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Article

Iron production was a particularly important precolonial African technology, with iron becoming a central component of socioeconomic life in many societies across the continent. Iron-bearing ores are much more abundant in the earth’s crust than those of copper, and in Africa, iron was recovered from these ores using the bloomery process, until the importation of European iron in the later second millennium eventually undermined local production. Although smelting was most intensively focused in regions where all the necessary components of a smelt were plentiful—iron ore, ceramic, fuel, and water—frequent occurrences of small-scale, local iron production mean that iron slag and associated remains are common finds on archaeological sites across Africa. The archaeological remains found on iron production and iron-working sites can provide detailed information about the past processes that were undertaken at these sites, as well as the people involved with the technologies both as practitioners and consumers. A variety of analytical approaches are commonly used by archaeometallurgists to learn more about past iron technologies, particularly those methods that explore the chemistry and mineralogy of archaeological samples. By interpreting the results of these analyses in conjunction with ethnographic, historical, and experimental data, it is possible to reconstruct the techniques and ingredients that past smelters and smiths employed in their crafts, and address important questions concerning the organization of production, the acquisition of raw materials, innovations and changes in technological approach, and the environmental and social changes that accompanied these technologies.

Article

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

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

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

Louis Champion and Dorian Q. Fuller

Archaeobotany’s goals are to investigate the interactions between human societies and the plant world in the past from the botanical remains preserved in archaeological sites, including the environment people exploited and the foods they extracted from it. Archaeobotanical research in Africa has tended to be less widely practiced than in many other parts of the world, and systematic archaeobotanical sampling is still only incorporated into a minority of archaeological field projects in Africa. Nevertheless, there is potential for archaeobotany to contribute to a holistic understanding of Africa’s past. The general scope of archaeobotany is outlined before focusing on how typical archaeobotanical remains relate to agriculture and food production. A short overview on the practical side of collecting archaeobotanical samples is provided. Archaeobotany’s two general themes are discussed: hunter-gatherer subsistence and the origins of agriculture.

Article

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.

Article

Carla Klehm

The prehistory of Botswana concerns the sophisticated environmental knowledge, economic strategies, and social networks of the hunter-gatherer, pastoralists, and agropastoralist communities that have called Botswana home. Diverse subsistence strategies and societal structures ranging from heterarchical to hierarchical have coincided and responded flexibly to climate and environmental variables. Botswana has also played a central, but often overlooked, role in precolonial trade within the interior of Africa and across the Indian Ocean. Botswana contains well-preserved archaeological records for the Middle Stone Age, Late Stone Age, and Iron Age periods, including one of the highest concentrations of rock art in the world at Tsodilo Hills. The prehistory of Botswana extends over 100,000 years and includes successful, innovative, and adaptive occupations in a wide variety of environmental zones, from the Okavango Delta to the Kalahari sandveld, and better-watered hardveld areas in the east. Stone Age peoples adapted to both arid and wet lands, and the archaeological record includes early evidence for freshwater fish exploitation. Hunting with bone points dates to 35,000 years ago, with additional evidence for poisonous, reversible arrowheads between 21,000 and 30,000 years ago. Evidence for ritualized behavior through rock paintings, rock carvings, and the intentional destruction and abandonment of stone tools at Tsodilo Hills provides further insights to the social dimensions of early peoples. In the Iron Age, hunter-gatherer communities and agropastoralists participated in a regional and later protoglobal trade across the Indian Ocean for a thousand years before European involvement; as the regional economy intensified, large polities such as Bosutswe and even kingdoms such as the Butua state emerged, controlling access to resources such as game, ivory, salt, specularite, and gold. In the modern era, the historical archaeology of sites such as Old Palapye (Phalatswe) provide additional insight to historical documents that can contradict Eurocentric understandings of Botswana’s past.

Article

Colonial settlement at the southern tip of Africa was pre-dated by 150 years of occasional encounters with European mariners. They touched on the coast to refresh water barrels, barter for meat with the local pastoralists, and repair their crafts, or in some cases found themselves wrecked and desperate on the shores of the “Cape of Storms.” It became the “Cape of Good Hope” after fleets of European ships profiteered from the sea route to the resources of India and Asia, among them the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British. The formal date for permanent foreign occupation of the Cape is 1652, when a Dutch East India Company (VOC, the Company) force anchored in Table Bay and, with some basic tools, materials, and supplies, set up camp. After the decline and bankruptcy of the VOC in the late 18th century, a brief military occupation by the British (1795–1802), and an interim Dutch (“Batavian”) administration (1803–1806), the Cape became a British colony. By 1820 the Cape Colony stretched northward as far as the Orange River, and eastward to the Fish and Tugela rivers. Colonial settlement expanded with the arrival of traders, pastoralists, missionaries, and emigrants and created volatile zones in which settlers and African hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and farmers contested with one another over land and resources. The colonial project continued into the later 19th century, spurred by the discovery of gold and diamonds far inland where independent Boer republics and Griqua states had been established. British imperialism and the lure of mineral wealth led to wars of annexation. Following the Second South African (“Anglo-Boer”) War (1899–1902) and subsequent attempts to reunify the country, in 1910 the “Union of South Africa” became a self-governing dominion within the British Empire, gaining formal independence in 1934. Thus, colonial settlement at the Cape covers a 250-year period and a vast area (roughly equivalent to the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape Provinces, and parts of North West Province). From an archaeological perspective, studies encompass the city of Cape Town and sites fanning out from there chronologically and spatially, such as grazing grounds, military outposts, the towns and villages of the coast and hinterland, arable and pastoral farms, sites of conflict and interaction, missions, and mines.

Article

The first East African pastoralists arrived at the shores of Lake Turkana soon after the end of the African Humid Period, about 5,000 years ago. In the preceding millennia of the Holocene, fishing economies characterized East Africa. The domestic animals of the early pastoralists were not indigenous to East Africa, nor did they spread through the region simultaneously. Early pastoralist archaeological sites around Lake Turkana comprise settlements and remarkable monumental cemeteries. The expansion of pastoralists further south through East Africa was a two-stage process, probably because of the challenges posed by the presence of diseases fatal to livestock. First, caprines spread south and appear to have been integrated into existing forager subsistence systems. Then, starting toward the end of the 2nd millennium bce, specialized pastoralism began to be established across central and southern Kenya and into northern Tanzania. While analysis of lipid residues on potsherds has demonstrated that these Pastoral Neolithic (PN) peoples milked their animals, the question of whether agriculture was also practiced remains unresolved. Analyses of ancient DNA have shown there were at least two episodes of demic diffusion associated with the spread and establishment of the PN in East Africa. Considerable diversity is present in the PN, with three distinct cultures generally recognized across East Africa south of Lake Turkana. Moreover, there is even greater diversity observed in the decoration and shapes of ceramics. However, this cultural diversity is not matched by human genetic diversity, at least among the analyzed skeletons from two of the three cultures—the Elmenteitan and the Savanna Pastoral Neolithic.

Article

Farming Communities have lived in northeastern South Africa since the 4th century ad. Archaeologists use pottery style and radiocarbon dates in their reconstructions of the temporal and spatial distribution of these farming community settlements in the Lowveld, on the Great Escarpment and on the Central Plateau. Early Farming Community sites tend to be restricted to the Lowveld and river valleys, while Middle and Late Farming Community sites are distributed more widely. Early Farming Communities lived in scattered homesteads until the development of chiefdoms toward the end of the first millennium. Chiefly settlements comprised larger, aggregated sites. After the 16th century, larger-scale aggregation started, resulting in extensive, dense settlements such as the stonewalled Bokoni towns. Food production and procurement ranged from small household-scale practices to specialized hunting and intensive farming. Salt and metal extraction and production also were important components in the regional economy. The initial production of salt was household based, but Middle Farming Communities developed this into a specialized industry. Metal production was not industrialized and, while the scale of metal production increased through time, production took place at a household level. Since the early 10th century ad, these local enterprises intersected with international trade systems, thereby linking the interior of South Africa into international trade networks. These indigenous networks, however, were disrupted and at times intentionally disarticulated when European colonial powers extended their control over southern Africa.

Article

The meaning and context of gender is contested even in the 21st century. No generalizations about gender are applicable through time or across space. Even where gender roles are defined by particular cultural norms, they are not static, and an individual may pass through several gendered social transformations in a lifetime. Sub-Saharan African rites of passage into adulthood are sometimes marked by gender-specific physical mutilations such as circumcision, dental modification or scarification, together with other forms of symbolic marking that invariably adopt a binary gender system as the norm. The initiations are largely designed to instruct initiates about behavior appropriate for men and women of reproductive age belonging to a specific community. Some aspects of initiation rites may be detected archaeologically through skeletal alterations, rock art motifs, and props such as scarified dolls. Concepts of gender are also connected to the last rite of passage: burial. Through this, people gain access to the ancestral world. In some parts of Africa such as Mali, men and women are buried with the artifacts they owned in life, while in Ethiopia, stelae mark the gender of the deceased. Elsewhere, as in the Stone Age of southern Africa, gender-undifferentiated grave goods are placed with men, women, and children, suggesting a genderless ancestral world. Gender roles can be identified in some archaeological sites in parts of Africa, and these roles sometimes appear to have altered through time. Gender roles changed with environmental shifts, and certain tasks such as big-game hunting disappeared as a result. In other cases, gender roles were revised because of social pressures imposed on specific communities.

Article

Sarah Schrader and Stuart Tyson Smith

Kerma was a Bronze Age culture (c. 2500–1500 bce) located in what is today Sudan and southern Egypt. It is one of the earliest complex societies in Africa and, at its height, rivaled Ancient Egypt. The ancient Kerma culture spans the Pre-Kerma, examining the settlements and cemeteries of this ancient culture during the Pre-Kerma (3500–2500 bce, included here as a precursor to the Kerma civilization), Early Kerma, Middle Kerma, Classic Kerma, and Recent Kerma periods. Much of what is known comes from the capital city and type site, Kerma. However, other urban centers such as Sai, as well as hinterland communities, are also discussed. An archaeological approach is crucial to the examination of Kerma’s past because an indigenous writing system had not yet been developed. Interaction with Egypt is discussed, but only as it relates to Kerma’s historical context. Chronological changes to craft production, religious practices, domestic spaces, and funerary rituals are framed by larger sociopolitical and socioeconomic issues, including inequality, political authority, and economic development.

Article

Veerle Linseele

Archaeozoology is the study of animal remains, mainly bones and other hard parts, from archaeological sites. It contributes to a more complete understanding of various aspects of human life in the past. Ideally, archaeozoologists, like other specialists, should be involved in the entire process of an archaeological research project, from its design, to fieldwork and data collecting, to final reporting and publication. For efficient communication and fruitful collaboration, the archaeologists involved in this process need to understand the basics of archaeozoological methodology and the range of questions that the discipline can answer. Methods vary among archaeozoologists—not least with regard to quantification—and it is important to be aware of these differences and their possible impact on results when comparing data for different sites. While the actual analysis of animal remains is done by the archaeozoologists, preferably in circumstances where they have access to a comparative collection of recent animal skeletons, the excavation and collection of remains is often the responsibility of the archaeologists. Animal remains are affected by a host of taphonomic processes of loss that are beyond our control. To avoid additional loss of information at the fieldwork stage, appropriate methods are particularly important. The use of sieves with a mesh size no greater than 2 mm is essential in order not to miss the smaller, but no less informative, animal remains. Project leaders play an important role in providing good storage facilities for archaeozoological remains after excavation and after study. With the rapid development in analytical methods, it can be extremely interesting to return to previously studied remains and sample them.

Article

Koen Bostoen

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.

Article

Analysis of ceramics in archaeological contexts has provided a range of information regarding African history. Archaeologists have approached ceramics as a craft as well as an indicator of identity and status. The Africanist focus on the technological development of ceramic manufacture and production has taken several forms. The most notable are (1) the origins of ceramic production, (2) the spread and independent invention of this technology and regional styles through typological analysis, and (3) technological change related to the identity of the producers and consumers including changing dietary practices over time. The various arguments put forth for the first production and use of ceramics in different regions of the continent are connected to the exploitation of available resources such as fish as well as the rise of agricultural production. Following the appearance and technical history of ceramics in various regions of the continent, a focus on foodways and regional cuisine has placed ceramics at the forefront of interpretation.

Article

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.

Article

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

Promoted by necessity, scarcity, and/or abundance, trade is one of the most essential cultural behaviors that promoted contact and exchange of ideas, commodities, and services between individuals and communities and variously transformed African societies of different regions and time periods. Anthropological, historical (including historical linguistics), and archaeological evidence points to the existence, on the one hand, of intra-African trade and, on the other, of external trade between Africa and those outside the continent. Traditionally, however, trade and exchange involving perishable and organic commodities such as grain and cattle have until now been very difficult to identify due to a lack of well-resolved documentation techniques. By comparison, some objects such as metal artifacts, glass beads, ceramics, and porcelain are pyrotechnological products, with a high survival rate that makes their trade and exchange easily visible archaeologically. Given the well-known regional differences across the continent, it is essential to combine multiple sources and techniques, in a multipronged way, to provide a dynamic picture of the mechanics of precolonial African trade and exchange of various time periods and geographies.

Article

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.

Article

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.