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.
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.
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.
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.
Promoted by necessity, scarcity, and/or abundance, trade is one of the most essential cultural behaviors that promoted contact and exchange of ideas, commodities, and services between individuals and communities and variously transformed African societies of different regions and time periods. Anthropological, historical (including historical linguistics), and archaeological evidence points to the existence, on the one hand, of intra-African trade and, on the other, of external trade between Africa and those outside the continent. Traditionally, however, trade and exchange involving perishable and organic commodities such as grain and cattle have until now been very difficult to identify due to a lack of well-resolved documentation techniques. By comparison, some objects such as metal artifacts, glass beads, ceramics, and porcelain are pyrotechnological products, with a high survival rate that makes their trade and exchange easily visible archaeologically. Given the well-known regional differences across the continent, it is essential to combine multiple sources and techniques, in a multipronged way, to provide a dynamic picture of the mechanics of precolonial African trade and exchange of various time periods and geographies.
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.
Analogical arguments are central to and pervasive within archaeological discourse. Within these arguments, ethnographic analogies are often seen as being particularly problematic exercises in essentialism, which unthinkingly cast reified ethnographic schema back in time and thus perpetuate ideas about primitive indigenes, awaiting colonial contact to emerge from ahistorical primordial obscurity. The shadow of 19th-century social evolutionism, in which forager communities (not participating in agriculture and leading nomadic lifestyles) were represented as particularly primitive, has cast a pall of suspicion over ethnographic analogical models—especially as forager communities continue to feature prominently in such models to this day.
Archaeologists use ethnographic analogies in a variety of ways; these analogies are heuristic constructs tailored to research questions and to the stubbornness of particular suites of archaeological data. Such uses include inducing imaginative and revelatory modes of thinking about past societies, outside of the archaeologist’s usual experiences, as well as a suite of formal and relational analogies that seek to combine ethnographic data with data drawn from the physical sciences to help constrain archaeological interpretation.
Direct historical approaches utilize a collection of ethnographic and historical sources to construct analogies based on a relation of similarity between the communities of people involved; these frameworks, perhaps, carry the greatest danger of unwittingly casting modern populations as “contemporary primitives.” By emphasizing that source-side ethnographic datasets are heuristic tools rather than reflections of some sociocultural reality, such fears may (at least in part) be ameliorated. Saliently, archaeological data must operate as epistemologically equivalent to ethnographic data in order to resist the tendency to cast back a rich, textured ethnographic case study wholesale into the murky waters of prehistory. Only when this status is afforded archaeological data can is it possible to reveal the ways in which past conditions diverged from ethnographic ones.
Raphael Chijioke Njoku
The focus of this discussion is on the lingering questions about the origin, character, importance, and dating of the Igbo-Ukwu findings; what they reveal about the Igbo past; and the interpretations scholars ascribe to them. Named after its location at an Igbo village in southeastern Nigeria, Igbo-Ukwu is an important archeological complex with intricately cast bronze sculptures, chieftaincy paraphernalia, glass pendants, and a wide range of other artifacts and objects that are distinctive in their styles, mysterious in their origins and usages, and revealing in their meanings. For the Igbo, whose early history has been the subject of conjecture, the materials unearthed at the ancient settlement are confirmation of the antiquity of an advanced civilization and its participation in regional and long-distance trade, including the medieval era trans-Saharan trade. The eminent historian Adiele Eberechukwu Afigbo has affirmed that the Igbo of today, like other indigenous peoples without a well-developed writing culture, are “anxious to discover their origin and reconstruct how they came to be who they are” to better understand “the reality of their group identity which they want to anchor into authenticated history.” The Igbo-Ukwu archeological discoveries dated to the 9th century
Paul Lane and Anna Shoemaker
Agricultural practices on the African continent are exceptionally diverse and have deep histories spanning at least eight millennia. Over time, farmers and herders have independently domesticated different food crops and a more limited range of animals, and have effectively modified numerous ecological niches to better suit their needs. They have also adopted “exotic” species from other parts of the globe, nurturing these to produce new cross-breeds and varieties better adapted to African conditions. Evidence for the origins of these different approaches to food production and their subsequent entanglement is attested by diverse sources. These include archaeological remains, bio- and geo-archaeological signatures, genetic data, historical linguistics, and processes of landscape domestication.
Archaeology’s focus on material culture provides it with unparalleled opportunities to investigate the entire span of the human past. For periods for which historical records (verbal as well as textual) exist, this includes its ability to deliver insights into the lives of individuals and communities only partially represented, if at all, in those records. Its remit ranges from individual sites requiring excavation to surface scatters of artifacts, from upstanding monuments to entire landscapes. Interpreting archaeological observations depends upon establishing that they are in valid association with each other and can be accurately dated. In both cases the principles of stratigraphic superimposition, association, and context are key concerns. While analogies derived from ethnographic data sustain many archaeological interpretations, individual finds and assemblages of finds are also investigated using a wide range of scientific and other techniques.
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.
David K. Wright
Understanding paleoclimates has been an important component of archaeological research for over a century. Human settlement, mobility, and subsistence activities are predicated on interactions with the natural world, and by reconstructing the broader environmental context, archaeologists can recognize the primary external catalyst of cultural change. Modern paleoenvironmental reconstruction methods employ techniques developed over the last century as well as those that are at the frontiers of scientific inquiry. Archaeologists intent on providing basic environmental context must first describe the sedimentology of surficial deposits in order to understand landform evolution. Furthermore, descriptions of soils, which form in stable, weathered sedimentary deposits, are critical indicators of past climate. Soils are first described in excavation test units using macro-scale classification schemes, but increasingly microscopic techniques such as soil micromorphology in thin sections and DNA sequences of endemic microbiota are being used. Various types of plant and animal communities hosted in archaeological deposits also provide critical environmental details as they are often temperature and precipitation dependent. Generally speaking, the simpler and smaller the organism is, the more restricted its habitat tends to be. Therefore, microfauna and floral remains often provide the greatest level of precision in environmental reconstruction. Finally, light stable isotopes of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen can be assayed from a wide variety of organic matter, and they provide specific information about biotic communities and precipitation that are useful to understand paleoenvironments. The simultaneous integration of multiple lines of evidence is being performed in archaeological research projects across the African continent and provides the best means to fully comprehend the framework in which human biological and cultural evolution occurred.
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
While there are a handful of defined methods for working with primary historical sources in archaeology, few archaeologists take these as their main points of departure or rely upon them too rigidly. This is to do both with the highly variable nature of the historical and archaeological material available for certain African contexts, and also with how archaeologists conceive of the relationship between these two bodies of evidence: as antagonistic, supplementary, entangled and subjective, mutually creative, and so on. Some methodologies focus on the potentials for consonance and dissonance between written and material sources. Others utilize oral traditions to provide insights into chronology, memory, historical and political dynamics, and the material aspects of these. Still other approaches focus on how historical and archaeological sources offer complementary perspectives on the local and the global, events and processes, and other shifts in scale. While these methods are diverse and contingent, they are united insofar as archaeologists take their cues from objects and from preoccupations with time and space. Archaeologists see their work concerning primary historical sources not as filling in gaps in written records but as addressing the partialities of the records themselves by engaging with an array of complex questions about meaning, authority, and materiality
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.
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.