The Musee du quai Branly is showing a spectacular exhibition, I'Afrique des Routes, that seeks to provide an "understanding" of Africa, using more than 300 exhibits to provide a historical narrative of the continent's connections to the rest of the world.
It is a bold and ambitious project. On balance, it succeeds in its objective--even if there are some questionable approaches taken by the curators, Gaelle Beaujean and Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch.
For example, is it really necessary to observe that Africa is a continent with a history that predates writing and prior to European incursions? Whoever claimed that it did not?
But nitpicking aside, the exhibition categorically states: "This history is the oldest in the world. Specialists today agree that the origins of the human species can be located in sub-Saharan Africa."
It goes on to say that contrary to the accepted notion, Africa has always been an open continent. This is of course the logical conclusion that many "experts" have lost sight of. If the human race began in subSaharan Africa, then clearly, it was the migratory routes, and the means employed to traverse them, that populated the rest of the world.
The visitor is taken on an almost chronological journey, as the exhibition charts the terrestrial, fluvial and maritime routes that have allowed Africans to connect and migrate both within and without the continent.
To traverse long distances by river, the canoe was developed well over 6,000 years ago, but l'Afrique des Routes chooses to highlight the use of the horse, which facilitated the caravan trade routes between the southern Sahara and Europe, as pivotal. The horse, which had migrated south into Africa when a land bridge existed between Arabia anaAfrica, was eventually replaced about 3,000 years ago by the dromedary, which could survive with little water and carry heavy loads over long distances. But as many objects displayed at Quai Branly indicate, they remained a prestige means of transport in the area between the arid tropical zones and the humid equatorial regions.
Routes traversing forests, along rivers and around Africa's coastline, whether on foot, horseback, camels or in canoes, began to be developed. Even predating Carthage, established in 814 BC, the Nok civilisation of northern Nigeria, which extended in an arc of 500km, demonstrated that agriculture and metal work were practised between 1000 BC and 6 AD alongside the natural communication routes--the Niger River...