Black history has much to reveal about our ancestors – and ourselves

In pursuit of a peaceful society, it is important that we record all perspectives of our complex human story

‘Cheddar Man’ at the Natural History Museum, London.
‘Cheddar Man’ at the Natural History Museum, London. Photograph: London Natural History Museum/EPA

Black History Month, which runs through October, is trying to address a problem. That problem is, how to move the study of black history away from focusing solely on slavery and colonialism so that we don’t end up with an unbalanced knowledge of the past, and inadvertently confirm rather than fight prejudices about black people and people of African descent. This is why films like Black Panther, with its depiction of the fictional state, Wakanda, captured the imagination of so many: it imagined what a sub-Saharan African kingdom free from colonialism could have become.

Africa, of course, has had its share of powerful real-life kingdoms down the millennia: look at the Horn of Africa, the region I come from, with its pre-Christian, Christian and Islamic kingdoms, and Ethiopia, which remained uncolonised. Other kingdoms throughout the continent fought against colonisation to their last day.

I was recently asked to give a talk about how we create sustainable peace in an era of mounting tensions and divisions. Part of the solution, I said, is to revise the history books, which may sound like an unusual answer, but I am an archaeologist. I became one partly because of the inadequate history curriculum in my school books. Arriving in Europe from Somalia, I found that none of my classmates knew anything about where I was from, beyond what little there was in the news about Africans and Somalis. So it was a wish to seek reconciliation through shared heritage that led me to study the past.

I know how difficult it is to build a truly peaceful society unless you have justice. You get justice by taking people’s voices into account. History is that account.

But most school history books are focused on the 20th-century world wars. Imagine excluding the voices and experiences of billions of people from the history of the world. How can the summary of our human experiences, exchanges and knowledge be reduced to two wars? And though we in Europe mainly study world history from a recent European gaze, even European history is not adequately reflected. I know because I am a European archaeologist. With my African perspective too, I want the history books to show that our human story is much more complex than one point of view can convey.

I once excavated a Viking-age site in Uppåkra, southern Sweden, which turned out to be a cosmopolitan and spectacular place. Our excavation revealed, among other things, Abbasid dirhams from the 10th century – and the funny thing was that I, the weird African refugee, was the only one who could read them. Though I was one of the zooarchaeologists, I could also read the Kufic writing on this piece of Viking and Norse history, because I attended Qur’anic school in Mogadishu in the 1980s. Here I was looking at the encounters of Vikings and Arabs. One may go even further: not just Arabs, but also Africans in Baghdad. The Abbasid empire was powered by slaves from East Africa, who used that power to ultimately rebel and bring it down. Sitting in the field in Uppåkra, I smiled with the ancient Vikings, who would probably never have seen people like me – or Iraqis in Europe – as a threat.

A recently decoded Swedish textile from the Viking age bore the words “Allah” and “Ali”. It was also reported that some of the DNA obtained from Viking graves in Sweden reveals people of Persian origin. Swedish Viking sites are not the only ones to yield Islamic imagery. The Vale of York hoard, discovered near Harrogate in 2007, contained items with Christian, Viking and Islamic religious symbolism. What does this say about the – in our minds – quintessential European culture of the Vikings? It shows they were a broad-minded bunch as a result of cultural exchange, trade and a bit of raiding, even more broad-minded than some modern Europeans.

Consider too how recent data from the 10,000-year-old skeleton known as Cheddar Man indicates that he was black. This means there was a black population in Britain 8,000 years ago. Today, about 10% of Europeans carry genes from those early inhabitants of western Europe. The skeletons of black Romans have been found in York, which was a very cosmopolitan city. Many of us are unaware of the potential diversity in our genetic pool. A DNA project was run that shocked many of its participants. They had a great genetic diversity, the evidence showed – some bore ethnicities that they’d previously viewed extremely negatively.

Learning the lessons of history from archaeology and genetics can be an effective way to spread peace.

If we can accept that our ancestors were different from us, then we can more easily accept that our neighbours today are different from us, and that failing to reflect our interconnected humanity in the history books is a form of wilful ignorance.

Sada Mire is a visiting professor at the faculty of archaeology, Leiden University, the Netherlands

Source: The Guardian