I here identify the four major families as Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, Afro-Asiatic, and Khoisan, roughly following Greenberg’s original categories. Eventually they occupied most of the regions labelled above right “woodland”, “dry savanna”. During the same time, distinctive populations formerly limited to the narrow coastal fringes of North Africa moved southward with an expanding “Mediterranean” climate and into the desert as well.
(Numerous variant terms have been suggested, but issues regarding the definition and even the “reality” statuses of some of these entities and their putative subdivisions need not concern us here. The historic distributions of major language groups who presumably occupied what is now the Savanna-Sahel-to-Sahara belt at this time are two, the “Niger-Congo” and the “Nilo-Saharan” language families, whose continental distributions are westward (at left, all of the colored areas except for extreme southwestern Africa)and eastward (at right, excluding the encompassing dark green area) respectively, though the maps alone are misleading if simply viewed as wholes in their raw forms.
Here I assume that most readers of these pages are scientifically-informed in a general sense but not experts in historical linguistics.
Here, the boundary of the old lake is marked in hatching.
Part of the Bodele Depression, this region is now the dustiest area on earth (its floor composed of fine-powdery remains of the plankton that once thrived in the waters of that lake.
But it also seems likely that this “unidentified” area may likely have included speakers of a very early branch of Niger-Congo, called “Gur-Adamawa”, whose proto-language posseses no known cognates indicating cultivation, suggesting they were groups who were likely bow-and-arrow hunters as well as opportunistic foragers, and who may or may not have extended into this area at the time in question.
(More on them below.) It makes sense to emphasize cultural anthropologist Igor Kopytoff’s view that, during this early period of relatively humid climate (prior to the massive and progressive dessication that occurs later on), most populations ancestral to those presently occupying sub-Saharan Africa were concentrated “in the now-barren but then fertile Saharan-Sahelian band that spans the continent from east to west”.
The Nilo-Saharan speakers at this time occupied the dry savanna and steppe country (the “Sahel”) stretching from west of the Niger Bend eastward to locations far beyond then-massive Lake Mega-chad.
See at right, for example, a map of the extent of this enormous Early Holocene Lake.In what follows I pick and choose from current sources that seek to organize the state of knowledge in the history of African languages, and try to relate these to information from other sources (climatology, archaeology, other histories, etc.), aiming to present historical findings relevant to Onitsha that will of course be provisional, subject to modification as knowledge and methodologies in these fields of research improve.I will speak of “history”, but much of this falls more accurately under the rubric “pre-history”, working with times and places lacking written historical records.We might well be tempted to rely more strongly for an historical picture derived from archaeology, and will refer to findings from that field, but it too provides in many ways more questions than answers.The fields related to historical climatology are also very important, but these also show considerable variability.Enough acceptance of these groupings is present that we may proceed with caution.) On one matter at least, the linguists seem to agree: the time when each of these major families came into existence was very long ago. Linguists understand that each of these maps display overall distributions of very recent-historic times, that is as recorded mostly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), they do as wholes reflect ancient times; the older dimensions of location only begin appear when you consider the color-codings that distinguish various sub-groupings within the families.