Analogical arguments are central to and pervasive within archaeological discourse. Within these arguments, ethnographic analogies are often seen as being particularly problematic exercises in essentialism, which unthinkingly cast reified ethnographic schema back in time and thus perpetuate ideas about primitive indigenes, awaiting colonial contact to emerge from ahistorical primordial obscurity. The shadow of 19th-century social evolutionism, in which forager communities (not participating in agriculture and leading nomadic lifestyles) were represented as particularly primitive, has cast a pall of suspicion over ethnographic analogical models—especially as forager communities continue to feature prominently in such models to this day.
Archaeologists use ethnographic analogies in a variety of ways; these analogies are heuristic constructs tailored to research questions and to the stubbornness of particular suites of archaeological data. Such uses include inducing imaginative and revelatory modes of thinking about past societies, outside of the archaeologist’s usual experiences, as well as a suite of formal and relational analogies that seek to combine ethnographic data with data drawn from the physical sciences to help constrain archaeological interpretation.
Direct historical approaches utilize a collection of ethnographic and historical sources to construct analogies based on a relation of similarity between the communities of people involved; these frameworks, perhaps, carry the greatest danger of unwittingly casting modern populations as “contemporary primitives.” By emphasizing that source-side ethnographic datasets are heuristic tools rather than reflections of some sociocultural reality, such fears may (at least in part) be ameliorated. Saliently, archaeological data must operate as epistemologically equivalent to ethnographic data in order to resist the tendency to cast back a rich, textured ethnographic case study wholesale into the murky waters of prehistory. Only when this status is afforded archaeological data can is it possible to reveal the ways in which past conditions diverged from ethnographic ones.
Bogumil Jewsiewicki and Allen F. Roberts
To incorporate sub-Saharan senses of artistic production and practice into scholarly reconstruction of African pasts, distance must be sought from deeply embedded positivist notions of Art, History, and Art History. As Rowland Abiodun exhorts, the “African” must be returned to “African art.” Following African ways of knowing, how do works of art from earlier as well as contemporary times make pasts present to help people cope with current circumstances as inspired by ancestral wisdom? Cases from urban Senegal and the Democratic Republic of the Congo demonstrate the dynamism of such social processes.
The study of loanwords, and of language contact more generally, is a useful tool in tracing encounters and exchanges between different communities in the past. Loanwords often come in sets related to specific semantic fields, illustrating the nature of exchanged goods and ideas, as well as the nature of contacts between those communities, for instance, economic exchanges or political dominance. Examples include the adoption of new crops and subsistence techniques, in both ancient and recent periods, and the strong Arabic influence in multiple domains on the Swahili language. Loanwords are but one outcome of language contact. More intense contacts can lead to structural borrowing; to convergence between nonaffiliated languages, resulting in linguistic areas; and to language shift. The languages of so-called pygmy hunter-gatherers are a notorious example of people abandoning their own language in favor of a new one.
To identify loanwords and to distinguish them from inherited vocabulary, it is necessary to apply the comparative linguistic method. Irregular sound correspondences and morphological traits, and a continuous distribution across linguistic boundaries are indicative of borrowing. The possibility of semantic analysis and the presence of cognates in related languages may confirm the identity of the donor language. The identification of loanwords suffers from a few drawbacks, however. Some sounds have not changed for centuries or even millennia, preventing the distinction between loans and inherited words. Or loanwords may have become integrated in the phoneme inventory of the recipient language, giving the impression of regular sound correspondences. But even if loans can be recognized as such, the donor language cannot always be traced. Finally, it must be said that the study of loanwords attains the best results when it is based on well-annotated data, with detailed semantic description and a list of regular sound correspondences and adequate classification at hand.
Rhonda M. Gonzales
Comparative historical linguistics is an approach comprising a set of methods that historians who have training in linguistics employ to reconstruct histories for periods of history for which written documentation is absent or scant. It is suggested that the use of comparative historical linguistics helped to push against the notion that people living in oral societies had to be deemed prehistorical, a category popularized in the 19th century, because it is premised that the rich history of the words comprising their languages hold troves of knowledge that historians can access and use to write narratives. Core steps of comparative historical linguistics are explained so that readers understand how researchers use modern-day spoken languages to work backward in time to reconstruct the histories of words that comprise the material items, ideas, and concepts that mattered to speakers of languages prior to the 21st century. The methods’ benefits are discussed, and their limitations highlighted.
The Maghrebi tradition of historical literary production extends back to the early centuries of Islamic expansion and conquest in North Africa and comprises a rich corpus including dynastic chronicles (tarikh), biographies (tarajim), and hagiographies (manaqib/rijjal), and, since the 20th century, positivist national histories as well. While this tradition had evolved since its inception, 19th- and 20th-century Maghrebi historical production both influenced and was influenced by the extension of European military, economic, and political power into the Maghreb. Grappling with the legacies of colonialism, nationalism, and pan-Arabism, among others, Maghrebi historians continue to sow the rich terrain of historical literary production in the postcolonial period by absorbing, reacting to, and building upon new trends in the historical profession.
There is no escaping the fact that the history of science took European places and people, broadly construed, as its original object of study. There is also no escaping that in African history, scholars interested in science, technology, and to a lesser extent environmental knowledge have concentrated the bulk of their investigative energies on developments since European (and North African) conquest. This focus on the period since the 1870s has tended to foreground dynamics relating to colonial rule and state-building, extractive economies and development, and decolonization and geopolitics. A handful of Africanists in the history of science have explicitly worked to cross the colonial divide, often taking single topics deeper back in time. The field as a whole, however, still needs to debate more systematically what the overarching narratives and benchmark phenomena should be for the precolonial periods. It also needs to grapple more explicitly with methodological tensions that arise from a focus on human agency and specific places (and the languages this requires) versus a focus on ideas, tools, and phenomena that transcend local or state containers (and the trade-offs this produces). As historians of science extend their reach into Africa’s pasts and bridge the colonial and post-colonial divides, it raises thorny questions about different approaches. Among others this includes how we produce histories of science, why they matter, and what we ought to bear in mind as we do. To this end, four goals are advanced here simultaneously: First, is the aim to open a dialogue with historians of science working outside Africa about ways Africanist scholarship speaks to and could be incorporated into the field as a whole (encouraging non-Africanists to consider the blind spots of “global” histories). Second, is the objective to draw attention to the pitfalls and benefits of different research methods and theoretical assumptions, especially as they relate to expert knowledge (an analysis that may be most useful for students entering the field). Third, is the ambition to explore a set of topics that connect deeper time periods to more recent developments (topics that invite critical scrutiny from specialists and generalists alike). Finally, is the desire to foreground the many different ways people across sub-Saharan Africa have initiated, responded to, and been incorporated into the production of knowledge. Africa has been a site of rich and varied epistemological and material experiments for millennia—some deleterious, some beneficial, and all imbued with different kinds of power. Acknowledging this long-standing history can serve to correct stereotypes that suggest otherwise. It can also contribute to debates within the history of science as the field continues to move away from its original focus on Europe and Europeans.
Jonathon L. Earle
Intellectual historians of Africa are principally concerned with how Africans have understood and contested the contexts that they inhabited in the past, and how ideas and vernacular discourses change over time. As a particular approach in historical methodology it is closely associated with cultural history, and its evolution followed the emergence of political history writing during the 1960s and social history during the 1980s. The first innovative works in African intellectual history were concerned with pan-Africanism and Négritude. These studies were followed by histories of religious ideas and social dissent. Historians have since offered varying descriptions of Africa’s “intellectuals.” For some, Africa’s colonial intellectuals were mostly missionary-educated literati, while others emphasize Africa’s rural intellectual histories and the importance of studying “homespun,” or vernacular historiographies. African epistemologies and knowledge production have also remained a central concern in the study of African intellectual history. To illuminate Africa’s intellectual registers, historians interrogate different topics, regions, and temporalities. Historians of precolonial Africa use historical linguistics to understand the intersection of ideas about public healing and social organization. Scholars of the colonial period challenge many of the earlier assumptions held by colonial researchers and policy makers, who had cast African communities as primordial, conquered peoples. Intellectual historians, by contrast, explore the constantly changing arenas of ideational disputation and political contestation within African societies. Intellectual historians of gender have shown how ideas about production, masculinity, and femininity have informed competing nodes of authority. By the early 21st century, global intellectual historians began demonstrating how Africans reworked European political ideas into local vernacular debates about the past, and how Africans have shaped the making of the modern world. To write Africa’s intellectuals histories, scholars draw from a range of sources, which are often maintained in institutional archives, public libraries, and private homes. These sources—textual, oral, and material—include letters, diaries, annotated libraries, vernacular newspapers, grammars, novels, oral histories, linguistic etymologies, sculptures, clothing, paintings, photography, film, and music.
Paul Lane and Anna Shoemaker
Agricultural practices on the African continent are exceptionally diverse and have deep histories spanning at least eight millennia. Over time, farmers and herders have independently domesticated different food crops and a more limited range of animals, and have effectively modified numerous ecological niches to better suit their needs. They have also adopted “exotic” species from other parts of the globe, nurturing these to produce new cross-breeds and varieties better adapted to African conditions. Evidence for the origins of these different approaches to food production and their subsequent entanglement is attested by diverse sources. These include archaeological remains, bio- and geo-archaeological signatures, genetic data, historical linguistics, and processes of landscape domestication.
Archaeology’s focus on material culture provides it with unparalleled opportunities to investigate the entire span of the human past. For periods for which historical records (verbal as well as textual) exist, this includes its ability to deliver insights into the lives of individuals and communities only partially represented, if at all, in those records. Its remit ranges from individual sites requiring excavation to surface scatters of artifacts, from upstanding monuments to entire landscapes. Interpreting archaeological observations depends upon establishing that they are in valid association with each other and can be accurately dated. In both cases the principles of stratigraphic superimposition, association, and context are key concerns. While analogies derived from ethnographic data sustain many archaeological interpretations, individual finds and assemblages of finds are also investigated using a wide range of scientific and other techniques.
Amidu Olalekan Sanni
Of central interest here are the historical sources on Islam and Africa, the role and contributions of manuscripts to the narrative, and how the new cyber world has become a domain for those sources as instruments for the generation and utilization of knowledge. Africa came in contact with Islam right from the birth of the faith in the 7th century. Although Judeo-Christian, Late-Antique, and pre-Islamic materials provided the earliest historical sources on Islam and its people, the Qur’an, hadith (statements of the Prophet Muhammad), and the sira/maghāzī (biography/expeditions) were the first original sources on Islamic history on which later writings, including those from Africa, drew.
The manuscript tradition in Islam is as old as the faith itself; it was one of the earliest material sources on Islamic sciences, and in the case of Africa, it provided a treasure trove of materials. At the beginning of the 21st century, the approach to scholarship and utilization of manuscripts changed radically, as digitization, creation of online databases, interconnected portals and links to universal portals, catalogs of manuscripts and published materials, among other innovations, redefined the ways knowledge of Islamic history is generated, accessed, and utilized.
David M. Gordon
In his influential book, Kingdoms of the Savanna (1966), Jan Vansina described the rise of the kingdoms of the south-central African interior from the 15th century. These include the Luba (the mulopwe titleholders), Lunda (the nuclear Lunda, also termed Rund, of the mwant yav titleholders), Lunda-Ndembu, Chokwe, Pende, Luvale, Luluwa, Kanyok, Luba-Kasai, Kuba, Eastern Lunda, Yeke, and the Bemba. New analyses of oral traditions as well as the study of art, archaeology, ethnographic fieldwork, linguistics, and documentary sources haverevised understandings of these polities and added details. Historians have considered the context of the production of primary sources, in particular art and oral traditions, which were created during a transformative 19th century, when trade and violence contributed to the centralization of power for some polities and the disintegration of others. With subjects questioning the power of sovereigns, art, oral traditions, and oral praises projected royal genealogies and the qualities of kingship into a vague antiquity. The study of historical linguistics has also provided inroads into understanding the dissemination of political institutions and titles along with tentative accounts of their historical depth. Ethnographic fieldwork has further elaborated on the functioning of political systems and religious ideas. These diverse primary sources complicate the historiography of central African kingdoms; they also indicate the spread of alternative political and religious affiliations during the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular Luba fertility associations and Lunda fictive kin alliances.
Increasingly, the study of law in colonial Africa has moved out of the domain of legal scholarship per se, where it had its origins in the 1940s, and into that of social and cultural history; it has also shifted from a rules-based approach, primarily concerned with legal codes and judicial institutions, to one that focuses on process and explores the complex relationship between law and culture. As the field has expanded, it has divided into sub-branches. Some remain within the scope of legal history, defined as the study of how legal codes and judicial procedures have developed and changed and of the issues of principle that arose; others are more concerned with the social impact of law, how the establishment of colonial legal regimes, including customary law and the courts where cases could be heard, presented new dilemmas and opportunities and altered the distribution of power in African communities. Beyond this, historians have also used legal records, especially court records, as social documents without being directly concerned with their particular legal and judicial contexts. Once their limitations and the difficulties of interpretation that they present have been understood, such records offer potentially rich insights into family and household affairs as well as into more obviously civil or criminal matters.
Over the last couple of centuries, there has been a profound shift in the things which Africans have around them, or in other words their material culture. At differing speeds and to different extents, depending on the part of the continent and the political and religious positioning of the people concerned, the goods of the globalized world have penetrated to the farthest reaches of Africa. Belongings, and thus identities, have taken on new forms. This, however, is not a completely new phenomenon, as Africans have been absorbing things from outsiders to the continent for as long as there have been humans outside Africa. Understanding these shifts, and analyzing the causes and consequences thereof, requires the study of a wide variety of types of sources, many of which are dealt with by historians of Africa with a rare degree of sophistication, so that the fascinating stories of material change can be fully examined.
Sharon E. Nicholson
Environmental constraints have large impacts on populations, especially in semi-arid regions such as Africa. Climate and weather have long affected African societies, but unfortunately the traditional climatic record for the continent is relatively short. For that reason, historical information has often been used to reconstruct climate of the past. Sources of historical information include reports and diaries of explorers, settlers, and missionaries; government records; reports of scientific expeditions; and historical geographical and meteorological journals. Local oral tradition is also useful. It is reported in the form of historical chronicles compiled centuries later. References to famine and drought, economic conditions, floods, agriculture, weather events, and the season cycle are examples of useful types of information. Some of the records also include meteorological measurements. More recently chemical and biological information, generally derived from lake cores, has been applied to historical climate reconstruction. Early works provided in most cases qualitative, discontinuous information, such as drought chronologies. However, a statistical method of climate reconstruction applied to a vast collection of historical information and meteorological data allowed for the creation of a two-century, semi-quantitative “precipitation” data set. It consists of annual indices related to rainfall since 1800 for ninety regions of the African continent. This data set has served to illustrate several 19th-century periods of anomalous rainfall conditions that affected nearly the entire continent. An example is widespread aridity during several decades early in that century.
Increasingly, methods not traditionally used by historians are becoming available for the study of African historical geography, landscapes, and environmental change. Starting with an outline of the main determinants of vegetation formations across African landscapes, the article goes on to look at a selection of macro, micro, and modeling methods. Remote sensing allows analysis of land cover change over the past few decades but also shows enduring features useful in interpreting sources describing these landscapes at times long past. Google Earth–type software makes it possible to take a virtual walk through landscapes with key informants in the present day, exploring how the land was used and has changed. Geographical information systems make it possible to collate different spatially explicit types of information, including qualitative data, for quantitative and statistical analysis. At the other end of the scale, pollen, diatoms, foraminifera, and other micro-particles (spicules, phytoliths, cuticles, micro-charcoal) from lake or oceanic sediment cores, and the chemical and isotopic composition of organic remains, all convey information about the environmental context of a site and its surroundings. Carbon isotope or thermoluminescence dating techniques can pinpoint the changes they indicate across potentially very long time spans. Genetic, protein, and other molecular materials may allow precise lineages and migrations to be traced back across very long periods and distances. Finally, modeling makes it possible to use sparse historical and more robust recent data to predict possible pasts in exploratory but evidence-based ways. The disequilibrium debate in drylands illustrates how environmental narratives, strategically used, silence place-based knowledge in ways that science, seeing itself as apolitical, is not well placed to detect.
Migration has been a central factor in African history. It is likely that the human species started spreading on the planet within and outside of Africa between 2 and 2.5 million years ago. Although the earliest stages of human migrations are the subject of intense debate, most hypotheses concentrate on movements that occurred in the African continent. In historical times, African migrations can be divided into two broad sub-fields looking at, respectively: people moving because they were forced to and people choosing to move on their own free will. Africa has been the source of the largest forced migrations in history. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest long-distance forced migration of people, even though it happened over a shorter period than the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades. Within Africa, trade across complementary ecological zones and the seasonality of production propelled free migrations of traders and workers involved in long distance trade. Following the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, free labor migrations rose in importance. European colonialism introduced the need for cash that was often only accessible in cities and areas of cash crop production. It was also responsible for the introduction of new forms of forced labor required for the building and maintenance of colonial infrastructure. The rise of development as a rationale for the government of African societies influenced migrations in multiple ways through national and international policies aimed at channeling people’s mobility. In the last two centuries, African migrants have been unfolding projects of self-development by traveling to places where they hoped to find better opportunities. Yet contemporary trafficking and displacements caused by wars, intolerance, and natural catastrophes attest to the continuing relevance of violence as a key aspect of the experience of African migrants.
The use of numerical data and statistical sources in African history has expanded in recent decades, facilitated by technological advances and the digitization of primary sources. This expansion has included new analysis of traditional measures (population, government, and trade) as well as new sources of individual-level data such as census returns, marriage registers, and military and police records. Overall, this work has allowed for a more comprehensive quantitative picture of Africa’s history, and in particular facilitated comparisons within Africa and between African countries and other parts of the world. However, there remain misunderstandings about the collection, use, and interpretation of these data. Increasingly sophisticated methods of quantitative analysis can alienate scholars who have an intimate knowledge of the data and how they are produced, but lack specialist methodological training. At the same time, limited understanding of the origins and reliability of quantitative data can lead to misinterpretation.
Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and independent scholars have used oral history and life history, two slightly different but complementary methods, in order to help researchers develop a deeper understanding of the past in Africa. While both methods are best employed when analyzing late-19th-, 20th-, and early-21st-century history, these methods have also been used in histories of slavery and with survivors of trauma, displacement, and marginalization. Oral history is quite effective in gathering the histories of nonliterate populations, or people who are considered marginal to the larger society. While the study of oral history and life history has been powerfully fruitful in Africa, researchers must take care to consider both the benefits and limitations of these approaches. Is an oral history account the ultimate example of an unmediated African voice or do both individual and group memories reflect the selective memory that occurs as a result of the power dynamics evident in any society?
The use of oral tradition is a distinctive and essential element in many fields of African studies. History must acknowledge it; literature sees it as the medium for much of the indigenous creative endeavor across African cultures; anthropology and its cousin disciplines rely upon oral information for their understanding of traditional societies. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition as a source across disciplines involves two efforts: first, a survey of the reported oral tradition as available and documented in past periods, and second, a review of the principles and practices involved in the collection, analysis, and presentation of the oral tradition.
The paucity of written records has been grounds for dismissal of the notion of African history—most notoriously in the case of Hegel, who in ignorance wrote off the home of the human species—and more recently a cause of pride among African intellectuals who have asserted the value of the oral tradition in the face of skepticism rooted in prejudice and too often in overt racism. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition threads its path between extremes and occasional controversy. The era of the smartphone has made the documentation (and creation) of oral tradition almost too easy. Past generations made do in different ways. Their reports should not be dismissed, but studied; they are the available background to information collected in the modern era. Accurate collection and critical analysis are the essential tools for the understanding of oral tradition.
David K. Wright
Understanding paleoclimates has been an important component of archaeological research for over a century. Human settlement, mobility, and subsistence activities are predicated on interactions with the natural world, and by reconstructing the broader environmental context, archaeologists can recognize the primary external catalyst of cultural change. Modern paleoenvironmental reconstruction methods employ techniques developed over the last century as well as those that are at the frontiers of scientific inquiry. Archaeologists intent on providing basic environmental context must first describe the sedimentology of surficial deposits in order to understand landform evolution. Furthermore, descriptions of soils, which form in stable, weathered sedimentary deposits, are critical indicators of past climate. Soils are first described in excavation test units using macro-scale classification schemes, but increasingly microscopic techniques such as soil micromorphology in thin sections and DNA sequences of endemic microbiota are being used. Various types of plant and animal communities hosted in archaeological deposits also provide critical environmental details as they are often temperature and precipitation dependent. Generally speaking, the simpler and smaller the organism is, the more restricted its habitat tends to be. Therefore, microfauna and floral remains often provide the greatest level of precision in environmental reconstruction. Finally, light stable isotopes of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen can be assayed from a wide variety of organic matter, and they provide specific information about biotic communities and precipitation that are useful to understand paleoenvironments. The simultaneous integration of multiple lines of evidence is being performed in archaeological research projects across the African continent and provides the best means to fully comprehend the framework in which human biological and cultural evolution occurred.