Africa is, in many different senses, the most diverse continent on the planet. A quarter of all the world’s languages are spoken only in Africa. Also, Africa harbors “five of the world’s six major divisions of humanity”—a concept that Diamond will explain throughout the rest of the chapter.
The diversity of life in Africa makes it a difficult continent to study from a historical perspective—again Diamond simplifies many different racial and ethnic groups into only a handful of “divisions.”
The five “human groups,” or races, found in Africa are: blacks, whites, African Pygmies, Khoisan, and Asians. It can be problematic to lump together so many different kinds of people together as one race—for example, it seems insufficient simply to call Zulus, Somalis, and Ibos “black,” considering the great physical and cultural differences between these peoples. While racial categories are somewhat arbitrary, Diamond uses the five races as a useful way of grouping people throughout human history.
The chapter proposes breaking up Homo sapiens into five different categories found in Africa. Diamond isn’t arguing that these categories are “real,” in the sense that they have any genetic or scientific basis in fact. Nevertheless, the categories are conceptually useful since, throughout African history, people organized themselves based on similar racial categories. Diamond’s use of arbitrary yet useful categories recalls his 4-part analysis of government in Chapter 14.
Diamond offers some physical definitions of the five races he’ll discuss. Blacks and whites “are familiar to Americans and Europeans and need no physical description.” Before 1492, blacks lived most in sub-Saharan Africa. Whites, as Diamond defines them, encompass people from North Africa with lighter skin and straighter hair. Pygmies and Khoisan largely hail from the sub-Saharan region. Pygmies are physically characterized by their small size, dark skin, and large eyes and foreheads. Khoisan are physically characterized by yellowish skin and tightly coiled hair. Most of the Khoisan were wiped out by disease or colonialist massacres before the beginning of the 20th century. The final racial group Diamond will discuss is Asian. The island of Madagascar is populated largely by the descendants of Southeast Asians—Austronesians. It’s truly anomalous, Diamond says, that the descendants of Austronesians (i.e., people who live in Borneo, the Philippines, or Polynesia) have lived in Madagascar for thousands of years.
The passage analyzes the different racial groups found in Africa, reinforcing Africa’s tremendous cultural diversity. Furthermore, the passage reinforces the importance of colonialism in African history—tragically, many of Africa’s racial groups were attacked or wiped out by European colonists. Finally, the passage mentions the Austronesian expansion of 6,000 years ago, as discussed in the previous chapter. The mention of Austronesians both underscores how ambitious ancient Asian agriculturalists were in exploring the Indian Ocean and also shows how the different case studies in Part Four overlap.
By studying the languages spoken throughout Africa, linguists have come to a few surprising conclusions. Contrary to popular belief, Western culture did not originate primarily in the Near East and was not diffused to Europe through Biblical, Semitic languages. In actuality, Semitic languages originated in Africa, meaning that the Near Eastern Semitic tribes mentioned in the Bible were only a small branch of the Semitic groups in North Africa.
Archaeological and linguistic evidence refutes the common belief that Western culture is most directly related to Middle Eastern culture—a belief emphasized by the predominance of Middle Eastern culture in the Bible (one of the cornerstones of Western society). In reality, Western culture owes a far more direct debt to North African language and culture, as indicated by the African origins of Semitic culture.
Another surprising conclusion that linguists have brought up in studying language in Africa is that ancient African peoples who spoke the precursors of Bantu (a language, or, arguably, family of languages, still spoken in Africa) were more like to “engulf” their Khoisan and Pygmy neighbors than the other way around. (When Diamond uses the word “engulf,” he means conquer, wipe out, unify with, or displace—anything that involves one culture gaining supremacy over another). The bulk of the black peoples in Africa are descended from ancient Bantu speakers who lived in North Africa. So why did the Bantu peoples engulf their neighbors, instead of the other way around?
This passage is important for two main reasons. First, it proposes a neutral word, “engulf,” to describe how one culture comes to dominate another, whether peacefully or militarily. The word “engulf” is characteristic of the book’s scientific, unbiased style—a stronger word like “massacre,” while often accurate, might be too emotionally evocative (and sometimes incorrect) for the book’s tone. Second, the passage establishes the central question of the chapter: what advantages did the ancient Bantu have over other African peoples, and how did they use these advantages to “engulf” their neighbors?
To answer this question, Diamond considers the different crops growing in Africa before the Europeans colonized sub-Saharan Africa in the 1400s. Every major crop grown in Africa at that time (bananas, millet, taro, yams) originated north of the equator. Similarly, the single animal species that we know was first domesticated in Africa before the 1400s was the guinea fowl, a small bird. There were some domesticated mammals in Africa before the 1400s, but these had all been imported from other regions—sheep, goats, chickens, horses, camels, etc. In general, Africa’s food sources originated far away from Africa.
African agriculture (both domesticated crops and domesticated animals) has long been dependent on imports from other parts of the world. This important fact reinforces 1) the centrality of geography and climate in determining the development of a society over time, and 2) the importance of diffusion in human history—to the extent that African societies did develop agriculture, they often did so because of their interactions with neighboring societies.
The final step in solving the riddle of the Bantu involves some archaeology. It’s a common misconception that African agriculture began in Egypt. In fact, as early as 9000 B.C., Africans were farming in the Sahara desert, which, at the time, was lush and full of flora and fauna. Archaeological evidence indicates that agriculturalists in the Sahara 11,000 years ago spoke four languages that are ancestral to modern African languages.
The passage establishes an important fact—there were agriculturalists in what would one day become the Sahara desert—but does not explain why this fact is so important. Diamond will return to Bantu history after a brief discussion of Madagascar.
Before tracing the relationship between the Bantu and the Khoisan any farther, let’s look at the history of Madagascar. How could Austronesians travel all the way there? An ancient merchant text written in Egypt in 100 A.D. describes an enormous sea trade between India and Egypt. After the rise of Islam, the Indian Ocean trading network became one of the largest in the world. It’s possible (though still unproven) that Austronesian colonists traveled to Madagascar along the Indian Ocean trading network, bringing with them artifacts of their Southeast Asian culture.
The passage hypothesizes that the Indian Ocean trading network allowed colonists from Austronesia to travel to Madagascar, underscoring the importance of trade and diffusion in human history. Asian societies were able to travel all the way to sub-Saharan Africa because of the strong economic incentive for trade in the societies between Asia and Africa.
The Bantu expansion was one of the largest demographic shifts in African history. Prior to the Bantu expansion the majority of Africans were probably not black peoples. After 1000 B.C., though, Bantu peoples, having mastered agriculture, grew to such large numbers that they expanded southeast, to East Africa’s Rift Valley. There, the Bantu developed new farming techniques to incorporate new crops like millet into their agriculture. They also may have discovered iron metallurgy, giving them an unbeatable “military industrial package.”
The Bantu expansion was predicated on the existence of a military industrial package, and therefore on agriculture and social centralization. Bantu societies enjoyed greater access to agriculture than their neighbors further south because of their region’s climate. Thus, the history of the Bantu expansion is another confirmation of the importance of geography in history.
In the ensuing Bantu expansion, the Khoisan and Pygmy peoples of Africa were either massacred or forced out of their homes. It’s not clear what role diseases played in the disappearance of the Khoisan populations, but it’s certainly possible that malaria—to which the Bantu, but not the Khoisan were probably resistant—killed large numbers of Khoisan. It’s important to notice that the Khoisan weren’t annihilated; there are still Khoisan regions in southern Africa. Significantly, these regions are unsuitable for farming—the Bantu couldn’t expand any farther south and continue their agricultural lifestyle.
The Bantu succeeded in driving out the Khoisan (or massacring them) because of their superior technology (including iron weapons) and possibly their immunities to certain deadly diseases—both advantages predicted upon the existence of consistent agriculture. Furthermore, the fact that the Bantu didn’t continue expanding to the south (where agriculture was more difficult) suggests that agriculture was crucial to Bantu society.
Another important question: why did the Europeans colonize sub-Saharan Africa, rather than the sub-Saharan Africans colonizing Europe? Europeans had some major advantages over the sub-Saharan Africans—they had access to military technology, immunity to diseases, widespread literacy, centralized government—all factors that enabled them to explore the world and conquer the world’s peoples. Europe developed these advantages rather than the sub-Saharan Africans for a variety of reasons. 1) Europeans had access to domesticable animals, whereas sub-Saharan Africans did not. 2) Europeans had access to a greater variety of domesticable plants, meaning that they developed agriculture sooner than the sub-Saharan Africans. 3) Europe shares latitude with many other centralized societies, meaning that it was able to acquire important technologies and innovations from its neighbors. Sub-Saharan Africans had no neighbors to the east or west (just water), and were barred from communicating with North Africa by the Sahara Desert.
In this passage, Diamond goes through the various factors that enable agriculture-based societies to colonize non-agricultural societies: immunities to diseases, written language, state centralization, specialized professions, technology, etc. Sub-Saharan African societies did badly in the geographic lottery, ensuring that they never developed the societal advantages that many European societies enjoyed.
In conclusion, Europe’s colonization of Africa—which has been used by racists and bigots as proof that the Europeans are superior to the other races—actually had nothing to do with racial superiority. Due to a series of geographic coincidences, the Europeans became stronger and more mobile than the Africans, going off on their own “historical trajectory.”
The chapter ends with a strong reminder of why Diamond claims he was inspired to write Guns, Germs, and Steel in the first place: he wanted to correct, once and for all, the racist beliefs that have led people to conclude that Europeans are innately superior to Africans or Native Americans. There was, in fact, no innate superiority that led Europeans to “engulf” other cultures—just a complex combination of external factors.