For scholars of African history, anthropology offers a number of valuable and invigorating methodological avenues, from engaging directly in ethnographic fieldwork to analyzing anthropological data compiled by others. Given the asymmetries of written documents and the biases of archival material for Africa, anthropological methods and sources offer a different type of access to those who, for various reasons, tend not to appear in other forms of documentary record. The materials of past ethnographic research—texts and material objects, produced and collected by anthropologists and their assistants as well as by missionaries, government officials, travelers, and others—constitute one of the largest categories of written source material. However, the contexts in which such research was conducted can present certain challenges when using these materials as sources. For example, the complex entanglements between colonial governance and the making of anthropological knowledge make it imperative for historians to be aware of the discipline’s intellectual history and how its ways of seeing and ordering have shaped portrayals of Africa’s diverse cultures.
Methodologically, historians are also experimenting with field methods that draw heavily on ethnographic techniques. The emergence of historical ethnography has developed a rich, syncretic approach, in which communities’ own relationships with, and understandings of, the past are brought to the fore. Although ethnography is known for its immersive and long-term fieldwork, elements of the technique can also be incorporated into other historical methods. This is in part a matter of approach, rather than of different source material. For example, engaging ethnographically with archives can offer different insights into issues of governance and the production of knowledge.
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.
The Dakar School, as the historians of Cheikh Anta Diop University (the University of Dakar) were called, had a brief French antecedent in Yves Person, whose teachings communicated to students the importance of African oral sources. He himself worked primarily on such sources from the 19th century. The Dakar School was then taken over and given its name by the young Guinean historian Boubacar Barry, who had been based in Senegal since the 1960s. Research collaborations between Cheikh Anta Diop University and the University of Paris 7 (today known as Paris-Diderot) then became active through exchanges involving both instructors and doctoral students. The Senegalese department strengthened over time, thanks to well-established historians, a number of them being non Senegalese scholars expelled from their own country by dictatorial regimes such as Boubacar himself or others who taught several years in Dakar such as Sekene Mody Cissoko, a well known Malian historian, or Thierno Moctar Bah from Guinea. After Boubacar Barry, the department was headed successively between the years 1975 and 2000 by Mbaye Gueye, Mamadou Diouf, Mohamed Mbodj, Penda Mbow, Ibrahima Thioub, and Adrien Benga, among others. They and their colleagues understood how to maintain and reinforce the quality and cohesion of an original and diverse research department over the course of many years, one that was simultaneously independent of any political power and rather opponent to any authoritarian State and tolerant toward its colleagues. Among them, several scholars are currently enjoying late careers in the United States, while Ibrahima Thioub has become vice chancellor of Cheikh Anta Diop University. However, their succession has been consistently assured by their own doctoral students. Nowadays, does the “Dakar school” still exist? Yes because historians remain proud of and faithful to this innovative past, no because Senegalese historians are now part of the world wide international community of historians.
The Horn of Africa has an exceptional cultural heritage, starting with its manuscript sources, which are among the most important on the continent. It is a heritage that is rich but scattered throughout the region and not always easily accessible, prompting researchers to rely on cutting-edge technology. Since the 1970s, photography and microfilm have been key for preserving this especially valuable heritage. In the Horn of Africa, the “digital turn” has been the latest development in the close relationship between technology and research. For Ethiopian manuscript studies, the advent of digitization has meant more than simply improving old techniques. A new generation of projects is experimenting with innovative methods of research made possible by digital technology. The purpose is no longer just to provide digital copies of manuscripts but to explore the possibilities that computerization offers to study documents and other historical sources.
Increasingly competitive prices and low operating costs have made the digital revolution attractive even for African institutions, which, in recent years, have sought answers to the pressing needs of preserving and enhancing their historical sources. These technological developments have significantly broadened the range of sources investigated. While important, manuscripts represent only a part of the documentary heritage of the Horn of Africa. Numerous archives and a long-overlooked print culture offer equally interesting access points for studying the region.
The experience gained, though temporally circumscribed, has highlighted a number of more or less predictable problems. The projects to date, although they have often yielded only partial results, have highlighted the wealth of sources still present in the Horn of Africa and the way in which digital technology is making a valuable contribution to their preservation. Access remains perhaps the most critical issue. In the Horn of Africa, as in other African regions, digitization does not necessarily lead to Internet access.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Robert Gordon and Jonatan Kurzwelly
Much has changed since photographs were used simply as apt illustrations and depictions of reality. The field of visual history has now become an important and legitimate area of rigorous enquiry. Photography and photographs as source material for research is now a widespread practice in history, anthropology, sociology and other social sciences and humanities. Both the historical trajectory of this medium in Africa, as well as some important theoretical and methodological issues which Africanists should be aware of, are introduced here. Photography is heavily imbricated in the rise of modernity. Different visual eras are delineated as technology and accessibility of the medium became easier to use and more accessible, moving on a continuum from daguerreotypes featuring mostly portraits and landscapes done by professionals largely for the elite to carte d’visite to postcards and stereoscopic-cards which decline with the introduction of spool photography epitomized by the inimitable Kodak, led to access by the broad middle class. After several innovations featuring 35 mm cameras and slides, digital photography arrived and made the medium even more accessible with smartphones leading the proverbial gaze to be turned into a glaze.
Alongside the historical development of photography, it is necessary to understand the different theoretical and methodological implications in the study and uses of this medium. Photography in itself can be understood through materialist, idealist and social constructivist ontological approaches. Whereas the latter is predominant in history and social sciences, a complementarity of different perspectives should be applied when using and assessing photographs as sources. For purposes of historical research the meaning of a photograph is established largely through contextual information about the image, its making, its different uses, and distribution. It is also important to consider how meaning is established in relation to other photographs or texts (i.e., through intertextuality). Issues include the assessment of images, ways of evaluating their credibility, and the questions scholars might ask in interpreting the meanings of the images, including identifying the provenance of the image, as well as the context in which the image appears. Was it intended for public or only private distribution? Was it in an archive, album, used in a publication, as a postcard and how might it be captioned? What affective meaning might it convey? How might one detect a fake? Besides using archival images, photography might also be used for photo elicitation and other experimental or participatory research methods.
Rock art is an archaeological resource with the potential to reconstruct aspects of the ideologies of prehistoric societies. Research methods are distinguished here from theoretical, interpretive frameworks. The methods discussed here concern the documentation of rock art, methods of working with the temporal dimensions of rock art (such as developing relative chronologies and dating), and the characterization of pigments. Nonetheless, the choice of research methods depends on an explicitly formulated, theoretically informed research question. Research aims will also determine the scope and scale of the documentation and chronological methods employed.
Fieldwork is a major and initial component of documentation and may involve surveying for rock-art sites. Researchers should experience rock art first hand. Digital mapping and imaging techniques are used routinely, but field tracings continue to be an important means of recording and interpreting the art. Computational photography includes enhancement software such as DStretch and other techniques that enable researchers to see details that would otherwise be invisible.
Temporality is a fundamental attribute of rock art, and the biggest challenge in this regard is to relate the chronological sequences on the rock face to other archaeological and environmental data and thus contextualize the rock art. Relative chronologies provide information about the order of image-making episodes at a site or in a particular region. Age determinations may be arrived at using correlative methods in which the art is dated by means of independently available age ranges. Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating is commonly used to date organic paint samples. Engravings are difficult to date; age ranges obtained from cation-ratio (CR) and varnish microlamination (VML) are regarded as approximations. Pigment analysis is used to characterize the inorganic components of paint and to detect the presence of organic components. Research methods are multidisciplinary and thus require a coordinated, unified approach in order to achieve the research aims.
Imperial expansion cast European sport, embedded with moral codes and social divisions, across Africa. The government, the church, schools, and the army encouraged colonized peoples to play sport because of its professed ability to discipline and to civilize. Yet sport in Africa developed in the context of existing local ideas about appropriate human movement. Over time, African sport reflected both indigenous and European organization, ideas, and aesthetics, with football (soccer) becoming a particular object of passion. The era of decolonization came with sporting independence. Sport provided a platform for newly independent African nations to consolidate national and pan-African identities and assert full membership and power in the international community, though it could prove divisive as much as integrative, depending on the situation. From continental cups to Western-style sport gatherings, continuities with imperial pasts informed postcolonial African sport. Yet sport also provided a bulwark of resistance against colonial hegemony and racist regimes on the continent. Well into the 20th century, boycotts of sport gatherings and events were threatened and carried out in protest against racist regimes in southern Africa.
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.
Aubrey Bloomfield and Sean Jacobs
The Internet and social media increasingly are becoming sources about the African past and present in ways that will influence to some extent how history will be learnt and the form that methods of historical research will take. Social media have increasingly dislodged print journalism as “the first rough draft of history” and tended to democratize and hasten information sharing and communication. Historians are working through difficult debates about the Internet as a source archive, the usability of websites, and related matters. The debate over online resources and their use in historical and other studies on one level remains unresolved. Nevertheless, online sources add another rich layer to narratives, stories, and perspectives that are already being recorded or told, and in this regard they will add to the storehouse of empirical data to be crunched by future historians.
Accounts written by foreigners—especially Europeans—about what they saw in Africa constitute one of the major sources for African history between c. 1450 and c. 1900. Some were published, while others remained in manuscript form. Unlike the ethnographic monographs of the early 20th century, they were generally written in a spontaneous and unsystematic manner, usually with a narrative structure, although in some cases an implicit “questionnaire” seems to have lain behind what was recorded.
Historians of Africa must apply the rules of source criticism to such material. These include an obligation to examine the extent to which the material is really “primary” (rather than derived from sources that already existed and still exist today); what stereotypes and fixed ideas may have shaped the author’s perceptions and writing; how the expectations of the intended readership—including a desire for exoticism or sensationalism—may have influenced the content and style, in some cases even resulting in straightforward fabrication posing as authentic description; and whether the author’s personal background—for example, financial interests, ideology, or gender—could have led him or her to perceive and write about Africa in a certain way. Certain types of data contained in travel accounts, such as quantitative or linguistic information, require cautious analysis. Some travel accounts were accompanied by engravings or other iconographic material, and although it is tempting to use these simply as illustrations, they must be subjected to the same kinds of source criticism as are applied to the written accounts themselves.
Despite these caveats, travel accounts are an indispensable source, whose full potential still remains to be discovered.