For many, Africa holds a special place in our hearts. It is the birthplace of our species; an epic landscape stuffed with biodiversity and humankind’s oldest traditional practices. It is impossible not to hold romantic notions about Africa, from the knowable — the Pride of a Lion – to the mysterious unknowable. The epic, ancient walled city of Great Zimbabwe, for example, is a place where myth blends with reality.
But what are the forces that have shaped the Continent as we know it in the twenty-first century? With five maps, provided by Tusk Photo, we’ve set out to answer exactly that.
It seems almost a contradiction that Africa still mostly consists of developing nations, seeing as humans in Africa effectively had a head start of thousands of years. The earliest signs of civilization are all in modern day Pakistan (the Indus Valley) and Iraq (Mesopotamia), and then it was the Europeans who made the scientific breakthroughs that gave them the technological edge. But how?
The answer, simply put, is geography. Africa may be stuffed with natural resources and wealth, like oil and diamonds, but they are hard to get to. Apart from the Nile, most of its rivers don’t add up. Or they have waterfalls and rapids that prohibit trade on its rivers.
Africa has no cereal crops, making farming difficult. Africa also has no large native mammals that could be domesticated to work the land. In short, Africa’s geography makes trade and farming very hard for its people.
Africa is very difficult – if not almost impossible – to travel across on foot. Africa’s beautiful and rich landscapes can be very challenging, and its sheer size discouraged exploring too far. When the Arabs invaded Africa from the Middle East, it took them generations to cross the Sahara desert. The Sahara is bigger than the entire United States of America. When the Arabs finally crossed it they entered the ‘Sahal’ a rocky desert with very little rainfall that was just as difficult – the Arabs never settled beyond the Sahal in significant numbers.
The Europeans made inroads into Africa from the bottom-up. South Africa, being so far south, has a cool and pleasant climate much like Europe’s. But as the Europeans moved further into the heart of the continent, they crossed the Tropic of Capricorn. At this point the climate changed. All of the livestock they brought with them quickly died, and crops would not grow in the heat. Disease spread by malaria and the tsetse fly quickly put an end to any significant European expansion – and they kept mostly to the south.
The nineteenth century was the European century. In previous decades the Portuguese had circumnavigated Africa, opening up new trade routes to India – another very rich continent like Africa. South Africa was initially a stopping-off point for the Europeans, but they liked it so much they established large colonies. In the end the Europeans realized just how much wealth lay in the continent and carved up the continent amongst each other. The British Empire dreamt of a single trade network that stretched all the way from Cape Town (South Africa) to Cairo (Egypt): something that became possible thanks to technological railway innovation.
Africa’s religious legacy
Africa’s religious identity largely reflects that of past conquerors. The Arabs brought the Muslim faith with them to the North; the Europeans spread Christianity up through sub-Saharan Africa. The rocky and inhospitable Sahal acted as a giant natural barrier for both conquerors. Hence it is not uncommon to refer to Africa as two distinct regions: ‘North Africa’ and ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’.
Both Islam and Christianity are Abrahamic religions and are known as ‘proselytizing’ faiths: meaning their followers are commanded to spread the religion to non-believers. This is the reason hundreds of millions of Africans today practice either Islam or Christianity (although many of them have blended traditional customs into them).
Both the Sahal and stricter attitudes to sex in Muslim countries have halted the spread of HIV/AIDS, which disproportionately affects Africans below the Sahal.
A lot of Africans today are descended from the Bantu people. The Bantu were successful conquerors of Africa, despite themselves being Africa. They displaced, defeated, and intermarried, absorbing many other tribes into their gene pool. Whereas, surprisingly, the Madagascan people are largely of Southeast Asian descent – meaning their ancestors must have hitched a ride over the Indian Ocean for a new life many thousands of years ago.
The true size of Africa
This map is more of an eye-opener of Africa more than anything. It shows how much bigger the occupied territories in Africa were than the lands of the Europeans. Despite being bigger, in the nineteenth century, rapid population growth meant there were four Europeans to every African.
Africa is much bigger than it appears on standard maps of the world. This is due to the struggle of representing the 3D spherical Earth on a 2D map. In reality, Africa is vast. Truly vast. Most of the world’s great powers fit comfortably within her borders.