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date: 05 December 2023

Historical Demography: Methodslocked

Historical Demography: Methodslocked

  • Harri SiiskonenHarri SiiskonenDepartment of Geographical and Historical Studies , University of Eastern Finland


Africa has the least-known demographics in the world. Until the mid-20th century, not even the size of the population was precisely known in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Significant problems in African historical demography have been the lack of relevant sources, and the fragmentary and nonsystematic nature of the available records.

Since the late 1970s, African historical demography has taken noticeable steps forward by the adaptation of new methods in analyzing old “new” sources and by combining information of these scattered scanty records. These methods have been tightly connected with the nature of accessible sources. Until the establishment of permanent mission stations in the interior of Africa travel accounts, diaries, and maps of explorers, traders, and hunters are the most important literary sources informing about population and the way of life of African communities. Oral tradition and ethnological evidence complement travelers’ observations based on short visits. Methods used in history, ethnology, and anthropology are relevant in analyzing these descriptive sources.

Church registers have played an important role in Western historical demography. From sub-Saharan Africa, there are sporadic lists available of baptisms and marriages from the Congo area since the 17th century, but analyzing trends in fertility or mortality has proved challenging.

Discovering of complete continuous series of church registers from southern and eastern Africa in the late 1980s and 1990s enabled longitudinal analysis of fertility and mortality. Adapting methods used in Western historical demography, like family reconstitution, opened a new phase in African historical demography, but there are several limitations with parish registers, like under-registration of infant and child mortality and births. However, statistical methods provide tools to overcome systematic weaknesses related to these data.

Early population enumerations in Africa were restricted to the European population residing on the trading posts located on the coast. The first countrywide censuses conducted during the colonial period were imperfect concerning fertility, mortality, and age of the population and usually underestimated the size of the population. The reliability of censuses began to improve only since the 1960s when they were conducted following the United Nations’ data gathering principles. Modern censuses are widely used sources in making back-projections to population development during the first half of the 20th century. Demographic and health surveys available from the 1970s focus on fertility and reproductive health complement noticeably the census data. Understanding African population development since the turn of the 20th century can be deepened by mixed and comparative use of censuses, surveys, and parish registers and by utilizing methods familiar in history and anthropology, demography, and statistics.


  • Historiography and Methods

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