Africa’s Great Civilizations – New York Times review

3 Mar 2017

When Africa turns up on a history program, it’s often because another cache of ancient bones has been found there. Maybe there’s a mention of Mitochondrial Eve and a map showing how early humans migrated out of Africa and populated the world, but these programs generally leave a 200,000-year void between the paleoanthropological find and today.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar, is in the midst of a quest to change that with “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” a six-part PBS series that began Monday night and continues this week. His message is that it wasn’t just our DNA that originated in Africa.

“When those early human beings migrated out of Africa,” he says in Part 1, “they weren’t traveling alone. They were carrying something within them, and that something had developed slowly over millennia. It was culture.”

Dr. Gates, who after numerous television appearances is about as comfortable on camera as any academic out there, travels all over the continent, visiting sites where writing and art evolved, and where centers of population and power evolved along with them.

Everyone knows about ancient Egypt, but here we also learn about the Iron Age kingdom of Axum (also rendered Aksum) south of Egypt; the 13th-century libraries of Timbuktu; the development of Zanzibar into an intercontinental trading hub; and much more.

“Africa gave us the blueprint for civilization itself,” Dr. Gates says, showing us a wealth of ancient artifacts that are “profound refutations of the claim that Africans lacked a history before Europeans arrived.”

The program, however, isn’t just a celebration of Africa’s gifts to and place in the world. Dr. Gates’s historical travelogue makes clear that African civilizations were also pretty good at waging war and at enslaving fellow Africans, no outside prompting needed.

The series doesn’t get very far into into modern times. (Later episodes appear at various times this week; check local listings or stream them at That’s too bad. It would be illuminating to hear more about the connections between the great civilizations of the past and today’s Africa, parts of which are still vexed by ancient sectarian divisions.

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