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About the 14th Bernice L. Fox Lecture

Always Something New From Africa:

Ancient Africa and its Marvels


Professor Kenneth Kitchell

Everyone talks about what is wrong with today's world. Amid all the conversation, few point to the loss of new worlds to conquer. Only a few generations ago there were still unmapped parts of our planet. Yet today the entire globe is mapped by satellites; the Titanic is scoured by remote operated submarines, and human footprints are on the moon. This is a tribute, of course, to human ingenuity and perserverance, yet something is lost as well, for humans of all times seem to enjoy the challenge of unchartered lands and the mystery of unknown places. As Tacitus, the Roman historian put it, omne ignotum pro magnifico est -- "Everything unknown passes for the mysterious." The world would be a bit better off, perhaps, if we could get some of the "unkown mystery" back into our lives. As it is, we resort to the X Files and conspiracy theories to satisfy this urge.

The ancient peoples of the Mediterranean had an advantage, however, for their world was still relatively small and the mysteries and the unknowns from Africa did much to spark their intellectual curiosity. This illustrated talk will therefore offer an overview of the special place Africa held in the imaginations, art, and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. We will begin by showing the wonders that Africa held for the Bronze Age Myceneans and Minoans --- from ivory to monkeys and imported ostrich eggs. We will next study the fabulous races of deformed and unique human beings that the ancients believed to live in Africa and surrounding areas. Such was the attraction of these mythical races that they were believed to exist well into the Middle Ages and beyond. Among these is the bogey-woman Lamia and other African based demons.

The talk will next move from the mythical to the actual and will discuss the animals of Africa which so excited the imaginations of the ancients. Some were innocuous such as Herodotus' flying snakes, but others were decidedly deadly such as the stunning variety of killer serpents that stalked Cato's retreat in Lucan. Mainstream authors like Herodotus and Aristotle circulated fantastic stories about such creatures and their habits (How do you catch a crocodile? Why do lions have successively fewer children in each litter?). We will turn to lesser known (yet highly entertaining) authors such as Pliny the Elder and Aelian to learn about clever monkeys, self healing hippos, and egg-gazing ostriches. We will find the first instance of the word "gorilla" in the report of a 5th century B.C. circumnavigation of Africa. Various stories associated with the animals (do hippos really sweat blood?) will be analyzed and, in some cases, the origins of these stories will be demonstrated.

These stories are vastly entertaining, but it is important to understand that the ancients were not fools. They knew full well the difference between fact and fable. When they spoke about the marvels of Africa, however, they lacked our modern "sophistication." Today, with the click of a remote control device or a computer's mouse, any child in America can see or read fact- filled and well illustrated documentaries about the rarest of creatures. The ancients relied on word of mouth alone and reacted to it in a variety of ways. To us today some of their stories may seem simplistic and naive. And so they may be. But they too had something we lack today, for they possessed the sense of wonder before the marvels of nature that comes with having unknown territories to explore and learn about. As Pliny the Elder put it so well, "There is always something new from Africa." It must have been an exciting time to be alive.

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