Africa is often romanticised as the cradle of civilisation, a hotbed of life where humanity took its first uncertain steps. 

But another characterisation of Africa stubbornly remains. According to John Comaroff, one of the world's leading anthropologists, it is particularly common in the media, in which Africa is described as something out of the 1899 novella Heart of Darkness -- a 'primitive, ahistorical' place that 'exists somewhere in our past.'

‘In so much of Western European thought -- be it philosophy, be it political science, be it critical history -- there’s a tendency almost autonomically to treat Africa as though it were the Middle Ages -- often, I should add, in a quite racist form,’ Comaroff says.

In this CAS Oslo seminar, Comaroff, the Hugh K. Foster Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology at Harvard University, deconstructs myths about political structures in Southern Africa and discusses the approaches scholars have taken to understand the continent.

To illustrate the types of political structures that existed prior to the colonial period, Comaroff focuses on a group of societies known collectively as the Tswana people (if the name sounds familiar, think of a certain country in Southern Africa: Botswana). Records reveal that these roughly 70 societies traded and fought with one another, and were led by chieftains who were expected to deliver good government, for example by holding public meetings and listening to complaints from people in their village.

What we know about the Tswana people challenges the myth about African societies before the arrival of Europeans, Comaroff says.

‘What we have in this so-called pre-modern system is an extraordinary degree of complexity in which there is an internal dialectic that moves and creates the possibilities … for fissure, decentralization, [and] the constant possibility of centralization,’ Comaroff says. ‘Game of Thrones is simple compared to what goes on.’

Comaroff is this year participating in the project The Nordic 'Civil Wars' in the High Middle Ages in a Comparative Perspective at CAS Oslo. Read more about the project here.