So, of Homo sapiens’ earliest migrations out of East Africa into the continent, we had the Khoisan arriving in southern Africa 150’000 years ago, and the Pygmies moving into the forests of Central Africa 130’000 years ago. The third population cluster of original modern humans still living in Africa today, is convoluted and split into two, or four, or even more: For a second time, some groups of primal Homo sapiens moved west. In the Congo and Central Africa, they superseded the Pygmies and then moved on to colonize the forests between the Niger River and the coast of West Africa.
As migration goes, these were gradual and piecemeal population movements, going back and forth, moving on and staying behind. Splintering and fusion of small bands of people. And these movements have been going on ever since Homo sapiens came about, they never stopped and are still ongoing, today. Following their geographic distribution, these primal modern humans who moved west are today called ‘Niger-Congo’. This definition is a social one, based on language and ethnicity. It engulfs such notions as culture, race, origin, and identity, and such human social features have always been fluid. As much as it is impossible to bring the Niger-Congo peoples down to a common cultural denominator, it is genetically impossible to determine lineages, common ancestors, or areas of origin. Research, however, is beginning to confirm a genetic unity among the Niger-Congo ethnic groups. And complicating matters, it has discovered traces of DNA of archaic humans predating the Neanderthal in populations of The Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. In these West African archaic humans, Homo erectus was living side by side and interbreeding with Homo sapiens, until 16’000 years ago.
Today, the Niger-Congo population is Africa’s largest population group, the third largest of the world, and by the number of 1’400 distinct languages, the largest language group of the world. The Fula, stretching from Senegal along the Niger River into Central Africa, the Yoruba and Igbo in and around Nigeria, the Swahili in East Africa and the Zulu of South Africa are all Niger-Congo peoples. At around seven hundred million, they are not only the largest but by far the most diverse population group of Africa.
From 2005 to 2010, I was in Côte d’Ivoire and experienced a unique interplay of conflict, ethnicity, and football in African politics. In October 2000, the military junta ruling Côte d’Ivoire had organized elections allowing no other candidate than the junta leader. Laurent Gbagbo mobilized the Ivorian people to take to the streets and protest. They toppled the general and Gbagbo became president. He was supposed to hold elections in 2005, to have himself confirmed or give way to a successor. But he had no intention of doing so and at the end of 2004, he ordered an air strike against the rebels in the North of the country. Since 2002, these had attacked the government in the South and practically divided the country. It was a low-key civil war in which all political attempts to solve the conflict – including by France and the international community – had failed. But then in 2006, the Ivorian national football team qualified for the World Cup for the first time in the history of the country. This was a national sensation! The Ivorian team was built around their international star Didier Drogba who played his club football with Chelsea in the English Premier League. In the name of national unity, the Ivorian footballers called on the Ivorian politicians to end the war. They had the overwhelming support of the people. At the World Cup, they did not make it out of the group games but by early 2007, the civil war was over.
Gbagbo and Drogba are both ethnic Bété. There are over ninety distinct groups of Bété within Côte d’Ivoire and while they are the largest sub-group of the Kru in the country, the Kru only make about 10% of the Ivorian population. But over the whole of West Africa, the Kru are one of the larger groups of Niger-Congo peoples. Their main area is in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire’s coastal neighbor to the West, and to the East, they stretch along the coast all the way to Nigeria. They are renowned for their audacity in sailing. Being an inland people of the Kru, the Bété are culturally related more closely to the Mande, who are also Niger-Congo and live west and north of Côte d’Ivoire, in Guinea and southern Mali. As he told me when I presented my credentials to him, Gbagbo was proud of being a Bété for two reasons: First, the Bété’s political culture was more based on individual rights than with other tribes of the region. They had no problem standing out as an individual and debating and opposing communal opinion. And then the Bété have their ‘lutte traditionelle’, a form of folk wrestling, which for some, counts to the martial arts and for others, is only sport and entertainment for the people. Their ‘lutte’ was very similar to our Swiss ‘Schwingen’, Gbogbo apprised me. I should bring a few Swiss wrestlers to Côte d’Ivoire, and we would organize a tournament, in Gagnoa, his home village. I am more of a football-man, so I never took up the idea. And later, I would become an honorary Baoulé. I never told Gbagbo. The Baoulé are the largest tribe of Côte d’Ivoire. Also Niger-Congo.
A little bit after the migrations that created the Niger-Congo peoples, some other groups of Homo sapiens were ready to leave their original home in East Africa. Today, they are mainly found in Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia, between the lower Omo River and Lake Turkana, and the White Nile and Lake Victoria. In Ethiopia, they are grouped in their own regional state of ‘Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’. Some followed the Nile north. There, in the middle and lower Nile Valley of Sudan and southern Egypt, they established their most northern homeland of Nubia. Other groups migrated west, following the Chari River into the basin of Lake Chad and the Sahara. And together, these two populations of primal Homo sapiens descent, over the millennia, became the Nilo-Saharan peoples of Africa. Again, linguistically and ethnically, and also genetically, related. Around sixty million and, with over two hundred main languages, extremely diverse. There are River Nilotes all along the Nile from Uganda through South Sudan and Sudan to Egypt, where the Nubians are, today, the most northern ones. And there are Lake Nilotes, like the Luo on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, in Kenya. There are the cattle herding Maasai in Tanzania and Kenya, and again in Kenya, there are the Kalenjin, the famous Kenyan runners, Highland Nilotes. The Saharan peoples of the group are mainly in Chad but also in northern Nigeria and southern Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali. The vast Songhai Empire with Timbuktu in its center, was Nilo-Saharan.
In the evening of the 9th of July 2011 and the following day on my smartphone, I received calls and text messages from friends in Switzerland. The Swiss televisions’ images of the inauguration ceremony for Salva Kiir as President of the now independent Republic of South Sudan had shown me sitting straight behind him, while he was giving his maiden speech. This ceremony had ended Africa’s longest-running civil war, which started in 2005, and out of Addis Ababa, I had been designated as the first Ambassador of Switzerland to South Sudan, the 55th country of Africa, and the 193rd of the United Nations. What the Swiss television did not show was the heat of Juba we were sitting in, the never-ending rounds of greetings amongst the African heads of state before the ceremony – delaying its start for hours – and how profusely Salva Kiir was sweating under his cowboy hat. Salva Kiir is an ethnic Dinka. The Dinka are the largest ethnic group of South Sudan. By far, they are 4.5 million out of the eleven million South Sudanese who, overall, are divided into over sixty different ethnicities. And most of them are also part of the Nilotic peoples of the Nilo-Saharan population of Africa. Although they live on both sides of the Nile and fish, they today define themselves as cattle herders. Thus, the cowboy hat.
We are now in the middle of the Middle Stone Age, around 100’000 years ago. Homo sapiens had made strides in innovating his tools. The hand axe was getting out of fashion and replaced by ever more sophisticated instruments. Remember your first mobile phone and then your first smartphone? It may have taken a little bit longer, but Homo sapiens was in a comparable groove. All those new designs and functions! Yet, it was all still based on stone, more precisely, flint. The dark hard quartz smokers use in their lighters to this day.
Having spent four years of my childhood in the United States, I know the Flintstones very well. But, despite all the technological progress Homo sapiens had made, I have to tell you that his everyday life at that time was not at all as the told stories of Fred and Wilma Flintstone want to make you believe: Dino, their pet dinosaur, had been extinct for millions of years and saber-toothed cats, their other pet, never lived in Africa. There were no stone tablet newspapers, no television, and no movie theaters. And no cars. And Homo sapiens did not live in sub-urban row caves. He was a primitive hunter-gatherer, living in groups of family clans, housing in makeshift shelters, in moving camps. And his life was about making the best use of flint and other materials for tools to help with sheer survival. – And therefor out of Nubia, Homo sapiens set up the first ever technocomplex. The ‘Nubian Complex’ is a group of archaeological sites where flint was worked to produce the same type of stone tools, applying the same technology for knapping it, as it was first done in Nubia. Other African sites belonging to this complex were found in oases of the Sahara Desert and in the ridge along the Red Sea, into Ethiopia and Somalia in the Horn of Africa. All this is within the range of the homelands of the Nilo-Sahara peoples. But remarkably, the Nubian Complex expanded onto the Arabian Peninsula. Sites linked to the complex were discovered in the Sinai and Levant, throughout central Arabia, and south of that, in Yemen and Oman.
Out of the Nile Delta, the Sinai had always given pedestrian passage from Africa onto the Arabian Peninsula. It is only very recently that ‘modern’ modern humans separated the two by building the Suez Canal. But knowing of the importance of migration to Homo sapiens, they built a tunnel under the canal to allow for continued terrestrial crossing between Africa and the Sinai. Already Homo erectus had taken this route when he decided to move into Asia and Europe and become the Neanderthal. And as Homo erectus had done before him, also Homo sapiens used this way for his first departures from the African continent. This is as early as 190’000 years ago. Given the awareness of this passage, I have never understood why Moses later took directions from his Lord to cross the Red Sea, when he fled from the Egyptians. Heading directly to Mount Sinai and the Promised Land by this way of land, – I admit that he would have had to cross the crocodile infested Nile – he would have found a natural dry path for the Children of Israel. And the waters of the Red Sea would not have had to be divided.
Then again, to the time the migrations of primal Homo sapiens out of East Africa took place, there actually was a route through the Red Sea from Africa onto the Arabian Peninsula. Around this time, again, the climate was changing, getting drier and colder, dropping into a glacial period. And in the dry and cold glacial periods of the Stone Age, large parts of the earth’s water were repeatedly bound in plates of ice in the northern and southern hemispheres, and during the glacial maxima, the Red Sea was shallow and crossing it posed no significant impediment to humans and other terrestrial animals. At the Strait of Bab el Mandab between Djibouti and Yemen, it may intermittently even have been a more or less dry walkover between the shores of Africa and Arabia. – Whichever route they took, Bab el Mandab or the Sinai, over the millennia, groups of Homo sapiens carried their Middle Stone Age technology onto the Arabian Peninsula and thereby opened the migratory corridor from Africa to Arabia.
As much as we know that these early migrations of Homo sapiens took place, so far, there is no archaeological evidence and there are no genetic imprints that allow us to link them to the permanent establishment of modern humans outside of Africa. They were a dead end. Their migrations may have been too limited and their numbers too small to lead to lasting colonization. They might have moved on, because Homo sapiens appears in Asia as early as 100’000 years ago. One theory holds that they did not survive the last glacial maximum before our time which decimated the human population of the whole world to as few as ten or fifteen thousand. Whatever happened to them, they were not of that Homo sapiens who is the ancestor of all modern humans living outside of Africa, today.