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The use of numerical data and statistical sources in African history has expanded in recent decades, facilitated by technological advances and the digitization of primary sources. This expansion has included new analysis of traditional measures (population, government, and trade) as well as new sources of individual-level data such as census returns, marriage registers, and military and police records. Overall, this work has allowed for a more comprehensive quantitative picture of Africa’s history, and in particular facilitated comparisons within Africa and between African countries and other parts of the world. However, there remain misunderstandings about the collection, use, and interpretation of these data. Increasingly sophisticated methods of quantitative analysis can alienate scholars who have an intimate knowledge of the data and how they are produced, but lack specialist methodological training. At the same time, limited understanding of the origins and reliability of quantitative data can lead to misinterpretation.

Article

Mary E. Prendergast, Elizabeth A. Sawchuk, and Kendra A. Sirak

Africa harbors the greatest human genetic diversity on the planet, a fact that has inspired extensive investigation of the population structure found across the continent and the demographic processes that shaped observed patterns of genetic variation. Since the 1980s, studies of the DNA of living people have repeatedly demonstrated that Africa is the cradle of human origins, in agreement with fossil and archaeological evidence. Since the first ancient human genome was published in 2010, ancient DNA (aDNA) has contributed additional possibilities for exploring population history, providing a direct window into genetic lineages that no longer exist or are barely discernible. Genetic data from both living and ancient people—when integrated with available archaeological, bioarchaeological, historical linguistic, and written or oral historical data—are important tools for contextualizing African genetic diversity and understanding the biological and cultural processes that have shaped it over time. While most studies to date have focused on humans, aDNA can also be obtained from plant and animal remains, sediments, and some artifacts, all of which can enable a more comprehensive understanding of human lives. Genetic research on the African past often focuses on human origins and Pleistocene population structure, as well as on the origins, directionality, and tempo of demographic changes that accompanied Holocene transitions to herding and farming. The rise of cosmopolitan cities and states in the past two millennia has been examined with genetic evidence to a very limited extent, but this is a potentially rich vein of research. Increasingly, forced migrations of enslaved Africans and the development of the diaspora are the subjects of genetic study as well. Yet to date, Africa remains vastly understudied relative to parts of the world such as Eurasia, in terms of both ancient and present-day DNA. This shapes not only the study of the past but also medical innovations and public health. While the bulk of published African genomes come from present-day people, there are problems with relying solely on this data to reconstruct the past, given the continent’s long and complex demographic history. Increasingly, aDNA is providing novel perspectives on a past largely invisible in the genomes of people living in the 20th and 21st centuries due to recent demographic shifts. A surge in African aDNA studies since 2015 has also renewed longstanding debates about the ethics of genetic research on people, both living and deceased. Researchers working in Africa today must consider ethical issues including stakeholder engagement, informed consent, and control of biological samples and data; in aDNA studies, descendant communities, museum curators, bioarchaeologists, and geneticists, among others, play critical roles in these discussions.

Article

The social and economic history of the Mascarene Islands of Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues must be viewed in the context of regional and global developments including the African diaspora of slave origin and European colonialism in both the Indian Ocean and Atlantic worlds. Mauritius and Réunion’s transformation into plantation colonies during the 18th and early 19th centuries was a complex process shaped by the cultivation of coffee, cloves, cotton, indigo, and sugar; Anglo-French rivalry for domination in the Indian Ocean; a reliance upon domestically generated and controlled capital; the importation of hundreds of thousands of African and Asian slaves from a global catchment area that stretched from West Africa eastward to Southeast Asia; and the increasing socioeconomic importance of the local free population of color during the early 19th century.

Article

The urban history of Africa is as ancient, varied, and complex as that of other continents, and the study of this history shares many of the theoretical, conceptual, and methodological challenges of urban history generally. Knowledge of Africa’s historic cities is based on archaeological investigation, analysis of historic documents, linguistics, and ethnographic field methods. The historiography of cities in Africa has debated what constitutes a city, how urbanization can be apprehended in the archaeological record and in documentary sources, why cities emerged, and how historic cities have related to states. The great impact colonization had on African urbanization is a major topic of research, including in the study of postcolonial cities. The “informality” of much contemporary urbanization, both in terms of economic activities and architecture, has been a major topic of research since the 1970s. With few exceptions, prior to the 20th century cities were relatively small, with no more than 20,000–30,000 inhabitants. Religion, trade, and the concentration of power were major factors in the rise of cities across the continent. The largest and most well-studied cities were often the capitals of important states. At times networks of city-states flourished, as in Hausaland, Yorubaland, and along the Swahili coast. The cities of northern Africa shared many morphological characteristics with other cities of the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, being characterized by a high density of population, masonry architecture, and encircling city walls. South of the Sahara, cities tended to be multinucleated, with low densities of population and built-over surfaces, and they tended to merge with surrounding agricultural landscapes in an urban–rural continuum. Perishable construction materials such as earth, wattle, and thatch were widely used for both domestic and public architecture.

Article

British views of African populations from 1800 to 1970 reflected the larger discourse about Africa in this period. These views shaped how the British state and private groups attempted to measure and influence African population trends. In the precolonial era, travelers painted a picture of an underpopulated continent ravaged by war and slavery. Malthus used these accounts in his depiction of African populations limited by insecurity, low productivity, and primitive customs. Malthus’s view would dominate British ideas of African population into the colonial era. Prior to that, missionary groups and antislavery activists invoked these ideas to justify efforts to change African customs through conversion and free labor. In the colonial era, the belief in underpopulation rationalized state interventions in African societies through forced labor and public health. Colonial regimes attempted to measure and classify their populations to facilitate taxation and administration. These early surveys failed to produce adequate results and estimates of African populations remained unreliable. Despite the absence of data, British officials and demographers continued to argue that lack of population represented a fundamental obstacle to development. Efforts to address this concern made little headway before the late 1930s, when the international criticism of empire forced British officials to embrace a more interventionist colonial state. Beginning in the late 1930s, British officials and demographers warned of signs of overpopulation, even though reliable census data remained elusive. As part of the postwar drive for development, officials used resettlement programs and agricultural schemes to improve productivity and to address presumed population pressure. In the late colonial era, the British allowed the creation of birth control clinics in African colonies. These private efforts became the basis of an international effort of population control focused on Africa that began in the late 1960s. Since the 1980s, scholars have created alternative explanations of African historical demography, relying on a variety of sources to challenge the existing paradigm.