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Article

African Maritime Archaeology  

Edward Pollard

The continent of Africa has had a lengthy involvement in global maritime affairs and archaeological research with Middle Stone Age people using marine resources on the coasts of southern Africa, the Classical Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria, and Medieval Indian Ocean trade on the Swahili coast to the Atlantic triangular slave trade. Maritime archaeology is the identification and interpretation of physical traces left by people who use the seas and oceans. Middle Stone Age sites in South Africa such as Klasies River Mouth and Pinnacle Point have the earliest evidence for human use of marine resources including birds, marine mammals, and shellfish. This exploitation of marine resources was also coincident with the use of pigment, probably for symbolic behavior, as well as the production of bladelet stone tool technology. The extensive timespan of human activity on the coast around Africa occurred during changing relative sea levels due to Ice Ages and tectonic movement affecting the location of the coastline relative to maritime archaeological sites. Geomorphological changes may also take place over shorter periods such as the 1909 ce shipwreck of the Eduard Bohlen in Namibia lying c. one and half thousand feet landward of the shoreline. Ancestors of sea-going vessels have been recorded on rivers from dugout canoes excavated at Dufuna in northern Nigeria and the first plank-built boats, such as the Old Kingdom Royal Ship of Cheops of Khufu, found at the Giza pyramids, which imitated the shape of earlier papyrus rafts. Classical documents such as the Periplus Maris Erythraei and Ptolemy’s Geographia record Arabian and Indian trade with eastern Africa including ivory and rhinoceros horn and describe fishing practices using baskets and sewn-hull boats of the inhabitants. The increase in oceanic trade links here during the medieval period encouraged the formation of Swahili port cities such as Kilwa and Mombasa. The former was in a strategic position to manage much of the gold trade between Sofala in Mozambique and the northern Swahili Coast. Portuguese forts, constructed in the 15th and 16th centuries on their trade routes around Africa, such as Elmina Castle in Ghana, Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya, and Fort São Sebastião on Mozambique Island, dominate the ports and harbors. The first sub-Saharan underwater scientific investigations took place in 1976 of the Portuguese frigate Santo Antonio de Tanna that sunk during an Omani siege from 1696 to 1698. At Elmina in West Africa, studies were made of wreck-site formation processes around the 17th-century Dutch West India Company vessel Groeningen, which had caught fire when firing its guns in salute to Elmina Castle after arrival. More broad-based studies that interpret the functioning of the African maritime society in its wider environmental setting, both physically in the context of its religious buildings, harbors, fishing grounds, sailing routes, and shipwrecks, and by taking account of non-material aspects of the beliefs that influence behavior of coastal societies, have led to interpretations of their maritime outlook.

Article

Ancient Developments in the Middle Senegal Valley and the Inland Niger Delta  

Alioune Dème

The study of West Africa has contributed to the expansion of comparative arid-lands floodplain prehistory, from both the data collection (cultural and historical) and the theoretical aspects. The neoevolutionary approach that often pictures Africa as a backward continent has been successfully challenged. In the Middle Senegal Valley and in the Inland Niger Delta, research on their societies’ complexity done along these two subcontinent’s floodplains has described new processes (including urbanization) that were not previously featured in the archaeological literature. The two floodplains, because of their ecological diversity, with the richness of their ecological diversity, attracted Saharan populations affected by drought at the end of the second millennium and the first millennium BC. However, after their initiation occupation the two areas took different trajectories in complexity and settlement organization. Large complex settlements have been found at Jenne-jeno and in the Ile a Morphil that illustrate whole new trajectories of civilization. These forms of complexity, found in areas with historically known polities, were not included in the range of possibilities predicted by standard complexity theories regarding civilizational development. Ethnographic and historical data, reveal the existence of societies with a central authority embedded within and balanced by a diffuse, segmented and heterarchical power structure; often as a strategy to resist the individual consolidation of power. These societies exhibit evidence of horizontal differentiation and consensus-based decision making. All these types of organization are characterized by the presence of several sources of power vested in corporate entities, such as lineages, age groups, cults and secret societies.

Article

An Introduction to the Lower Niger Bronzes of Southern Nigeria  

Philip M. Peek

Southern Nigeria is rich in copper alloy cast works, such as those of the 9th-century burial goods of Igbo-Ukwu, the busts from 13th-century Ife, and the heads and plaques from the early 16th century from Benin City. Much scholarship has been devoted to these centers and yet there are other, perhaps even more historically important, works which have barely been acknowledged. The label “Lower Niger Bronzes” was proposed in the 1960s by William Fagg to account for those few pieces which did not fit with the three well-known centers’ works. On closer examination, these bronzes are far more numerous and of greater antiquity than previously realized. The quality and composition of these works indicate that most were likely cast prior to the European coastal trade in Nigeria which dates from the late 15th century. Leopard skull replicas, humanoid bell heads, small hippos, scepter heads, and masks make up only a portion of the works now under study. Without their original cultural contexts, these artifacts are somewhat mysterious, yet with careful study of their compositions and forms, much is revealed of a period of southern Nigerian history which predates the current arrangement of ethnic groups.

Article

Archaeology of Senegambia  

Sirio Canós-Donnay

The Senegambia is the area located between the rivers Senegal and Gambia, as well as its surrounding regions, including the countries of Senegal, the Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. The earliest documented references to the archaeology of the Senegambia date from the mid-19th century, in the form of short mentions in colonial reports and generalist scholarly journals. In the 1930s through the 1940s, the creation of research institutions facilitated the gradual professionalization of the discipline; and since independence, the quantity of researchers has both increased and diversified, as they use a range of approaches and period foci. Since the onset of the 21st century, the Stone Age has been a fast-developing area of study, ranging from the first evidence of hominin or human occupation 250 kya, to the development of pottery and animal domestication. Increasing social complexity, as well as technical developments, are a hallmark of the subsequent Iron Age, whose archaeology initially focused on the emergence of kingdoms and towns and has subsequently broadened to encompass also a wider range of societies at the margins of centralized polities. From the 15th century onward, the opening to the Atlantic world, together with the rise of the transatlantic slave trade, brought new dynamics across the region. As a result, much of the archaeology of this period has focused on trade (particularly the impact of the slave trade), new Afro-European settlements and sociopolitical change. Finally, although the archaeology of colonial and postcolonial remains is still incipient, it has received some coverage, particularly through ethno-archaeological studies, although the extent varies from country to country.

Article

Development of Plant Food Production in the West African Savannas: Archaeobotanical Perspectives  

Katharina Neumann

The West African savannas are a major area of independent plant domestication, with pearl millet, African rice, fonio, several legumes, and vegetable crops originating there. For understanding the origins of West African plant-food-producing traditions, it is useful to have a look at their precursors in the Sahara during the “African humid period” between 10,500 and 4,500 years ago. The Early and Middle Holocene Saharan foragers and pastoralists intensively used wild grasses for food but did not intentionally cultivate. Due to increasing aridity in the late 3rd millennium bce, the pastoralists migrated southward into the savanna zone. In this context pearl millet was domesticated and spread rapidly in West Africa during the 2nd millennium bce. It was first cultivated by agro-pastoral communities, predominantly on a small scale. The 1st millennium bce was a transitional phase: most of the early agricultural societies disappeared, but it was also a time of numerous economic and social innovations. Due to increasing aridity, the floodplains around Lake Chad and the valleys of the rivers Senegal and Niger became accessible to farming populations after 1000 bce. In the 1st millennium ce, agriculture intensified, with mixed cultivation of cereals and legumes and the integration of new African domesticates, such as sorghum, fonio, roselle, and okra. Pearl millet remained the major crop in most areas, while sorghum dominated in northern Cameroon. Imported wheat, date palm, and cotton appeared in the first half of the 2nd millennium ce. The combined exploitation of cultivated cereals, legumes, and wild fruit trees (e.g., shea butter tree) in agroforesty systems eventually resulted in a cultural landscape as it is still visible in West Africa today.

Article

The Empire of Ghana  

Nikolas Gestrich

The Empire of Ghana is one of the earliest known political formations in West Africa. Within the context of a growing trans-Saharan trade, Arabic sources begin to mention “Ghāna,” the name of a ruler as well as of the city or country he ruled, in the 9th century. Repeatedly named in connection with fabulous riches in gold, Ghāna had acquired a preeminent role in the western Sahel and was a leader among a large group of smaller polities. Ghāna’s influence waned, and by the mid-14th century its ruler had become subordinate to the Empire of Mali. Over the course of a complex history of research, the Empire of Ghana became equated with the Soninké people’s legend of Wagadu and the archaeological site of Kumbi Saleh in southern Mauritania was identified as its capital. Yet between historical sources, oral traditions, and archaeological finds, little is known with certainty about the Empire of Ghana. Most questions on this early West African empire remain unanswered, including its location, development, the nature and extent of its rule, and the circumstances of its demise.

Article

The Empire of Mali  

Sirio Canós-Donnay

The Mali Empire is one of the largest and most widely known precolonial African states. It has featured in films, video games, works of fiction, and its memory is still a profound force in the articulation of social and political identities across Mande West Africa. Founded in the 13th century in the south of modern Mali, it quickly grew from a small kingdom to a vast empire stretching from the Senegambia in the west to Ivory Coast in the south. Before its disintegration in the late 16th century, its connections to distant trade networks stretched from Europe to China and its rulers became famous across the Old World for their wealth. In the absence of indigenous written histories, knowledge of the Mali Empire has been based on a complex combination of oral traditions, medieval Arabic chronicles, European accounts, oral histories, and archaeology. Through a critical analysis of these sources, it has been possible to learn much about Mali’s history, including aspects its social organization, political structure, belief systems, and historical evolution. However, there is much we still do not know, including the location and nature of its capital(s).

Article

Food Production in the Forest Zone of West Africa: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives  

Richard T. Chia and A. Catherine D'Andrea

Recent narratives on the origin of food production in the West African forest zone have replaced earlier diffusion-based models with viewpoints that emphasize the diversity of sources for plants and animals exploited and domesticated in the region. Management of indigenous tree species, including oil palm and incense tree, managed first by indigenous foragers, have the longest history in the area, dating back to over 8,400 before present (bp). After the 4th millennium bp, domesticates such as pearl millet, cowpea, and domestic caprines were introduced from adjacent Sahel and the savanna regions, and populations began to favor oil palm over incense tree. The mechanisms of these introductions are less clear but likely involved both diffusion and/or movements of peoples who became sedentary to varying degrees. Palaeoenvironment is an important factor to consider in tracking the development of food production in the forest zone; however, some combination of natural and human-mediated changes took place, the nature of which was not uniformly distributed.

Article

Igbo-Ukwu  

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 ce raised high expectations in the frantic search for the rich but elusive Igbo historical heritage. Chinua Achebe expressed the imperative of unraveling Igbo precolonial history with an adage: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The Igbo-Ukwu excavation did not provide conclusive answers to many of the riddles still confronting Igbo historians; it has, however, pointed to some hidden aspects of the African past. As details continue to emerge, some of the conclusions already made about the Igbo in particular and Africa in general will be subject to further revisions.

Article

The Stone Age Archaeology of West Africa  

Eleanor Scerri

In the early 21st century, understanding West Africa’s Stone Age past has increasingly transcended its colonial legacy to become central to research on human origins. Part of this process has included shedding the methodologies and nomenclatures of narrative approaches to focus on more quantified, scientific descriptions of artifact variability and context. Together with a growing number of chronometric age estimates and environmental information, understanding the West African Stone Age is contributing evolutionary and demographic insights relevant to the entire continent. Undated Acheulean artifacts are abundant across the region, attesting to the presence of archaic Homo. The emerging chronometric record of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) indicates that core and flake technologies have been present in West Africa since at least the Middle Pleistocene (~780–126 thousand years ago or ka) and that they persisted until the Terminal Pleistocene/Holocene boundary (~12ka)—the youngest examples of such technology anywhere in Africa. Although the presence of MSA populations in forests remains an open question, technological differences may correlate with various ecological zones. Later Stone Age (LSA) populations evidence significant technological diversification, including both microlithic and macrolithic traditions. The limited biological evidence also demonstrates that at least some of these populations manifested a unique mixture of modern and archaic morphological features, drawing West Africa into debates about possible admixture events between late-surviving archaic populations and Homo sapiens. As in other regions of Africa, it is possible that population movements throughout the Stone Age were influenced by ecological bridges and barriers. West Africa evidences a number of refugia and ecological bottlenecks that may have played such a role in human prehistory in the region. By the end of the Stone Age, West African groups became increasingly sedentary, engaging in the construction of durable monuments and intensifying wild food exploitation.

Article

Stone Tools: Their Relevance for Historians and the Study of Historical Processes  

Justin Pargeter

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.

Article

The Archaeology of Nok Culture in Nigeria (2nd/1st Millennium BCE)  

Gabriele Franke

The elaborate terracotta figurines of central Nigerian Nok culture date back to the early 1st millennium bce and represent the earliest large-size sculptural tradition in sub-Saharan Africa. Archaeological finds from the mid-20th century suggested that they appeared together with iron production and pointed to an early complex society preceding later Nigerian societies, such as Ile-Ife and Benin, which feature evidence for social differentiation and political organization. Fieldwork in the last fifteen years has yielded signs of specialization in terracotta and iron production, but no evidence for social or political complexity. Nok people were small-scale farmers living in dispersed homesteads from the mid-2nd millennium bce, when they arrived in the region from the north, and sharing the same lifeways, the same ceramic style, and, from 900 bce onward, the widely distributed use of highly standardized terracotta figurines. The earliest evidence for iron production is found at least one hundred years after the appearance of the first terracotta figurines, so that no link between the figurines and the presence of iron can be established. Excavations in 2016 have proven the spatial and temporal connection between terracotta figurine depositions and stone-pot arrangements interpreted as graves, indicating an ancestral belief system further revealed by evidence of feasting and mortuary rituals recurring over time. Thus, while no social or political complexity can be postulated for Nok culture based on the current evidence, the terracotta figurines and their use in mortuary rituals point to a complex ritual system spread over a large area in central Nigeria. Nok culture with its characteristic figurines and pottery disappears in the last centuries bce and is succeeded by people with new crops and different pottery in the early 1st millennium ce.

Article

The Archaeology of Political Complexity in West Africa Through 1450 CE  

Stephen Dueppen

Political complexity in archaeological research has traditionally been defined as socio-political differentiation (roles, statuses, offices) integrated through centralized systems of power and authority. In recent decades the assumption that complex organizational forms tend to be hierarchical in structure has been called into question, based upon both archaeological research and ethnological observations worldwide, including in classic archaeological case studies of centralization. Moreover, there has been an increasing interest in exploring variability in political legitimizations and articulations of power and authority globally. Until these theoretical shifts, West African complex societies, both archaeological and from ethnographic analyses, were largely ignored in discussions of political complexity since many (but not all) conformed poorly to the expectations of highly centralized power and administration. West African ethnohistoric and archaeological examples are now playing important roles in current discussions of heterarchical organizational structures, checks on exclusionary power, cooperation, urbanism, ethnicity, and the nature of administration in states.