Thursday, June 2, 2011

Modernity and Cultural Complexity in West Africa


Fante fishermen at Cape Coast in Ghana, hauling in their nets (link)

I'll put it simply.  I adhere to the view that modern humans and modern human thinking evolved in Africa.  Humans were fully modern in their reasoning, artistic and adaptive capacities tens of thousands of years ago, well before they ever walked or paddled out of Africa.

Sure, Europeans have been working hard to select for pale skin;  Equatorial Africans have been seeking a perfect blackness.  Apart from the practicalities of sun adaptation, we can only guess at why there is such strong selection for these characteristics.  I'd even go so far as to say that there are genetic differences that lead to different health outcomes for Africans and non-Africans.  Africans rarely get melanoma.  Non-Africans rarely get sickle cell anemia and other malaria adaptation induced illnesses.  However, we've both been under extreme selection for intelligence, sociability and resourcefulness.

As I look out there in the blogosphere, it's rather stunning to more often than not run across people who struggle with the Out-of-Africa model for human evolution.  Perhaps we partly struggle because we just don't know much about Africa.  There are few positive media stories and, with the exception of the history of slavery, almost nothing about African history or culture in the popular media.

My impression of Africa is quite different from most non-Africans. Through a quirk of British Commonwealth generosity in the 1960's, I spent some of my girlhood years in Secondi-Takoradi, on the coast of Ghana, in West Africa.  My dad accepted a position to teach science at a college there.  My memories are vividly sensual:  Fante fishermen rhythmically singing and hauling in their fishing nets, the intense but not unpleasant smell of the fish market on the beach, the long spacing of huge but steady waves crashing on the beach, rainy season thunderstorms, the thrill of drums "talking" between villages at night, the warm generosity of my nanny Agnes, and lanky and beautiful African children.  Not in skin color, but in lankiness, I recognized them as quite like me.

At the time, I had a childhood intuition that the experience had been something very special, but it was only years later that could truly put it in context.  I had been given an early opportunity to experience one of the great cosmopolitan cultures of the world.

One could say that I am merely romantizing a childhood experience, but much anthropological research would say otherwise.  The Akan People, Fante and the Asante, seem by every measure, to have unique cultural adaptations to their equatorial coast and inland world.  As I was listening to Robin I. M. Dunbar's discussion on the challenges that social network size poses to the human brain, the ritualistic social behavior of the Akan immediately came to mind.  They are a highly social culture and their social rituals act as a kind of glue that helps them overcome many of the impositions of living in a densely populated and tropical region.  I'll be publishing a bibliography in the next few days to flesh out some of my childhood memories. 

In addition, for the month of June, I'll be blogging on various aspects of the creativity, resourcefulness, sociability and innovation among the Akan people of West Africa.

Akwaaba!

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