Olivier P. Gosselain
Technical processes—or chaînes opératoires—are heterogeneous cultural aggregates articulating raw materials, tools, knowledge, representations, and agents. The nature and arrangement of these elements stem from a web of social, historical, and ecological relations that not only delineate a sociohistorical framework within which artisans operate, but also determine how individuals shape and give meaning to their daily engagement in the craft. Pottery chaînes opératoires have been the focus of a large body of ethnographical studies in Africa since the beginning of the 20th century, most of them developing within the subfield of ethnoarchaeology. Yet pottery chaînes opératoires may also provide crucial information to historians when analyzed through an approach inspired from historical linguistics and tentatively called “comparative technology.” Pioneered by Haudricourt, this approach combines two levels of comparison. The first consists in a minute comparison of different chaînes opératoires within a given field of activity and geographical area in order to identify similarities and differences in tools, materials, gestures, and the organization of operations. This allows for the identification of specific “technical traditions”; that is, shared ways of doing that stem from a shared set of knowledge. The second level of comparison implies a mapping of the technical traditions (be it whole chaînes opératoires or particular stages or components), with the aim of identifying and characterizing their respective spatial distributions: for example, the effects of aggregation or disintegration, possible boundaries, or interpenetrations.
The relevance of spatial distributions in history-oriented analyses of technical processes is twofold. First, spatial distributions compel us to explore the sociohistorical processes from which they resulted; that is, the set of relations—social, economic, political, and ecological—that determine how artisans interact with each other, share knowledge, use tools and materials, cope with changing situations, or seize new opportunities. Second, spatial distributions may reveal strong and time-enduring connections with various kinds of social identities (e.g., languages, political factionalism, regional affiliation, gender, and ethnicity). When the underlying mechanisms of such connections are appropriately understood, they may be used to formulate hypotheses about past processes, including population movements, the development and evolution of political boundaries, identity negotiations, or socio-economical transformations. Here, chaînes opératoires may prove especially reliable for historians since they are less easily and deliberately manipulated than written or oral documents
Since their inception, precolonial mining and metallurgy gradually became essential social, technological, and even politico-economic pillars of African communities of varying time periods. However, the onset of metallurgy and mining and the associated technology and sociocultural beliefs varied from region to region in a way that defies generalization. Owing to their cultural and geographical location, Egypt, the Sudan, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa share some very broad similarities in their metallurgical histories. This in some cases sharply differs from that of many regions such as West, central, East and southern Africa. Interestingly, these regions too are characterized by technological similarity and diversity. When considered together, the multiple trajectories taken by metallurgy and mining in Africa’s different regions are essential for achieving a comparative understanding of the continent’s rich technological history. Achieving this, however, requires an interdisciplinary approach from documentation through data analysis to eventual interpretation. This contribution combines insights from various disciplines to present an overview of precolonial metallurgy and mining in Africa’s many regions.
While there are a handful of defined methods for working with primary historical sources in archaeology, few archaeologists take these as their main points of departure or rely upon them too rigidly. This is to do both with the highly variable nature of the historical and archaeological material available for certain African contexts, and also with how archaeologists conceive of the relationship between these two bodies of evidence: as antagonistic, supplementary, entangled and subjective, mutually creative, and so on. Some methodologies focus on the potentials for consonance and dissonance between written and material sources. Others utilize oral traditions to provide insights into chronology, memory, historical and political dynamics, and the material aspects of these. Still other approaches focus on how historical and archaeological sources offer complementary perspectives on the local and the global, events and processes, and other shifts in scale. While these methods are diverse and contingent, they are united insofar as archaeologists take their cues from objects and from preoccupations with time and space. Archaeologists see their work concerning primary historical sources not as filling in gaps in written records but as addressing the partialities of the records themselves by engaging with an array of complex questions about meaning, authority, and materiality
Rock art is an archaeological resource with the potential to reconstruct aspects of the ideologies of prehistoric societies. Research methods are distinguished here from theoretical, interpretive frameworks. The methods discussed here concern the documentation of rock art, methods of working with the temporal dimensions of rock art (such as developing relative chronologies and dating), and the characterization of pigments. Nonetheless, the choice of research methods depends on an explicitly formulated, theoretically informed research question. Research aims will also determine the scope and scale of the documentation and chronological methods employed.
Fieldwork is a major and initial component of documentation and may involve surveying for rock-art sites. Researchers should experience rock art first hand. Digital mapping and imaging techniques are used routinely, but field tracings continue to be an important means of recording and interpreting the art. Computational photography includes enhancement software such as DStretch and other techniques that enable researchers to see details that would otherwise be invisible.
Temporality is a fundamental attribute of rock art, and the biggest challenge in this regard is to relate the chronological sequences on the rock face to other archaeological and environmental data and thus contextualize the rock art. Relative chronologies provide information about the order of image-making episodes at a site or in a particular region. Age determinations may be arrived at using correlative methods in which the art is dated by means of independently available age ranges. Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating is commonly used to date organic paint samples. Engravings are difficult to date; age ranges obtained from cation-ratio (CR) and varnish microlamination (VML) are regarded as approximations. Pigment analysis is used to characterize the inorganic components of paint and to detect the presence of organic components. Research methods are multidisciplinary and thus require a coordinated, unified approach in order to achieve the research aims.
Vincent J. Hare and Emma Loftus
The African archaeological record is particularly remarkable in that it covers timescales relevant to all human history and prehistory. Different dating techniques are therefore fundamental to constructing reliable chronologies for the continent. The principal factors that determine the usefulness of a dating technique are (1) applicability to the material in question, (2) the expected precision of the technique, and (3) the age range over which it is expected to be useful. Radiocarbon is applicable to the past fifty thousand years of human history, encompassing the Later Stone Age, Iron Age, and historical periods, and is a highly-refined method applicable to organic materials such as bones, plant matter, charcoal, teeth, and sometimes eggshell. However, African archaeological contexts often present challenges to the preservation of material, and it is important to establish the context of the material under investigation. Materials of preference for radiocarbon dating, such as plant cellulose, are thought to be resistant to alteration during burial (diagenesis). The age ranges of luminescence and uranium-series dating stretch well into the African Middle Stone Age. Luminescence dating is applied to sediments and burnt objects, and uranium-series (U-series) dating is applied to geological materials such as carbonates and stalagmites. In some special cases, U-series dating can also be applied to fossil bones, teeth, and eggshell. For all dating methods the importance of context cannot be overstated. Other techniques, such as archaeomagnetic dating and rehydroxylation (RHX) dating, should be applicable over the historical period, but these new methods are under development. Dating methods are an active area of interdisciplinary research, continuously refined and developed, and collaboration between African archaeologists, geologists, and dating specialists is important to establish accurate regional chronologies.
In the early 21st century, understanding West Africa’s Stone Age past has increasingly transcended its colonial legacy to become central to research on human origins. Part of this process has included shedding the methodologies and nomenclatures of narrative approaches to focus on more quantified, scientific descriptions of artifact variability and context. Together with a growing number of chronometric age estimates and environmental information, understanding the West African Stone Age is contributing evolutionary and demographic insights relevant to the entire continent.
Undated Acheulean artifacts are abundant across the region, attesting to the presence of archaic Homo. The emerging chronometric record of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) indicates that core and flake technologies have been present in West Africa since at least the Middle Pleistocene (~780–126 thousand years ago or ka) and that they persisted until the Terminal Pleistocene/Holocene boundary (~12ka)—the youngest examples of such technology anywhere in Africa. Although the presence of MSA populations in forests remains an open question, technological differences may correlate with various ecological zones. Later Stone Age (LSA) populations evidence significant technological diversification, including both microlithic and macrolithic traditions. The limited biological evidence also demonstrates that at least some of these populations manifested a unique mixture of modern and archaic morphological features, drawing West Africa into debates about possible admixture events between late-surviving archaic populations and Homo sapiens. As in other regions of Africa, it is possible that population movements throughout the Stone Age were influenced by ecological bridges and barriers. West Africa evidences a number of refugia and ecological bottlenecks that may have played such a role in human prehistory in the region. By the end of the Stone Age, West African groups became increasingly sedentary, engaging in the construction of durable monuments and intensifying wild food exploitation.
From at least 3.4 million years ago to historic periods, humans and their ancestors used stone as the raw material for tool production. Archeologists find stone tools on all the planet’s habitable landmasses, even in its cold and ecologically sparse Arctic regions. Their ubiquity and durability inform archeologists about important dimensions of human behavioral variability. Stone tools’ durability also gives them the ability to contribute to the study of long-term historical processes and the deeper regularities and continuities underlying processes of change. Over the last two millennia as ceramics, livestock, European goods, and eventually Europeans themselves arrived in southern Africa, stone tools remained. As social, environmental, economic, and organizational upheavals buffeted African hunter-gatherers, they used stone tools to persist in often marginal landscapes. Indigenous Africans’ persistence in the environment of their evolutionary origins is due in large part to these “small things forgotten.” Stone tools and their broader contexts of use provide one important piece of information to address some of archaeology and history’s “big issues,” such as resilience in small-scale societies, questions of human mobility and migrations, and the interactions of humans with their environments. Yet, stone tools differ in important ways from the technologies historians are likely to be familiar with, such as ceramics and metallurgy, in being reductive. While ceramics are made by adding and manipulating clay-like substances, stone tools are made by removing material through the actions of grinding, pecking, or fracture. Metals sit somewhere in between ceramics and stone: they can be made through the reduction of ores, but they can also be made through additive processes when one includes recycling of old metals. Stone-tool technologies can also be more easily and independently reinvented than these other technologies. These distinctions, along with the details of stone tool production and use, hold significance for historians wishing to investigate the role of technology in social organization, economy, consumption, contact, and cultural change.
Political complexity in archaeological research has traditionally been defined as socio-political differentiation (roles, statuses, offices) integrated through centralized systems of power and authority. In recent decades the assumption that complex organizational forms tend to be hierarchical in structure has been called into question, based upon both archaeological research and ethnological observations worldwide, including in classic archaeological case studies of centralization. Moreover, there has been an increasing interest in exploring variability in political legitimizations and articulations of power and authority globally. Until these theoretical shifts, West African complex societies, both archaeological and from ethnographic analyses, were largely ignored in discussions of political complexity since many (but not all) conformed poorly to the expectations of highly centralized power and administration. West African ethnohistoric and archaeological examples are now playing important roles in current discussions of heterarchical organizational structures, checks on exclusionary power, cooperation, urbanism, ethnicity, and the nature of administration in states.