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.
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.
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.
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).
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.