Africa: A Biography of the Continent

Reader, John



If you want one book to give you a feel of the continent (and one which has lots of references to the Serengeti, and Oldupai), read this one.

Review from March 2000:

First published as a massive hardcover, this is a more compact and affordable edition of a book which won the coveted Alan Paton prize for Literature (South Africa) in 1998 and was hailed as a masterpiece by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni.

Never before has an author attempted to describe the entirety of the African scene, from the very first geological rumblings to the modern political scenario at the beginning of the new millennium. Reader's treatment of the rather complex matters of geology, climatology and palaeontology give a strong indication of his journalistic background, for he succeeds admirably in conveying the known facts in a lively and illuminating way.

The evolution of modern man - from the origins of Homo sapiens in what is now Kenya and Ethiopia - is discussed in detail. Remarkably, the author postulates (on the evidence of DNA sampling that has come to light in recent years) that no more than fifty of these early hunter-gatherers moved north to cross the Mediterranean and colonise the new frontiers of what is now the Middle East and Europe. Thoughts on why these 'emigrants' subsequently fared so much better than their relatives who remained on African soil is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book, with disease and climate being regarded as major inhibiting factors.

The rise and fall of former civilisations in Africa are discussed in detail and against the backdrop of 'commodities' such as gold, ivory and slaves. John Reader's real and often brutal discussion of the turbulent periods of colonisation (the so-called 'scramble for Africa') and the eventual independence of the nation states makes for captivating reading. The legacy left by the colonial powers on the continent and its people is something of which the European nations can never be proud, yet the picture since independence has hardly been better, with civil wars ravishing Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Rwanda and Uganda, among others.

The book closes with the coming to power of Nelson Mandela in South Africa in 1994, to end on an upbeat note: 'He and South Africa offer hope for all humanity - yes, hope from a continent that for too long has seemed to generate nothing but despair'.

Here is a book that anyone interested in a holistic view of Africa - where we have come from, and where we may be going - must read.

Book ID 218

See also

Reader, John Africa: A Biography of the Continent, 1998

International Congress in honour of Dr. Mary Douglas Leakey

International Congress in honour of Dr. Mary Douglas Leakey's Outstanding Contribution to Palaeoanthropology, Arusha, Tanzania

Extract ID: 510

See also

Reader, John Africa: A Biography of the Continent, 1998
Page Number: 25

A complete skeleton of Brachiosaurus excavated in Tanzania

A complete skeleton of Brachiosaurus excavated in Tanzania (now standing in the Natural Science Museum of the former East Berlin) represents one of the largest land animals that ever lived. Estimates have put its weight at 80 tonnes (as much as twenty mature elephants), and with its eye level 12.6 metres above the ground it was tall enough to look over a four storey building.

Readers source is Alan Charig, 1979, A New Look at Dinosaurs, London, British Museum (Natural History)

Subsequent browsing in the Natural History Museum in various sources say that the find was near Tendaguru, near Lindi. Henning and other investigated prior to 1908, and then over four years shipped 850 crates of fossils (220,000 Kgs) back to Germany. Not until 1937 was the full skeleton put on display.

After the war, various British teams carried out some excavations, but by 1930 the site was abandoned, athough some further excavations were carried out in the 1970's.

Extract ID: 1023

See also

Reader, John Africa: A Biography of the Continent, 1998
Extract Author: Jonathan Swift
Page Number: 252
Extract Date: 1733

Geographers in Afric Maps

Geographers in Afric Maps

With savage Pictures fill their Gaps

And o'er uninhabitable Downs

Place Elephants for want of Towns

Extract ID: 984

See also

Reader, John Africa: A Biography of the Continent, 1998
Page Number: 55
Extract Date: September 1976


Chapter 6

The upright bipedal gait of humans is a unique and highly inefficient mode of locomotion, but the anatomy of modern apes, with 60 per cent of their body weight carried on the hindlegs, indicates that the common ancestor of apes and humans was pre-adapted to bipedalism. Environmental circumstances in Africa provide an explanation of why and how the fully upright stance and bipedal gait evolved in humans.

Laetoli lies roughly 500 kilometres to the south of the Tugen Hills. Late-twentieth-century walking enthusiasts could cover the distance comfortably in twenty-five days, and the journey certainly would not have deterred their ancestors, 4 million years before. Indeed, the safari must always have been enticing: south along the Western wall of the Rift Valley; perhaps taking a slow route through the high forest, where there is fruit and honey in season, or moving more speedily through wooded grasslands borderingthe foothills below. At intervals, perennial streams gush dependably from the Rift wall. There would have been (and are still) predators to be avoided, of course, but also their prey to be scavenged. The route rises up and over the Mau escarpment, where there is an option of following the forested course of the Uaso Nyiro River to Lake Natron, or turning towards the Loita Hills and the cool grasslands above the lake basin. Volcanoes dominated the landscape to the east of Olduvai; southward, herds of antelope and zebra congregated on the plain.

Andrew Hill made the journey by road in September 1976. At Laetoli, Mary Leakey and her co-workers were bringing the season of investigations to a close. The work that year had been inspired by the discovery of hominid fossils (among them a mandible subsequently described as the type specimen of Australopithecus afarensisf during an exploratory visit made during the Christmas holiday of 1974.

A host of fossils had been found, including animals ranging in size from shrew to elephant, tortoises, a clutch of beautifully preserved eggs matching those of the modern guinea fowl, and tiny leaves identical to those on acacias in the woodlands today. The Laetoli fossil beds had been dated to between 3'59 million and-3-77 million years old - just the period during which the bipedal ancestors of humanity were consolidating their presence in the Rift Valley - but hominid finds were scarce at Laetoli: a few fragments of jaw and some isolated teeth were found in T.97S, and some pieces of a juvenile skeleton in 1.976. After a promising start, it seemed the potential of the Laetoli deposits was not to be fulfilled.

That was the state of affairs when Andrew Hill went for a stroll one evening with David Western, a wildlife ecologist also visiting the Laetoli sites. Their walk took them across a dry river bed in which an expanse of fine-grained volcanic tuff was exposed. Elephants had recently passed that way too, and had left a number of their cannonball-sized droppings scattered about the river bed. In equatorial Africa, a sun-dried ball of elephant dung appeals to the same instincts that snowballs awaken in northern latitudes. People fling them at one another and, unsurprisingly, wildlife ecologists tend to be more adept than most. Dr Hill fell as he turned to avoid a particularly well-aimed missile from Dr Western. While on his knees, pleading for a brief cessation of hostilities, he noticed a curious spattering of tiny indentations in the surface of the grey tuff. These were later identified as raindrop prints but, having attracted Hill's attention, they led him to examine the surface more closely. Amid the puzzling indentations he recognized an unmistakable series of animal tracks'

People had crossed that indented tuff surface hundreds of times during the course of the previous two seasons, but always on the way to somewhere else, with a clear picture in mind of the fossils they were looking for. By chance, an airborne ball of elephant dung introduced a fresh point of view, instantly focusing the investigators' attention on the totally different fossil information that lay at their feet - fully visible, but hidden until then by the blinkers of preconceived notion.

Dr Hill's lucky fall redirected the thrust of the Laetoli investigations. Fossil bones were relegated to a level of secondary interest and during the final weeks of the 1076 season the identification of fossil footprints became the primary endeavour.

Hundreds of prints were found, representing more than twenty different animals, ranging in size from cat and hare to elephant, rhinoceros, and giraffe. Guinea-fowl prints were numerous, so too were the prints of small antelopes, hyenas, pigs, baboons, and hipparion, the ancestral three-toed horse. During the 1977 and 1978 seasons, seven distinct sites were located and mapped. Where desirable, overlying soils were removed. Mammal and bird prints occurred everywhere, wonderfully preserved in the fine-grained volcanic ash. Most wonderful of all was the trail, nearly fifty metres long, left by three hominids walking northward from the woodlands down to the plains.

The trail records a unique moment in time and its preservation is little short of miraculous. About 3.6 million years ago, a series of light ash eruptions from a nearby volcano coincided with a series of rain showers, probably at the onset of the rainy season. The ash filled depressions in the landscape, and the rain transformed them into mud pans. Animals crossed the pans while they were still wet, and their tracks were preserved as the ash dried hard as cement. The next shower of ash laid a protective covering over the tracks. A succession of ash and rain showers created at least six distinct surfaces on which prints are preserved; in total they are fifteen centimetres thick.

Sadiman and Lemgarut, the volcanoes whose ash created the Laetoli fossil beds, are no longer active, but the Laetoli landscape is otherwise not very different today from that which its inhabitants knew over 3 million years ago. The highland foothills are covered in dense acacia thornbush, and the upper slopes are swathed in grass that turns from green to golden as the dry season advances. Westward, the plain extends to a distant horizon, the broad undulating expanse broken here and there by huge steep-sided outcrops of granite and gneiss that rise from the grassland-like islands (indeed, in geological terminology they are known as inselbergs - island mountains): Naibardad, Naabi, and Moru, where there is always water. In shallow valleys, strands of woodland mark the watercourses along which the seasonal rains drain away to Olduvai Gorge, about forty kilometres from Laetoli. Elephants come down from the highlands; giraffes cross the plain, their legs blurred in the shimmering heat haze; lions lie concealed in the dun-coloured grass,

Extract ID: 3284