Africa. My youth largely knew of it only through the distorted lens of racist cartoons peopled with bone-in-their-nose cannibals, B-grade movies showcasing explorers in pith helmets who somehow always managed to stumble into quicksand, and of course Tarzan. It was still even then sometimes referred to as the “Dark Continent,” something that was supposed to mean dangerous and mysterious but also translated, for most of us, into the kind of blackness that was synonymous with race and skin color.

My interest in Africa came via the somewhat circuitous route of my study of the Civil War. The central cause of that conflict was, of course, human chattel slavery, and nearly all the enslaved were descendants of lives stolen from Africa. So, for me, a closer scrutiny of the continent was the logical next step. One of the benefits of a fine personal library is that there are hundreds of volumes sitting on shelves waiting for me to find the moment to find them. Such was the case for Africa: A Biography of the Continent, by John Reader, which sat unattended but beckoning for some two decades until a random evening found a finger on the spine and then the cover was open and the book was in my lap. I did not turn back.

With a literary flourish rarely present in nonfiction combined with the ambitious sweep of something like a novel of James Michener, Reader attempts nothing less than the epic as he boldly surveys the history of Africa from the tectonic activities that billions of years ago shaped the continent, to the evolution of the single human species that now populates the globe, to the rise and fall of empires, to colonialism and independence, and finally to the twin witness of the glorious and the horrific in the peaceful dismantling of South African apartheid and the Rwandan genocide. In nearly seven hundred pages of dense but highly readable text, the author succeeds magnificently, identifying the myriad differences in peoples and lifeways and environments while not neglecting the shared themes that then and now much of the continent holds in common.

Africa is the world’s second largest continent, and it hosts by far the largest number of sovereign nations: with the addition of South Sudan in 2011—twelve years after Reader’s book was published—there are now fifty-four, as well as a couple of disputed territories. But nearly all of these states are artificial constructs that are relics of European colonialism, lines on maps once penciled in by elite overlords in distant drawing rooms in places like London, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels, and those maps were heavily influenced by earlier incursions by the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch. Much of the poverty, instability, and often dreadful standards of living in Africa are the vestiges of these artificial borders that mostly ignored prior states, tribes, clans, languages, religions, identities, lifeways. When their colonial masters, who had long raped the land for its resources and the people for their self-esteem, withdrew in the whirlwind decolonization era of 1956-1976—some at the strike of the pen, others at the point of the sword—the exploiters left little of value for nation-building to the exploited beyond the mockery of those boundaries. That of the ancestral that had been lost in the process, had been irrevocably lost. That is one of Reader’s themes. But there is so much more.

The focus is, as it should be, on sub-Saharan Africa; the continent’s northern portion is an extension of the Mediterranean world, marked by the storied legacies of ancient Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, and the later Arab conquest. And Egypt, then and now, belongs more properly to the Middle East. But most of Africa’s vast geography stretches south of that, along the coasts and deep into the interior. Reader delivers “Big History” at its best, and the sub-Saharan offers up an immense arena for the drama that entails—from the fossil beds that begat Homo habilis in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, to the South African diamond mines that spawned enormous wealth for a few on the backs of the suffering of a multitude, to today’s Maasai Mara game reserve in Kenya that we learn is not as we would suppose a remnant of some ancient pristine habitat, but rather a breeding ground for the deadly sleeping sickness carried by the tsetse fly that turned once productive land into a place unsuitable for human habitation.

Perhaps the most remarkable theme in Reader’s book is population sustainability and migration. While Africa is the second largest of earth’s continents, it remains vastly underpopulated relative to its size. Given the harsh environment, limited resources, and prevalence of devastating disease, there is strong evidence that it has likely always been this way.  Slave-trading was, of course, an example of a kind forced migration, but more typically Africa’s history has long been characterized by a voluntary movement of peoples away from the continent, to the Middle East, to Europe, to all the rest of the world.  Migration has always been—and remains today—subject to the dual factors of “push” and “pull,” but the push factor has dominated. That is perhaps the best explanation for what drove the migrations of archaic and anatomically modern humans out of Africa to populate the rest of the globe. The recently identified 210,000-year-old Homo sapiens skull in a cave in Greece reminds us that this has been going on a very long time. Homo erectus skulls found in Dmansi, Georgia that date to 1.8 million years old underscore just how long!

Slavery is, not unexpectedly, also a major theme for Reader, largely because of the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on Africa and how it forever transformed the lifeways of the people directly and indirectly affected by its pernicious hold—culturally, politically and economically. The slavery that was a fact of life on the continent before the arrival of European traders closely resembled its ancient roots; certainly race and skin color had nothing to do with it. As noted, I came to study Africa via the Civil War and antebellum slavery. To this day, a favored logical fallacy advanced by “Lost Cause” apologists for the Confederate slave republic asks rhetorically “But their own people sold them as slaves, didn’t they?” As if this contention—if it was indeed true—would somehow expiate or at least attenuate the sin of enslaving human beings. But is it true? Hardly. Captors of slaves taken in raids or in war by one tribe or one ethnicity would hardly consider them “their own people,” any more than the Vikings that for centuries took Slavs to feed the hungry slave markets of the Arab world would have considered them “their own people.” This is a painful reminder that such notions endure in the mindset of the deeply entrenched racism that still defines modern America—a racism derived from African chattel slavery to begin with. It reflects how outsiders might view Africa, but not how Africans view themselves.

The Atlantic slave trade left a mark on every African who was touched by it as buyer, seller or unfortunate victim. The insatiable thirst for cheap labor to work sugar (and later cotton) plantations in the Americas overnight turned human beings into Africa’s most valuable export. Traditions were trampled. An ever-increasing demand put pressure on delivering supply at any cost. Since Europeans tended to perish in Africa’s hostile environment of climate and disease, a whole new class of “middle-men” came to prominence. Slavery, which dominated trade relations, corrupted all it encountered and left scars from its legacy upon the continent that have yet to fully heal.

This review barely scratches the surface of the range of material Reader covers in this impressive work. It’s a big book, but there is not a wasted page or paragraph, and it neither neglects the diversity nor what is held in common by the land and its peoples. Are there flaws? The included maps are terrible, but for that the publisher should be faulted rather than the author. To compensate, I hung a map of modern Africa on the door of my study and kept a historical atlas as companion to the narrative. Other than that quibble, the author’s achievement is superlative. Rarely have I read something of this size and scope and walked away so impressed, both with how much I learned as well as the learning process itself. If you have any interest in Africa, this book is an essential read. Don’t miss it.