Journal of Southern African Studies 43, no. 5 (2017).

(106.) A shortened Arabic text was published in Rome in 1592, an Italian translation in 1600, Latin in 1619 published in Paris. Hunwick, “A Region of the Mind,” 112, 17.

(107.) He wrote in Italian in 1550 followed by a French translation in 1556 and Latin the same year followed by English in 1600. Hunwick, “A Region of the Mind,” 117–118.

(109.) Al-Idrisi, following Ptolemy, located the source of the Nile at a lake near the “Mountains of the Moon,” located south of the equator. Unlike Ptolemy, al-Idrisi did not believe the land south of the equator was inhabitable, and thus left the remainder of the interior of Africa blank, “a country where there is only desert and sand.” Nurminen and Nurminen, The Mapmakers’ World, 46–47.

(110.) Ibn Kaldun likewise repeated al-Idrisi’s description. Hunwick, “A Region of the Mind,” 109–112.

(111.) The climes and regions (iqlīm and kishwar) were “a kind of abstract cosmic ideal lacking an immediate relationship with the real world.” Hopkins and Levtzion, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, xviii.

(112.) Al-Dimashqī in: Hopkins and Levtzion, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, 205. Quoted in Hunwick, “A Region of the Mind,” 110.

(113.) In the 14th century, Syrian writer Al-Dimashqi (d. 1327) followed classical sources in writing “the equatorial region is inhabited by communities of Blacks who are to be numbered among the savages and beasts. Their complexions and hair are burnt and they are physically and morally deviant.”Al-Dimashqi quoted in Hunwick, “A Region of the Mind,” 127.

(114.) Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadhani quoted in: Hunwick, “A Region of the Mind,” 126–127.

(115.) For example, 11th-century Baghdad physician Ibn Butlan wrote of the Zanj women: “The blacker they are, the uglier they are.” The Zaghawa “are worse than the Zanj or any other type of Blacks.” By contrast, he praised “Abyssinian” and Nubian women for being beautiful and submissive. For descriptions of the stereotypes, see Hunwick, “A Region of the Mind,” 120–124.

(116.) Hunwick, “A Region of the Mind,” 133–134.

(117.) Smith, “What Happened to the Ancient Libyans?”

(118.) On the difficulty of using ethnonyms and toponyms in ancient and medieval sources, see Smith, “What Happened to the Ancient Libyans?”

(119.) John O. Hunwick, “West Africa and the Arabic Language,” Sudanic Africa 15 (2004): 133.

(120.) Hunwick, “West Africa and the Arabic Language.”

(122.) Examples of Ajami, including Sudani calligraphic script, Fulfulde, and Hassani (a local dialect that incorporates words in Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg) manuscripts are published in the Timbuktu Manuscript project. See Jeppie, Shamil, and Souleymane Bachir Diagne. The Meanings of Timbuktu (Cape Town: HSRC Press in association with CODESRIA, 2008).

(123.) J.M. Mugane, The Story of Swahili (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015).

(124.) Mugane, The Story of Swahili, 189–190.

(125.) Jeppie and Diagne, The Meanings of Timbuktu:, ch. 7; and Bruce S. Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960, (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 70; For an alternative argument, see: M. A. Gomez, African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

(126.) Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960, 70.

(127.) P. F. de Moraes Farias, Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali: Epigraphy, Chronicles and Songhay-Tuareg History (Oxford: Oxford University Press/British Academy, 2004).

(128.) de Moraes Farias, Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali, Hunwick, “West Africa and the Arabic Language”; and David Henige, “Inscriptions Are Texts Too,” History in Africa 32 (2005).

(129.) Austen, Ralph A. Trans-Saharan Africa in World History. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); D. J. Mattingly “The Garamantes and the Origins of Saharan Trade: State of the Field and Future Agendas.” In Trade in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond, ed. D. J. Mattingly, V. Leitch, C. N. Duckworth, and F. Cole, 1–51.

(130.) Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960, 30.

(131.) Neville Chittick, Mark Horton, and Adria Laviolette have shown that the stone towns were preceded from the 9th century by local communities. With the expansion of trade, they expanded urban centers with coral stone and adopted Islam; however, even in the case of mosques such as at Shanga, building techniques and styles are distinctly local. Linguists have also shown that Swahili is a Bantu language. Borrowed Arabic words and script evident by the 19th century demonstrate that “Arabic’s influence on Swahili was thus relatively late and restricted, and it had little impact on the development of the basic elements of early Swahili.” Adria LaViolette and Jeffrey Fleisher, “The Urban History of a Rural Place: Swahili Archaeology on Pemba Island, Tanzania, 700–1500 ad,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 42, no. 3 (2009); and Thomas Spear, “Early Swahili History Reconsidered,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 33, no. 2 (2000).

(132.) “The reason their leaving Shiraz in Persia was their Sultan one day dreamed a dream. He was called Hasan Ibn Ali: he was the father of these six men and the seventh of those who left.” Kilwa Chronicle quoted in Adrien Delmas, “Writing in Africa: The Kilwa Chronicle and other Sixteenth-Century Portuguese Testimonies,” in Islamic Manuscript Cultures in Sub-Saharan Africa, ed. Andrea Brigaglia (Boston: De Gruyter, 2017).

(133.) Delmas, Writing in Africa.

(134.) Randall L. Pouwels, “The Pate Chronicles Revisited: Nineteenth-Century History and Historiography,” History in Africa 23 (1996); Spear, “Early Swahili History Reconsidered”; and Randall L.Pouwels, “Oral Historiography and the Shirazi of the East African Coast,” History in Africa 11 (1984): 237–267.

(135.) M. Tolmacheva, C. H. Stigand, and D. Weiler, The Pate Chronicle: Edited and Translated from MSS 177, 321, 344, and 358 of the Library of the University of Dar Es Salaam (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1993); and Pouwels, “The Pate Chronicles Revisited”; Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia, “Literacy and the Decolonization of Africa’s Intellectual History,” History in Africa 38 (2011).

(136.) In contrast to earlier scholarship that emphasized networks of trust, scholars Ghislaine Lydon and Fahad Bishara have shown that in both the 19th-century trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean trades the Islamic legal framework played a crucial role in the development of commercial networks. Moreover, literacy and circulation of written texts, a “paper economy” and a “sea of debt” respectively, were central to the function of trade across the boundaries of ethnic, linguistic, and even continental boundaries. See Ghislaine Lydon, On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); and F. A. Bishara, A Sea of Debt (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

(138.) L. Jadin and M. Dicorato, Correspondance de Dom Afonso; roi du Congo, 1506–1543 (Académie royale des sciences d’outre-mer, 1974).

(139.) See: Jared Glenn Staller, Converging on Cannibals: Terrors of Slaving in Atlantic Africa, 1509–1670 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2019), chapter 1.

(140.) John K. Thornton, “The Correspondence of the Kongo Kings, 1614–35: Problems of Internal Written Evidence on a Central African Kingdom,” Paideuma 33 (1987): 411, 20; Beatrix Heintze, “Written Sources, Oral Traditions and Oral Traditions as Written Sources: The Steep and Thorny Way to Early Angolan History,” Paideuma 33 (1987); and Anne Hilton, “European Sources for the Study of Religious Change in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Kongo,” Paideuma 33 (1987).

(141.) Nzinga’s letters are published in Brásio, Vols. 6–11, 15. Heintz published Portuguese governor Fernão de Sousa’s correspondence, which describes her early years. She also appears in the descriptions of chronicler António de Oliveira de Cadornega and two Italian Capuchin priests, Giovanni Cavazzi da Montecuccolo and Antonio Gaeta da Napoli. Agência Geral do Ultramar, Divisão de Publicações e Biblioteca B. Heintze, Fontes para a história de Angola do século XVII: Cartas e documentos oficiais da colectânea documental de Farnão de Sousa, 1624–1635 (F. Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1985); António de Oliveira de Cadornega, História Geral Das Guerras Angolanas, 1680–1, ed. José Matias Delgado and Manuel Alves DA Cunha (Lisbon: Agência-Geral do Ultramar, 1972 [1680–1681]); and Antonio DA Gaeta and Francesco Maria Gioia, La Maravigliosa Conversione Alla Santa Fede di Cristo Della Regina Singa e del Svo Regno di Matamba nell’Africa Meridionale (Naples: G. Passaro, 1991). Cavazzi’s narrative survives in manuscripts dating from 1665–1668, posthumously heavily revised and published in 1687 as Istorica Descrizione de tre regni Congo, Matamba ed Angola. I am grateful to John Thornton pointing out that Cavazzi makes this connection in the Araldi MSS as well as the published version. John Thornton, personal communication, August 15, 2017. Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo, “Missione evangelica al regno di Congo [Araldi MSS],” 1665–1668, MSS Araldi (Modena), trans. John Thornton, John Thornton’s African Texts. The original manuscripts for the published text, known as the Araldi Manuscripts, were transcribed and translated by John Thornton, who also wrote a critical introduction.

(142.) Italian Capuchins Luca da Caltanisetta and Mercillino d’Atri as well as Bernardo da Gallo and Lorenzo da Luca. M. Atri, L’Anarchia congolese nel sec. XVII: la relazione inedita di Marcellino d’Atri (Bozzi, 1984). Gallo published in L. Jadin, Le Congo et la secte des Antoniens: restauration du royaume sous Pedro IV et la “saint-Antoine”congolaise (1694–1718) (Brussels : Institut historique belge de Rome, 1961); Fra Luca DA Caltanisetta, O.F.M. CAP and François Bontinck, Diaire Congolais: 1690–1701, Publications de l’Université Lovanium de Kinshasa, 24; Sixième volume publié par la Faculté de théologie de l’Université Lovanium de Kinshasa; Université Lovanium de Kinshasa Publications; Université Lovanium de Kinshasa Faculté de théologie Publications (Louvain, Paris: Éditions Nauwelaerts, Béatrice-Nauwelaerts, 1970); and Lorenzo DA Lucca and J Bishop Cuvelier, Relations Sur le Congo du Père Laurent de Lucques (1700–1717) (Brussels: Institut Royal Colonial Belge, 1953).

(143.) John K. Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian movement, 1684–1706 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); John K. Thornton, “Elite Women in the Kingdom of Kongo: Historical Perspectives on Women’s Political Power,” Journal of African History 47, no. 3 (2006); and L. M. Heywood, Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

(144.) An infamous example is the fraudulent travel narrative of Christian Friedrich Damberger. Damberger was a pseudonym, possibly for Zacharias Taurinius, a German printer’s apprentice who penned three hoax travel narratives that became wildly popular in Germany, France, and Great Britain. Damberger’s was only one of many fraudulent or semi-fraudulent travel narratives circulating in the 18th century. Jan Vansina, “The Many Uses of Forgeries: The Case of Douville’s ‘Voyage au Congo’,” History in Africa 31 (2004).

(145.) Kirsten Sandrock, “Truth and Lying in Early Modern Travel Narratives: Coryat’s Crudities, Lithgow’s Totall Discourse and Generic Change,” European Journal of English Studies 19, no. 2 (2015). Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998). 34. Vansina, “The Many Uses of Forgeries,” 25.

(146.) Sandrock, “Truth and Lying in Early Modern Travel Narratives”; and Daston and Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750, 34, 25.

(147.) Paul Zumthor and Catherine Peebles, “The Medieval Travel Narrative,” New Literary History 25, no. 4 (1994): 813.

(148.) For an excellent transcription and commentary on the Hereford map, see Scott D. Westrem, The Hereford Map: A Transcription and Translation of the Legends With Commentary, Terrarum orbis (Turnhout: Brepols, 2001).

(149.) Charles Moseley, “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and the Moral Geography of the Medieval World,” PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies 12, no. 1 (2015); Nurminen and Nurminen, The Mapmakers’ World, 14; Denys Hay, Europe: The Emergence of an Idea, Edinburgh University Publications: History, Philosophy & Economics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1957), xxii–xxiii; and Braude, “The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods,” 109–110.

(150.) On the evolution of truth see S. Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

(151.) “Thus I have found no monsters, nor had a report of any, except in an island ‘Carib,’” Columbus wrote, “Which is inhabited by a people who are regarded in all the islands as very fierce and who eat human flesh. They have many canoes with which they range through all the islands of India and pillage and take whatever they can.” Columbus’s Journal, quoted in Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797 (New York: Methuen, 1986), 42, 15.

(152.) Pereira in Newitt, The Portuguese in West Africa, 1415–1670.

(153.) Braude, “The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods.”

(154.) Joseph Miller traces this genealogy of knowledge to the earliest reported group of cannibals, the Galla in Ethiopia. Bermudes cited in Joseph C. Miller, “Requiem for the ‘Jaga’ (Requiem pour les ‘Jaga’),” Cahiers d’Études Africaines 13, no. 49 (1973): 122–123.

(155.) The question of who, if anyone, invaded the kingdom of Kongo has been the subject of a lively historiographical debate. Jan Vansina, “More on the Invasions of Kongo and Angola by the Jaga and the Lunda,” Journal of African History 7, no. 3 (1966); Miller, “Requiem for the ‘Jaga’ (Requiem pour les ‘Jaga’)”; John K. Thornton, “A Resurrection for the Jaga (La résurrection des Jaga),” Cahiers d’études Africaines 18, no. 69/70 (1978); François Bontinck, “Un mausolée pour les Jaga (Mausoleum for the Jaga),” Cahiers d’Études Africaines 20, no. 79 (1980); Anne Hilton, “The Jaga Reconsidered,” Journal of African History 22, no. 2 (1981); Beatrix Heintze, “The Extraordinary Journey of the Jaga Through the Centuries: Critical Approaches to Precolonial Angolan Historical Sources,” History in Africa 34 (2007); and Jan Vansina, “On Ravenstein’s Edition of Battell’s Adventures in Angola and Loango,” History in Africa 34 (2007).

(156.) Filippo Pigafetta, A Report of the Kingdom of Congo: And of the Surrounding Countries; Drawn Out of the Writings and Discourses of the Portuguese, Duarte Lopez (London: John Murray, 1881 [1591]), 96.

(157.) Pigafetta, A Report of the Kingdom of Congo, 96.

(158.) Here I am building on the work of Joseph Miller, who argued that the Jaga did not exist outside of the imaginations of Europeans who invented them to conceal their own activities, and that the Jaga were likely an internal rebellion. Jared Staller convincingly shows that Miller was correct and that the “invasion” was actually a rebellion. The word “jaga” was a derogatory term for others. Miller, “Requiem for the ‘Jaga’ (Requiem pour les ‘Jaga’),” 121; Jared Staller, Converging on Cannibals: Terrors of Slaving in Atlantic Africa, 1509–1670 (forthcoming).

(159.) At the time that Lopes allegedly told Pigafetta his story, he was acting as the ambassador of the Kongo in Rome. Lopes thus had political reasons to justify Portuguese military support sent to Kongo to recover the country from the reported invaders for Christianity. Furthermore, Lopes did not travel to the Kongo until 1578 or 1579, a decade after the alleged Jaga invasions, by which time, as he himself stated, no trace of the Jaga remained. Pigafetta clearly drew on Pereira’s 1488 account of the Anziques in his description of a group by the same name found north of the kingdoms of Kongo and Loango, who were “well-nigh incredible from their horrible character, for they eat human flesh, and even their own relations if necessity occur.” Lest he be outdone (in rhetoric, moral rectitude, or sales), Pigafetta added an additional horror to Pereira’s original: They have shambles [a butcher’s slaughterhouse] for human flesh, as we have of animals, even eating the enemies they have killed in battle, and selling their slaves if they can get a good price for them; if not, they give them to the butcher, who cuts them in pieces, and then sells them to be roasted or boiled. Pigafetta, A Report of the Kingdom of Congo, 25, 28.

(160.) The Teke were reputed to have butchers of human flesh by Pigafetta (1568), whose second-hand account popularized the story of the Jaga invasion, Dutch compiler Olfert Dapper (1676) and Capuchin missionary Girolamo Merolla da Sorrento (1682). According to Samuel Purchas, English Sailor Andrew Battell witnessed them among the Imbangala of Angola (Purchas in 1613, 1625), as did the aforementioned Capuchin missionary Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi de Montecuccolo (1687). In the 19th century, Adolph Bastian even claimed to have seen such butcher shops during his travels in the Congo. Pigafetta, A Report of the Kingdom of Congo, 25, 28; Girolamo Merolla and Awnsham Churchill, A voyage to Congo: and several other countries, chiefly in Southern-Africk (London: Printed for A. and J. Churchill, 1704); John Ogilby, Africa: being an accurate description of the regions of Ægypt, Barbary, Lybia, and Billedulgerid: the land of Negros, Guinee, Aethiopia, and the Abyssines; with all the adjacent islands, collected and translated from most authentick authors (London: T. Johnson, 1670); and Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes, contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells, by Englishmen and others (4 vols.) London: For Henry Fetherston at ye signe of the rose in Pauls Churchyard, 1625). For a critical evaluation of Purchas’s multiple manuscripts, see Jared Glenn Staller, “Rivalry and Reformation Politics: Reflections on Andrew Battell’s Jaga Materials Printed by Samuel Purchas from 1613 to 1625,” History in Africa 43 (2016): 8–10; Vansina, “On Ravenstein’s Edition of Battell’s Adventures in Angola and Loango”; and A. Bastian, Die deutsche Expedition an der Loango-Künste: nebst ällteren Nachrichten über die zu erforschenenden Länder: nach persönlichen Erlebnisse (Jena: Hermann Costenoble, 1874).

(161.) Sandrock, “Truth and Lying in Early Modern Travel Narratives.”

(162.) Purchas also privileged English and other Protestant travelers over Catholics, whom he considered to be prone to popish superstitions. Purchas’s method emulated the careful note-taking of empiricists such as his contemporary Francis Bacon. Bacon himself called for enquiries to establish whether previous travel narratives were reliable. Ironically, one of the narratives the Royal Society investigated at his suggestion was Purchas’s own. In fact, close study of Purchas’s narrative shows that much of the information on Angola and Loango echoed earlier sources, particularly Pigafetta’s second-hand narrative, as well as the accounts of sailors Purchas and his son subsequently interviewed. According to Purchas, English sailor Andrew Battell lived with a Jaga-related group of nomadic raiders neither called the Jaga nor located in the Kongo, but rather called the Imbangala and located in Angola around the turn of the 17th century. Battell reported that the Imbangala were the “greatest cannibals” in the world, living off the flesh of man as others did the flesh of cattle. Purchas’s original 1613 publication of the story relegated the cannibals to a footnote. In the latter publication, Purchas acknowledged that he had used a transcriber (or possibly more than one) to compile the text. However, in subsequent editions, Purchas elaborated a more detailed, ultimately allegedly full account, the most detailed published in 1625, after Battell’s death. Here I draw on Jared Staller’s critical analysis of all of the extant Purchas manuscripts, in which he tentatively suggests that Samuel Purchas initially “quoted Battell relatively faithfully” in the 1613 edition, and that Battell contributed to further editions before his death (sometime before 1619), after which Purchas’s son, also called Samuel Purchas, revised and expanded the original text based on his father’s notes. Staller, “Rivalry and Reformation Politics,” 8–10; Vansina, “On Ravenstein’s Edition of Battell’s Adventures in Angola and Loango”; Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes, contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells, by Englishmen and others (4 vols.), 983; and Judy A. Hayden, “Intersections and Cross-Fertilization,” in Travel Narratives, the New Science, and Literary Discourse, 1569–1750, ed. Judy A. Hayden (Farnham, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012), 8.

(163.) Jonathan Sell and Julie Schleck argue contemporary definitions of “fact” and “fiction” are anachronistic in regards to early modern narratives. J. P. A. Sell, Rhetoric and Wonder in English Travel Writing, 1560–1613 (Ashgate, 2006), 2, 23; and Julie Schleck, “Forming Knowledge: Natural Philosophy and English Travel Writing,” in Travel Narratives, the New Science, and Literary Discourse, 1569–1750, ed. Judy A. Hayden (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012), 64.

(164.) Olfert Dapper, Description de l’Afrique, contenant les noms, la situation & les confins de toutes ses parties, leurs rivieres, leurs villes & leurs habitations leurs plantes & leurs animaux; les moeurs, les coûtumes, la langue, les richesses, la religion & le gouvernement de ses peuples (Amsterdam: Wolfgang, Waesberge, Boom & van Someren, 1686 [1668]); and Mercier, L’Afrique noire dans la littérature française.

(165.) Mercier, L’Afrique noire dans la littérature française, 68. Quoted in Christopher L. Miller, ed., The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 68.

(166.) Jean Baptiste Labat, Nouvelle relation de l’Afrique occidentale: contenant une description exacte du Senegal & des pais situés entre le Cap-Blanc & la riviere de Serrelionne jusqu’à plus de 300 lieuës en avant dans les Terres. l’Histoire naturelle de ces pais, les differentes nations qui y sont répandues, leurs religions & leurs moeurs: avec l’etat ancien et present des compagnies qui y font le commerce (Paris: Chez G. Cavelier, 1728), I: i.

(167.) See Michel de Montaigne’s 1578 essay “Of Cannibals” in Kuper, The Reinvention of Primitive Society, 18–19, 28–29; Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs, “Introduction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing, ed. Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Cohen, The French Encounter with Africans, xvii.

(168.) Miller, ed., The French Atlantic Triangle, 68.

(169.) As Nicholas Dew has shown, until the mid-18th century, scientific travel was inextricably linked with commercial voyages, driven in large part by the slave trade. Nicholas Dew, “Scientific travel in the Atlantic world: the French expedition to Gorée and the Antilles, 1681–1683,” British Journal for the History of Science 43, no. 1 (2010); Benjamin-Sigismond Frossard quoted in Miller, ed., The French Atlantic Triangle, 68.

(170.) On the earliest sources in France, including Pierre d’Avity’s use of classical sources such as Salvian of Marseille, see Mercier, L’Afrique noire dans la littérature française, 31–35.

(171.) For Hobbes, the state of nature was one of savagery in a negative sense. Savages lacked central government and so lived in a perpetual state of war. Savages lacked religion and reason, having only superstition, and so lived without progress or technology. For Locke and Diderot, the savage likewise represented the original state of mankind. Kuper, The Reinvention of Primitive Society, 28–29.

(172.) Jacques traces the method to Bacon and Descartes, but of course Swedish biologist Carl Linneaus deserves credit for both taxonomy and its application to human beings. Linneaus divided human beings into four categories—Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeaus—in his Systema naturae (1735), an influential idea for polygenists such as Thomas Jefferson, and a controversial idea for monogenists such as the Comte de Buffon, who believed in a single human origin. If the inhabitants of warm climates were inferior, it was due to degeneration, an idea Jefferson explicitly argued against in Notes on the State of Virginia, mainly because the implication was that Europeans who moved to the Americas would themselves undergo a Creole degeneration. T. Carlos Jacques, “From Savages and Barbarians to Primitives: Africa, Social Typologies, and History in Eighteenth-Century French Philosophy,” History and Theory 36, no. 2 (1997): 194–195; and M. L. Daut, Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789–1865 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015), 86–87.

(173.) Kuper, The Reinvention of Primitive Society. Cohen argues their reliance on early descriptions of Africa “led them to a negative appraisal of blacks.” This perception was not based on evidence but rather “writers borrowed from each other or fell back on classical and medieval lore about Africa. But the images created in the first couple of centuries were crucial to the French–black experience: they became deeply implanted in French culture and exercised a pervasive influence over later generations of Frenchmen.” Cohen, The French Encounter with Africans, xvii.

(174.) Montaigne in Kuper, The Reinvention of Primitive Society, 18–19.

(175.) Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa; Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, ed. J. N. Findlay and Arnold V. Miller, Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 1770–1831. Phenomenologie des Geistes. English (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977); and Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason.

(176.) Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History (Published after his death in 1830, and based on lectures he gave in 1822, 1828, and 1830.), ed. and trans. J. Jibree (New York: Dover, 1956).

(177.) H. Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe (London: Thames and Hudson, 1965).

(178.) Oral traditions was the early subject of rigorous methodological debate. Jan Vansina, De la Tradition Orale: Essai de Méthode Historique, Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale. Annales. Série in -8.̊ Sciences humaines, no. 36; Annalen Reeks in-8o Menselijke wetenschappen (Tervuren: Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, 1961); Luc De Heusch, “Mythologie et littérature,” L’Homme 17, no. 2/3 (1977); and Joseph C. Miller, “Listening for the African Past,” in The African Past Speaks: Essays on Oral Tradition and History, ed. Joseph C. Miller (Folkestone: Wm Dawson & Sons, 1980).

(179.) As opposed to fields such as medieval European history. Both Africanists and medievalists face the problem of historical analysis being conditioned by sources which are exiguous and, when extant, “compiled by generally arbitrary and random circumstances.” “Nevertheless, medieval historians’ approach to these sources continues to develop ever greater sophistication.” Julia M. H. Smith, “Introduction: Regarding Medievalists: Contexts and Approaches,” in Companion to Historiography, ed. M. Bentley (New York: Routledge, 1997), 108.

(181.) As a result, Mbembe writes, “as soon as the subject of Blacks and Africa is raised, words do not necessarily represent things,” and “the true and the false become inextricable.” Thus, “when Africa comes up, correspondence between words, images, and the thing itself matters very little. It is not necessary for the name to correspond to the thing, or for the thing to respond to its name.” Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, 13, 49, 2; Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa; and M. Van Wyk Smith, The First Ethiopians: The Image of Africa and Africans in the Early Mediterranean World (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009).

(183.) It should be noted that the so-called “New Archaeology” of scholars such as Susan McIntosh has done much to overturn the evolutionary assumptions of early archaeology. Jan Vansina, “Historians, Are Archeologists Your Siblings?,” History in Africa 22 (1995); and Susan Keech McIntosh, “Archaeology and the Reconstruction of the African Past,” in Writing African History, ed. John Edward Philips (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005).

(184.) For an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each type of historical evidence, see Catherine Cymone Fourshey, Rhonda M. Gonzales, and Christine Saidi, Bantu Africa: 3500 bce to Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); and Brett, Approaching African History.

(185.) When Europeans encountered urban centers, whether the Swahili city states, Great Zimbabwe, or Timbuktu, they attributed their foundation to Arab colonization. Susan Keech McIntosh and Roderick J. McIntosh, “Jenné-Jeno: An Ancient African City,” Archaeology 33, no. 1 (1980).

(186.) David W. Phillipson, “Trans-Saharan Gold Trade and Byzantine Coinage,” Antiquaries Journal 97 (2017).

(187.) Jan Vansina, Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990). Earlier works on historical linguistics and historians include Jan Vansina, “The Dictionary and the Historian,” History in Africa 1 (1974); Christopher Ehret, An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 B.C. To A.D. 400 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998); David Lee Schoenbrun, A Green Place, a Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender, and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th Century (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998); Neil Kodesh, Beyond the Royal Gaze: Clanship and Public Healing in Buganda (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2010); K. M. De Luna, Collecting Food, Cultivating People: Subsistence and Society in Central Africa (Yale University Press, 2016); and Kairn A. Klieman, “The Pygmies were our compass”: Bantu and Batwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to c. 1900 C.E. (Heinemann, 2003). The expression “words and things” was first coined by the Indogermanist Rudolf Meringer and the Romanist Meyer-Lübke as a tool to study Kulturgeschichte in 1909. The label stems from the journal Wörter und Sachen. Kulturhistorische Zeitschrift für Sprach-und Sachsforschung (Words and Things: a Journal of Culture History of Research in Languages and Things). For a history of the field, see Jan Vansina, “How to Distil Words and Obtain Culture History,” History in Africa 33 (2006); Koen Bostoen, “Linguistics for the Use of African History and the Comparative Study of Bantu Pottery Vocabulary,” Antwerp Papers in Linguistics (2004); and Christopher Ehret, “Writing African History from Linguistic Evidence,” in Writing African History, ed. John Edward Philips (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005).

(188.) Stephen Ellis, “Writing Histories of Contemporary Africa,” Journal of African History 43, no. 1 (2002): 2; and Wyatt MacGaffey, “Changing Representations in Central African History,” Journal of African History 46, no. 2 (2005): 189.

(189.) Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), x.

(190.) “Ideological decolonization becomes a function of our understanding that the very definition of what it means to be African at any given juncture has been the object of debates among African intellectuals, and that such debates have been engendered and informed by a broad range of cultural influences.” Brizuela-Garcia, “Literacy and the Decolonization of Africa’s Intellectual History.”

(191.) “It was the local gloss given to certain Islamic ideas, especially the distinction between believer and unbeliever, and the importance of notions of lineage that formed the basis of the particular Sahelian construction of race. […] In other words, race functioned as a kind of local ethnography that was especially useful in negotiating the diversity of the Sahel, and in ‘fixing’ status distinctions and networks based on them that were essential to the commercial and intellectual traffic across this region.” Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960, 30.

(192.) Thornton, “The Correspondence of the Kongo Kings, 1614–35,” 411, 20.

(193.) Jones and Heintze, “Introduction,” 7. The articulation of an interconnection between the written and the oral was significant in the face of the persistent premise in historiography that writing was a necessary precondition for historical thought because it created the ability to refer to and abstract from past thought, which undergirded the work of scholars such as Jack Goody. Jack Goody, The Interface Between the Written and the Oral (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

(194.) Understanding the colonial encounter between Europeans and Africans as having “two rather than one side” presents methodological challenges, namely that the interactions that produced documentary sources where characterized by what Wyatt MacGaffey aptly terms “dialogues of the deaf.” On “both sides” of the colonial encounter, Europeans and Africans produced “ethnographies of the Other” using categories “derived from the self-conception of the society in question. Each such ethnography therefore contained within it an implicit ethnography of the Self.”

(195.) Roufe, “The Reasons for a Murder.”

(196.) Staller, Converging on Cannibals; Eric Allina, “The Zimba, the Portuguese, and Other Cannibals in Late Sixteenth-Century Southeast Africa,” Journal of Southern African Studies 37, no. 2 (2011).

(197.) Smith, “What Happened to the Ancient Libyans?”

(198.) De Luna, Collecting Food, Cultivating People.

(199.) Klieman, “The Pygmies were our compass”.

(201.) See Richard L. Smith, “What Happened to the Ancient Libyans? Chasing Sources across the Sahara from Herodotus to Ibn Khaldun,” Journal of World History 14, no. 4 (2003): 459–500.

(202.) D. J. Mattingly, “The Garamantes and the Origins of Saharan Trade: State of the Field and Future Agendas," in Trade in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond, ed. D. J. Mattingly, V. Leitch, C. N. Duckworth, and F. Cole, 2.

(203.) Ralph A. Austen, Trans-Saharan Africa in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 7.

(204.) D. J. Mattingly, “The Garamantes and the Origins of Saharan Trade: State of the Field and Future Agendas,” in Trade in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond, ed. D. J. Mattingly, V. Leitch, C. N. Duckworth, and F. Cole, 15.

(205.) Though it is unclear how early the trans-Saharan trade’s most glamorous commodity, gold, circulated, there is archaeological evidence of West African gold production by the middle of the first millennium bce. Textual evidence suggests the Garamantes, presumed middle men in trans-Saharan exchange, were aware of their West African neighbors, raising the possibility that exchange in gold existed from an early date. The earliest direct archaeological and archaeometallurgical date from Roman and Byzantine eras. Garrard, Timothy F. “Myth and Metrology: The Early Trans-Saharan Gold Trade,” The Journal of African History 23, no. 4 (1982): 443–461; Phillipson, “Trans-Saharan Gold Trade and Byzantine Coinage”; Sam Nixon, “Trans-Saharan Gold Trade in Pre-Modern Times: Available Evidence and Research Agendas,” in Trade in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond, ed. D. J. Mattingly, V. Leitch, C. N. Duckworth, and F. Cole (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 156–188.

(206.) Kane argued that “During the second millennium, the Arabic language played a transformative role in West African history. Some Islamized people in the Sahara gradually deserted their linguistic, cultural, and ethnic identities to claim exclusive Arab identities. Others have retained their African languages but have used the Arabic script to transcribe them, to compose scholarly treatises, to chronicle history, and to write poetry.” Ousmane Kane, Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).