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European History/sub-Saharan Africa historically


I've always wondered why there was so little development in sub-Saharan Africa historically. My understanding is that until the last few hundred years they even lacked written languages. For instance after seeking literature out of Sub-Saharan Africa I could find not a single written work prior to say the 1800s.

There were great works of literature, amazing architecture, and many inventions in Europe that date back 100s if not 1000s of years, and even in Asia , but as far as I know sub-Saharan Africa lacked any of this. (I'm not speaking to north Africa as the people there seem to be more Arab than black Africans, and were influenced by the middle east, Islam, etc.)

What is it about sub-Saharan Africa, or the sub-Saharan Africans themselves that accounts for such dramatic lack or invention, written language, etc. relative to the rest of the world?

i dont really know anything about sub-sarahan africa, although i assure you, you would find written language, architecture, high culture in both mali and ethiopia way prior to the 19th century.

there isnt an easy answer to your question, but if you are actually interested in exploring it, i think you'd find some insights in the work of the french annals school historians like fernand braudel, lucien febvre, and manuel ladurie. these guys take a very long term approach to social history and crunch tons of data. they're only interested in social history and i don't think they would even believe its possible to write a history of anything as recent as the 19th century because they don't have sufficient perspective.

i don't think any of these guys ever wrote a word about subsarahan africa, although i could be wrong, but if pressed, they would look at the geography and environment, which they generally find determinative about any society.

sparse populations living in jungles or steppes, hunting, gathering, herding, don't often produce high culture. you might say mezoamerica is an exception to that, but that was a pretty dense population.

also, cultures can take off after centuries of stasis. in the early 12th century, mongols didn't even know how to weave fabric. 100 years later they ruled most of the world and evinced an absolute genius for public administration and military technology and culture. and they didn't borrow most of it. they came up with it themselves. i don't look for anything like this to happen in subsarahan africa, because its thoroughly dominated by external forces, but if left alone, who knows.

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Sam Rutherford


I have an MA in History from Vanderbilt with concentrations in Russia and recent Europe and would enjoy answering questions in those areas. Just don`t expect a lot of bibliographical information.

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