The Shape of Africa

Posted: August 7th, 2013





The Shape of Africa

The African continent is normally considered the cradle of humankind. However, this continent is largely associated with vast degrees development plaguing issues including tribalism and poverty. Through “The Shape of Africa”, Jared Diamond endeavors to develop theories designed to explain how Africa ended up being the poorest continent despite its richness in natural resources.

Diamond uses the theory of geography and history as one explanation behind the slow economic development of Africa. In this regard, Diamond describes Africa as a sole continent spanning both the south and north temperate zones. These geographic realities as well as the human history play a significant role at the continent’s slow economic growth. Diamond maintains that Africa was the sole home continent of human ancestors until Homo erectus managed to expand to Asia and Europe about two million years ago. In the course of the next 1.5 million years, humanity in these three continents followed different courses of evolution that they developed into distinct species. The Asian population retained its Homo erectus status, Europe developed into Neanderthals and Africa evolved into the more developed Homo sapiens. This population is established to have a brain capacity similar to that of current humanity. Consequently, the African population expanded again into Asia and Europe and interbred with the hominines and Neanderthals. Those left in Africa undertook agriculture and domestication of animals. The resulting Homo sapiens in Europe and Asia undertook other development paths including technology, thus the higher economic progress compared to Africa.

The second reason put forward by Diamond comes through the problem of domesticating plants and animals in Africa. In this regard, he maintains that only a few wild animals and plants offer themselves to domestication and the few that can be domesticated are concentrated in six major parts of the world. History holds that the most productive agricultural practice began in the southwestern Asian crescent where goats, cattle, sheep, barley, and wheat were domesticated. While these animals and plants spread west and east of Eurasia, their spread in Africa was hindered by the north south orientation. Animals and crops have a tendency of spreading slowly from north to south compared to when they are spreading east to west. This is because different latitudes demand climate adaptation, day lengths, seasonalities, and diseases. The slow spread of crops and animals for domestication contributed to the current slow economic development in the continent.

Thirdly, Diamond maintains that the unique weather patterns dictate that Africa endures rainy seasons of concentrated downpour and dry seasons of extreme drought. The consequence is cutting soil erosion, flash floods, and topsoil degeneration that hinder the agricultural pursuits of the continent. Furthermore, the weather patterns in Africa create an environment that favors the development and spread of tropical diseases: these include sleeping sickness, malaria, bilharzia, and river blindness. Furthermore, the wet and dry weather cycle hinders settled agriculture in certain regions thus making irregular migration to urban centers imminent. Ultimately, this contributes to the slow economic development in Africa.

Lastly, Diamond states that the geographical nature of the continent plagues its economic development. Nearly a third of countries in the African mainland (about 15 of 47) have no access to seaways, with the only navigable river from the ocean to the inland being the Nile. Since waterways offer the cheapest transport means to cumbersome goods, the economical progress of African nations is hindered further.


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