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.
Biography in the African context can take many forms, from brief entries in a biographical dictionary or obituary in a newspaper to multivolume studies of single individuals. It can encompass one or many subjects and serves both to celebrate the famous and illuminate obscure lives. Biographies can be instructional as well as inspirational. Sometimes, it is hard to draw a line between biography and autobiography because of the way a work has been compiled. An attempt is made to understand this vast range of forms, with reference to social and political biography. The main focus is on work produced since the 1970s, with examples drawn from all regions of sub-Saharan Africa (although Southern Africa is better represented than others, as is English-medium material). Matters that preoccupy biographers everywhere, such as the relationship between writer and subject and the larger relationship between biography and history, are raised. Biography can be an excellent entry point into the complexities of African history.
Mohammed Bashir Salau
People of African descent who migrated from their “homelands” constituted, and still constitute, important forces in many African cultures outside of their “homelands” as well as in many other cultures outside of the African continent. Historically, the migration of people of African descent from their “homelands” is mainly linked to the pre-20th century Muslim or Asian trade and the Atlantic trade as well as to the post 1980 globalization of the capitalist system. Even before the post 1980 globalization of the capitalist system deepened the crises in African states and resulted in the migration of skilled and unskilled Africans to places like the United States, Canada, Britain and the Middle East, some scholars had written on people of African descent in several parts of the world. Although the earliest among those who wrote on the subject before the 1980s did not employ the term “African diaspora” in their analysis, an increasing number of scholars who wrote after 1950 have used the term in question in their study of people of African descent in various parts of the world. The relevant literature written after 1950 features disagreement over the meaning of the concept “African diaspora” and point to diverse methodologies that are useful in working on the subject. This particular literature can be divided into three broad categories: works that deal with the Old African diaspora, works that deal with the New African diaspora and works that deal with both the Old and New African diasporas. The historiography shows that works situated in all of these three categories mainly offer competing view over three fundamental questions: why did Africans leave their “homelands” and settle elsewhere? What was the impact of this process on the societies they left? How did Africans who left their “homelands” integrate into their host societies or preserve their unique identities; or, more broadly, what was the impact of their arrival on the host society they entered? Despite the rapid strides that have been made since the 1960s in regard to addressing these questions or in regards to the scholarly study of the African diasporas in general, there is still no firm definition of the term “African diaspora.” Moreover, there are still other gaps in the scholarly knowledge of the subject.
Iron production was a particularly important precolonial African technology, with iron becoming a central component of socioeconomic life in many societies across the continent. Iron-bearing ores are much more abundant in the earth’s crust than those of copper, and in Africa, iron was recovered from these ores using the bloomery process, until the importation of European iron in the later second millennium eventually undermined local production. Although smelting was most intensively focused in regions where all the necessary components of a smelt were plentiful—iron ore, ceramic, fuel, and water—frequent occurrences of small-scale, local iron production mean that iron slag and associated remains are common finds on archaeological sites across Africa.
The archaeological remains found on iron production and iron-working sites can provide detailed information about the past processes that were undertaken at these sites, as well as the people involved with the technologies both as practitioners and consumers. A variety of analytical approaches are commonly used by archaeometallurgists to learn more about past iron technologies, particularly those methods that explore the chemistry and mineralogy of archaeological samples. By interpreting the results of these analyses in conjunction with ethnographic, historical, and experimental data, it is possible to reconstruct the techniques and ingredients that past smelters and smiths employed in their crafts, and address important questions concerning the organization of production, the acquisition of raw materials, innovations and changes in technological approach, and the environmental and social changes that accompanied these technologies.
African military history is more than just the study of “tribal warfare,” imperial conquest, military coups, and child soldiers. Moving beyond conventional questions of strategy, tactics, battles, and technology, historians of precolonial Africa are interested in the role of armies in state formation, the military activities of stateless societies, and armed encounters between Africans and foreign visitors and invaders. Scholars working in the 19th and 20th centuries are similarly focused on the role and influence of African soldiers, military women, and veterans in society. In this sense, African military history is part of a larger effort to recover the lived experiences of ordinary people who were largely missing from colonial archives and documentary records. Similarly, Africanist historians focusing on the national era are engaging older journalistic and social science explanations for military coups, failed states, and wardlordism. The resulting body of literature productively offers new ways to study military institutions and collective violence in Africa.
Toyin Falola and Abikal Borah
Since the late 1950s, the field of African historiography has undergone many changes. While discussing African philosophies of history, one must acknowledge shifts within the discipline of history and the Afrocentric vision of historical scholarship as two constitutive processes through which different historiographical trends have come into being. It is difficult to take an essentialist position on African philosophies of history, because Africa has been at the center of various transnational and global processes of historical formation. As a result, the scope and scale of African historiography signals a variety of entanglements. The imperative lies in recognizing such entanglements in the longue durée of Africa’s past, to dislodge the narrowly framed imagination attached to African historiography. Considering the complexity of the terrain, it would be appropriate to view African philosophies of history and historiography from three different vantage points. Firstly, historical scholarship centering on Africa has produced critiques of the post-Enlightenment philosophy of history in Europe and elsewhere. This strand highlights the interventions posed by African historiography that decenter a globalized philosophical tradition. Secondly, the inclusion of African indigenous epistemological formations into historical scholarship has transformed the scope of African historiography. This shows shifts in the methodological approaches of historical scholarship and highlights the question of access to the multiplicity of Africa’s past. Thirdly, Pan-Africanism and Afropolitanism expanded the scope and scale of the African philosophy of history by thinking through the transnational and global connections of Afrocentric thought. In other words, Afrocentric historiography attends to the ideas of globalism and cosmopolitanism within its scope and scale.
The urban history of Africa is as ancient, varied, and complex as that of other continents, and the study of this history shares many of the theoretical, conceptual, and methodological challenges of urban history generally. Knowledge of Africa’s historic cities is based on archaeological investigation, analysis of historic documents, linguistics, and ethnographic field methods. The historiography of cities in Africa has debated what constitutes a city, how urbanization can be apprehended in the archaeological record and in documentary sources, why cities emerged, and how historic cities have related to states. The great impact colonization had on African urbanization is a major topic of research, including in the study of postcolonial cities. The “informality” of much contemporary urbanization, both in terms of economic activities and architecture, has been a major topic of research since the 1970s.
With few exceptions, prior to the 20th century cities were relatively small, with no more than 20,000–30,000 inhabitants. Religion, trade, and the concentration of power were major factors in the rise of cities across the continent. The largest and most well-studied cities were often the capitals of important states. At times networks of city-states flourished, as in Hausaland, Yorubaland, and along the Swahili coast. The cities of northern Africa shared many morphological characteristics with other cities of the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, being characterized by a high density of population, masonry architecture, and encircling city walls. South of the Sahara, cities tended to be multinucleated, with low densities of population and built-over surfaces, and they tended to merge with surrounding agricultural landscapes in an urban–rural continuum. Perishable construction materials such as earth, wattle, and thatch were widely used for both domestic and public architecture.
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.
Anthropology is the study of human societies and cultures. It developed from the 19th century with a focus on the study of societies located outside Europe, often colonized peoples. It has since transformed and diversified but maintains an interest in cross-cultural comparison and social and cultural diversity. Anthropologists often conduct long-term ethnographic research, or fieldwork, living among a community in order to learn their language and become familiar with local norms, ways of life and cultural assumptions. The method is also referred to as participant-observation, which captures its dual nature. Anthropologists aim both to join in, and learn though participation, and to maintain a degree of critical distance from which to observe and question what they see and hear around them. Their findings are generally written up in the form obf ethnographic monographs and articles detailing their research and discussing their observations in relation to the work of other anthropologists working in similar and/or distant locations.
Africa has long been central to anthropological research, particularly for British-trained anthropologists. This is in part a reflection of British colonial history, as colonialism afforded opportunities for anthropologists to travel to Africa and live among African communities. African scholars and research assistants have played important roles in developing the anthropology of Africa and continue to do so. Contemporary ethnographic writing tends not to be holistic in the sense of aiming to produce a exhaustive account of a particular people and their way of life, but rather focuses on particular issues of interest in connection to wider debates, both scholarly and policy-oriented. In the 21st century, anthropologists of Africa study a wide range of topics, from gender relations to religion, development projects to social media.
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.
Archaeozoology is the study of animal remains, mainly bones and other hard parts, from archaeological sites. It contributes to a more complete understanding of various aspects of human life in the past. Ideally, archaeozoologists, like other specialists, should be involved in the entire process of an archaeological research project, from its design, to fieldwork and data collecting, to final reporting and publication. For efficient communication and fruitful collaboration, the archaeologists involved in this process need to understand the basics of archaeozoological methodology and the range of questions that the discipline can answer. Methods vary among archaeozoologists—not least with regard to quantification—and it is important to be aware of these differences and their possible impact on results when comparing data for different sites. While the actual analysis of animal remains is done by the archaeozoologists, preferably in circumstances where they have access to a comparative collection of recent animal skeletons, the excavation and collection of remains is often the responsibility of the archaeologists. Animal remains are affected by a host of taphonomic processes of loss that are beyond our control. To avoid additional loss of information at the fieldwork stage, appropriate methods are particularly important. The use of sieves with a mesh size no greater than 2 mm is essential in order not to miss the smaller, but no less informative, animal remains. Project leaders play an important role in providing good storage facilities for archaeozoological remains after excavation and after study. With the rapid development in analytical methods, it can be extremely interesting to return to previously studied remains and sample them.
Daniel B. Domingues da Silva and Philip Misevich
Over the past six decades, the historiography of Atlantic slavery and the slave trade has shown remarkable growth and sophistication. Historians have marshalled a vast array of sources and offered rich and compelling explanations for these two great tragedies in human history. The survey of this vibrant scholarly tradition throws light on major theoretical and interpretive shifts over time and indicates potential new pathways for future research. While early scholarly efforts have assessed plantation slavery in particular on the antebellum United States South, new voices—those of Western women inspired by the feminist movement and non-Western men and women who began entering academia in larger numbers over the second half of the 20th century—revolutionized views of slavery across time and space. The introduction of new methodological approaches to the field, particularly through dialogue between scholars who engage in quantitative analysis and those who privilege social history sources that are more revealing of lived experiences, has conditioned the types of questions and arguments about slavery and the slave trade that the field has generated. Finally, digital approaches had a significant impact on the field, opening new possibilities to assess and share data from around the world and helping foster an increasingly global conversation about the causes, consequences, and integration of slave systems. No synthesis will ever cover all the details of these thriving subjects of study and, judging from the passionate debates that continue to unfold, interest in the history of slavery and the slave trade is unlikely to fade.
Kathryn Linn Geurts
For centuries, European and Global North observers of non-Western societies have been fascinated by African bodily expressivity and power. Artistic and ritual displays of bodily ways of knowing have captivated explorers, traders, missionaries, anthropologists, historians, and tourists, and this engagement has spawned a robust industry of representational accounts of African affect and sensibilities. Both European colonialism and American imperialism created and produced voluminous documentation of “the black body” through study of folklore, proverbs, myth, sculpture, masks, adornment objects such as beads, tunics, hair combs, and so forth. In addition, film and still photography have been used to capture vivid portrayals of bodily powers revealed in dance and possession trance. A history of such documentation and collection reveals shifts over more than a century in the way body, affect, and sensing have been understood and studied. Anthropology and psychology took the lead in attending to affect and the senses, but by the late 20th century additional fields such as music, art history, archaeology, and history joined in the sensory turn.
Dmitri van den Bersselaar
Business records are documents routinely produced by employees and management of commercial businesses. They may be part of internal processes or produced to communicate with stakeholders or to meet legal requirements. They usually include a mix of qualitative (reports and correspondence) and quantitative (detailed accounting data) material. Depending on how complete the material is, documents may relate to: strategic management; accounting and financial data; operational matters; legal issues; trademarks; marketing; personnel files; and labor and welfare issues. Business records add a different dimension compared to information from government and colonial office sources by providing a private sector perspective on key episodes of colonial and postcolonial history, including strikes and protests, the relationship between the (colonial) state and business, and decolonization. Historians have used business records as sources for histories of business and trade in Africa, for studies on industrialization and development, and also to inform studies on colonialism and political history, as well as economic, social, and labor history. Business records may be kept in company archives, where they are not always easy to identify or access, kept in public repositories, or privately held. Many business archives have been weeded, whereby documentation relating to special activities, challenges, and crises has been retained, while routine documentation of interest to economic and social historians has been destroyed. Other collections appear to have disappeared altogether when companies went out of business or were taken over by others.
Analysis of ceramics in archaeological contexts has provided a range of information regarding African history. Archaeologists have approached ceramics as a craft as well as an indicator of identity and status. The Africanist focus on the technological development of ceramic manufacture and production has taken several forms. The most notable are (1) the origins of ceramic production, (2) the spread and independent invention of this technology and regional styles through typological analysis, and (3) technological change related to the identity of the producers and consumers including changing dietary practices over time. The various arguments put forth for the first production and use of ceramics in different regions of the continent are connected to the exploitation of available resources such as fish as well as the rise of agricultural production. Following the appearance and technical history of ceramics in various regions of the continent, a focus on foodways and regional cuisine has placed ceramics at the forefront of interpretation.
Christian presence in Africa has a long and varied history. African congregations represented some of the world’s earliest churches, with lively Coptic and Orthodox communities in both North Africa and present-day Ethiopia. But wide-scale Christian expansion truly began during the proselytization efforts of the 19th-century missionary movement. Success in gaining converts was initially limited, a fact not aided by the perceived ties of missionaries to Western colonial powers. But through the translation and intermediation of a dedicated strata of African evangelists, proselytizers, and preachers, Christianity rapidly became one of the continent’s most popular faiths. The independent church movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries exemplified the determination of Christians across the continent to make the faith a local religion: throwing off white missionary control, thousands of Africans formed their own independent churches that experimented with new modes of Protestant Holiness theology. Transnational links have always been key to the development of Christianity in Africa, with connections to North American African American churches sustaining many of these independent churches. More recently, international networks have also influenced the large charismatic revivals that swept the continent from the 1970s onward. Inspired by itinerant evangelists from both North America and Europe, Africans have formed new churches that stress the “Prosperity Gospel,” deliverance from witchcraft, and the equation of “modernity” with Christianity. Underlying many of these diverse developments has been an ongoing debate regarding the intrinsically African qualities of Christianity: scholars continue to wrestle with understanding the extent and nature of indigenous versus exogenous elements that go into making Christianity—along with Islam—one of the most widely practiced religions on the African continent.
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.
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 robust, sustained interest in the history of the transatlantic slave trade has been a defining feature of the intersection of African studies and digital scholarship since the advent of humanities computing in the 1960s. The pioneering work of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, first made widely available in CD-ROM in 1999, is one of several major projects to use digital tools in the research and analysis of the Atlantic trade from the sixteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. Over the past two decades, computing technologies have also been applied to the exploration of African bondage outside the maritime Atlantic frame. In the 2010s, (the online successor to the original Slave Trade Database compact disc) joined many other projects in and outside the academy that deploy digital tools in the reconstruction of the large-scale structural history of the trade as well as the microhistorical understandings of individual lives, the biography of notables, and family ancestry.