Before the Before
It is the continent upon which the cradle of civilization supposedly first rocked and then gave birth to mankind. It is often spoken of as a country and yet is a continent. If someone identified themselves as a European, then most would inquire further: “Yes, but from what country are you?” Most people look at the color of the skin and simply think…”African”. This does a disservice to both the native and the continent. It is a gloriously diverse land mass with its north and south being oddly similar while the mid-section is colorful in its sameness. The best description is that it is different and yet, one.
Regardless of whether you believe in evolution or one of the thousands of creation myths that exist, mankind began to travel out of Africa more than one and a half million years ago. Archaeologists have unearthed artifacts, stone tools used by “Homo habilis” that date back more than two million years ago. Saharan rock art illustrates animals that have been extinct since 8500 BCE. While other rock art dates back more than twenty-six thousand years ago. Even the popular body art of tattooing dates back more than forty-two thousand years ago in Africa as the earth element ocher was being ground into a fine powder for such use. The art of burying the dead dates back more than seventy thousand years in Africa.
When speaking of Africa today, distinction is usually made between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. In ancient times, this distinction was even more noted. The native populations of North Africa consisted of lighter-skinned Berbers and Maghreb and Egyptians. Many Arabs settled in North Africa following the Caliphate. Sub-Saharan populations share the physical trait of very dark skin, although Sub-Saharan Africa contains the most diverse population genetically of anywhere on earth.
The earliest of mankind existed in Africa more than two million years ago in lands known by the more modern names of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. I will pause here to note that African countries have changed names throughout history and if I speak historically and my countries do not match the most current maps, it is because we are speaking historically and mythologically. The Nile River served as a boundary and stopped mankind from exploring Sub-Saharan Africa but eventually migrations did occur which led to different pockets of civilization, some nomadic, and others settling in villages all over the continent. The oldest known evidence of modern man was found in sites in eastern Africa and dates back more than one hundred and thirty thousand years.
African mythology contains some of the most imaginative and beautiful stories, art, and music of any worldwide. While many think of only jungles when considering the second largest continent, others imagine vast desert regions. Others may only think of plagues and still more remember it as the beginning of a tortuous journey of slavery for thousands. This does a grave disservice to Africa and its people. Africa is home to early Christian kingdoms of Kush and Axum and Egypt which is the supposed home of the Ark of the Covenant, a biblical treasure which is said to contain the Ten Commandments while there was a great Islamic center at Timbuktu in Mali. Mankind itself existed in opposite ends of the spectrum with the Pygmies of the rain forests located near the equator and the towering Masai herdsmen of Kenya and Tanzania. Africans include the the San [Bushmen] of the Kalahari Desert, the cowboys of Khoi in southern Africa with their cattle-herding skills, and the proud Zulu who took it upon themselves to challenge the mighty British Empire two centuries ago in South Africa.
Africa has both grown and suffered by the migrations of others to its lands. The Islamic Arabs in the seventh century and then European Christians in the fifteenth century all but erased the rich legacy of African traditions, mythology, and history. Unlike the mythologies of Greece, Roma, and the Far East, African legends have never been written. The mythologies of Africa exist in the truest form of mythology, the oral tradition. Once considered the Dark Continent, new emphasis on these ancient stories have revealed that Africa is a rich, brilliant land of textures and varieties, myth and magic, music, and muse.
The history of Africa, more so than on any other spot on earth, is woven amongst its people and terrain. Even its mythologies are said to have been won from the sky god Onyankopon by the mischievous spider Anansi. As the spider wove a web to ensnare the god’s family and then released them in trade for stories about creation, the cosmology, and even social order, so have African myths been woven into the fabric of mankind.
The traveling myths of Africa went with its people. Whether by choice or servitude and slavery, Africans took their stories and culture with them, singing their myths to give themselves faith. We all take the stories of our culture and history with us each and every day. As we awake, we hear the faint echoes of the voices of our past. With each step we leave impressions of our present and lay the foundation of the future. In African mythology we will see the weaving of a world, the beautiful texture and nuances of each of us. Today you will create a small square that is to be the quilt of your being. Perhaps you will be asked to trade something of yourself for the story of another. Just remember to value that which is you and grow a new day, writing a new story, for you, too, are a wonderful myth in the making.