Louis Champion and Dorian Q. Fuller
Archaeobotany’s goals are to investigate the interactions between human societies and the plant world in the past from the botanical remains preserved in archaeological sites, including the environment people exploited and the foods they extracted from it. Archaeobotanical research in Africa has tended to be less widely practiced than in many other parts of the world, and systematic archaeobotanical sampling is still only incorporated into a minority of archaeological field projects in Africa. Nevertheless, there is potential for archaeobotany to contribute to a holistic understanding of Africa’s past. The general scope of archaeobotany is outlined before focusing on how typical archaeobotanical remains relate to agriculture and food production. A short overview on the practical side of collecting archaeobotanical samples is provided. Archaeobotany’s two general themes are discussed: hunter-gatherer subsistence and the origins of agriculture.
Marie-Albane de Suremain
The colonial condition in Africa has been revisited by all of the main historiographic currents of thought, from a heroizing, highly political and military history of colonization primarily considered from the colonists’ standpoint, to a much more complex and rich history integrating the colonized perspective. This history has been enhanced by contributions from Postcolonial Studies and Subaltern Studies as well as from New Imperial History and perspectives opened by its global interconnected history.
At the intersection of these issues and methods, colonial studies offers an innovative reinterpretation of various facets of colonial Africa, such as the factors and justifications for colonial expansion; conquests and colonial wars; processes of territorial appropriation and border demarcation; and the organization and control of the colonies. In these fundamentally inegalitarian societies, accommodation and social and cultural hybridization processes were also at work, as well as multiple forms of resistance or subversion that paved the way for African states to win their independence. In addition to the role played by the First and Second World Wars, the emergence of nationalist and separatist movements helps to clarify the multifaceted nature of these independences, when approached from a political as well as a cultural and social perspective, while questioning the durability of the legacy of the colonial phase in African history.
Peter R. Schmidt and Kathryn Weedman Arthur
Several trends in the historical scholarship of Africa require recognition and remediation. The first is a quickly shrinking interest in African history of the past two millennia, with a shift in emphasis to early hominins and to the modern period. The precolonial history of Africa, once a subject of considerable excitement for historians, historical linguists, and archaeologists, is fading from interest. The high cost of interdisciplinary research is one reason, but a deeper, more alarming cause is the rapid erasure of oral traditions by globalization, disease, and demographic changes. Archaeologists and heritage experts are faced with a need to find innovative means to investigate and recover historical information. One proven path is partnerships with communities that want to initiate research to document, recuperate, and preserve their histories. Community approaches in other world regions have shown important research results. Adapting some of the philosophy and methods of other experiments as well as innovating their own approaches, archaeologists and heritage managers in Africa are increasingly involved in community projects that hold out significant hope that the quickly disappearing oral and material history of Africa can be preserved and studied into the future. Two case studies—one from the Haya people of Tanzania and the other from the Boreda Gamo of Ethiopia—illustrate that long-term and trusting partnerships with local groups lead to important historical observations and interpretations. Such collaborations also lead to thorough documentation and preservation of historical sites and information that otherwise would be lost to posterity. Moreover, they account for the ability of local groups to initiate and to conduct their own research while recognizing local control over heritage and history.
There are copious resources for the study of African history on the internet. They include manuscripts and documentary archives, maps, museum collections, newspapers, printed books, picture collections, and sound and moving images. The websites of European institutions provide a good proportion of this content, reflecting the long, entangled, and troubled histories that connect Europe and Africa, as well as new partnerships with African institutions.
This plethora of digital resources enables both specialized researchers and the public to access information about Africa more quickly and easily, and on a larger scale than ever before. Digitization comes with a strong democratic impulse, and the new technology has been instrumental in making libraries, archives, museums, and art galleries much more open. But all is not smooth sailing, and there are two particular aspects of which researchers should be aware.
The first is that there are still huge collections, or parts of collections, that have not been digitized, and that resources have been—on the whole—most focused on items with visual appeal. The twin brakes of cost and copyright restrain the process, and researchers need to understand how what they can get online relates to what still exists only in hard copy.
The second consideration is that digitized resources can be difficult to find. Information about the riches of the web in this area is very fragmented, and exclusive use of one search engine, however dominant, is clearly not enough. As a counter to this fragmentation, a listing of the major websites for African history in Europe is given in a handy guide for researchers, which covers these resources by format and by region of Africa. The listing also provides websites in two particular areas of interest to historians and to the public: the transatlantic slave trade, and the liberation struggles in southern Africa.
The goal of African history is not only to establish a chronology of events but also to recover the past from the local African perspective. The challenge is how to recover local ways of knowing and being in societies far different from the perspectives of both the contemporary scholar and the authors of many of the sources used to write history. For written documents, the question is how to extract meaningful data from sparse, biased, or unreliable texts. In a historical context, a documentary source is writing, whether ink or inscription, on material such as paper, papyrus, ceramic, stone, or any of the other surfaces upon which, in relation to Africa, Africans and travelers to Africa have chosen to write the continent’s history. While more and more written evidence from precolonial Africa is coming to light, the relative dearth of documents remains a major challenge for scholars seeking to investigate Africa’s past. This paucity also means that those sources available should be examined especially carefully with an eye to bias and to context. Such careful, grounded examination has not always been a strength of the field, which was initially divided between scholars who dismissed documentary sources (perceived as written by outsiders) as unreliable, and those who uncritically accepted them as eyewitness observation. Neither approach is helpful for historians seeking a nuanced understanding of Africa’s past. Used critically, written documents can provide a window into how human actors understood themselves, their history, specific events, and the world around them, which is difficult to discern in the absence of textual or visual representation. Scholars have developed to major strategies to utilize the unique strengths of documentary sources whilst minimizing their weaknesses. Firstly, historians pay close attention to local context, cultural bias, and pre-existing genealogies of knowledge about Africa and Africans evident in textual sources. Secondly, historians triangulate between different kinds of historical methods and sources such as archaeology, linguistics, ethnography, oral tradition, and even genetics and palynology.
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
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
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.
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.
Since antiquity and through the modern era African societies maintained contacts with peoples in Europe, the Near and Far East, and the Americas. Among other things, African peoples developed local forms of Christianity and Islam, contributed large amounts of gold to European medieval economies, and exported millions of slaves through the Sahara, and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Despite this, by the 19th century historians and philosophers of history thought Africa was a continent without major civilizations, whose peoples passively rested at the margins of history. These ideas persisted into the 20th century when historians undertook the challenge of writing histories that explained how communities around the world were connected to one another. In their early iterations, however, these “world narratives” were little more than histories of the Western world; Africa continued to be largely absent from these stories. After World War II, increasing interest in the history of African societies and a more generalized concern with the study of communities that were both mis- and under-represented by historical scholarship called for a revision of the goals and methods of world historians. Among the most important critiques were those from Afrocentric, African American, and Africanist scholars. Afrocentric writers argued that Africa had in fact developed an important civilization in the form of Egypt and that Egypt was the foundation of the classical world. African American and Africanist writers highlighted the contributions that peoples of African descent had made to the world economy and many cultures around the globe. Africanists also questioned whether world historical narratives, which meaningfully accounted for the richness and complexity of African experiences, could be achieved in the form of a single universal narrative. Instead, historians have suggested and produced new frameworks that could best explain the many ways in which Africa has been part of the world and its history.