Humans have foraged across diverse eastern African landscapes for millions of years. In the 21st century, few eastern Africans rely exclusively on foraging, but there are groups for whom this strategy remains central to daily life. Drawing analogies between present and past lifeways is one approach to understanding ancient foragers, but multiple lines of evidence are needed to appreciate past variation. Ethnohistories, historical linguistics, and genetics are also potential sources of information on past foragers. However, most data come from the archaeological record, key to investigating the diversity of ancient foragers in terms of technology, subsistence, mobility, social organization, and cultural expression. The spread of herding and farming in eastern Africa over the past five millennia had a definitive impact upon foraging lifeways. Ethnographic, archaeological, and ethnohistoric evidence enables development and testing of hypotheses for past forager–food producer interactions. Some evidence suggests that past social groups (or individuals in them) may have shifted among foraging and food-producing strategies on a situational basis. Other data indicate that foragers may have joined herding and farming communities, and vice versa. Eastern African foragers have played an underappreciated role in large-scale social, economic, and political systems. Beginning in the late Pleistocene (some 130,000 years ago), prehistoric obsidian exchange networks extended over hundreds of kilometers. Early in the Common Era (nearly 2,000 years ago), foragers were involved in Indian Ocean economic spheres that extended to western and southern Asia. The precolonial and colonial ivory and slave trades in the 16th through 19th centuries exploited and impacted foraging communities. Settler colonialism in the 20th century had devastating impacts on foragers and their access to ancestral lands. More recent threats to forager livelihoods include economic “development” and environmental destruction. The future of the foraging lifeway is in peril, and the 21st-century state plays a key role in determining if it will continue.
Mary E. Prendergast
Lydia Wilson Marshall
Despite its long history in the region, slavery in Eastern Africa has attracted little archaeological attention. This deficit is partly due to the reticence of many Eastern Africans to discuss slavery, a historically painful topic. In addition, some archaeologists have expressed skepticism about the material visibility of the practice. That is, they question whether slavery can be archaeologically identified. Given these concerns, those archaeologists who have pursued the study of slavery in Eastern Africa tend to focus on the 18th and 19th centuries, when historical documentation of the practice is well established. Archaeologists in the region have considered slavery in a variety of settings—including not only plantations but also contexts of slaving and emancipation. Research in Eastern Africa has helped to challenge and complicate definitions of slavery rooted in American historical experience. Yet, perspectives on slavery from outside of the region continue to shape public memory in Eastern Africa; increased outside interest and investment in the heritage of slavery has begun to influence both memorialization and the practice of memory itself. For example, heritage funding from UNESCO is tied to particular expectations for how slavery is defined and what counts as heritage. In this context, archaeologists studying slavery in Eastern Africa grapple with their responsibilities to many different stakeholders and audiences. In particular, they continue to work to make slavery research and memorialization more meaningful to Eastern Africans themselves. In addition, researchers have begun to develop methodological tools to push the study of slavery in Eastern Africa to deeper time periods less undergirded by historical documents.
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.
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 Bantu Expansion stands for the concurrent dispersal of Bantu languages and Bantu-speaking people from an ancestral homeland situated in the Grassfields region in the borderland between current-day Nigeria and Cameroon. During their initial migration across most of Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa, which took place between approximately 5,000 and 1,500 years ago, Bantu speech communities not only introduced new languages in the areas where they immigrated but also new lifestyles, in which initially technological innovations such as pottery making and the use of large stone tools played an important role as did subsequently also farming and metallurgy. Wherever early Bantu speakers started to develop a sedentary way of life, they left an archaeologically visible culture. Once settled, Bantu-speaking newcomers strongly interacted with autochthonous hunter-gatherers, as is still visible in the gene pool and/or the languages of certain present-day Bantu speech communities. The driving forces behind what is the principal linguistic, cultural, and demographic process in Late Holocene Africa are still a matter of debate, but it is increasingly accepted that the climate-induced destruction of the rainforest in West Central Africa around 2,500 years ago gave a boost to the Bantu Expansion.