for National Geographic News
Out of Africa. The phrase is everywhere; used to title movies, books, magazine articles, art exhibits, conferences, lectures, and travel tours. It's used as shorthand in newspaper headlines and to describe anthropological and medical theories related to Africa.
But where did it come from?
Somewhat surprisingly, the phrase stems from an ancient Greek proverb. "There is always something new coming out of Africa," wrote Aristotle more than 2,300 years ago in his book on natural history.
Writing in The Journal of African History, Harvey Feinberg and Joseph B. Solodow trace the history and meaning of the proverb from its ancient beginnings to contemporary usage.
"It's a phrase even Africanists don't know the origin of, so we were interested in tracing how it got from the ancient world to our world," said Feinberg, who teaches African history at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU).
Over the millennia, the meaning of "Out of Africa" has changed significantly.
"The Greek word that means 'new' had a different connotation than it does today," said Solodow, a professor of foreign languages at SCSU. "For us, if we see a product advertised as 'New and Improved', we don't need the word improved to gather the right meaning. For the ancient Greeks, and Latins as well, the word 'new' tended to have negative connotations, associated with something strange or undesirable."
Tracking a Proverb Through History
The earliest reference the researchers found is from the Greek comic poet Anaxilas, who wrote in the mid 4th century B.C. "It's not a direct reference, but the proverb is clearly alluded to in his plays, suggesting that it was common knowledge to his audience," said Solodow.
Aristotle, (384 to 322 B.C.), referred to the proverb in two of his books, Historia Animalium and Generatione Animalium, to explain the wild mélange of animals in Africa. He wrote that many of the animals unique to Africa were strange hybrids, suggesting that the lack of water forced the animals to meet at watering holes where they mated indiscriminately with one another.
However, Pliny the Elder, a Roman statesman and scholar who lived from 23 to 79 A.D., is credited with coining the phrase in current reference books like Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. In his book on natural history, Historia Naturalis, Pliny wrote that the proverb "Africa is always producing something new" was commonly used in Greece when referring to Africa's wildlife.
The proverb's meaning of strange hybrid animals was garbled when scribes copied a collection of proverbs compiled by the Greek scholar Zenobius, (2nd century A.D.). The proverb was suddenly transformed into "Africa is always producing something evil."
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