Sunday, April 21, 2024

Season 5 Episode 3: Trans-Saharan Trade in the Garamantian Age

A piece of Roman jewelry embedded with carbuncle, one of the key goods traded in Germa.

Horses, carbuncles, gold, salt, and more. What do all these things have in common? They were first traded across the Sahara by the Garamantes. Today's episode discusses the earliest rise of Garamantian trans-Saharan trade, the first documented example of trade across the vast desert.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Season 5 Episode 2: Fossil Water Farming


An image of a farm irritated by a qanat/fouggara
Brought to the Sahara following the Persian conquest of Egypt, the spread of a new irrigation technology allowed Garamantian civilization to expand dramatically

An archaeological map of Zinkekra

The earliest evidence of a unique Garamantian culture comes from the settlement of Zinkekra, located at the top of a rocky plateau near the Wadi al Ajal. However, settlements gradually drifted further down the valley.

The location at the bottom of these valleys allowed new Garamantian settlements to better take advantage of a technology recently brought to North Africa with the Persian conquest of Egypt. Known as Qanats, or Fouggaras in North Africa, this advanced irrigation technology allowed Garamantian settlements to tap into groundwater reserves without the labor intensive practice of extracting water from wells with buckets. Instead, gravity brought water through the slightly inclined channel and delivered it to the irrigated outlet.

A fouggara seen from the surface, visible in the form of the round access tunnels created for construction and maintainence
Fouggaras were very labor intensive to produce, indicating that Garamantian cities were combined in some form of larger state, which allowed them to leverage a more robust labor pool. Additionally, the newly abundant sources of groundwater allowed the population of Garamantian settlements to expand dramatically.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Season 5 Episode 1: Paintings in the Libyan Desert

Roundhead Rock Art from the Akakus Mountains - Libya

Our newest episode of the podcast focuses on the geography and prehistory of Saharan Libya, including the transformation of the Sahara from a vast grassland into an endless desert, and the effect that this had on the culture's that persisted within this harsh world.

Map of Libya, highlighting the Idehan Ubari and Wadi al Ajal

Monday, February 26, 2024

Special Episode: What Does Bantu Truly Mean - Part 2


In this episode, we will examine some of the shortcomings of Harry Johnston's original Bantu expansion hypothesis, as well as which of its strengths have allowed it to persist in modern academic study of African history.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Special episode: What does Bantu Truly Mean?


Map approximating the extent of Bantu languages. Source: Khan Academy

Bantu is a term which has become one of the most contentious in the study of African history. The name of a language family stretching across much of the southern half of the African continent, the term has been used in many distinct ways. In anthropology, it has often extended beyond mere linguistics into an idea of a larger shared culture and history across southern and central Africa. In apartheid South Africa, "Bantu" was used as a euphemism for "black" in many of the country's most oppressive apartheid laws. Furthermore, debates around the origins of the original Bantu speaking peoples and their purported spread throughout the southern half of the continent are a historiographical point of contention. In this episode, we examine the origins of the idea of Bantu languages, as well as different theories on Bantu origins and how they were so successful in spreading across such a vast geographic area.

Due to the rarity of written sources in the Bantu speaking regions of Africa prior to colonialism, and the fact that almost all of the written sources focus on more "important" things like theology or records, we have little idea of what Bantu speakers thought about the similarities between their languages and those of their neighbors. However, it seems likely that Bantu speakers were aware of the similarity between different Bantu languages, they likely postulated about why and how these similarities had come to be, and theorized as to why certain people they encountered like the Nilotic or Khoisan speaking groups in Africa, or European and Arab foreigners spoke languages which were noticably more distinct.

Sadly, though, due to a lack of pre-colonial sources on the continent on the topic, the history of studying the linguistics of South and Central Africa is a somewhat Eurocentric one. The idea of a unified Bantu linguistics family is first proposed in writing by James Prichard, a British ethnologist. Decades later, Wilhelm Bleik, a German anthropologist would give the family a name, borrowing the term "Aba-ntu" from the Zulu language of South Africa.

Beyond the recognition of the language family, however, a British colonial administration named Harry Johnston would cement the earliest iteration of the modern theory of Bantu Expansion, claiming that all Bantu speaking groups shared a common linguistic ancestor group which migrated and expanded outwards from an original homeland in Cameroon or Nigeria. 

Harry Johnston

Johnston would also provide a key new idea to the studies of Bantu linguistics. Notably, he would argue against the then-widespread idea that Bantu grammatical structures and vocabulary were too complex for "primitive Africans", and that therefore Bantu languages must have originated from an outside "civilizing" race of Babylonians, Egyptians, Sumerians, Greeks, or Hebrews. Rather, Johnston argued that Bantu languages were a firmly African phenomenon, originating in western or central Africa before expanding elsewhere.

Johnston's ideas were as controversial as they were influential. While modern linguistics and archaeological studies have confirmed some of his ideas, they have challenged others. We will examine some of these challenges in our next episode on Bantu linguistics.

Monday, January 15, 2024

S4E29: the Fall of the Twelve Hills


Malagasy Defenders Building a Barricade at Antananarivo (1897)

In a betrayal of previous commitments to Madagascar, Britain revoked its recognition of Malagasy sovereignty in a deal with France, in exchange for French recognition of a British protectorate over Zanzibar. Soon after this deal, the French invaded Madagascar, landing troops in Mahajanga and Toamasina.
The famous "Berlin Conference" cartoon we're all familiar with

The Malagasy army, utterly spent from their previous war with France and severely short on ammunition, was forced into conservative tactics, with the Merina soldiers setting up defensive fortifications and retreating at the first sign that the fortification might fall. This tactic succeeded in slowing down the French, and allowing disease to take a toll, but little else. The Malagasy lacked ammunition for any counterattacks, and, by September of 1895, the French had reached the capital of Antananarivo.
Malagasy Christians exhuming graves to use coffin boards to build barricades

French soldiers enter Antananarivo
While Rainilaiarivony initially planned to turn the French siege of his capital into a bloody last stand, he changed his mind after seeing the destructive potential of French artillery against the city, and surrendered. The French entered the city, deposed Rainilaiarivony, and ended centuries of Merina rule over highland Madagascar. 

But by destroying the kingdom, the French would inherit their problems. Alongside rebellions already extant within Madagascar, many Merina and Sakalava immediately launched a rebellion against the French rule, known as the Menalamba revolt. The French would begin to believe that all elements of Merina elite society were secretly involved in supporting the coup, including Ranavalona III herself. The Merina queen was deported to Algeria, where she lived out her final days, never to return to her homeland. Meanwhile, several high ranking officials were accused of supporting the rebellion and executed. The French response to the rebellion was brutal and can arguably be described as genocidal, with tens of thousands of Malagasy being murdered by French soldiers in retaliation for the rebellion.

Ranavalona and her family in exile in Algeria

A pair of high ranking Merina officials are executed by the French by firing squad over alleged support for the Menalamba Revolt

Despite the brutal French response, the call for Malagasy independence never died down, and throughout the 20th century, the Malagasy people continued to demand independence. Today, Madagascar has regained its independence, and its future remains in the hands of the tompon-tany. 

Monday, January 1, 2024

S4E28: The Malagasy Gold Rush


Map of gold deposits in 19th century Madagascar by Gwyn Campbell

The French invasion and blockade of Madagascar in 1884, while it hadn't conquered the island nation, wrecked havoc on the Malagasy economy. With his country's economy in shambles, and with foreign investors being unwilling to take the risk of investing in Madagascar, Rainilaiarivony had to implement a desperate policy to excite investors and potentially reverse Madagascar's economic freefall: the opening of the country's long secret gold deposits for business.