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Race and History Forum

New discoveries in Africa change face of history

New Africa

October was "Black History Month" in Britain. As part of the celebrations, we asked Prof Richard Greenfield to look at the significance of recent breakthrough to scholarly research on the early history of northeastern Africa. New discoveries there have provided incontrovertible evidence of settled pastoral and agricultural communities dating way back to 800 BC - earlier by far than hitherto envisaged.

The early history of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia will have to be rewritten in the light of dramatic new discoveries. And they have relevance to the worldwide demand for balanced historical and cultural studies freed from arrogance, prejudice and racism.

Up on the mountainous plateau of northeastern Africa, Eritrean scholars and their international colleagues at the University of Asmara have been conducting new excavations and utilising the latest carbon-dating techniques to revolutionary effect. This research has already revealed incontrovertible evidence of settled pastoral and agricultural communities dating way back to 800 BC - earlier by far than heretofore envisaged.

Together with revised linguistic evidence, it seriously and probably finally challenges assumptions, dating from the colonial era and earlier, that it must have been immigration of Sabaens crossing the Red Sea into Africa, that introduced Semitic and related languages and gave rise to the emergence of complex societies and cultures such as that of Aksum. In noting this, we must now set this revision in context and also ask why it has not occurred earlier.

It has been an eventful half-century since a Regius professor at Oxford could openly assert that Black Africa had no history. The 18th International Congress of Oriental Studies, meeting in Moscow in 1960 had many panels. Egyptologists from East and West were there in force but, as usual, only the last, the 19th panel was entitled "Africa".

This afterthought was occasioned only by the view that Semitic studies - largely linguistic - at their very margin extended from the "Middle East" and Arabia into Ethiopia. Rebels on that panel decided to call for the future establishment of a new and separate International Congress of African Studies. It fell to your correspondent, then a dean at the then "University College of Addis Ababa" and the junior member of a four-man delegation, otherwise composed of Ethiopian diplomats, to offer Addis Ababa as the initial host.

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