Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ancient writing in West Africa

Today, I came across the subject of the Olmecs. The Olmecs were a people who lived in South Central Mexico from the 1400BC to 400BC. Apparently, there are some who believe that a large population of the Olmecs were of African origin, specifically, of West African origin. I did google searches and visited several pages but did not read anything that led credence to that claim. What piqued my interest however was reference to some ancient Olmec script that was similar to an ancient Mende script.

What writing could the Mende, a West African people, have had in 400BC?

I do not mean to be condescending towards the idea of ancient African West African writing. As a child, I hoped that some ancient artifacts will be discovered and our history would be uncovered, but I have now come to accept that we did not write, we did not build monuments (none so ancient) that have withstood our climate. Every now and then, I feel a fleeting sense of regret that my people, my ancestors did not develop some form of writing. But are my feelings misplaced?

I found a reference to a book by Saki Mafundikwa, a Zimbabwean graphics artist, "Afrikan Alphabets: The story of writing in Afrika". I was skeptical, afterall, there was writing in Egypt. The Egyptian writing that could not migrate across the Sahara. Even though I recall reading a book long ago (title I cannot recall) that claimed that Yorubas migrated from Egypt, I will maintain the assumption that writing did not migrate with them. But I digress...

Sample pages from "Afrikan Alphabets: The story of writing in Afrika" provide a clue as to what I may find in the book.

The commonly held belief is that most graphic symbols in Afrikan societies are merely decorative. In fact, in Afrikan culture, symbols fill an important communication role. There are stories to be found in the rock art of the San people in southern Afrika; the carvings on the calabashes of the Kikuyu of Kenya. There is information stored in tally sticks like the Ishango Bone from The Congo, the knotted strings of Nigerian Aroko, and the scarification found in many Afrikan societies. The meaning attributed to these symbols and artifacts qualifies as proto-writing, or forerunners of writing. Most of these symbol systems are several thousand years old, suggesting that Afrika has a much older tradition of writing than some have recognized.

I am one of those who believe that graphic symbols on calabashes, wooden statues, rocks are decorative. Knotted strings of Nigerian Aroko? Is that the iroko tree? Well, I'm ready to be educated, or re-educated about the history of writing in West Africa.

Once I read the book, I'll be back to share my thoughts and new learnings.


Erinjogun said...

Aroko is a form of communication in ancient Yoruba land.When you send the "aroko" to another person, it serves as a reminder of promise or some other form of shared experience. This is the basis of the expression "o paroko". It is in form of a string tied in specific ways. Needless to say, this is between elders or ogbonis, osugbos and other respected societal groups.

folktaler said...

Thanks for the explanation of "aroko". I look forward to learning more about this and other forms of African proto-writings.

L. Balola said...

Dear Folktaler, you do not give Africans enough credit.

Although it is alleged that Africans were always illiterate, archaeological, historical, and epigraphic evidence indicate that Africans invented many writing systems. And that these writing systems were used from ancient times all the way up to the present (Bekerie 1994).

There is a school of thought that is supported by archaeological evidence indicating that African literacy began in the Sahara over 5000 years ago (Winters 1971, 1981a,1983). This earliest form of writing was a syllabic system that included hundreds of phonetic signs, which over time was shorten to between 22 and 30 key signs, and used as an alphabet by the Egyptians, Meroites, Phonesians and Ethiopians.

In Nigeria West Africa, the "Nsibidi are a set of symbols that are is independent of Roman, Latin or Arabic influence and a completely indigenous creation of these peoples. Today, not much is known about Nsibidi because it was used almost exclusively by the now, largely extinct secret societies that regulated social activities in the community. Only members initiated into the secret society knew the symbols, which were mainly used for ritual and ceremonial purposes" (Wikipedia) has pictures of stone slabs of ancient writings found in Yeba Ethiopia - Is that south of the Sahara enough for you?

For more exciting knowledge about little known gifts that Africa gave the world, check out from 20 May 2009

folktaler said...

L. Balola,
Thanks so much for the information and the links - they provide much insight. [The last link, did not work though].

You're absolutely right that I do not give Africans enough credit. After reading through the links you provided, I had to admit that I still feel the same way as when I first came across the idea of ancient African writing. It's one of disbelief coupled with hope that it is true. At the same time wondering if it is indeed true, why is there so little knowledge of it? Or perhaps I assume that because I have never heard of it, that most people haven't either.

I'm definitely eager to learn more and change misconceptions that I have about my ancestors.

folktaler said...

Correction to earlier statement: the FeelNubia link does work with the www. prefix. I look forward to checking it out when it's ready.



I for one have learned from talking to others that it is not that we Africans did not have scripts of our own, as much as we just do not know of our scripts. Whatever we had could have been lost during colonialism (colonialists destroying our culture in a bid to control Africa completely). If some treasure is found and tied to a script, money will flow in from every where to learn the script, find more treasure and acquire fame. That's what happened in Egypt. Remember even the Egyptians had little knowledge of hieroglyphics.

So my point is, let us not be too quick to dismiss the possibility of African scripts hidden away to be discovered and reintroduced to the world.

Please update sometime soon. I always learn so much from your writings.

@ Erinjogun: thanks for 'aroko' explanation.

Gin said...

Nsibidi is also known as Nsibiri (Which could be the original name). Nsibiri was used to tell whole stories and was used for 'ordering' items, and sending messages to one another.

Anonymous said...

the implication here is that writing is a sign of being developed or civilized and that those who did not write are looked down upon and pitied.

but every human development comes at the cost of another. while we have developed writing skills look at what we have lost physically, spiritually, and mentally.

remember that it is us, now, who are looking at the ancients and studying how they lived, while also imagining how future generations will live. probably because we are not content with the way WE live.

newer is not better. developed is not higher.