Mountain History in Africa from the Earliest Times
- Christopher ConteChristopher ConteHistory Department, Utah State University
Over the long haul of geological time, the natural history of Africa’s mountains is a story of the lithosphere’s rise and fall. For hundreds of millions of years, tectonic forces have heaved up layers of metamorphic and igneous material while wind, water, ice, and gravity combined to open basins, scour valleys, and obliterate rock. The most recent phase in mountain building in Africa began in the Miocene (twenty-three million years ago) and continues today. Some mountains, like the volcanic mountains Kilimanjaro and Cameroon, are only a few million years old. Other highlands, like Tanzania’s Eastern Arc Mountains, derive from crystalline rock formed more than thirty million years ago. As they appear on the landscape today, Africa’s mountains present a mix of old and new landforms covered by a biosphere of resident plants and animals that evolved in the countless niches provided by elevation, slope, temperature, rainfall, and aspect. Human beings, relative latecomers to mountain history, have altered the highlands dramatically. In Africa, mountains attract people.
Africa’s mountains do not constitute a discrete subject of study in the discipline of environmental history, though important studies of individual mountain zones do exist. Nor is the historical scholarship limited to the humanities. In studies that are essentially historical in approach, the natural sciences use empirical evidence to reconstruct mountain landscape change under human use. What follows is an attempt to knit together coherently a messy, multi-disciplinary scholarly literature.