Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by Jonathan Edelstein, Jun 30, 2014.
Possibly the Inca, depending on how you consider quipus.
Arguably the Aztecs as well. While they weren't an illiterate society AFAIK they didn't use writing for bureaucratic purposes, and they may have had an illiterate, or almost totally so, administration.
Depending on how you consider the Indus Valley symbols, its civilization may possibly qualify too, albeit this is much more questionable and may be more related to our lack of documents than anything else.
Of course, Africa had many empires with a far-flung administration that were only barely literate if at all IOTL, although if they can be defined as having "illiterate bureacracies" depends a lot on what you exactly consider to be a "bureaucracy".
True...nice updates above...
True...nice updates above...
So, do the proto-Egyptians et al tell "nok-nok" jokes about their bumpkin neighbors?
This seems to carry implicit assumptions I'm not familiar with. Could you elaborate on your meaning at all?
Actually that's the easiest way to tell. Natural lakes and seas situated inland are generally much simpler in shape than those formed by dam-building.
Would the Nok be likely to keep the abjad elements already present in hieratic script, though, or would they more probably recast it as an alphasyllabary (especially in their informal writing)?
My working assumption is that the Nok language is part of the Niger-Congo family, as are those of its immediate neighbors. The peoples of the Chari basin speak proto-Bantu tongues and those of the upper Nile Valley are proto-Nilotic with possible proto-Cushitic influences.
Fair point - so West African writing will probably keep determinatives, and might carry them even to later alphabets.
The Incas may be the best model for what the Nok had. Illiteracy doesn't mean that there are no ways of keeping records: the preliterate Nok would certainly have some kind of tally marks, and probably pictograms as well. And with the bureaucracy (such as it is) being run by professional storytellers, there are also various forms of mnemonics and legal precedents set to verse. It's nowhere near as efficient as a literate bureaucracy, but it suffices to keep track of taxes and lawsuits in an empire that's still relatively small by later standards.
A palace economy is a type of centrally controlled Bronze Age gift economy; the Wikipedia summary isn't bad. Palace economies tended to give way to market economies in Iron Age states (not that markets weren't already present in the Bronze Age, but they gained primacy in the more decentralized trading and production systems that ironworking enabled).
Also, after discussion with Kaiphranos, it has been decided that there will be seven rather than six parts to this timeline, with the last one being a narrative epilogue set several centuries after the main timeline's close.
I think that an alphasyllabary is more likely. Some abjad elements may be retained, but judging from rough historical parallels (none of which is really very well understood yet) there's something like a trend toward alphasyllabic systems.
For a Niger-Congo language, an Abjad would be cumbersome to use entirely as such (which didn't stop Arabic script to be used in West Africa though).
In a fully developed alphabetic system, determinatives would be sort of redundant, except in some languages (they could be useful in an alphabetic form of Chinese I guess, or in French if written phonetically). However, if the Nok languages has a system of prefixed classifiers like the Bantu languages, determinatives may be used for specific morphemes. If the system keeps some ambiguities from Hieratic, determinatives would be more useful.
The development of an alphabet so early in West Africa could have major implications for historiography in that region. OTL even where there were kingdoms and empires, comparatively little is known about them due to the lack of written records. ITTL, that won't be a problem, and Africa's history can take a much more prominent place on the world stage.
Another thought-provoking TL, Jonathan!
They adopted Arabic writing wholesale, but that alphabet had religious significance to the Muslim West Africans that the Egyptian alphabet won't have to the Nok. Reading and transcribing a holy book in the original won't be a concern. So, given that the Nok already need to adapt Egyptian writing for non-papyrus media and Niger-Congo phonology, there's no reason they can't turn it into an alphasyllabary.
This seems somewhat counterintuitive - I've always thought of the transition from syllabary to alphabet as progress, so a shift from an abjad to an alphasyllabary seems like going backwards. But in the era before mass literacy, it might not be - an educated scribe class would be as capable of learning the 100 or 200 characters of an alphasyllabary (assuming that the diacritical marks become fused with the letters as happened in Ethiopia) as the 20 to 40 of an alphabet. And if that's the way human beings instinctively grasp sounds, then it may be both a natural and an aesthetically sound adaptation.
If the informal script contains a set of basic characters as hieratic did, then semi-literate people might learn only those, along with a set of simplified diacritical marks, and use them for business. This happened to some extent in Egypt with the hieratic "business-hand" and later demotic writing, and could ultimately evolve into a demotic alphabet for the Niger.
The great majority of western Niger-Congo languages, including those of Nigeria, do have noun classification, so an adapted form of the hieratic determinatives could come to represent the particles. Also, the Niger-Congo languages are tonal (modern Yoruba has three tones, for instance) so there would be a good number of homophones and the determinatives would help distinguish between them.
BTW, thanks to everyone who's helped set me straight on writing systems - this discussion has been fascinating. I'm going to rework the next update slightly to incorporate the "mature" Nok script, and will probably post it tomorrow night or Monday morning.
Absolutely - the idea of Africa not having a history, which is depressingly common in OTL, would be considered little short of crazy in TTL. As we'll see in the epilogue, West Africa will have a classical era several centuries after the fall of the Nok, and in TTL's present day, every educated person will have at least a superficial familiarity with that era's literature and philosophy.
Also, a good deal more will be known about the prehistory that was recent at the time writing was introduced - as can be seen in the first couple of updates, many of the founding events of Nok civilization are legendary but it's possible to tease the history out of the stories. If writing had come to West Africa much later, these stories wouldn't have survived, at least not in a form capable of historical analysis.
So my reading of this has been that events of this sort could well have happened at a variety of times in ancient history, but you went with the earliest plausible date for maximum effect?
The Nok Empire at the turn of the 11th century BC was at the height of its power and glory. It was the master of all it surveyed, with all other states too small or too far away to be any real threat. Its trade routes extended to the desert and the sea, to the deep jungle and the mighty Nile, to the Iron Cities of Termit and the palaces of a shrunken but still rich Kemet. Its wealth exceeded anything that had hitherto existed in West Africa, with even local governors or rich merchants arrayed in what would once have been royal finery.
Bio, with a population of 60,000, was a city of palaces and statues, boulevards and markets. Its public gardens were arrayed with artificial lakes – a lordly extravagance in a kingdom where rainfall was often sparse – and lined with trees and flowers brought by traders from the four corners of the known world. Statues of gods, past kings and figures of legend, in terra-cotta or bronze with the elongated features and expressive faces of ancient tradition, watched over the plazas and parks and stood guard at the palace-fronts.
Duwa, the ancient religious capital on the plateau, was not as big or ornate, but its inns hosted thousands of pilgrims yearly, and people came to its festivals from as far as the upper Niger and the Chari. It was also a center of blacksmithing, because even after three centuries, the Nok still considered ironwork to import something of the divine. The weapons, tools and jewelry made there, in the rival Jos Plateau city of Azari, and in the “forge-towns” that surrounded them, were a byword for excellence throughout West Africa.
Writing, imported from Kemet less than a century before, was everywhere. The hieratic script of Kemet had been pared down and then built out again: the characters that formed single consonants had fused with vowel markings to form a syllabary of some two hundred letters. The determinatives – the characters that denoted the type of object or action that a word described – had been preserved in order to distinguish the words that were spelled the same but for their tone, and these quickly came to represent the noun-classification particles.
This was the “griots’ writing,” used for administrative documents and works of literature. There were two other scripts: the “kings’ writing,” much closer to the Kemetic hieroglyphs and retaining many ideographs, adorned the walls of palaces, temples and tombs, while the “merchants’ writing,” a fragmented set of thirty-five root characters without vowel markings, did duty for accounts and informal letters. A fraction of one percent of the population could use all three forms of writing, but as many as a tenth might have had some familiarity with the merchants’ writing, and the urban educated class was large enough to spark lively correspondence, contests of poetry and storytelling, and works of mathematics, philosophy and ethics.  Many of the latter were derived from the wisdom literature of Kemet and the Near East, and from them, we know the emphasis the Nok placed on kinship and family, their ethics of business and trade, even their sports and ways of lovemaking.
But even then, the seeds of things to come were present just under the surface, and these took root as the century progressed. Nok society had always tended to become more stratified with time, but during the eleventh century the process accelerated. Soils on the Jos Plateau and the lower and middle Niger were often poor, and the growth of cities meant that ever more of the peasants’ meager surplus had to be taken as taxes. In some districts, taxation approached or even exceeded what the population would bear. The Secret Tale of Kings – a counter-chronicle maintained by the kingmakers’ faction, of which fragments have come down to us – records three provincial famines in the 1040s and two in the 1030s, something unheard-of since the era of warring hill-forts. The harvests during the 1020s and onward appear to have been better, but tax levies and the number of people punished for delinquency continued to increase.
Slavery, once rare and reserved mainly for prisoners of war, became the common fate of those who could not pay their taxes. Debt slavery to private creditors also became more widespread. As late as 1070, slaves accounted for less than five percent of the population, but by 1000, records indicate that a third of the people had been reduced to slavery, and that small farms in many districts had been absorbed into large estates with their former owners now slaves of the new landlords. Most of these estates naturally went to the crown, the military nobility and their allies among the merchants and high-ranking bureaucrats, leading to increasingly despotic rule and driving much of the kingmaker class into poverty. Elections to the throne were by now wholly formal, and after about 1020 they ceased to be held at all, given that many of the electors had become poor peasants or even slaves.
The consolidation of wealth, combined with the desire for conspicuous consumption by an elite that was still concerned for its legitimacy, also fueled demand for imported slaves. Most of these were purchased from the peoples of the Palm Road and the forests, but others were captured in raids on desert tribes or bought from tribesmen encouraged to raid each other for that purpose. By 1000, the endemic warfare thus created reached a considerable distance into the Sahara and the regions north and east of Lake Chad.
This is not to say that life everywhere in the Nok Empire deteriorated during the eleventh century. The urban artisans thrived, and even laborers prospered with the ever-present demand for construction work. Craftsmanship reached new heights, and if anything, literary and artistic creativity increased, including the first example of Nok musical notation and the invention of several kinds of drum. There were many who could enjoy the beauty of the cities, the sweetness of their poetry and song, and the wealth of an empire at the height of its prowess. But for the peasants and herders, who were the great if largely unremarked majority, the life that had been bearable in 1100 degenerated to the point where, by 1000, some actually considered slavery preferable.
These developments also meant that the defensive cordon around the Nok state continued to develop, and that the formation of states and centralized institutions shifted to the periphery. The Palm Kingdom towns grew larger in the eleventh century as the many city-states merged into region-states and eventually into a tributary empire much like Asun. The same occurred with the market towns east and south of Lake Chad, which also solidified into a loose semi-feudal federation which incorporated many of the cattle-herding tribes in their hinterland. The states of the upper Niger, which increasingly prospered as sources of imported foodstuffs for hungry Nok cities, grew stronger. Even the Nok city-colonies, which had avoided much of the empire’s slide toward despotism and inequality, began to break away: they still paid tribute, but Aminni on the Niger bend stopped paying even lip service to decrees from Bio after 1015, and even the closer ones built informal alliances with their neighbors whenever they could.
And by this time, the periphery extended far to the east and even the south. Minor kingdoms and city-states were emerging not only in the nearer Chari basin but in Asese on the north shore of Lake Victoria. This last, a feudal state based on cattle ownership whose largest cities were equivalent to Nok hill-forts of the warring states period, would be significant in more than being the first true Bantu state. It would also become one end of a fourth great African trade route, this one running the length of the Nile and branching off to West Africa: the Ivory Road.
The commerce on this road would ultimately knit the eastern Congo basin and the Great Lakes into the African trading network, and would be the engine for Bantu expansion even further south. The caravans from Asese would also reach the coast of East Africa, feeding the growth of port towns and bringing goods from Africa to India and Arabia and back again. By the ninth century BC, Nok statues could be found on the cities of the Malabar coast, and the spices of India were sold in West African markets.
But this would happen far too late to do the Nok Empire any good.
 The figure of 1 percent literacy is often given for ancient Egypt, but I’ve seen the case made convincingly that there were many levels of literacy, and that while full knowledge of the hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts was rare, many people might have had some knowledge of hieratic and the ability to use writing for business and personal purposes. I’m assuming that the same would be true of an urbanized merchant society like the late Nok. And the Egyptians had works of philosophy and mathematics before the classical Greeks were a glimmer in the Dorians’ eye, so the Nok would have them too.
Pretty much. The timeline could as easily (and, maybe, more plausibly) have been set 500 or 1000 years later, but I went with the earliest theorized dates for both Termit Massif ironworking and proto-Nok culture. The reasons were (a) maximum effect, (b) I want West Africa to have a classical period (which will be featured in the epilogue), and (c) because I wanted the Nok to interact with New Kingdom Egypt, although a later interaction with Ptolemaic Egypt and/or classical Kush might also have been interesting.
Does anyone have any thoughts on the latest update?
I couldn't comment on the factual accuracy, since I know next to nothing about the period, but I'm still loving this writing-wise. Things seem to be darkening for the Nok in the short term, but it's nice to see West African society blossom early with all that implies for the state of the "dark" continent by the present.
Nice update as always, Jonathan. It's unfortunate to see the Nok become so stratified and become so reliant on slavery, although I suppose it's not that unusual for an ancient empire.
This is a really good timeline. A earlier and more prosperous Nok culture is a very interesting scenario and you executed it nicely. Well done!
You never mentioned navigation/sailing and shipbuilding in the Nok Empire.
Did they use Niger for transporting goods and troops?
Did the Nok have Royal Navy on the river?
And if they did... did they venture to the sea?
What is the role of these desert tribes? I mean for the most part they were "white" Saharan people. Were there any "white" people in the Nok army in the nobility or merchants? Or just "white" slaves? I guess some of them were good at warfare as charioteers or something?
I was keenly interested in that latter question early on, but something or other Jonathan said seemed to mean that no, they don't reach the actual shores of the Atlantic. Doubtless people who do live on those shores are influenced by the early rise of the Nok, and will be more strongly so by the western batch of successor societies.
I wondered of course if an earlier and stronger general development of the region would lead to seafaring on the Atlantic that might lead to contact between West Africa and South America. In other timelines I've been a bit of a naysayer about that because of a belief that deep ocean sailing is a tricky art requiring advances in shipbuilding, sail management, navigation, storage of provisions including fresh water or some reasonably hydrating drink that keeps better (some kind of beer for instance). And I believe these arts were not generally developed precociously by individual societies but invented here and there and spread around the coasts of the Old World faster than they'd be independently invented locally, so that the whole Old World had a general state of the art that had to evolve to roughly year 1500 CE levels before such voyages could be contemplated as routine business. An earlier civilization on the West African coast might accelerate the clock somewhat but the problem is, I gather, to include West Africa in the navigational circuit of the Old World the problems of deep seafaring have to be solved already, because the prevailing winds and currents near the coast take one southward with no easy, reliable, safe way back north until one develops deep seafaring to take advantage of the South Atlantic gyres--and these take one to South America. So as far as I know West Africa is a poor place for a venturesome seafaring people to be cultivated, though not a bad place to join the ranks of seafaring peoples once the basic arts of deep ocean navigation have been developed--elsewhere.
So I didn't beg or push for expansion and development coastward. I expect quite a bit of it anyway but not to lead to contact by sea; the seafarers there will be local fishermen, coastwise traders and various brown-water navies, all hugging the shore lest they be swept out onto the wide ocean and never find their way home again.
But if someone can see a plausible way for them to find South America and be in reliable, reciprocal contact, I'm all for it!
For one thing, early contact with the Terra Prieta peoples can lead to a bonanza of Amazon rainforest cultivars being transplanted to the Congo and other African regions, widening the range of territories that can support highly advanced societies in central Africa. At the same time if the TP peoples of South America have gradual, tenuous contact with Africans the Eurasian cocktail of diseases would be unleashed on them more gradually, so that instead of being knocked out, some of them might survive though decimated, hitting bottom but then on a path to comeback before any Europeans show up. And of course they'd pick up a lot of technology from the Africans.
You mention "philosophy", and specifically, Ancient Egyptian philosophy.
I guess that a lot depends on what one accepts to be "philosophy". To be clear, I do not subscribe to the view that the only "philosophy" deserving that name is the one originating out of "Classical" (or immediately pre-Classical) Ancient Greeks. India is enough of a counterexample. However, it may be easily argued that it is really the only one (although pre-Columbian Mesoamerica may have something to say on this).
I guess that a big part of the problem is "what is 'philosophy' supposed to be". I don't pretend to have anything resembling a good answer, but I'd argue that the Egyptians, on average, had _wisdom_ not _ philosophy_. Late Zhou China may have come closer to the mark, but sadly Shi Huangdi wanted most of everything written down before himself burned, so that our understanding of Late Zhou Chinese intelleactual history is sub-optimal in many regards.
However, I would guess that "philosophy" in a serious sense requires a sort of critical thinking that most of non-Buddhist Chinese thought, and basicaly everything the Egyotuans wrote, do not really display clearly.
That's more or less what I'm aiming for - that the Nok empire will become decadent and fall, and their memory will be a decidedly mixed one, but the things they set in motion in West Africa will outlast them by many centuries.
I've mentioned before that the Nok are West Africa's first empire, so there are many things they don't know about managing a large state. Preventing vicious resource-depletion cycles like the one currently engulfing the empire (in a state with large and growing cities, poor West African soils had to figure in eventually) is something that can only be learned with experience. The Nok culture's successors, or at least some of them, will be better at it than they were - but they'll be treading paths that the Nok broke.
Thanks and please keep reading!
Shevek23 is right. The Nok empire ends well north of the sea - horses die once you get very far south of the Niger-Benue confluence, so a cavalry or chariot-based empire can't expand there - and even the traffic along the river is mostly by land given that the Niger is only navigable for part of its length. As far as the Nok are concerned, boats are for fishing and ferrying.
The kingdoms and city-states to the south, though, do border on the sea and are starting to develop a coastal trade. They'll be much better sailors than the Nok, and goods from that trade will reach inland markets.
Like many desert tribes that border on powerful empires, they are alternately allies and enemies, trading partners and slaves. Some of them have indeed been recruited into the armies, and they also come into the Nok cities as Palm Road traders. There have been intermarriages with Nok merchant families, so there are nobles and rich traders with at least partial desert ancestry, just as there are tribal chiefs with one or two Nok ancestors in their family trees.
How far down the West African coast is this the case - for instance, could a port city in the Niger Delta send ships to *Gabon or the Congo basin and back again, or would they have the same troubles returning north as Phoenicians or Greeks who came to them?
Also, depending on how far you think Hanno got, there's the possibility of at least sporadic sea contact between the Mediterranean and the Niger delta. Once a regular cross-Saharan trade gets started, some merchants might try the sea route, even if difficult, in order to cut the desert tribes out as middlemen.
None of this will happen until considerably after the Nok empire falls, of course, but it might figure into the epilogue.
Fair enough. I tend to favor inclusive definitions, and sometimes that gets me in trouble (e.g., "alphabet").
I agree that the Nok literature, like the Egyptian, would be more correctly classified as wisdom than philosophy in the classical sense. It would certainly touch on some of the subjects philosophy embraces - morals and ethics, the nature of the soul and the divine, the ideal society - but without the systematized thinking of the classical Greek or Indian philosophers. They may or may not invent or import such analysis later.
I'll post the decline-and-fall update on Wednesday, with the epilogue to follow.
Inclusive definitions are fine.
The main reason I nitpick on this is that the topic touches some central points of my ongoing academic work.
To be fair, both Plato and Giordano Bruno would have probably found the notion that Egyptian wisdom isn't philosophy pretty abhorrent.
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