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"Out of Africa" Phrase in Use Since Ancient Greece

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
February 19, 2003
 
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."

"Whoever was copying the proverbs from Zenobius could have just changed the word to make the meaning stronger, or there could simply have been a transcription error," said Solodow. "The Greek words for good and evil, kainon and kakon, might have looked similar."

Erasmus, a prominent Dutch theologian and scholar, included the phrase in his collection of proverbs, Adagia. In this work, the proverb reverted to the Greek form: "There is always something new coming out of Africa." The first edition of Erasmus' book of adages was published in 1500.

The phrase was clearly well known during the Renaissance, and would have retained its negative connotation, Solodow said.

Modern Usage

By the time the phrase reached modern times, its message changed considerably.

The trustees of the South African Museum chose the saying as its official motto in 1877 to honor the institution's spirit of scientific endeavor and to highlight ancient fossils being discovered on the continent.

"When it reappears in the 20th century, it has mostly a positive sense," said Solodow. "Whenever the change took place, two things had occurred; either the proverb had been cut off from its original meaning, or the word 'new' didn't immediately signal something bad anymore."

Politically, the phrase signaled a period of hopefulness as Africa shrugged off colonialist governments, said Feinberg.

"In the late 1940s and 1950s there was a tremendous period of excitement as the colonies in Africa began to emerge as independent countries," he said. "There was a lot of hope for the continent; the resources were there, and some of the countries, like Ghana, had tremendous monetary reserves. There was an overwhelmingly positive sense of something good happening."

In science, the phrase is applied to the widely accepted theory of human origins. The "Out of Africa" theory holds that Africa is the cradle of humanity, the place where humans first evolved. This is an overwhelmingly positive use of the phrase, the authors note.

The phrase can be used in a somewhat pejorative sense. In her book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag attacks the use of "Out of Africa" in connection with theories of the origin of AIDS. She suggests the usage is a function of western bias. Many headline writers attach the phrase to conditions thought to have originated in Africa.

Still, in its sojourn through history, the ancient proverb has evolved from a description suggesting the bizarre to a phrase used more as a geographic designation.
 

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