So there I am watching Africa, the BBCs latest Attenborough fronted masterpiece of nature programming (or, to put a cynical spin on it, yet enough crude attempt by the Beeb to kill-off an old man: in the last series they sent this particular octogenarian to the South Pole and this time they’ve sent him into the depths of the Sahara, in the middle of the day…). Episode 5, Sahara, explores this harsh desert wilderness in the usual way (cute, interesting, amazing life), but also includes a subtle message about climate change: some 6,000 years ago the Sahara was a savannah, desertification took hold after a shift in the Earth’s axis caused temperatures to sore. The message – as far as can see – is that life is delicate, so we might want to start listening to the scientists, quick.
At the heart of this savannah was, quite remarkably, what was once the largest lake in the world, evaporated by said change in axis. This reminded me of the Kangnido map, the earliest known East Asian map to depict the whole world made in 1402 which I’d read about in Jerry Brotton’s excellent A History of the World in Twelve Maps (2012). The Chinese and Koreans were prodigious cartographers, and the Kangido map was a remarkable product of that tradition: a world map with China at the centre and Korea – recently unified by the Chosŏn dynasty prominently placed to the east, a sign of both Korea’s new found strength and its subservience to Chinese hegemony. The Kangnido map is significant in the history of cartography because it includes the Middle-East, Europe (though, confusingly, the Mediterranean is not coloured in as a sea) and Africa. In the centre of Africa is a huge chasm, what I like to think of as a wide open mouth (perhaps laughing or cackling or somesuch). On this chasm Brotton writes: ‘the Kangnido map shows Africa with its now familiar southern tip, although its overall size is massively underestimated […] A further peculiarity is that the continent is shown with what looks like an enormous lake at its centre, although this could also represent the Sahara desert’ (118-119).
A lake of this size can only be the lake whose eradication began over 5,000 years before the Kangnido map was created. The lake that was the Sahara.
How this came to be I have no idea. Perhaps it is a legacy of the world map made by al-Idrisi in 1154, which shows a lake – though of much reduced size – in the centre of Africa. More likely, given that (as Brotton explains) the Chinese cartographic tradition was as much textual as it was visual, ancient (and no presumably lost) accounts of Africa might contain mention of a vast lake, knowledge of which has been transmitted without questioning (why would they?) to the architects of the Kangnido map.
What perhaps is more important here is that Brotton missed this. I say this without criticism: a work as broad and ambitious as his is bound to, occasionally, miss a trick. And although some choice Googling would have yielded the results that might have helped explain the presence of an African lake in the Kangnido map, the whole thing reminded me – if you’ll forgive the slightly tenuous leap of imagination – of the current debate over open access (though I’m not, of course, suggesting that Brotton could or should have time-travelled forward to 2013 to watch Africa and thus find out about Africa’s ancient(ish) past…). If our research is open and discoverable we are more likely to find each other’s work, benefit from each other’s work, learn from each other’s work. In the UK – and certainly in UK Humanities – the debate is currently getting bogged down over Article Processing Charges, imposed on us by the wholly unsatisfactory Finch Report. Whatever good Finch was supposed to do – apart from satisfying publishers – it has had the effect of derailing the debate over how we should implement open access, and turned some colleagues – regrettably – towards a position which opposes the principle of open access. Given how we – by we, I mean here almost everyone – find knowledge today, publishing undiscoverable (read unGoogleable) research seems to me preposterous. By making our research discoverable online, scholars talk to each other using the most effective technology at their disposal. What was once the role of the printing press has been usurped, I implore you all to head over to the Open Library of Humanities to catch a glimpse of what scholarship could look like in the future.