Race: The social construction of biological reality, pt 3

Oh man! We are finally at part three! The part in which I attempt incorporating two-D space into our diagram:


Right, so as we turn our car around and head back up the road, we notice an intriguing turnoff in the Congolese rainforest: a tribe of the shortest people in the world, the Pygmies. According to Wikipedia:

A pygmy is a member of an ethnic group whose average height is unusually short; anthropologists define pygmy as a member of any group where adult men are on average less than 150 cm (4 feet 11 inches) tall.[1] A member of a slightly taller group is termed “pygmoid“.[2]

The term is most associated with peoples of Central Africa, such as the Aka, Efé and Mbuti.[3] If the term pygmy is defined as a group’s men having an average height below 1.55 meters (5 feet 1 inch), then there are also pygmies in Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Andaman Islands,[4] Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, and Brazil,[5] including some Negritos of Southeast Asia.

Women of the Batwa Pygmies
Women of the Batwa Pygmies

Basically, whenever humans live in tropical rainforests, there’s a good chance they’ll get shorter. (Rainforests also produce pygmy elephants.) Maybe it’s because short people can move more easily through the dense forest, or an adaptation to low levels of iodine, sunlight, or other nutrients–I don’t really know.

Wikipedia estimates that there are between 250,000 and 600,000 pygmies living in the Congo rainforest:

Genetically, the pygmies are extremely divergent from all other human populations, suggesting they have an ancient indigenous lineage. Their uniparental markers represent the most ancient divergent ones right after those typically found in Khoisan peoples. African pygmy populations possess high levels of genetic diversity,[10] recent advances in genetics shed some light on the origins of the various pygmy groups. …

“We studied the branching history of Pygmy hunter–gatherers and agricultural populations from Africa and estimated separation times and gene flow between these populations. The model identified included the early divergence of the ancestors of Pygmy hunter–gatherers and farming populations ~60,000 years ago, followed by a split of the Pygmies’ ancestors into the Western and Eastern Pygmy groups ~20,000 years ago.”

But I recall–was it WestHunt?–objecting that the authors of this paper used a too-fast estimation of genetic mutation rates. Oh here it is:

There are a couple of recent papers on introgression from some quite divergent archaic population into Pygmies ( this also looks to be the case with Bushmen). Among other things, one of those papers discussed the time of the split between African farmers (Bantu) and Pygmies, as determined from whole-genome analysis and the mutation rate. They preferred to use the once-fashionable rate of 2.5 x 10-8 per-site per-generation (based on nothing), instead of the new pedigree-based estimate of about 1.2 x 10-8 (based on sequencing parents and child: new stuff in the kid is mutation). The old fast rate indicates that the split between Neanderthals and modern humans is much more recent than the age of early Neanderthal-looking skeletons, while the new slow rate fits the fossil record – so what’s to like about the fast rate? Thing is, using the slow rate, the split time between Pygmies and Bantu is ~300k years ago – long before any archaeological sign of behavioral modernity (however you define it) and well before the first known fossils of AMH (although that shouldn’t bother anyone, considering the raggedness of the fossil record).

See my review of Isaac Bacirongo and Nest's Still a Pygmy
See my review of Isaac Bacirongo and Michael Nest’s Still a Pygmy

Let’s split the difference and say that one way or another, Pygmies split off from their hunter-gatherer neighbors and became isolated in the rainforest quite a while ago.

Before we drive on, I’d like to pause and note that I’m not entirely comfortable with using the way Pygmies are sometimes used in racial discussions. Yes, they are short, but they otherwise look a lot like everyone else in the area. Pygmies go to school, often speak multiple languages, live in cities, work at real jobs, read books, operate businesses, drive cars, fall in love, get married, build houses, etc. For more on Pygmies see my review of Isaac Bacirongo’s memoir Still a Pygmy (Isaac is a Pygmy man who speaks, IIRC, 5 languagues, attended highschool, and owned/ran successful pharmacies in two different cities in the DRC before the army burned them down during a civil war.)

Now I admit that Isaac is just one guy and I don’t know what the rest of the Pygmies are like.

People over-thought ancestry long before 23 and Me
Different classes of Mexican mestizos: people over-thought ancestry long before 23 and Me

But let’s hop back in our car, for at the other end of this road we have not a small town of isolated forest-dwellers, but a large group we have so far neglected: the Native Americans.

The indigenous peoples of North and South America today number about 60 million people, plus some quantity of mixed-race people (mestizos.) In some areas these mestizos are majority European by ancestry; in others they are majority Indian; studies in Mexico, for example, estimate that 80-93% of the population is Mestizo, with Indian ancestry averaging between 31% and 66% in different regions. The people of El Salvador are about 86% mestizo; Chileans are about 40% Indian and 60% Europeans; Columbia is about 49% mestizo; etc.

Unfortunately, Wikipedia doesn’t list the total number of mestizos, and I don’t have time to calculate it, but I will note that the total population of both continents, including Canada and the USA, is about 1 billion people.

map of gene-flow in and out of Beringia, from 25,000 years ago to present
map of gene-flow in and out of Beringia, from 25,000 years ago to present

We’re not sure exactly when (or how) the Indians got here, but it looks like they arrived around 10-20,000 years ago across the then-Bering Landbridge. (I think we should also keep in mind the possibility that they could have built boats.) According to Wikipedia:

Scientific evidence links indigenous Americans to Asian peoples, specifically Siberian populations, such as the Ket, Selkup, Chukchi and Koryak peoples. Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been linked to North Asian populations by the distribution of blood types, and in genetic composition as reflected by molecular data, such as DNA.[192] There is general agreement among anthropologists that the source populations for the migration into the Americas originated from an area somewhere east of the Yenisei River. The common occurrence of the mtDNA Haplogroups A, B, C, and D among eastern Asian and Native American populations has long been recognized.[193] As a whole, the greatest frequency of the four Native American associated haplogroups occurs in the AltaiBaikal region of southern Siberia.[194] Some subclades of C and D closer to the Native American subclades occur among Mongolian, Amur, Japanese, Korean, and Ainu populations.[193][195]

Genetic studies of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of Amerindians and some Siberian and Central Asian peoples also revealed that the gene pool of the Turkic-speaking peoples of Siberia such as Altaians, Khakas, Shors and Soyots, living between the Altai and Lake Baikal along the Sayan mountains, are genetically close to Amerindians.[citation needed] This view is shared by other researchers who argue that “the ancestors of the American Indians were the first to separate from the great Asian population in the Middle Paleolithic.”[196][197] 2012 research found evidence for a recent common ancestry between Native Americans and indigenous Altaians based on mitochondrial DNA and Y-Chromosome analysis.[198] The paternal lineages of Altaians mostly belong to the subclades of haplogroup P-M45 (xR1a 38-93%;[199][200][201] xQ1a 4-32%[199][200]).

Hilaria Supa, Indigenous Peruvian Congresswoman https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilaria_Supa
Hilaria Supa, Indigenous Peruvian Congresswoman

These ancient Siberians also had some “European” DNA, as do modern Siberians, but they are most closely related to their neighbors to the south, throughout the rest of Asia. Native American DNA is super fascinating, but we don’t have time to get into it all. On the grand scale, Native Americans are genetically Asians, separated from the rest of the clade by (probably) a mere 13-20,000 years. (Somewhat coincidentally, the Dire wolf, Smilodon, giant beaver, ground sloth, giant Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), woolly mammoth, mastodons, giant short-faced bear, American cheetah, scimitar cats (Homotherium), American camels, American horses, and American lions all went extinct in North America around 12,000 years ago.)

On the grand scale of human history, (200,000 years, more or less,) 13-20,000 years is not very long, and the Native Americans have not diverged too much, physically, from their cousins in Asia. The G-allele mutation of the EDAR gene arose about 30,000 years ago somewhere in east Asia and gives both modern Asians and Native Americans (but not Europeans and Africans) their characteristic hair and skin tone. While Native Americans are clearly physically, culturally, and geographically distinct from other Asians, (just as Europeans and south-Asian Indians are distinct from each other,) they are genetically close enough that they unquestionably clade together in the greater racial schema.

Also credit Robert Lindsay
Also credit Robert Lindsay

As I’ve said before, my diagram is just one way to represent one aspect of the genetic (and physical) distances between people.

Here is another diagram, not mine, which tells the same story in a different way (though it estimates a much lower genetic distance between Bushmen and Bantus than I’d expect. Oh well. different studies get different results; that’s why replication and meta-analysis are super important):

The Melanesians of Papua New Guinea and Australia are in pink (there are some mixed Melanesian / Polynesian populations in the world, but our road trip skipped them.) Their nearest relatives are other south Asians and Polynesians, but those same south Asians are themselves more closely related to Europeans than Australians. Diagrammed like this, it’d be understandable to break off south Asians into one race and put Caucasians, Native Americans, and East Asians into a single race. And I suppose you could, if you wanted to and could get everyone else to start using your categories. Race is biologically real and quite obvious at the macro scale, but a few small groups like Aborigines and Bushmen introduce existential uncertainty that intellectuals can quibble over.I don’t think it would be terribly useful rearrangement, though, for all of the reasons discussed over the past three posts in this series.

Well, that’s the end of our big road trip! I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and that it’s cleared up that nagging question people seem to have: How can Nigerians be more closely related to Europeans than some other Africans? Have a great day, and enjoy the drive home.

Race: The Social Construction of a Biological Reality, pt 2

Note: This post still contains a lot of oversimplification for the sake of explaining a few things.

Welcome back to our discussion of the geographic dispersion of humanity. On Tuesday, we discussed how two great barriers–the Sahara desert and the Himalayas + central Asian desert–have impeded human travelers over the millennia, resulting in three large, fairly well-defined groups of humans, the major races: Sub-Saharan Africans (SSA), Caucasians, and east Asians.

Of course, any astute motorist, having come to a halt at the Asian end of our highway, might observe that there is, in fact, a great deal of land in the world that we have not yet explored. So we head to the local shop and pick up a better map:


Our new map shows us navigational directions for getting to Melanesia and Australia–in ice age times, it instructs us, we can drive most of the way. If there isn’t an ice age, we’ll have to take a boat.

900px-oceania_un_geoscheme_-_map_of_melanesia-svgThe people of Melanesia and Australia are related, the descendants of one of the first groups of humans to split off from the greater tribe that left Africa some 70k ago.

As the name “Melanesian” implies, they are quite dark-skinned–a result of never having ventured far from the equatorial zone.

Today, they live in eastern Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and a smattering of smaller islands. (Notably, the Maori of New Zealand are Polynesians like the Hawaiians, not Melanesians, descendants of a different migration wave that originated in Taiwan.)

Fijian mountain warrior
Fijian mountain warrior with curly, “African” style hair

There is some speculation that they might have once been wider-spread than they currently are, or that various south-Asian tribes might be related to them, (eg, “A 2009 genetic study in India found similarities among Indian archaic populations and Aboriginal people, indicating a Southern migration route, with expanding populations from Southeast Asia migrating to Indonesia and Australia,”) but I don’t think any mainland group would today be classed as majority Melanesian by DNA.

They may also be related to the scattered tribes of similarly dark-skinned, diminutive people known as the Negritos:

Males from the Aeta people (or Agta) people of The Philippines, are of great interest to genetic, anthropological and historical researchers, as at least 83% of them belong to haplogroup K2b, in the form of its rare primary clades K2b1* and P* (a.k.a. K2b2* or P-P295*).[7] Most Aeta males (60%) carry K-P397 (K2b1), which is otherwise uncommon in the Philippines and is strongly associated with the indigenous peoples of Melanesia and Micronesia. Basal P* is rare outside the Aeta and some other groups within Maritime South East Asia. …

Naural blond hair
Two Melanesian girls from Vanatu (blond hair is common in Melanesian children.)

A 2010 study by the Anthropological Survey of India and the Texas-based Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research identified seven genomes from 26 isolated “relic tribes” from the Indian mainland, such as the Baiga, which share “two synonymous polymorphisms with the M42 haplogroup, which is specific to Australian Aborigines“. These were specific mtDNA mutations that are shared exclusively by Australian aborigines and these Indian tribes, and no other known human groupings.[12]

A study of blood groups and proteins in the 1950s suggested that the Andamanese were more closely related to Oceanic peoples than African Pygmies. Genetic studies on Philippine Negritos, based on polymorphic blood enzymes and antigens, showed they were similar to surrounding Asian populations.[13]

Negrito peoples may descend from Australoid Melanesian settlers of Southeast Asia. Despite being isolated, the different peoples do share genetic similarities with their neighboring populations.[13][14] They also show relevant phenotypic (anatomic) variations which require explanation.[14]

In contrast, a recent genetic study found that unlike other early groups in Malesia, Andamanese Negritos lack the Denisovan hominin admixture in their DNA. Denisovan ancestry is found among indigenous Melanesian and Australian populations between 4–6%.[15][16]

Australian Aboriginal man
Australian Aboriginal man

However, the Negritos are a very small set of tribes, and I am not confident that they are even significantly related to each other, rather than just some short folks living on a few scattered islands. We must leave them for another day.

The vast majority of Aborigines and Melanesians live in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and nearby islands. They resemble Africans, because they split off from the rest of the out-of-Africa crew long before the traits we now associate with “whites” and “Asians” evolved, and have since stayed near the equator, but they are most closely related to–sharing DNA with–south Asians (and Indians.)

So we have, here, on the genetic level, a funny situation. Melanesians are–relatively speaking–a small group. According to Wikipedia, thee are about 12 million Melanesians and 606,000 Aborigines. By contrast, Tokyo prefecture has 13 million people and the total Tokyo metro area has nearly 38 million. Meanwhile, the Han Chinese–not a race but a single, fairly homogenous ethnic group–number around 1.3 billion.

Of all the world’s peoples, Melanesians/Aborigines are most closely related to other Asians–but this is a distant relationship, and those same Asians are more closely related to Caucasians than to Aborigines.

As I mentioned on Tuesday, the diagram, because it is 1-dimensional, can only show the distance between two groups at a time, not all groups. The genetic distance between Caucasians and Aborigines is about 60 or 50k, while the distance between Asians and Caucasians is around 40k, but the distance between Sub-Saharan Africans and ALL non-SSAs is about 70k, whether they’re in Australia, Patagonia, or France. Our map is not designed to show this distance, only the distances between individual pairs.

Some anthropologists refer to Bushmen as "gracile," which means they are a little shorter than average Europeans and not stockily built
Some anthropologists refer to Bushmen as “gracile,” which means they are a little shorter than average Europeans and not stockily built

Now if we hopped back in our car and zoomed back to the beginning of our trip, pausing to refuel in Lagos, we’d note another small group that has been added to the other end of the map: the Bushmen, aka the Khoi-San people. Wikipedia estimates 90,000 San and doesn’t give an estimate for the Khoi people, but their largest group, the Nama, has about 200,000 people. We’ll estimate the total, therefore, around 500,000 people, just to be safe.

The Bushmen are famous for being among the world’s last hunter-gatherers; their cousins the Khoi people are pastoralists. There were undoubtedly more of them in the past, before both Europeans and Bantus arrived in southern Africa. Some people think Bushmen look a little Asian, due to their lighter complexions than their more equatorial African cousins.


Various Y chromosome studies show that the San carry some of the most divergent (oldest) human Y-chromosome haplogroups. These haplogroups are specific sub-groups of haplogroups A and B, the two earliest branches on the human Y-chromosome tree.[48][49][50]

Mitochondrial DNA studies also provide evidence that the San carry high frequencies of the earliest haplogroup branches in the human mitochondrial DNA tree. This DNA is inherited only from one’s mother. The most divergent (oldest) mitochondrial haplogroup, L0d, has been identified at its highest frequencies in the southern African San groups.[48][51][52][53]

I loved that movie
The late Nǃxau ǂToma, (aka Gcao Tekene Coma,) Bushman star of “The Gods Must be Crazy,” roughly 1944-2003

In a study published in March 2011, Brenna Henn and colleagues found that the ǂKhomani San, as well as the Sandawe and Hadza peoples of Tanzania, were the most genetically diverse of any living humans studied. This high degree of genetic diversity hints at the origin of anatomically modern humans.[54][55]

Recent analysis suggests that the San may have been isolated from other original ancestral groups for as much as 100,000 years and later rejoined, re-integrating the human gene pool.[56]

A DNA study of fully sequenced genomes, published in September 2016, showed that the ancestors of today’s San hunter-gatherers began to diverge from other human populations in Africa about 200,000 years ago and were fully isolated by 100,000 years ago … [57]

So the total distance between Nigerians and Australian Aborogines is 70k years; the distance between Nigerians and Bushmen is at least 100k years.

When we zoom in on the big three–Sub-Saharan Africans, Caucasians, and Asians–they clade quite easily and obviously into three races. But when we add Aborigines and Bushmen, things complicate. Should we have a “race” smaller than the average American city? Or should we just lump them in with their nearest neighbors–Bushmen with Bantus and Aborigines with Asians?

I am fine with doing both, actually–but wait, I’m not done complicating matters! Tune in on Monday for more.

Race: The Social Construction of Biological Reality

Note: This post contains a lot of oversimplification for the sake of explaining a few things. (Yes, I am still meditating on the greater Asian clade.)

Imagine you’re driving down a long highway that stretches from Nigeria to Beijing, passing through Berlin and New Delhi. In reality this route takes some large twists and turns, but we’re drawing it as a straight line, for all maps must simplify to be useful.

As you drive along, you pass many houses along the way–sometimes just a few clustered next to the highway, sometimes small towns, sometimes megalopolises with billions of people.


Queen Anna Nzinga of Ndongo and Matatmba
Queen Anna Nzinga of Ndongo and Matatmba

Our drive begins in one such megalopolis, that of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA.) Here we meet people like Queen Anna Nzinga, author Chinua Achebe, and–though they have traveled far abroad–African Americans like Oprah Winfrey and Martin Luther King.

Though thousands of different languages are spoken by the thousands of different groups throughout SSA, we may still note a certain physical similarity among them–dark skin perfectly adapted to the equator’s strong sun, dark eyes, and tightly curling hair. While there is a tremendous amount of variety here–probably the most of any megalopolis in the world–they are also, quite clearly, related. You don’t have to go measuring skulls to figure that out.

But as we drive north, the houses thin out. Suddenly we are in a zone with almost no people–an enormous desert: the Sahara.

We speed through this harsh, empty landscape on a starry night, spotting only a few camels in the distance. We’re lucky we have a full tank of gas and several more in the trunk–for all but the most intrepid of our pre-automobile ancestors, this desert was nigh impassible, a vast barrier to human movement.

King Tutankhamun receives flowers from Ankhesenpaaten as a sign of love.
King Tut receives flowers from Ankhesenpaaten as a sign of love.

Finally we reach the vast inland sea of the Mediterranean, and the beginning of our second megalopolis. Most of the people here, from Berbers to Egyptians, have their own distinct look, more similar to their neighbors from the Middle East and Southern Europe than their neighbors to the south, across the inhospitable expanse of sand.

While there are many different countries and languages, no clear phenotypic line separates the people of Northern Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe, or northern Europe. Skin pales, hair lightens and becomes wavy, eyes turn a variety of hues as one nationality melts into the next. North-central Europe is the only place in the world where blue/green/hazel eyes and blond hair are common in adults; even in Wales, dark hair is dominant.

US Defense Secretary William S. Cohen with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (1998)
US Defense Secretary William S. Cohen (Jewish surname) with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Punjabi,) 1998

We hang a right through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and India, teeming with people.  Here again, though the people change and there are barriers like the Thar Desert, we find no harsh, nigh-impenetarable breaks like the Sahara.

Then, suddenly, we run smack into a wall, a natural wall of majestic proportions: the Himalayas. Beyond lie the Tibetan Plateau, Gobi Desert, and the vast emptiness of the Asian steppe. If this land was ever densely populated, generations of marauding steppe warriors have wiped them out. We see a few people here–aptly named Tibetan lamas, flocks of sheep grazing beside a scattering of yurts. Mongolia holds the distinction of being the world’s least densely populated independent country. (Ice-covered Greenland is even less dense, but owned by Denmark.)

Finally we pass beyond the shadow of the Great Khan’s memorial and into the valley of the Yellow River, where we find our third megalopolis: east Asia.

There is notably less genetic diversity here than in the first megalopolis–indeed, 93% of Han Chinese share a particular variety of the EDAR allele:

A derived G-allele point mutation (SNP) with pleiotropic effects in EDAR, 370A or rs3827760, found in most modern East Asians and Native Americans but not common in African or European populations, is thought to be one of the key genes responsible for a number of differences between these populations, including the thicker hair, more numerous sweat glands, smaller breasts, and dentition characteristic of East Asians.[7] … The 370A mutation arose in humans approximately 30,000 years ago, and now is found in 93% of Han Chinese and in the majority of people in nearby Asian populations.

The late, great, Satoru Iwata, accompanied by a caricature of a hard-working Caucasian toilet engineer
The late, great, Satoru Iwata, accompanied by a caricature of a hard-working Caucasian toilet engineer

Here, too, skin tones vary from north to south, though not as greatly as they do closer to the Greenwich Meridian. Most people have dark eyes, slim frames, and straight, smooth black hair.

Here in the megalopolis made famous by Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Tokyo, we have come to the end of the–first round–of our journey. From Africa to Asia, we have found three vast areas filled with people, and two major barriers which–though not completely impassible–have hindered humanity’s footsteps over the millennia.

People sometimes try to claim that human races do not exist simply because edge cases exist, small, scattered groups which possess a mixture of genes common to both Sub-Saharan Africans and Caucasians, Caucasians and Asians. And these groups do in fact exist, and are fascinating in their own rights. But these groups are also small, often living in extremely harsh, forbidding lands where few humans can survive (The inhabitants of the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau, I note, actually carry a gene that helps them survive at high altitudes which they received via an ancestor’s dalliance with a Denisovan hominin–the Denisovans were cousin to the Neanderthals and lived in Asia long before Homo Sapiens. No one else in the world carries this gene, so if you don’t have it, good luck living up there!)

But the vast, vast majority of the world’s people do not live in these harsh and unforgiving lands. They live clustered together in the enormous population centers, continually mixing, migrating, churning, and conquering each other, not people thousands of miles off. The concept of race stems from this basic observation of the geography of human settlements.

I totally stole this from Razib Khan, didn't I?
I totally stole this from Razib Khan, didn’t I?

Physical distance is genetic distance, but since my diagram is only two-dimensional, it can only show the genetic distance between two points at a time. The genetic distance between Asians and Caucasians is about 40k years–much shorter than the distance between Sub-Saharan Africans and Caucasians, 70k years. But the distance between Sub-Saharan Africans and Asians is also about 70k years. Although Asians and Caucasians split apart from each other about 40,000 years ago, they are both descended from a single group of ancestors (a handful of Denisovans and Neanderthals excluded) who left sub-Saharan Africa about 70k years ago. We may best think of the relationship between these three groups not as a single highway, but as a triangle with two sides 70k long and one side of 40k. But to accurately add more groups to our journey, (as we shall do on Thursday), we would have to keep adding dimensions, and we are aiming here for simplicity, not n-dimensional hypercubes.

Some Notable Nigerians

It’s easy to roll your eyes at people demanding that we teach the history of Africa and other non-Western locales. But I support such a move, so long as the history is honest.

Of course it wouldn’t be honest; we are a society of liars.

Here is Madam Efunroye Tinubu (c. 1810 – 1887) :

From the Wikipedia
From the Wikipedia

Madam Tinubu was a wealthy and powerful chieftess of the Egba clan (Youruba people, Nigeria.) She made her money through the slave trade, and resisted the British Colonial Government because it was interfering with he ability to make money by selling humans into bondage.

Tinubu Square in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, is named in her honor.

Cosmic Yoruba has some interesting things to say about the next chieftess of the Egba, Efunsetan Aniwura:

“…she was a WSW [note: woman who has sex with women] who never married, never had any children and was referred to as lakiriboto [a woman with no vaginal opening] …

“Efunsetan Aniwura rose to become a very powerful and wealthy trader in the 19th century, she is one of the few Yoruba women that has withstood the test of history. Oral tradition states that she had three large farms, and that no less than 100 slaves worked in each at a time. Apparently she owned over 2,000 slaves in her lifetime.

“Like other Yoruba women traders, Efunsetan travelled across the land trading with all sorts of people. Her speciality was in arms and ammunition, she would lend these to warriors when they were going on military expeditions and it seems she also went to war a few times herself.”

Cosmic Yoruba notes that “oral tradition” is often dodgy, and we can’t believe everything we hear. She rejects various stories about Efunestan going crazy and terrorizing her slaves, on the grounds that they don’t make much sense, and further speculates:

“I wonder if this is a classic example of history erasing a woman’s achievements. I will never get tired of pointing out how our current ideas on how our female ancestors lived are very different from the reality. We believe that they all married, lived “under” their husbands, never divorced, spent their lives in the kitchen while the men went out to work, never enjoyed sex, were all straight and so on. Powerful women like Efunsetan, who may have never married or had children and may have even been queer will have their stories snipped and trimmed, molded to become a warning for other women…so as to discourage them from craving power perhaps.”

Cosmic Yoruba has done a lot more research about traditional Nigerian life than I have, so I am inclined to trust her. Besides, her accounts line up with most other accounts I have read.

Cosmic Yoruba ends with songs praising Efunestan:

“The woman, who instils fear in others,
the fearsome one, who slaughters slaves to celebrate Id-el-Kabir.
Efunsetan is one force, Ibadan is another.
The valiant that challenges the Almighty God,
if the most high does not answer her on time,
Efunsetan leaves the earth to go and meet him in Heaven…”


Have you heard the story that Africa was a developed, thriving place full of wealthy economies and fabulous cities, until evil Europeans showed up, enslaved a bunch of people and colonized the rest?

Cities did exist in Sub-Saharan Africa, but they were few and far between. They were in the sorts of places you would expect them to, like the intersections of major trade routes or major ports. There were a few major trade items, like gold, ivory, and human beings. There were empires with wealthy individuals.

But the overall level of economic development throughout the sub-continent was very low. Those who claim that Europeans are responsible for the current levels of African development need to explain why African development was so low before the Europeans got there.

Edited to add: hey, look, we have a new graph! It is far superior to the old one, though it covers a different time range, so well still have to use both:

I really hope I can find a better graph
I really hope I can find a better graph
with special thanks to commentator "With the thoughts you’d be thinkin" and Wikimedia Commons
with special thanks to commentator “With the thoughts you’d be thinkin” and Wikimedia Commons

Back in the year one, most of the world was engaged in hunter-gathering, small-scale agriculture, or herding. The GDP of most of the world reflects this. Africa at least has gold to export, unlike the steppe. Africa is still less developed than Western Europe (and this is including northern Africa, which is quite different from Sub-Saharan Africa.)

By 1300-1400, various estimates put British per cap GDP around $1,000, with the average for Western Europe as a whole a little lower, but still more than the current per capita GDP of many modern Sub-Saharan countries. And it’s more than SSA had in 1400, well before European colonialism began. If anything, Africa’s GDP only took off after colonialsim; there is no sign that colonialism caused economic collapse.

According to Peter Frost, “In sub-Saharan Africa, high polygyny rates are associated with ‘female farming’ societies, and such societies began to spread outward from a point of origin near the Niger’s headwaters some 6,000 to 7,000 years ago (Murdock, 1959, pp. 44, 64-68).”

In The African Outlier, Frost quotes Draper, 1989 (PDF):  “Much of rural African subsistence is based on the work of women in their gardens; men make only modest contributions. Typically, rights in land are held by men by virtue of their membership in kinship or village units. A man who wishes to add another wife is under few constraints (provided his kinship group has the land and bridewealth), since women, in effect, pay their own way. They produce food, and they rear children. In rural areas, when a man marries an additional wife, he is awarded additional fields for this woman and her children (Bryson 1981). The importance of male labor to support such households is reduced. In former times, before colonially imposed peace, the male role in defense was important. But since central governments have been present, men who remain in rural villages spend their time in leisure, in management of household labor, or in local political affairs…”

And in The Beginnings of Black Slavery and The Beginnings of Black Slavery II, Frost argues that, “… It looks like black slaves began to enter the Middle East in growing numbers some time before 0 AD, the result being a slow but steady increase in the region’s black population throughout the early Christian era and into the Islamic era.”

He goes on to argue that polygamy basically drove the slave trade. Do the math; if one man has 5 wives, then four men have no wives. What do you do with your extra men? Attack the next village over, capture their women and sell all of their extra men into slavery.

There are other possible explanations, but I happen to find Frost’s convincing.

The idea that things were going swimmingly until Europeans showed up and started enslaving everyone is pure a-historical baloney. In fact, did you catch this little bit above: “Madam Tinubu … resisted the British Colonial Government because it was interfering with he ability to make money by selling humans into bondage.”

According to the Wikipedia page on Colonial Nigeria, “British influence began with prohibition of slave trade to British subjects in 1807. The resulting collapse of African slave trade led to the decline and eventual collapse of the Edo Empire. ”

So Nigerian heroes were actively resisting British influence in Nigeria because the British were trying to stop them from enslaving people, and the slave trade is supposed to be the fault of the colonizers?


Let’s teach history.