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Africa: A Biography of the Continent

4.13  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,111 Ratings  ·  108 Reviews
"Awe-inspiring . . . a masterly synthesis."
--The New York Times Book Review

"Deeply penetrating, intensely thought-provoking and thoroughly informed . . . one of the most important general surveys of Africa that has been produced in the last decade." --The Washington Post

In 1978, paleontologists in East Africa discovered the earliest evidence of our divergence from the ape
Paperback, 816 pages
Published September 7th 1999 by Vintage (first published October 30th 1997)
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Feb 23, 2007 Nathan rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone with a passing interest in humanity.
John Reader has an agenda. He loves Africa, a continent that has been misunderstood and misused by Westerners for centuries, and he wants you to love it, too. Reader approaches his “biography of a continent” with unbounded ambition and intelligence, gracefully synthesizing academic arguments from disparate fields to construct a portrait of humanity’s first homeland that is insightful and reverent. The scope is staggering, with detours into geology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, archeology ...more
Vast, kaleidoscopic--an ambitious tour through millions of years of African history and prehistory. There is so much to like and be impressed with here that I feel somewhat churlish rating it three rather than four stars, but the book suffers from its own ambition and, especially towards the end, from too scattered a focus. Still, for those looking for a thoughtful and intriguing introduction to a very big and complex land, Africa: A Biography of the Continent deserves to be well up on the TBR l ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
In my attempt to read more from and about Africa, this was a year-long group read with the Great African Reads group. True to form, I kept with the schedule up until July, and found myself needing to read the second half this week.

Can one book tell the story of an entire continent? Consider that the story of one empire's rise and fall takes six volumes (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)!

And then. Then I found that Reader, who is not himself African, starts at the very beginning. As in,
Dec 15, 2009 Bruce rated it really liked it
This detailed but very readable work begins with a historical discussion of the geography of the continent, including continental drift, and moves quickly on to the begins of life, the first two chapters spanning billions of years in relatively few pages while providing an adequate and interesting outline of the topics. Reader then discusses changes in climate over millenia, the accompanying evolutionary changes, and the emergence of humans and the evidence that has accumulated to support our un ...more
May 10, 2014 AC rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ancient-trade, africa
Review to follow... Excellent book, though. A thoroughly digested and thoughtful account of a million years of history... Literally, a biography of the continent.
Tim Martin
Aug 10, 2016 Tim Martin rated it it was amazing
_Africa: A Biography of the Continent_ by John Reader is a very well-named book, a through and engaging look at the epic story of this land, from its geological origins to its most recent political struggles. Though a thick book at 682 pages (plus appendices, endnotes, and bibliography), it is a wonderful read.

The introductory section laments that Africa has been "woefully misunderstood and misused by the rest of the world," and that humanity does not properly "recognize its debts and obligatio
Mindy McAdams
Feb 01, 2016 Mindy McAdams rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those interested in any aspect of Africa
Shelves: africa, nonfiction
One of the more interesting nonfiction books I've ever read — the subtitle of this book is accurate: "A Biography of the Continent." While anthropologists criticize it for leaving out some of the important archaeological finds, and political scientists/historians criticize it for failing to detail every coup and skirmish, I have no similar complaints. As a general reader, poorly educated in all aspects of Africa's past, I found fascinating new information in every chapter in this book.

The reason
Jan 15, 2013 Adam rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Adam by: Dar airport bookshelf
Before I picked up this book, I had a relatively rich smattering of knowledge of Africa - particularly my trips to Sierra Leone and Tanzania and the reading I'd done associated with them. However, all these readings served to emphasize my lack of a broad, strong foundation of knowledge about African history. I was desperate for books by the end of my study abroad in Tanzania, which led me to browse the airport bookstore while waiting for a flight to Kilimanjaro, where I came across this enticing ...more
Aug 16, 2013 Malapata rated it it was amazing
Shelves: historia
Llegué a este libro sin tener apenas idea de la historia de África, y su lectura fue una experiencia enriquecedora. En sus ochocientas páginas John Reader intenta abarcar lo más posible, seleccionando los temas para dar una visión global de la historia del continente. En sus páginas oí hablar por primera vez de la expansión Bantú, de el olvidado reino de Askum, de como el clima y el entorno (y la mosca tse-tse) configuraron los primeros asentamientos. Luego asistimos a la llegada de los europeos ...more
Andrew Niederhauser
Jun 11, 2015 Andrew Niederhauser rated it really liked it
I wish this system allowed half-stars. This book's merits are only slightly diminished by it's weaknesses, but a five-star rating is impossible. When I initially approached this, I anticipated learning about each individual nation as it was formed. I was pleasantly surprised at the sheer breadth of the work, including aspects of geology, evolutionary science, genetics, linguistics, and countless other specialized fields all collected in one sweeping narrative. From the construction of the contin ...more
Dec 10, 2014 Kshitiz rated it really liked it
Africa; the cradle of the human civilization. It is the land where three million years ago Humans originated and two million years thereafter, started walking on their feet.

As someone curious about the history of this continent, discussed not very frequently in international affairs or even in our course books, I was expecting an introduction to its political history. That is what a history scholar would have been more attracted to.

However, John Reader surprised and subsequently mesmerized me b
Jul 25, 2011 Tim rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An incredibly well-researched book on a very complex continent. John Reader begins at the beginning. Africa IS the beginning. The beginning of humanity, the cradle of all that is in the world today. The fact that the Western world has historically considered itself superior to the African continent is the tragedy of the human spirit. The damage that we in the Western world have done to the African continent will take many lifetimes for those original humans to overcome. The story is told from th ...more
Aug 10, 2013 Mark rated it it was amazing
A truly incredible book. The author brings together geology, geography, history, economics, politics, linguistics and several other disciplines into a sweeping and breathtaking description of Africa. What can one say about a book which begins at 3.7 billion years ago as the continent forms, moves on to a "mere" 5 million years ago when the first humanoids are said to appear in Tanzania, describes how a mere handful of humans (maybe as few as 50) made the journey out of Africa 200,000 years ago t ...more
Aug 26, 2008 Siria rated it liked it
This is a big book with big aims: to tell, over the course of seven hundred pages, the story of sub-Saharan Africa from its geological formation through to the mid 1990s. Considering the magnitude of what he was attempting, Reader did well. It's obviously well-researched, cleanly written and accessible even for people like me, who know shamefully little about Africa. Yet I think the strain of compressing so much into such a small space began to tell on him after about the first two hundred and f ...more
Ryan Murdock
Jan 17, 2013 Ryan Murdock rated it really liked it
I read this book in the lead up to my recent trip to Namibia. Reader provides a great broad-brush overview of African history from an Africa-centred perspective, drawing heavily on the evolution of hominids, geology and geography to paint a very different picture than what you read in most post-colonial modern history texts.

Reader turns many widely-accepted notions of Africa on their heads. The competition for resources is seen as much more important than warfare, small peaceful communities as m
Mar 11, 2008 Michelle rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
An amazing introduction to African history and politics. As other reviewers have mentioned, the breadth of the of the subject matter is simply amazing. Reader covers millions of years of history in just 682 pages, giving enough of an overview of the continent to get you started towards understanding the continent.

I wish the end notes had been more extensive. I found myself turning to them, hoping for more information, and finding only a citation. And more/better maps would have been appreciated
Dec 29, 2015 Colin rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
The first half of the book a fascinating exploration of the evolution of humankind and how the particular challenges of Africa shaped our species and the development of human civilizations. It discusses everything from the challenges of anthropology and archaeology, the effects of continent drift and geography, the highs and lows of Africa's variable climate, and the particular ways African societies developed in the wake of all those challenges, in comparison to the humanity's invasive spread o ...more
Edward Waverley
Sep 21, 2014 Edward Waverley marked it as to-read
Steve Sailer had a few interesting comments about this book on his blog:

"The only book I’ve read that has wrestled seriously with the implications of sub-Saharan Africa’s relative lack of ruins is John Reader’s extraordinary Africa: Biography of a Continent.

Reader’s argument is that the reason there are few ruins is because there was little wealth in sub-Saharan Africa before outside interventions. The Economist’s 1998 review of Reader’s book noted:

'Much of Africa’s history is explained by its f
Jul 25, 2015 Brook rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not recommended - surely there are a few other books that better cover evolution, the geology of Africa, and its history and pre-history.

The New York Times Book Review is quoted on the cover: "... a masterly synthesis." A synthesis, yes, but not a masterly one. (Here I'd recommend "From Dawn to Decadence".)

Reader does well with several parts (evolutionary theory, several ancient civilizations like Aksum, several European schemes like King Leopold II's Belgium) but could have used stronger editin
Aug 04, 2015 Steve rated it really liked it
This was either a 2011 or a 2012 read.

This book is a remarkable, enthralling, encompassing study of the history of Africa. Literally beginning with the physical formation of the continent itself, this book takes us through the emergence of humankind, civilization, trade and commerce, slavery, colonial conquest, post colonialism through to the present day. It might seem like a daunting, impossible task to present all of this information at once, but for the true student of Africa, it would be di
John Mcjohnnyman
Mar 23, 2016 John Mcjohnnyman rated it really liked it
This book was an excellent general survey of the subject. It's chronological format, concise style, and fitting detail provide a superb introductory perspective of the land, its history, the people, the resources, and its pre- and post-colonial development. The author, although apologetic at times, is predominately objective in his telling of a history plagued with despair; one of an ongoing struggle against the climate, disease, and abuse that continues in large areas of the continent to this d ...more
Jun 25, 2015 Christopher rated it liked it
Shelves: world-history
Africa: A Biography of the Continent by John Reader is an unusual hybrid of a history book. There is, of course, the broad survey of African peoples and civilization from pre-history to the 20th century (to 1995)... but the first 100 pages or so (1/6 of the text) -- with its discussion of plate tectonics and cratons, soil richness, early hominid evolution, language development, erect posture, etc. -- belong to a book on physical geography and biological anthropology, and justifies the book's sub ...more
Jul 05, 2011 Terry rated it liked it
This was my primary reading while in Africa and while it is dense and rather scholarly -- and over 600 pages long -- I loved reading it for the broad perspective it gave on the continent. The author, a photographer but also an eclectic, respectful and analytical reader of academic works on Africa, begins with the geological formation of Africa and we don't get to human beings for a couple hundred pages. At that point, the major thesis of the book emerges, which is that those who attribute the un ...more
Max Carmichael
Sep 10, 2013 Max Carmichael rated it really liked it
"Throughout the greater part of its evolutionary history, the human population of Africa has lived in relatively small groups, demonstrating that people are perfectly capable of living peacefully in small communities for millennia without establishing cities and states. Indeed, the most distinctively African contribution to human history has been precisely the civilized art of living fairly peaceably together not in states."

Once you get past the introductory chapters, this is a big book that you
Fungus Gnat
Feb 26, 2016 Fungus Gnat rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
After reading A Short History of the World by Geoffrey Blainey a couple years ago, I thought I’d try to focus my intent to read more history. Not that much more focus, given Africa is the second largest continent. But it was an attractive topic, because when I grew up, we learned hardly anything about African history prior to the European explorations. There was Egypt, and that was about it. Reader is interested in conveying the full story: He spends 300 pages on Africa before the Europeans. In ...more
Nicholas Whyte[return][return]This came up in recommendations after I read Fage's History of Africa last year. It starts awfully well, with sections on African geology in the context of continental drift, and on the evolution of humanity in the context of climate change.[return][return]From then on I found it a bit patchy. Fage's book was good on the general ebb and flow of states and cultures; Reader prefers to take particular vignettes, and then is a bit frustrating ...more
Jun 03, 2008 Foster rated it really liked it
I only got through half of this one, because the library hardcopy was just too bulky to bring on my commute, but what I read was fantastic. A true labor of love by author John Reader, this is no quick history. He starts with the actual geologic creation of Africa, and then works from there. By the time I stopped, he had taken us to the establishment and dissolving of the Great Zimbabwe civilization in the 15th century. So, there is surely much left to read about.

Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed wha
Jun 14, 2014 Yannicke rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, africa
Although at times Reader simplifies issues and cuts corners that should not be cut, this book is a great introduction to African history for anyone who would like to have a basic, yet surprisingly comprehensive notion of the continent's past. Also, it is a useful springboard for futher inquiry. Given the fact that REader is a journalist by trade, this large volume is a compelling read.
Jul 21, 2015 Zoe rated it it was amazing
This book centres on African history. the beginnings of life on Earth up until independence. It's jam packed with history from all over and the way it's written makes it very accessible. I just couldn't believe how much John reader could pack into one book. He makes insightful comments and you feel that you're reading the truth. I found the book really interesting.
Sep 16, 2007 Kevin rated it it was amazing
I was first introduced to this book while traveling through Kenya. It's an excellent overview of Africa from a journalist who knows the continent well.
Most of the book focuses on the positive aspects of Africa. I found one quote particularly moving towards the end of the book despite the darkness of it:
"In May of 1995, a Catholic theologian in Rwanda, Laurien Ntezimana, confessed to having been ‘shocked by the genocide in his country, but not astonished. People live behind a mask’, he said, ‘wh
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An author and photojournalist with more than forty years' professional experience. He holds an Honorary Research Fellowship in the Department of Anthropology at U.C.L.
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