The Kingdom of Prester John, Christianity’s Imaginary Ally

Prester John as virtual as he was virtuous, the legend literally too good to be true.

In 1145, the Syrian bishop Hugo of Jabala brought Pope Eugene III the news of the Muslim reconquest of Edessa, an important Crusader stronghold in the Holy Land. The bishop softened the blow – and hoped to encourage the Pope to a new Crusade – with tales of a mighty Christian king attacking the Muslims from behind: Prester John, a descendant of one of the Three Magi and ruler of a Christian Empire beyond the Muslim-ruled lands in India, on the very edge of the world then known to Europe. According to Otto von Freising’s contemporary Chronicles, Hugo spoke of “a certain Prester John who lives in the Far East, beyond Persia and Armenia, King and Priest, Christian but Nestorian (1), having waged war against the Persian and Median dynasty of the Sarmiads, having chased them from their capital Ectabana.” This raised the possibility of a Christian pincer attack on the Muslim world.

Twenty years later, a letter addressed by Prester John to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus caused a great stirring of hope in all of Christendom. Pope Alexander III sent out an envoy to the Prester, but without result (the fate of the papal diplomat is unknown). The letter, however, remained a powerful tonic to a Europe feeling hemmed in by the Muslim ascendancy in the Middle East and Northern Africa. It was copied (and embellished) for many decades afterwards. The letter described a Christian empire with 72 tributary kingdoms, in an area of the world with a fantastic ecology inhabited, among others, by vampires and dog-headed people. The Fountain of Youth and a river flowing from Paradise itself and filled with precious stones helped complete a picture of thrilling exoticism. And of perfect piety, happiness and wealth: “All Christian values are respected to the letter. Theft, greed and lies are unknown. There is no poverty.”

But the letter was a forgery, Prester John as virtual as he was virtuous, the legend literally too good to be true. All Prester John ever was king of, was Wishful Thinking. Prester John’s fictional empire proved as movable as the imagination of beleaguered Christianity required. First inferred in India, the kingdom was later situated in Central Asia, and eventually assumed to be in Africa. The ease of these huge locational shifts was due not just to Europe’s dim perception of geography at the time, but also to the elasticity of the contemporary concept of ‘India’, which in its broadest interpretation could stretch all the way from Africa to China.

Whatever its location du jour, Prester John’s legend required his kingdom to be beyond Muslim lands, and in a little-known corner of the world. The last, longest and strongest association of the legend was with Abyssinia (2) – mainly because, apart from conforming to the legend’s geographical requirements, it also did happen to be a Christian empire. In his Mirabilia (1323), Jourdain de Séverac identified the Abyssinian Negus (i.e. Emperor and supreme leader of the Abyssinian monophysite church) with Prester John, spurring European expeditions to the African empire. In 1490, the Portuguese explorer Pêro da Covilhã managed to convey a letter from the king of Portugal to the Negus… even though the letter itself was addressed to Prester John. This must have surprised the Negus, but that did not stop Europeans from continuing to the conceit – even though the Ethiopians in their intermittent contacts with European Christendom tried to clarify that their Emperor certainly wasn’t anyone’s “Prester”. Only in the 17th century did Europeans realise their mistake, and Prester John finally faded from maps, and from memory. Prester John might never have been real, but his influence can be felt clearly; in the push of European exploration around Africa towards India and Ethiopia, and in cultural references ranging from William Shakespeare and Umberto Eco to Marvel Comics (3).

This map, dating from the 1570s, still takes Europe’s devout wishes for geopolitical truth. It was produced in Antwerp by Ortelius, entitled A Description of The Empire of Prester John, Also Known as the Abyssinian Empire. It delineates Prester John’s empire as follows: its borders almost reach north to Aswan (noted on the map as Aßuan) on the Nile, then follow the Nile, Niger and Manicongo rivers south to the Mountains of the Moon (Lunae montes, hinc Austrum versus Africa veteribus incognita fuit: The Mountains of the Moon, ‘Africa south from here was unknown to the Ancients’). The kingdom extends from these western and southern borders all the way to Africa’s eastern shores.

Ortelius’ map mixes up familiar and imagined names and locations into an intriguing mess of real and imagined geography.

* In northern Africa are Barbaria (the Barbary Coast) and Egypt, on the western African coast are other place names that still sound familiar: Benin, Biafar (Biafra?), Rio de los Camarones (Cameroon), Manicongo (Congo), Angolia (Angola).

* The Mountains of the Moon in Central Africa were known to Greek geographers as early as Ptolemy (although he might have referred to the Kilimanjaro instead). On this map, they are situated far south of the Equator. Mozambique, named by Portuguese explorers in the late 15th century, possibly after a lokal sheikh called Moussa ibn Mbeki, is on the coast and appears north of the Mountains of the Moon.

* The interior is dominated by a few great lakes, probably a garbled reference to the actual Great Lakes. They are named Zaire lacus (or Zembre lacus), near which amazons live and in which sirens swim, and Zaflan lacus. Zaire, the name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1971 and 1997, is a Portuguese corruption of the Congolese word nzere, ‘the river that swallows all rivers’.

* In the interior of Prester John’s kingdom is a legend that appears to read: ‘Mount Amara, here the sons of Prester John are held in captivity by [a] governor’.

* On the Arabian peninsula, two cities are referenced: Mecha, patria Mahumetis (‘Mecca, the home of Muhammad’), and Medina Talnabi, ubi Mahumetis sepulcrum magna frequentia visitur (‘Medina Talnabi, where the tomb of Muhammad is visited with great frequency’). Two other cities, Aden and Zibir (possibly Sana’a) are located in (or to)the south of Aiman, quae olim Arabia Felix (‘Yemen, formerly Happy Arabia’).

This map was taken from this page at Princeton University Library. The page quotes Jonathan Swift, as “[t]his is certainly one of the maps that [he] had in mind when he wrote: So Geographers in Afric-maps With Savage-Pictures fill their Gaps; And o’er uninhabitable Downs Place Elephants for want of Towns – On Poetry: A Rhapsody (1733)

Strange Maps #434

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(1) a Christian heresy regarding Jesus as two persons, human and divine, that at one time spread deep into Central Asia.

(2) synonymous with the Ethiopian Empire, which existed from 1137 until well into the 20th century. After the coup d’etat in 1978 which deposed the country’s last emperor, it has generally only been referred to as Ethiopia.

(3) in Much Ado About Nothing, Baudolino and the Fantastic Four, respectively.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.