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Promoted by necessity, scarcity, and/or abundance, trade is one of the most essential cultural behaviors that promoted contact and exchange of ideas, commodities, and services between individuals and communities and variously transformed African societies of different regions and time periods. Anthropological, historical (including historical linguistics), and archaeological evidence points to the existence, on the one hand, of intra-African trade and, on the other, of external trade between Africa and those outside the continent. Traditionally, however, trade and exchange involving perishable and organic commodities such as grain and cattle have until now been very difficult to identify due to a lack of well-resolved documentation techniques. By comparison, that some objects such as metal artifacts, glass beads, ceramics, and porcelain are pyrotechnological products, with a high survival rate that makes their trade and exchange easily visible archaeologically. Given the well-known regional differences across the continent, it is essential to combine multiple sources and techniques, in a multipronged way, to provide a dynamic picture of the mechanics of precolonial African trade and exchange of various time periods and geographies.
Writing Africa’s history before the 10th century almost always means relying on sources other than written documents, which increase in number especially from the 16th century onward. Archaeology (including the study of art objects), the comparative study of historically related languages, paleo-environmental studies, and oral traditions provide the bulk of information. Writing Africa’s early history ideally involves collaboration among experts in using each kind of source, an increasingly common practice. Despite the challenges of analysis and interpretation posed by this base of sources, early African history has a depth and breadth akin to the histories made from the written sources in archives. Even so, whereas written documents provide details about individuals and precise dates, the sources for writing early African histories more often provide detail about conceptualization, for example, of time, hospitality, and individualism and about larger, environmental contexts shaping those concepts and shaped by the actions of the people who held them. Translating such concepts and scales of action into accounts accessible to those—including many historians—not steeped in the methodological conventions underlying the analysis of each source is a major challenge facing historians of Africa’s earlier past.
In the first half of the 20th century, Sudan, which included the territories of present-day Sudan and South Sudan, was ruled by a dual colonial government known as the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899–1956). Britain was the senior partner in this administration, Egypt being itself politically and militarily subordinated to Britain between 1882 and 1956. During most of the colonial period, Sudan was ruled as two Sudans, as the British sought to separate the predominantly Islamic and Arabic-speaking North from the multireligious and multilingual South. Educational policy was no exception to this: until 1947, the British developed a government school system in the North while leaving educational matters in the hands of Christian missionaries in the South. In the North, the numerically dominant government school network coexisted with Egyptian schools, missionary schools, community schools, and Sudanese private schools. In the South, schools were established by the Anglican Church Missionary Society, the Roman Catholic Verona Fathers, and the American Presbyterian Mission. Whereas Arabic and English were the mediums of instruction in Northern schools, the linguistic situation was more complicated in the South, where local vernaculars, English and Romanized Arabic were used in missionary schools.
The last colonial decade (1947–1957) witnessed a triple process of educational expansion, unification, and nationalization. Mounting Anglo-Egyptian rivalries over the control of Sudan and the polarization of Sudanese nationalists into “pro-British” independentists and “pro-Egyptian” unionists led the British authorities in Khartoum to boost government education while giving up the policy of separate rule between North and South. In practice, educational unification of the two Sudanese regions meant the alignment of Southern curricula on Northern programs and the introduction of Arabic into Southern schools, first as a subject matter, then as a medium of instruction. Missionary and other private schools were nationalized one year after Sudan gained independence from Britain and Egypt (1956).
Egypt’s trade in the Ottoman period with the Sudanic kingdoms to its south waxed and waned according to political conditions at either end of its trade routes. During the 16th and 17th centuries, powerful kingdoms developed in the area of Sinnar (near modern-day Khartoum) and to the west in the area of Darfur. The trade route connecting western Sudan to Egypt, known as the Forty Days Road, was ancient, probably dating to the Pharaonic period, but it experienced a remarkable revival in the 17th century when the Keira sultans of Darfur consolidated their rule in western Sudan and engaged in trade with Egypt in order to obtain luxury goods. In the following two centuries, trade between Egypt, Sinnar, and Darfur flourished, the pattern being that Egyptian, Syrian, and European-made goods were exchanged primarily for Sudanic exports of slaves, ivory, ostrich feathers, and livestock. Sudanese merchants, known as jallaba, came to Egypt and Egyptians settled in the Sudan as a result of these developments. Asyut was the town in Upper Egypt chiefly benefiting from the revival of the caravan trade, but the primary trade destination was Cairo, whence most merchants went.
In 1820, the Egyptians invaded the Sudan and trade between the two countries fell under a different set of rules and regulations. Initially monopolized by the government, items in the trade began to be sold by individual traders, and after 1839, when the Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt, was forced to withdraw from lands his army had conquered in Arabia and the Levant, European free enterprise soon became a major economic force in the Nile Valley. For a brief period, between 1845 and 1860, Egyptian middlemen, working closely with jallaba, profited richly from the Sudan trade, the city of Asyut prospered, but eventually they fell victim to European economic domination.
By the early 1400s, diplomatic representatives and pilgrims from the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia had traveled to the Italian peninsula for political and religious reasons. In doing so, they inaugurated an era of Ethiopian–European relations that unfolded for more than 200 years: Ethiopians reached multiple locales across Latin Europe to forge political alliances, acquire technology, and pursue religious knowledge. They drew the attention of European observers, especially those with an interest in the overseas. Secular and religious personalities, but also average merchants, began their quests for the Ethiopian highlands, lured by the tales of their visitors who were believed with growing certainty to be subjects of the mythical Prester John, the imaginary Christian sovereign believed to rule the Indies. Their journeys enabled cultural exchanges, technological transfer, and the forging of one of the first Euro-African political alliances, that between the kingdoms of Ethiopia and Portugal.
In the 15th century, Ethiopian pilgrims flocked to Rome, and diplomatic representatives found hospitality in the Venetian Republic and at the Aragonese and papal courts. Concurrently with Ethiopian arrivals in Europe, European adventurers and representatives began reaching Ethiopia, eventually leading to the establishing of Portuguese–Ethiopian relations. The exchanges climaxed with a Portuguese military intervention to support the Ethiopian monarchy against the sultanate of Adal in 1541. In the decades following the conflict, Jesuit missionaries began operating in the country: after a difficult inception in the 1620s, the fathers experienced ephemeral successes, followed by a dramatic expulsion that ended early modern Ethiopian–European relations.
Environmental history highlights the dynamic interaction between the physical environment and human society, respectively framed as nature and culture. Attributing agency to the environment is perhaps the most distinguishing attribute of environmental history as an approach while human society’s struggle to overcome environmental challenges is a major focus of environmental historians. Generally, students of the African past have tended to emphasize that Africa and Africans were more dependent on nature (including climate, geography, natural resources, “natural” population dynamics, disease) than societies elsewhere, especially those in the modern West. Thus, colonial and postcolonial analysts ascribe Africa’s past as the cradle of the human species, its present lack of political and economic development, and its bleak future in an age of climate change not to any African (or human) genius but to the caprices of an undomesticated environment and interventions by outside actors that disturb an environment-people balance. Historians emphasized that political subjugation, agricultural development, and conservation increased African societies’ vulnerability (to malnutrition, drought, and indigenous and exotic diseases, for example) in the face of environmental change because it enclosed and alienated such key natural resources as land, woodlands, wildlife, and water. More recently, historians of Africa have highlighted a more dynamic and interactive relationship between society and environment in Africa beyond the analytical and nested dichotomies of Nature-Culture, Indigenous-Invasive, and Victim/Subaltern-Perpetrator/Ruler. The perspective opens space for considering how societies perceived and shaped their environments physically and mentally in conjunction with other ideas and forces, including a variety of human and non-human agents, further enriching the study of environmental history.
The history of Ethiopia during the 19th century involved three fundamental processes: (1) the Zämänä Mäsafənt (Era of Princes) and its coming to an end under Kassa Häylu, later Emperor Tewodros II; (2) the repeated attempts by Egypt and Italy to colonize Ethiopia, culminating in the Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896; and (3) Mənilək’s territorial expansion and conquest of what is now southern Ethiopia during the last quarter of the 19th century in campaigns known as agär maqnat. These three distinct, yet related, processes laid the foundations for the making of modern Ethiopia.
The end of the Zämänä Mäsafənt was a key factor in centralizing state power in the hands of the emperors of Ethiopia. It enabled consolidating the power of the regional lords under the emperor, which in turn played a critical role in confronting Egypt and Italy’s colonial intrusions in the late 19th century. Mənilək’s territorial conquests in the south further strengthened the state, garnering vast human and material resources that played a critical role in the Ethiopian victory at the Battle of Adwa. All three processes worked in tandem: the end of the Zämänä Mäsafənt created a strong centralized state; such a state succeeded in nipping in the bud the colonial invasions of Egypt and Italy; and the successes of the agär maqnat campaigns added to the overall strength of the country. It also laid the ground for the problems of the 20th century, chief among them being the “national question.”
The Red Terror was a period of intense political and inter-communal violence in revolutionary Ethiopia during the late 1970s. This violence erupted two years after the revolution of 1974 and was concentrated in the cities and towns of Ethiopia, particularly in Addis Ababa, Gondar, Asmara, and Dessie. In the struggle over the direction and ownership of the revolution, opposition groups of the radical left violently opposed a military regime that itself came to embrace and promulgate Marxist-Leninist language and policies, and that relied heavily on the use of armed force to stifle dissent. While much of the violence was carried out by security personnel, the delegation of the state’s means and instruments of violence to newly formed militias and to armed citizens was a defining feature of the Red Terror. The number of casualties and victims of the Red Terror remains heavily contested and is subject to divergent counting criteria and to definitions of the Terror’s scope in relation to other concurrent conflicts in the region, such as the Eritrean and Tigrayan civil wars; plausible figures suggest more than 50,000 deaths, in addition to many more who were subjected to torture, exile, personal losses, and other forms of violence. To this day, the Red Terror constitutes a period that is remembered in Ethiopia as much for the forms of its violence as for the extent of its harm. Its ramifications, from the support it triggered for the ethno-nationalist insurgencies that overthrew the military regime in 1991, to its role in the emergence of a sizeable Ethiopian diaspora, make the Red Terror an episode of defining and lasting significance in the modern history of Ethiopia.
Among today’s scholars there is a near consensus that precolonial African identities were relatively fluid, permeable, overlapping, and complex; that ethnic identities are socially constructed; and that a colonial order of delineated control encouraged Africans to rethink group identities and heightened a sense of socioeconomic and political competition along ethnic lines. There is also growing consensus that ethnic identities are nevertheless the subject of ongoing (re)negotiation and that, to find resonance, the politicization of ethnicity, while instrumental in motivation and opportunistic in character, must be rooted in linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic similarities and communal experiences of marginalization, neglect, injustice, and achievement. Many scholars also emphasize how the realities of ethnically delineated political support reflect pragmatism and expectations of patronage in the context of difficult and unequal socioeconomic contexts, as well as the significance of remembered pasts and associated narratives of justice and strategies of acquisition. Such realities and discursive repertoires provide a list of grievances that elites can use to foster a sense of difference and mobilize local support bases, but that also provide nonelites with a means to question and counter intra- and intercommunal differences and thus social and spatial inequalities. Ethnic support then strengthened by a reinforcing cycle of ethnic bias and expectations of greater levels of assistance from co-ethnics. According to such arguments, ethnic identification and political support are rational, but not for the simple reasons that classic primordial, instrumental or neo-patrimonial accounts suggest.
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.
Freda Nkirote M'Mbogori
The inception of agriculture in eastern Africa is a major topic of discussion among Africanist archaeologists, although very sparse evidence exists. Questions range from whether domestication was a local invention or whether it was introduced from the Near East, Asia, or elsewhere outside of Africa. These questions have remained unanswered because wild progenitors and models of the spread of African domesticates are yet to be established using undisputable data. The paucity of direct data has therefore necessitated the use of objects of material culture such as pottery, beads, burial cairns, architectural structures, and so on as indicators of pastoralism and cereal farming. In addition to the origins of African domesticates, research in eastern Africa has concerned itself with questions of farming technologies from later archaeological and historical times to the present. The remains of elaborate farming systems with extensive irrigation networks have drawn considerable attention. Though not unchanged, some of these farming systems remain in contemporary use in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.
Films and video dramas can become historical sources in different ways. One of them is the use of the filmic images as a source for learning about the physical environment, the layout and look of cities, buildings, rural landscapes, and other cultural elements. The documentation of urban spaces in movies made in the cities that were frequently used as filming locations, such as Dakar in Senegal or Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, furnish cases for extended treatment. Secondly, feature films can comment on the past as a kind of “history writing,” by offering explanation and perspective on past events, a means of doing what written history does in a different medium. The invention of fictional characters or dialogue and filmic strategies such as condensation do not invalidate the contribution that some movies make to the understanding of historical situations. In the case of African history, films by Ousmane Sembene, Med Hondo, and Raoul Peck are illustrations of how this has been achieved. Finally, movies also bear witness to the time of their production, because as creations of the intellect they reflect the interests, concerns, preoccupations, and possibilities of their time. Studies can focus not only on a movie in itself but also on viewers’ perception of it or on critics’ responses, either at the time of its first release or in subsequent viewings. In contrasting ways, Gaston Kaboré’s pre-colonial era films and Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s depiction of Yaounde working class neighborhoods offer exemplary material for this kind of study. Popular films and video dramas can in turn have an impact on their societies and be used deliberately by their makers to disseminate messages, entering in this way the chain of historical causality. In the 1990s the low budget video dramas first produced in Ghana and Nigeria in analogue recordings on VHS cassettes brought a challenge to the established African cinema that was recognized in the international film festival circuit, by combining amateurish production values and commercial success. This mass cultural phenomenon offers an opportunity to explore the economic and cultural roots of a particular style of visual storytelling, as well as the connections between popular audiences’ thematic preferences in entertainment and their everyday living conditions.
From the period of the “Scramble for Africa” in the 1880s to the era of decolonization that began in the 1950s, culture and media played essential roles in constructing images of the colonized subject as well as governing newly conquered empires. In the struggle for political independence, Africans used film, music, literature, journals, and newspapers to counter European ideas about African society as well as to provide the foundations for postcolonial national identities. With sovereignty largely realized across Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, the roles of culture and media were critical in forging the bonds of nationhood and solidifying the legitimacy of the new states. However, those official efforts increasingly clashed with the aspirations of cultural activists, who desired a more thorough transformation of their societies in order to transcend the colonial legacy and construct progressive communities. Media and culture became a forum for political conflict whereby governments increasingly restricted creativity and subsequently sought complete control of the means of cultural creation and diffusion. Both the aspirations of public officials and opposition activists suffered during a period of prolonged economic crisis in Africa, which began in the 1970s and stretched into the 1990s. The sinews of governance as well as the radical pretensions of culture workers were torn asunder as many parts of Africa suffered state collapse, civil war, famine, and epidemic diseases (including the HIV/AIDS and Ebola crises). The dawn of the new millennium coincided with the age of neoliberal globalization that, for many African countries, was synonymous with structural adjustment programs and oversight from such international lending institutions as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. This often required the privatization of media across Africa and included the greater prominence of non-African media sources on radio, television, and the cinema throughout the continent. It also was reflected in a shift among African culture workers, who frequently centered on the impact of globalization on African societies in their work. Filmmakers, musicians, and writers often use their platforms to speak to the wider world beyond Africa about the place of African societies in the globalized world.
Richard T. Chia and A. Catherine D'Andrea
Recent narratives on the origin of food production in the West African forest zone have replaced earlier diffusion-based models with viewpoints that emphasize the diversity of sources for plants and animals exploited and domesticated in the region. Management of indigenous tree species, including oil palm and incense tree, managed first by indigenous foragers, have the longest history in the area, dating back to over 8,400 before present (
Natural and human histories intersect in Africa’s forested regions. Forests of several types cover the continent’s mountains, savannas, and river basins. Most current classifications divide forest by physical structure. Open canopy forests occur in semi-arid regions of western, eastern, and southern Africa, while closed canopy rain forests with large emergent trees cover much of the Congo River basin, the upland forests of Rift Valley escarpments, and the volcanic mountains in eastern and Central Africa. Along the tropical coasts, mangrove forests hug the river estuaries. For much of human history, Africa’s forests have anchored foraging and agrarian societies. In the process of domesticating the landscape through agriculture, Africans modified forests in ways that ranged from large-scale deforestation to forest creation on savanna environments. A boom in forest commodities preceded European colonialism and then continued when foreign governments took formal possession of African territory in the late 19th century. In this context, states ascribed value to forest trees as commodities and so managed them as profitable agricultural crops. Colonial forestry separated people from forests physically and culturally. This fundamental shift in human–forest relations still resonates in postcolonial African countries under the guise of internationally funded forest conservation.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, massive numbers of African women, poor and rich, educated and uneducated, were deeply involved in resistance to European colonialism/imperialism and male domination at both the national and local levels of their nations. The 1890 rebellion led by Charwe in present-day Zimbabwe, the 1929 women’s rebellion in eastern Nigeria, the 1940s women’s marches in Senegal as part of the strike of African male railway workers so beautifully chronicled in Ousmane Sembene’s God’s Bits of Wood (1960), the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the revolution against the French in Algeria, and women’s roles as troop support and combatants against the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique and against apartheid in South Africa are among the many examples of women centered in African resistance to colonialism and African nation-building. In all of these struggles women did not isolate their struggles as women from their struggles as oppressed people.
Born Frances Olufunmilayo Olufela Abigail Folorunsho Thomas, but best known as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (and later Funmilayo Anikulapo -Kuti), is the best-known Nigerian woman anti-imperialist, pan-Africanist, and feminist. She struggled for the independence of Nigeria and the empowerment of Nigerian women to vote, be educated, and be included in the governance structures of their nation. She also identified herself as a human-rights activist who struggled on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised of all nations. She was among a small number of West African women (such as Adelaide Casely-Hayford, Constance Cummings-John, and Mabel Dove Danquah) who traveled widely internationally and who were active in international women’s organizations such as the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). At one point, when Amy Ashwood Garvey visited Nigeria, FRK wrote to ask about affiliating with Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Women’s Corps.
In addition to her travel to many countries on the African continent, FRK traveled to Eastern and Western Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. Though invited to participate in a conference in San Francisco in the 1950s, she never visited the United States because she was unable to secure a visa due to her travel during the Cold War to eastern bloc nations and China, for which she was accused of being a communist. She was never a member of the communist party, but she did embrace the socialist ideal that all people were entitled to their freedom, education, medical care, and housing, and her activism was firmly rooted in grassroots organizing.
She is best known for having led the struggle that deposed the Alake (king) of Abeokuta, for leading women in their struggles against taxation by the British colonial government without the vote or representation in government, and for her work with the nationalist party the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) and with the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT). She founded two women’s organizations within Nigeria, the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) and the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU-which was the basis for the formation of the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies), and a short-lived political party, the Commoners’ People’s Party (CPP). Internationally she worked with the WIDF (of which she was elected a vice president), the WILPF (that listed FRK as president of its Nigeria section), and the West African Students’ Union (WASU) of London. She authored articles on women in Nigeria in the WIDF journal, and one (“We Had Equality ’til Britain Came”) in the Daily Worker published in London.
During her lifetime as an activist, she received many honors: the Order of the Niger (1965—from the Nigerian government for her work on behalf of the nation); honorary doctorate from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria (1968); an appearance in the International Women’s Who’s Who (1969); and Lenin Peace Prize (1970).
On her death in 1978, FRK was hailed in headlines in major Nigerian newspapers as the “Voice of Women” and “The Defender of Women’s Rights.” She is also considered a pioneer in the articulation and practice of African feminism and an important figure in the rise of Nigerian radical political philosophy. Analyses of 20th-century African and transnational feminism will continue to be informed and complicated by her story.
Francesco Montinaro and Cristian Capelli
Southern Africa’s past is constellated by a series of demographic events tracing back to the dawn of our species, approximately 300,000 years ago. The intricate pattern of population movements over the millennia contributed to creating an exceptional level of diversity, which is reflected by the high degree of genomic variability of southern African groups. Although a complete characterization of the demographic history of the subcontinent is still lacking, several decades of extensive research have contributed to shed light on the main events.
Genetic and archaeological researches suggest that modern humans may have emerged as the result of admixture between different African groups, possibly including other Homo populations, challenging the common view of a unique origin of our species. Although details are still unknown, surveys suggest that long term resident populations (related to Khoe-San speakers) of the subcontinent may have emerged hundreds of thousand years ago, and have inhabited the area for at least five millennia.
Population movements, and the introduction of new cultural features, characterize the history of southern Africa over the last five millennia and have had a dramatic impact on subcontinental genetic variability. Traces of these migrations can be identified using different genetic systems, revealing a complex history of adaptation to new selective pressures and sex-biased admixture.
The historical events of the European colonization and the slave trade of the last millennium, and the emergence of new cultural groups, further increased the genomic variability of human populations in this region, one of the most genetically diverse in the world.
This article outlines historical and ongoing uses of the past and academic heritage research into those activities within eastern Africa. The use of the past will be discussed as a deep historical practice in the area that is the EAC in the 21st century, demonstrating how political elites have constructed versions of the past to suit contemporary and future aims for hundreds of years. Then there is an outline of the colonial introduction of formalized Western heritage institutions and legislation in the early 20th century, the subsequent nationalization of these in the mid-20th century, and the late-20th- and early-21st-century internationalization of heritage. These overviews are followed by a discussion of different approaches to heritage research including early studies of museums, traditions, heritage management, archaeological introspections, and more recent “critical heritage studies,” which interrogate the use of the past as a form of cultural production.
Many societies in pre-1800 Africa depended on orality both for communication and for record keeping. Historians of Africa, among other ways of dealing with this issue, treat languages as archives and apply what is sometimes called the “words and things” approach. Every language is an archive, in the sense that its words and their meanings have histories. The presence and use of particular words in the vocabulary of the language can often be traced back many centuries into the past. They are, in other words, historical artifacts. Their presence in the language in the past and their meanings in those earlier times tell us about the things that people knew, made use of, and talked about in past ages. They provide us complex insights into the world in which people of past societies lived and operated.
But in order to reconstruct word histories, historians first need to determine the relationships and evolution of the languages that possessed those words. The techniques of comparative historical linguistics and language classification allow one to establish a linguistic stratigraphy: to show how the periods can be established in which meaning changes in existing words or changes in the words used for particular meanings took place, to assess what these word histories reveal about changes in a society and its culture, and to identify whether internal innovation or encounters with other societies mediated such changes.
The comparative method on its own cannot establish absolute dates of language divergence. The method does allow scholars, however, to reconstruct the lexicons of material culture used at each earlier period in the language family tree. These data identify the particular cultural features to look for in the archaeology of people who spoke languages of the family in earlier times, and that evidence in turn enables scholars to propose datable archaeological correlations for the nodes of the family tree. A second approach to dating a language family tree has been a lexicostatistical technique, often called glottochronology, which seeks to estimate how long ago sister languages began to diverge out of their common ancestor language by using calculations based on the proportion of words in the most basic parts of the vocabulary that the languages still retain in common. Recent work in computational linguistic phylogenetics makes use of elements of lexicostatistics, and there have been efforts to automate the comparative method as well.
In order to compare languages historically, two important issues first have to be confronted, namely data acquisition and data analysis. Linguistic field collection of vocabularies from native speakers and linguistic archive work, especially with dictionaries, are principal means of data acquisition. The comparative historical linguistic approach and methods provide the tools for analyzing these linguistic data, both diachronically and synchronically.
Nearly all African languages have been classified into four language families, namely: Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, Afroasiatic, and Khoisan. The Malagasy language of Madagascar is an exception, in that it was brought west across the Indian Ocean to that island from the East Indies early in the first millennium