Why didn't Africa develop before the modern era?

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imperium3

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See thread title.

As I understand it the main catalyst for development across Eurasia was the Silk Road trade routes between Europe, India and China. This meant that any major innovation in one place was invariably transmitted to the rest of the continent, meaning that the whole continent continued to advance if any one area of it was experiencing prosperity. I think that sytem largely broke down after the decline of the Mongol Empire into warring states, which stopped the continuing advances in Europe from being transmitted back to the East until it was too late (OK, it's probably more complicated than that).

What I don't understand is why much of Africa south of the Sahara remained largely tribal and underdeveloped. There were trade routes across the Sahara, and some rich kingdoms (Mali of course). And there was sea trade along the Indian Ocean coast, with ivory and exotic animals being major exports. Yet much of Africa seems to have stayed tribal until it was colonised by the Europeans in the 19th century.

Why was this? Was the geographic separation just too great? Why didn't they pick up the technology of the Indian and Arab civilisations?

Or am I just ignorant of African history?
 

dragoon9105

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I have a feeling Disease and the Climate have alot to do with it.
 

Cavalry

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Why was this? Was the geographic separation just too great? Why didn't they pick up the technology of the Indian and Arab civilisations?
There are tribal peoples in the hill country just 300km away from my city. So yes, the isolation is the reason. Even the traders pass near, they didn't stay or even didn't talk with them. The climate and deceases will stop civilization people from coming to the places.
 

joak

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People say "Guns, Germs and Steel" too often in response to questions like this, but this is the exact question that that book answers well. Basically (and including a few other things):

- Climate. Not that it's uniformly bad, but the change in the conditions as you go north/south means innovations (like specifics on agriculture and animal husbandry) can't 'diffuse' easily.
- Native biodiversity. There don't seem to be large numbers of domesticable plants and animals in Africa. Unfortunately, since "Bantu heavy cavalry riding domesticated war rhinoceroses" would be the coolest thing ever. Even today we haven't managed to do much
- Malaria, sleeping sickness, and other diseases. Domestic animals you import from other continents often don't do well. Again, still a problem today.

Combine them all and Africans were having trouble getting the surpluses you need for a 'classical' style civilization when Eurasia was getting going, *and* imported ideas didn't translate as well, *and* there don't seem to be easy way to use local resources to improve the imported ideas.
 

keynes2.0

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People say "Guns, Germs and Steel" too often in response to questions like this, but this is the exact question that that book answers well.
Well that depends on what you mean by "answers well". If you mean answers in a tidy package that ties up all loose ends then sure. If you mean answers while considering alternative possibilities and gives a strong case for why random events could not have derailed this supposedly inevitable process then it really doesn't touch on that at all. Most historians get shy about describing things as inevitable when going past a few decades. Apparently Diamond can safely predict inexorable trends over ten thousand years which is quite the feat.

((Gun Germs and Steel happens to be my second most detested "history" book in case my antipathy wasn't clear :/ . It seems to me that it just invents new post hoc rationalizations to replace the outdated post hoc rationalizations that other, better historians spent so much labor cleaning out of history.))
 
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nerd

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My own theory.....

Tropical inhabited areas worldwide have not changed from tribal hunter or light agrarian because there was/is no need to.

Living, at that standard was/is simple, reliable, and moderate effort. Famine is rare.

More challenging climates have spurred new ideas because they were sometimes the only way to survive.

Why develop work-intensive farming if low hanging fruit is plentiful?
 

Plank of Wood

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The climate in Sub-saharan Africa isn't much different to parts of India, Indochina, and Central America though, and those places excelled in terms of civilization compared to equatorial Africa.
 
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Lwantssugar

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The same reason Australia didn't develop until the modern era: everything is trying to kill them between virulent diseases like malaria and ebola, the dense jungles of the Congo, 24/7 petty tribal warfare, and mosquitoes the size of basketballs its no wonder nothing resembling western civilization developed
 
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gagenater

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The climate in Sub-saharan Africa isn't much different to parts of India, Indochina, and Central America though, and those places excelled in terms of civilization compared to equatorial Africa.
Actually it's considerably different. All three of those places get regular but not excessive rainfall in a season during which it's convenient to grow crops. Large portions of Africa have a dry season that is so long and a total accumulated annual rainfall that is so low that agriculture is inneffectual. Other parts have so much rainfall that many common crops fail as a result of excessive moisture. All three of them have some 'tropical' diseases, but each of them also has an absence of some of the major ones that exist only in Africa. All three of them have a large number of navigable rivers and/ or easy to get in and out of sheltered sea ports - the entire continent of Africa outside the lower Nile River, Niger River and meditarranean coast lack these geographic features.
 

dragoon9105

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And the Areas around the Niger, Nile and Med coast all had development.
 

gagenater

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Well that depends on what you mean by "answers well". If you mean answers in a tidy package that ties up all loose ends then sure. If you mean answers while considering alternative possibilities and gives a strong case for why random events could not have derailed this supposedly inevitable process then it really doesn't touch on that at all. Most historians get shy about describing things as inevitable when going past a few decades. Apparently Diamond can safely predict inexorable trends over ten thousand years which is quite the feat.

((Gun Germs and Steel happens to be my second most detested "history" book in case my antipathy wasn't clear :/ . It seems to me that it just invents new post hoc rationalizations to replace the outdated post hoc rationalizations that other, better historians spent so much labor cleaning out of history.))
Trying to say something is inevitable or logical to project to and from is impossibly difficult if/when you try to look at details or specific events. It's exceedingly possible and indeed often quite easy when you look at large scale general trends over very long time periods. A lot of Diamonds other works are speculative and/or theoretical in nature. Guns Germs and Steel isn't. There are some detailed notes/anecdotes and points which for limited times or areas might be questionable but the work as a whole is nearly unassailable. It's about as likely that Civilization would start in subsaharan Africa as it is in Northern Siberia or Australia. There are simply so many factors against it that it isn't reasonable to suggest. Random events can't explain something that has obviously been taking place and moving continuously in one direction for 50,000 years. That's more than enough time for these sorts of things to balance one another out.

A good analogy would be to look at two forests of trees - one is Eurasia and the other is Africa. Each tree in the grove represents a group of people who are a recognizable society either historically, in the archaeological record or in written records. At any given time the trees in one forest are consistently larger, more numerous and growing faster than the trees in the other forest. Are their counter examples? Sure - there are always going to be a few trees in one forest or the other that are unusually successful or unusually unhealthy. The averages though are overwhelmingly one way or the other. Even more telling we can see how one forest grows to consume more and more area with more and more trees, while the other rarely expands much, and when it does it's just as likely to shrink or retreat later on.
 
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gagenater

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And the Areas around the Niger, Nile and Med coast all had development.
They sure did. What a coincidence. It's almost as if there were a connection. And of course there is, which is why when people ask questions like this they often specify subsaharan Africa, and then learn about the west African region afterwards
 

Druplesnubb

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All three of them have a large number of navigable rivers and/ or easy to get in and out of sheltered sea ports - the entire continent of Africa outside the lower Nile River, Niger River and meditarranean coast lack these geographic features.
What about the East African Coast?
 

keynes2.0

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It's about as likely that Civilization would start in subsaharan Africa as it is in Northern Siberia or Australia. There are simply so many factors against it that it isn't reasonable to suggest.
If the industrial revolution had occurred in the Louisiana watershed or the Fertile Crescent then people would consider it absurd that it could have happened in the backwater of northern Britannia.

I agree that there are factors that make it more difficult for industrialization to start in some parts of the world. But Diamond's thesis is waaaaaaay more sweeping then that. And the fact that people justify his sweeping statements by saying that he got the obvious stuff right is exactly the problem with him. Ironically I've heard him praised for saying that he smashes older outdated myths about racial superiority. Those myths were smashed long ago all he does is replace them with new sets of myths.

Dont get me wrong, Diamond discusses points that are important about how geography affects society. However these points have been discussed by historians for decades or even centuries. If you remove his grandiose claims then you'd be left with a boring book. It's pure pop "academia", take well known stuff, fudge the details to juice it up with excitement and publish to a wide audience that will like the narrative.
 

JodelDiplom

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Trying to say something is inevitable or logical to project to and from is impossibly difficult if/when you try to look at details or specific events. It's exceedingly possible and indeed often quite easy when you look at large scale general trends over very long time periods. A lot of Diamonds other works are speculative and/or theoretical in nature. Guns Germs and Steel isn't. There are some detailed notes/anecdotes and points which for limited times or areas might be questionable but the work as a whole is nearly unassailable. It's about as likely that Civilization would start in subsaharan Africa as it is in Northern Siberia or Australia. There are simply so many factors against it that it isn't reasonable to suggest. Random events can't explain something that has obviously been taking place and moving continuously in one direction for 50,000 years. That's more than enough time for these sorts of things to balance one another out.

A good analogy would be to look at two forests of trees - one is Eurasia and the other is Africa. Each tree in the grove represents a group of people who are a recognizable society either historically, in the archaeological record or in written records. At any given time the trees in one forest are consistently larger, more numerous and growing faster than the trees in the other forest. Are their counter examples? Sure - there are always going to be a few trees in one forest or the other that are unusually successful or unusually unhealthy. The averages though are overwhelmingly one way or the other. Even more telling we can see how one forest grows to consume more and more area with more and more trees, while the other rarely expands much, and when it does it's just as likely to shrink or retreat later on.
50,000 years is a long time. Africa prior to colonization was not *that* far behind. They entered their iron-age a few centuries after we (Euros) entered ours, but they did. It transformed Africa in its own way just as much as "our" iron age transformed Europe. Just due to low settlement density, the whole process took way longer. The Bantu (the bearers of iron-age technology) took 1000 years or so to advance into southern Africa. They introduced agriculture to those places. That's not completely different from some of the processes that turned northern Europe from a hunter/gatherer stone age place into a place with (bronze age) agriculture. That, too, took centuries.

All in all I think the other posters already mentioned the key reasons. Africa is a harsh place to raise crops and cattle without medicine and strong tools. Much harsher than Eurasia. If there was more landmass in Africa around the southern 40° and 50° latitudes, perhaps there would have been sufficient land with good climate to allow for a sedentary civilization to arise a lot earlier.
 
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gagenater

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What about the East African Coast?
Nothing - look on a map for yourself at all the great coastal trading cities In that region on river mouths or in good natural harbors The count is one; Zanzibar, and it didn't take off until it got tied in to the spice trade in the 15th or 16th century, since you can't have a local trade network with only one point in it.
 

gagenater

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If the industrial revolution had occurred in the Louisiana watershed or the Fertile Crescent then people would consider it absurd that it could have happened in the backwater of northern Britannia.

I agree that there are factors that make it more difficult for industrialization to start in some parts of the world. But Diamond's thesis is waaaaaaay more sweeping then that. And the fact that people justify his sweeping statements by saying that he got the obvious stuff right is exactly the problem with him. Ironically I've heard him praised for saying that he smashes older outdated myths about racial superiority. Those myths were smashed long ago all he does is replace them with new sets of myths.

Dont get me wrong, Diamond discusses points that are important about how geography affects society. However these points have been discussed by historians for decades or even centuries. If you remove his grandiose claims then you'd be left with a boring book. It's pure pop "academia", take well known stuff, fudge the details to juice it up with excitement and publish to a wide audience that will like the narrative.
Industrialization is a tiny sliver of 'developing civilization'. Diamond doesn't claim that it is will or must develop in England - indeed his book barely touches on anything past 1600 or so. The . 3/4 of it concerns the time period before zero AD. His thesis is that a certain region in Eurasia bounded by climate (to cold in the north, to hot or dry in the south) was inevitably going to contain the 'winners' of the race for modern civilizations. That is his thesis and he does a good job explaining it, often using his field research in New Guinea in the process. Everything else is secondary or tertiary ramblings off from that primary point. And a lot of that stuff IS 'pop anthropology' although some of it represents potentially fruitful avenues for future inquiry. In fact looking at the index he only mentions English or the United Kingdom twice in the entire book - once in the geographical sense where he mentions the English Channel as an example of a strait, and once in the linguistic sense where he uses the well known geographic expansion of the English language as an analogy for the expansion of Bantu.

If you look up industrialization in the index his sole example using England is used to specifically state that England was NOT a special place in respect to its replacement of human muscles - that it was a part of a general development of wind, water and animal power across Eurasia. Are you sure we are discussing the same book?
 

keynes2.0

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I fall into my habit of letting the post industrial world dominate my thoughts once again. The stuff he's talking about is all the stuff that lead to industry and he talks about economic domination in the opening sections so my positronic pathways base the potential of my interest around that paradigm.

My real bone to pick is the "inevitability" nonesense. European history is hardly a straight and narrow path and his reasons for disqualifying other places are all post-hoc explanations. It's circular reasoning, we can't see the emergence of this type of culture in Korea or Louisiana or southern China or the Great Lakes because we never saw it emerge in those places. And we didn't see them emerge because we can't see them emerge. Unless Diamond is secretly Shiva in disguise and has actually tested this theory on thousands of iterations of Earth it's an extremely fallacious line of reasoning.

I would agree with the assessment that there seem to be some geographic features that would help promote some cultural features but he takes that statement and cranks it up way past 11 to over 9000.
 

gagenater

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I fall into my habit of letting the post industrial world dominate my thoughts once again. The stuff he's talking about is all the stuff that lead to industry and he talks about economic domination in the opening sections so my positronic pathways base the potential of my interest around that paradigm.

My real bone to pick is the "inevitability" nonesense. European history is hardly a straight and narrow path and his reasons for disqualifying other places are all post-hoc explanations. It's circular reasoning, we can't see the emergence of this type of culture in Korea or Louisiana or southern China or the Great Lakes because we never saw it emerge in those places. And we didn't see them emerge because we can't see them emerge. Unless Diamond is secretly Shiva in disguise and has actually tested this theory on thousands of iterations of Earth it's an extremely fallacious line of reasoning.

I would agree with the assessment that there seem to be some geographic features that would help promote some cultural features but he takes that statement and cranks it up way past 11 to over 9000.

Read the book again. South China and Korea are exactly in the area Diamond calls as the inevitable center of civilization. He makes no claim and makes to attempt to support any claim that Europe will somehow inevitably end up on top - only that Europe is a small part of the region that he claims was inevitably going to do the best. Indeed the time frame of the book mostly ends before Europe was on top. There is one chapter about the discovery of the Americas at the end of the book. It's over with before we get to any time period where Europe is doing better than anyone. His big thing is the Fertile Crescent, and to a lesser extent the South and north Chinese centers, and the way they were able to develop crops and domesticated animals and transfer them to one another. From the perspective of the book Europe as a whole is a 'Johnny come lately' able to piggyback on to the developments made elsewhere and catch up by happy coincidence of geography. He never discussed industrialization. He never discusses cultural features either, except to go to considerable lengths to explain that he doesn't think cultural differences between societies have much to do with their success in the long run. You are thinking of some other book.
 
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