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.