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2 Early Subsistence: Gathering-Hunting and Agriculture

Kathleen R. Smythe Indiana University Press ePub

AFRICA IS NOT only the home of human evolution, but it is also one place where humans have practiced the full continuum of economic subsistence, first developing a gathering-hunting lifestyle and then different forms of agriculture. How societies obtain food is one of the most important aspects of history, but historians give it scant attention. One of the reasons is that in industrialized countries, like the United States, there is easy access to a great variety of food and usually little contact with the farmers who produce it, so it is easy to take this characteristic of societies for granted. But disconnection from the source of one’s food is relatively new and not universal. Throughout history, most civilizations relied on either gathering and hunting or farming to feed themselves.

Gathering and hunting was the longest-lasting lifestyle in human history. Since the dawn of Homo sapiens, about 200,000 years ago, humans were gatherer-hunters for all but the last 10,000 years. To put this in perspective, if the 200,000 years after modern humans first came into existence were condensed into one hour, then humans began to farm only in the last four minutes. And only within the last minute or so did farming become their primary means of subsistence.

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10 An African Success Story: Somaliland

Kathleen R. Smythe Indiana University Press ePub

TO MANY both in the academy and outside of it, one of the challenges people face globally is achieving meaningful participation in the political process. African peoples can play an important role in helping to question dominant ways of thinking about political institutions and imagining different forms of organization. Such forms might be, first, better suited to African realities and, second, better able to respond to the environmental and economic challenges that many predict will profoundly shape our future. Somaliland in eastern Africa points the way to some effective means of addressing basic human needs in a rapidly changing world. What the media covers about Somalia—piracy and lack of governance, for example—bears little resemblance to the experience of half the Somali population in what is now Somaliland. Somalilanders have built effective systems based on local political and economic institutions; such institutions are one of the keys to creating more resilient and sustainable societies in Africa and elsewhere in the face of increasing global uncertainty.

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4 New Ideas and Tradition

Kathleen R. Smythe Indiana University Press ePub

THE BLENDING of new ideas with old ones is an important theme in early African history. Such a declaration might contrast with what many readers have heard about Africa: that it is a continent full of peoples who hold fast to tradition and are not interested in new, modern ways. And, in some coverage, such traditions are one reason for Africans’ lack of modernity and poverty. Often, for example, ethnic identities or long-standing cultural loyalties are blamed for conflict on the continent.

African historian Jan Vansina wrote about traditions in Central Africa among Bantu speakers (who belonged to the Niger-Congo language family) that had not changed for millennia. In this interpretation, a constellation of ideas is associated with a word or term. Which terms are important or what they relate to changes with time. It is this more flexible notion of tradition that is explored here. Most societies, African or otherwise, are constituted of traditions that, although rooted in the distant past, have been influenced by ideas and changes from both within and outside the society. Particularly, many contemporary African cultural norms are syntheses derived from long-standing interactions with peoples of different economic and cultural backgrounds.

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6 Forms of Social Organization: Matriliny

Kathleen R. Smythe Indiana University Press ePub

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, individuals have had specific ideas about their families, marriage, and property. Societies typically define these relationships as a form of kinship. The most basic human relationships of kinship shape work roles, children’s identities and caretaking, and political and economic institutions. How and why people in the past changed the way they thought about kinship is one aspect of African history. Matriliny is one specific way African people in the past and present have thought about their families, their work, and their economies.

Matriliny is deeply misunderstood by the general North American population. It is often mistaken for matriarchy or is seen as an ideal institution for female freedom or contrasted with some other, more familiar system, like patriliny, rather than being understood on its own terms. But it is true that the implications of matrilineal reckoning can be profound in terms of the way societies thought (and still think) about economic accumulation and distribution, obligations children had (and have) to their parents, spouses and other family members’ relations to one another, and men’s and women’s political and economic rights in society. Patrilineal systems also have significant implications for those who live within them.

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7 Forms of Economic Thought: Wealth in People and the Entrustment Economy

Kathleen R. Smythe Indiana University Press ePub

AS HISTORIAN John Iliffe wrote, among the Africans’ chief contributions to world history is their ability to survive and thrive in a very challenging landscape. As in all preindustrial societies, Africans had to use their bodies to work for a living and to ensure the health of the next generation. Until the twentieth century, Africa’s history was primarily shaped by a combination of its vast landscape and sparse population. Therefore, the resource Africans lacked was people, not land, as it was for Europeans. One product of this situation is an African value system that is largely derived from the importance of human relationships for survival and success and particularly the availability of people for labor, reproduction, and security. Such “rights in people” have been at the heart of African economic and social history, as historian Jane Guyer has noted.

The related term “wealth-in-people” captures the value of relationships (and their collective knowledge and skills) in African accumulation and wealth reckoning. The term was first used in the 1970s to express the ways in which elders controlled the labor of others, such as children, in their societies. The term is now used much more broadly to note characteristics that are common throughout Africa, such as interpersonal dependency and network building that require investing in relationships at the expense of accumulating material personal wealth. The network of people, particularly dependents, upon whom one could rely for production and reproduction brought security in numbers and energy, as well as a variety of ideas, skills, and talents that would make for stronger families and societies.

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