Environmental history highlights the dynamic interaction between the physical environment and human society, respectively framed as nature and culture. Attributing agency to the environment is perhaps the most distinguishing attribute of environmental history as an approach while human society’s struggle to overcome environmental challenges is a major focus of environmental historians. Generally, students of the African past have tended to emphasize that Africa and Africans were more dependent on nature (including climate, geography, natural resources, “natural” population dynamics, disease) than societies elsewhere, especially those in the modern West. Thus, colonial and postcolonial analysts ascribe Africa’s past as the cradle of the human species, its present lack of political and economic development, and its bleak future in an age of climate change not to any African (or human) genius but to the caprices of an undomesticated environment and interventions by outside actors that disturb an environment-people balance. Historians emphasized that political subjugation, agricultural development, and conservation increased African societies’ vulnerability (to malnutrition, drought, and indigenous and exotic diseases, for example) in the face of environmental change because it enclosed and alienated such key natural resources as land, woodlands, wildlife, and water. More recently, historians of Africa have highlighted a more dynamic and interactive relationship between society and environment in Africa beyond the analytical and nested dichotomies of Nature-Culture, Indigenous-Invasive, and Victim/Subaltern-Perpetrator/Ruler. The perspective opens space for considering how societies perceived and shaped their environments physically and mentally in conjunction with other ideas and forces, including a variety of human and non-human agents, further enriching the study of environmental history.
Sharon E. Nicholson
Environmental constraints have large impacts on populations, especially in semi-arid regions such as Africa. Climate and weather have long affected African societies, but unfortunately the traditional climatic record for the continent is relatively short. For that reason, historical information has often been used to reconstruct climate of the past. Sources of historical information include reports and diaries of explorers, settlers, and missionaries; government records; reports of scientific expeditions; and historical geographical and meteorological journals. Local oral tradition is also useful. It is reported in the form of historical chronicles compiled centuries later. References to famine and drought, economic conditions, floods, agriculture, weather events, and the season cycle are examples of useful types of information. Some of the records also include meteorological measurements. More recently chemical and biological information, generally derived from lake cores, has been applied to historical climate reconstruction. Early works provided in most cases qualitative, discontinuous information, such as drought chronologies. However, a statistical method of climate reconstruction applied to a vast collection of historical information and meteorological data allowed for the creation of a two-century, semi-quantitative “precipitation” data set. It consists of annual indices related to rainfall since 1800 for ninety regions of the African continent. This data set has served to illustrate several 19th-century periods of anomalous rainfall conditions that affected nearly the entire continent. An example is widespread aridity during several decades early in that century.
Southern Africa has experienced significant environmental changes since the breakup of the Gondwana supercontinent, starting around 180 million years ago. These environmental changes broadly reflect the interplay between tectonic and global-scale climatic drivers, which in combination result in changes to the properties and dynamics of land surface physical and ecological processes. The preserved record of such processes can be used as proxy indicators to reconstruct past environments and climates. In southern Africa, different types of proxy indicators have formed and are preserved in different geographical areas, broadly corresponding to their individual climatic and geomorphic contexts. Three significant time intervals over which landscape evolution have taken place are the Phanerozoic, the late Quaternary, and the last 200 years. A critical outcome of this analysis is that the record of environmental change in southern Africa is highly variable and only partly preserved, and that there are spatial and temporal gaps which mean that it is difficult to construct a continuous or unambiguous environmental history either for all areas of the region or for all time intervals. Changing physical drivers and environmental controls over time, including land surface feedbacks, are now being supplanted by a stronger imprint of human activity in the Anthropocene.
Climate has emerged as one of a number of themes in debates concerning the formation and disaggregation of African state structures before the colonial era. The proliferation of paleoclimatic data series from “natural archives” such as tree-rings has shed increasing light on changes in temperature and precipitation stretching back millennia. Such long-term climatic changes could have enduring effects on human livelihoods in agriculturally marginal areas. The apparent coincidence of periods of climatic change with major turning points in African history over the last millennium has therefore led to claims of causation, with early moves towards state formation in the Shashe–Limpopo basin (c. 1000–1220ce) and in KwaZulu-Natal (c. 1750–1800) linked to contemporaneous warm–wet conditions, and the decline, or “collapse,” of state structures, including Mapungubwe (c. 1300ce) and Great Zimbabwe (c. 1450ce), linked to a shift to cooler and drier regional climates. Recent literature from both within and outside of the southern African context has begun to question the veracity of climate-driven historical change. In the southern African case, there remains considerable uncertainty concerning the climate history of the region prior to 1800. The climatic signatures captured by some records are ambiguous in their representation of temperature or precipitation, while many long-duration climate records available for southern Africa are simply of insufficient temporal resolution to capture the short-term extremes in rainfall that have proved challenging to societies in more recent centuries. Even where there is robust evidence for the coincidence of wet or dry conditions with societal change, African farming communities were far from passive observers, but responded to environmental stress in a variety of ways. The relative length, continuity and richness of the historical record in Zimbabwe and Mozambique after. c. 1505 provides opportunities to look more closely at these relationships. From the early 16th century onwards, Portuguese observers left records of those droughts which most impacted societies. These short-term extremes—usually back-to-back years of deficient, irregular or delayed rainfall, sometimes coupled with locust plagues—had varying effects between and within societies as they were “filtered” through different levels of societal vulnerability and resilience, which in turn engendered divergent responses. Analysis of over three centuries of written records on the pre-colonial period suggest that climate-related stress alone, while sometimes leading to famine, was rarely enough to cut deeper into the political fabric of the region; yet, when combined with weak institutional capacity, warfare, or increasingly uneven distributions of power, extreme and protracted droughts could prove decisive and help bring about transformations in society. The Mutapa state and lower Zambezi valley during the late 16th and early 19th centuries, as well as the Zulu kingdom in the 1820s, serve as cases in point.
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.
The Sahel or Sahil is in a sense the “coast” of the Sahara and its cities major “ports” in trade circuits linking long-standing regional exchange in the products of different ecozones to the markets of the Mediterranean through the trans-Saharan trade. Despite botanical diversity and the capacity to support high concentrations of humans and livestock, the productivity of this region depends upon a single unpredictable annual rainy season. Long- and short-term fluctuations in aridity have required populations specializing in hunting, farming, fishing, pastoralism, gold mining, and trade to be mobile and to depend upon one another for their survival. While that interdependence has often been peaceful and increasingly facilitated through the shared idiom of Islam, it has also taken more coercive forms, particularly with the introduction of horses, guns, and a dynamic market in slaves. Although as an ecozone the region stretches all the way to the Red Sea, the political Sahel today comprises Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad—all former French colonies. France’s empire was superimposed upon the existing dynamics in the agropastoral meeting ground of the desert edge. Colonial requirements and transportation routes weakened the links between the ecozones so crucial to the success of states and markets in the region. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1905, France tacitly condoned the persistence of servile relations to secure requisitions of labor, food, and livestock. Abolition set off a very gradual shift from slavery to other kinds of labor patterns which nonetheless drew upon preexisting social hierarchies based upon religion, caste, race, and ethnicity. At the same time, gender and age gained in significance in struggles to secure labor and status. “Black Islam” (Islam noir), both invented and cultivated under French rule, was further reinforced by the bureaucratic logic of the French empire segregating “white” North Africa and “black” sub-Saharan Africa from one another. Periodic drought and famine in the region has prompted a perception of the Sahel as a vulnerable ecological zone undergoing desertification and requiring intervention from outside experts. Developmentalist discourse from the late colonial period on has facilitated the devolution of responsibilities and prerogatives that typically belong to the state to nongovernmental bodies. At the same time, competition over political authority in the fragmented postcolonial states of the Sahel has often reinscribed and amplified status and ethnic differences, pitting Saharan populations against the governments of desert edge states. External and internal radical Islamic movements entangled with black market opportunists muddy the clarity of the ideological and political stakes in ways that even currently (2018) further destabilize the region.