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.
Jane I. Guyer and Karin Pallaver
African peoples have managed multiple currencies, for all the classic four functions of money, for at least a thousand years: within each society’s own circuits, in regional exchange, and across the continent’s borders with the rest of the world. Given the materials of some of these currencies, and the general absence of formalized denominations until the colonial period, some early European accounts defined certain transactions as barter. The management of multiplicity is traced through four eras: a) the precolonial period, with some monies locally produced and acquired, and others imported through intercontinental trades, such as the Atlantic slave trade, and eventually under the expansion of capitalism to Africa; b) the colonial period, when precolonial monies, in some places, still circulated with official monies; c) postcolonial national monies for the new African states; and d) the most recent phase of multiplicity in use, due to migration and sales across borders as well as to the use of new technologies, such as mobile money. The management of multiplicity thereby has a long history and continues to be an inventive frontier. History and ethnography meet on common ground to address these dynamics through empirical study of money in practice, and broader scholarship has drawn on a large variety of original sources.
Newspapers have become increasingly important as a source for African history, and the range of historical questions newspapers have been employed to address has expanded dramatically. Newspapers are not only sources for political history, they also have much to teach us about the social, cultural, and intellectual history of Africa. They were spaces of literary and textual experimentation. They also played an important role in the creation of new identities. It is essential, however, that we approach newspapers critically as sources and think carefully about their limitations, as well as the opportunities they present to the historian.
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.
Since their inception, precolonial mining and metallurgy gradually became essential social, technological, and even politico-economic pillars of African communities of varying time periods. However, the onset of metallurgy and mining and the associated technology and sociocultural beliefs varied from region to region in a way that defies generalization. Owing to their cultural and geographical location, Egypt, the Sudan, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa share some very broad similarities in their metallurgical histories. This in some cases sharply differs from that of many regions such as West, central, East and southern Africa. Interestingly, these regions too are characterized by technological similarity and diversity. When considered together, the multiple trajectories taken by metallurgy and mining in Africa’s different regions are essential for achieving a comparative understanding of the continent’s rich technological history. Achieving this, however, requires an interdisciplinary approach from documentation through data analysis to eventual interpretation. This contribution combines insights from various disciplines to present an overview of precolonial metallurgy and mining in Africa’s many regions.
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.
The South African interior, roughly equivalent to the Highveld on the southern continental plateau, was in the 19th century a stage of numerous players and groups, acting in concert and in conflict with one another, as often dissolving as taking on board new members. The fortunes of Highveld inhabitants, occupiers, and passers-by fluctuated without periods of calm, and turned advantages to few. It was therefore not uncommon for the human flotsam and jetsam created by raiding, battles, and migrations, aggravated by drought and famine, to be subordinated by the survivors and forced to serve those with whom they had no prior allegiance or knowledge. Slavery in the interior was largely a by-product of staking out territory. Rather than generate slaves for sale in an external market, slavery on the Highveld was fed by the political impulse to aggregate followers and servants. An internal exchange emerged in some areas, and traders made a few transactions with coastal exporters, but the general pattern of enslavement was acquisition by raiding and distribution among raiders. The majority taken were youngsters and, to a lesser degree, women. As a rule, the menfolk were killed.
The Soninke are an ancient West African ethnicity that probably gave rise to the much larger group that is called the Mande of which the Soninke are part. The Soninke language belongs to the northwestern Mande group but through the dynamism of its speakers has loaned many words and concepts to distant ethnic groups throughout the West African ecological zones. Mande groups such as the Malinke and Bambara may be descendants of the Soninke or a Proto-Soninke group. The Soninke are the founder of the first West African empire, Ghana, which they themselves call Wagadu, from the 6th to the 12th centuries
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.
John C. McCall
Motion picture technology developed at the dawn of the 20th century, just as the formal colonization of Africa was launched at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. While it took a few decades for cinema houses to spread in West Africa, by mid-century the colonial administrations began to use film as a means for conveying colonial culture to African subjects. For the British and French colonials, film was a means to shape public opinion. Both British and French colonial administrations criminalized indigenous filmmaking for fear of the subversive potential of anti-colonial messages—film communicated in one direction only. When West African nations became independent in the late 20th century, these restrictions vanished and Africans began to make films. This process played out differently in Francophone Africa than in Anglophone countries. France cultivated African filmmakers, sponsored training, and funded film projects. Talented and determined filmmakers in Anglophone Africa also struggled to produce celluloid films, but unlike their counterparts in former French colonies, they received little support from abroad. A significant number of excellent celluloid films were produced under this system, but largely in Francophone Africa. Though many of these filmmakers have gained global recognition, most remained virtually unknown in Africa outside the elite spaces of the FESPACO film festival and limited screenings at French embassies. Though West African filmmakers have produced an impressive body of high-quality work, few Africans beyond the intellectual elite know of Africa’s most famous films. This paradox of a continent with renowned filmmakers but no local film culture began to change in the 1990s when aspiring artists in Nigeria and Ghana began to make inexpensive movies using video technology. Early works were edited on VCRs, but as digital video technology advanced, this process of informal video production quickly spread to other regions. The West African video movie industry has grown to become one of the most prominent, diverse, and dynamic expressions of a pan-African popular culture in Africa and throughout the global diaspora.
Witchcraft in Africa: Political Power and Spiritual Insecurity from the Precolonial Era to the Present
Historically, witchcraft in Africa has not comprised a stable or uniform set of beliefs. The idea of witchcraft, which might loosely be defined as the belief that people exist who use supernatural means to harm others, has existed in African societies from the precolonial, through the colonial, and into the postcolonial periods. But ideas about the kinds of powers that witches are alleged to use and the types of people often accused of using witchcraft have shifted in response to the changing political, economic, and social landscape. While witchcraft beliefs can sometimes be understood as metaphors for political forces and social ills, they must also be understood as separate systems of signs and meanings that have their own historical trajectories rooted in local cultures. Beliefs in witchcraft are beliefs in systems of power derived from unseen forces, and for those people who believe in supernatural powers those forces are quite real and are not merely metaphorical allusions to other phenomena. In the precolonial era, the political power that many chiefs and kings had was based in supernatural powers; these occult powers were potentially usable for either positive, socially accepted ends or for evil, selfish, and greedy ends. In the colonial and postcolonial eras, states and politicians have also been seen to have supernatural powers but are believed to have used them largely for self-enrichment or empowerment.
Systems of global trade, including the trans-Atlantic slave trade and later colonial production of various commodities, both created wealth for a few and inflicted harm on many people. The perceived immorality of these economic and social networks was often captured in stories of witches ambushing people and selling them or consuming their life forces. The spiritual insecurity represented in these beliefs in witchcraft has continued into the postcolonial era.