Ancient Africa: A Global History, to 300 CE - A Review

By Owain Williams

My exposure to ancient Africa has, until now, consisted of the cultures along the southern Mediterranean coast and down the Nile valley, such as the Garamantes, Egypt, and Kush. Any exposure I had to sub-Saharan Africa was explored only in relation to how they connected to their northerly neighbours, such as trans-Saharan trade (see the articles by Mattingly, Sommer, and Fentress in Dowler and Galvin, 2011) or the many Roman expeditions across the Sahara and down the Nile (for example, Ptolemy, Geography 1.8.4 records the expedition of Julius Maternus, which may have reached Lake Chad). I do not find it hard to imagine that I am not the only person with this type of exposure. Christopher Ehret’s Ancient Africa: A Global History, to 300 CE is a passionate argument as to why we should broaden our historical horizons across the Sahara and into the rest of Africa. 

Ehret begins with a discussion on why studies on ancient Africa are so marginal compared to other areas of study. Firstly, there is the perceived lack of historical sources. However, as Ehret points out, there is not a lack of historical sources, but “a lack of engagement with the full sweep of that body of information” (p. 2) that pertains to Africa. Indeed, the only evidence that is truly lacking for ancient Africa is literary sources. Instead, studies of ancient Africa utilise archaeological, historical linguistic, oral traditional, and comparative ethnographic evidence, areas that are largely unused by historians of other cultures. Secondly, another hurdle to a more widespread study of ancient Africa is that “the horrific rationalizations of slavers and slave owners and all the others who benefitted from slavery … live on even today, unexamined” (p. 2). The latter problem is beyond the scope of Ehret’s book – indeed, any single book – to overcome. The first issue, however, is not, and Ehret tackles it by offering a narrative of the technological and social developments that happened in Africa, each effecting the other, using the different categories of evidence, to demonstrate how Africa is not a blank space in ancient history, but driven by and connected to many of the same changes that other areas of the ancient world underwent. 

As Ehret effectively demonstrates in an easily accessible manner, Africa was very much connected to global trends, while also being home to many independent and important technological innovations. The first two appearances of ceramic-making technology, for example, appeared in East Asia, first in the Yangtze valley before spreading to Korea and Japan, but the third earliest appearance was in western Africa, vastly disconnected to East Asia, making this an independent appearance. Ceramics, in turn, facilitated the development of iron working technology – the earliest evidence for iron working in the world comes from central Africa, ca. 1800 BC. Ceramics also contributed to the development of agriculture, as foods could be effectively stored. This, in turn, reveals how connected much of Africa was with the rest of the world, as agricultural products, such as cowpeas and sorghum, first cultivated in western Africa, spread to India and China, “apparently without first passing through the Middle East” (p. 59), likely passing through Oman, which also had a trading relationship with Dilmun (modern Bahrain) and Mesopotamia. Agriculture also allowed the development of urban communities, and “archaeologists have identified several hundred probable and possible town sites, spread across the nearly 2,000 kilometers of the western and central Sudan belt” (pp. 71–2), connected in an intricate chain of mercantile relations facilitated by the domestication of the donkey. There is clearly a wealth of history waiting to be documented in Africa.

Despite the impressive array of information assembled by Ehret, his presentation of the methodology behind this evidence leaves much to be desired, especially historical linguistics, a central area of evidence for Ehret’s work, particularly his discussion of the spread of iron technology and the African origins of ancient Egypt. Ehret is no stranger to historical linguistics, having written on the topic several times (for example, 2005; 2012), which, coupled with the fact that, in his own words, reconstructing a historical language family “is a long, complex, and time-consuming, but essential undertaking” (2012, p. 111) and is among the methods that “remain mostly unfamiliar” to historians (p. 7), makes the lack of comprehensive discussion notable. Ehret already includes an appendix cautioning historians from making sweeping conclusions from inherently restricted genetic studies. An additional appendix on the methodology of historical linguistics would only have benefitted the work, in my opinion. 


That said, this work is meant, first and foremost, to be a general overview of ancient African history, introducing the reader to this underexplored topic, and highlighting to the general reader that Africa is not a blank space of historical evidence, rather than a deep dive into the evidence behind the trends and developments Ehret highlights. Indeed, in this regard, Ehret certainly succeeds. Ancient Africa: A Global History, to 300 CE is a passionate, provocative, engaging, and eye-opening account that has swept away any preconceived notions I had of a part of the world that is certainly deserving of more attention. 


Ancient Africa: A Global History, to 300 CE (ISBN: 9780691244099) is available from Princeton University Press for £22.00 (Hardback). 




A. Dowler and E.R. Galvin (eds.) Money, Trade and Trade Routes in Pre-Islamic North Africa (London, 2011). 


C. Ehret, ‘Writing African History from Linguistic Evidence,’ in J.E. Philips (ed.) Writing African History (Rochester, NY, 2005), 86–111. 


C. Ehret, ‘Linguistic Archaeology’, African Archaeology Review 29 (2012), 109–130. 



On the blog, this year, I have tried to highlight some books that readers who, like me, are wanting to expand their ancient historical perspectives from beyond the Mediterranean basin to other cultures, such as the Greco-Indians, the Persians, and, now, ancient Africa. Indeed, it has become a little, irregular blog series. Is it something you would like to see more of? Do you have any recommendations for readers?

1 comment

Literature reviews like this are a great help – I’ll probably buy this book. Anything else on the ancient world outside the Greco-Roman zone would be fantastic. I find that the continual raking through of the Greco-Roman literary tradition for anything new or different to say is a turn-off.
My main interest has been the ancient Middle East, but India, South East Asia and China (other than the Terracotta Army) are areas with plenty of material but we hardly hear about them. I’d like to find out more.

Duncan Whinton-Brown

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