Review of Mary Acosta's History Begins in Africa

history-begins-africa-140History Begins in Africa
by Mary Acosta (Afghanistan 1964–66)
Birds Nest Publishing
385 pages
December 2010

Reviewed by Shlomo Bachrach (Ethiopia Staff 1966-68)

THE CLAIM IN MARY ACOSTA’S TITLE is a bit more modest than the one made by the paleoanthropologists who locate all human origins in the Danakil and the Awash Valley in eastern Ethiopia. But she’s plenty bold: she says that written history begins with a bronze plaque reporting the victory of Terkinos, a king from what is Ethiopia today, over Melmanios, the next to last ruler of Uruk, a major city in Sumer, which became Babylon, which became Iraq in modern times. (Gilgamesh, for those who recognize the name, was a king in Uruk a few centuries after the events she writes about.)

Acosta dates her insights into history on material on two plaques that refer to events in the 4th millennium BC. History begins there, she says, because she considers this inscription to be the “oldest original historical document” that we can still understand.

Her view is not yet established history in the eyes of the scholarly community. The crucial new research was hers, and this is her first publication of it. She devoted years of intense effort that she says involved learning a few dozen languages well enough to approach the translation of obscure words and references in a Celto-Iberian language that predated the arrival of modern Indoeuropean languages (e.g. Greek, Latin, Germanic,) from which most western European languages descend. Gaelic is an example of a surviving Celtic language.

She translated two texts containing a total of 518 words. They are known to scholars as Botorrita I-B (the second face of a two part inscription) and Botorrita III. They were found in the vicinity of Botorrita, a town near Zaragoza, in Spain, in whose museum the plaques are now preserved. Plaque I-B was found in 1970, Plaque III in 1992. Though scholars have studied them, it is acknowledged that they contain untranslated and poorly understood words.

These two plaques are in a Celto-Iberian language, but Botorrita II is in Latin and can be precisely dated, from names of Roman officials, to mid-May, 87 BC. According to the celtic-culture5-volume Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia (the source of most of my information in this review), Botorrita I dates from early in the first century BC, Botorrita III from a similar time, given the evidence of language. How the information on the plaques ended up in a small Roman city in Spain, a few hundred miles inland from Barcelona, is a historical conundrum that Acosta wrestles with mightily, reaching to ancient Irish history before suddenly appearing in East Africa.

The gap in time and distance that Acosta is trying to explain is daunting. Botorrita III, she says, dates from 3236 — nothing vague about her claim — and commemorates a great victory by an Ethiopian king over a Sumarian king in the Eurphrates Valley. The plaque in question was created over 2000 years later, several thousand miles and a handful of empires away. I confess that her reasoning about how this came about seemed less than persuasive, though it was unfailingly imaginative.

Even more difficult for me to follow is Acosta’s confident assertion that the victor over the king of Uruk at that distant time in the past was from Lasta, the region in modern Ethiopia where Lalibela is located. I have read a fair amount of Ethiopian history over the years but have never seen a reference to it, though that, of course, is why Mary Acosta was inspired to do her research.

Through inferences and interpretations of place names and personal names, she concludes that a mighty kingdom arose in what is today’s Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia-Somaliland.  She believes that it was a Kushitic-speaking region, basing this on numerous place names that she links forward and backward in time to show continuity. Without question, many of today’s populations in that region speak Kushitic languages. What is less certain is that these populations, or their lineal ancestors, were there 5000 years ago and speaking an ancestor language.

It must be said that unexpected breakthroughs in any field can take a long time to gain acceptance. It is possible that Mary Acosta’s combined scholarship and intuition will be proven correct, and that at least some of the many gaps that are inevitable in a first book will eventually be filled by her or others. Unquestionably, she has worked heroically on her materials and thought deeply about them.

I should add that I recognize and admire a somewhat obsessive personality in Mary Acosta . . . it takes one to know one.  I hope she has found the effort rewarding for its own sake; I know from experience that others rarely appreciate my results as much as I enjoyed producing them.

Shlomo Bachrach produces the newsletter East Africa Forum, archived at, launched in 1998.  He was a Lecturer at Haile Selassie I University, then joined the Peace Corps Ethiopian staff from 1966–68, and participated in Peace Corps/Ethiopia training programs from 1964 to 1971.  He published Ethiopian Folktales in 1967, a textbook adopted by the Ministry of Education, recently revised and reissued. He has had consulting assignments from USAID and the World Bank, and has worked as a financial advisor.  Recently he contributed to the Ethiopian coffee trademark initiative.

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  • Shlomo–
    Great review. You have convinced me to buy the book. And I look forward for an opportunity to slip “paleoanthropologist” into the conversation.

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