Humans have utilized and exchanged ivory from different species of elephant living on the African continent for millennia, with ivory from both forest and savannah species being exploited. Starting around 4600 bp, elephant ivory sourced on the African continent also began to be exported to other parts of the world. The ways of working ivory, the uses to which it has been put, and its symbolic and representational meanings have all varied according to context across space and time. Different agents have played diverse and varying roles in its acquisition, crafting, and distribution. From early on, ivory’s malleability and comparative strength relative to other raw materials made it particularly sought after. Its color and texture, as well as the variation between species and in its structure at different points on a tusk, have also been critical aspects of its material affordances. Archaeological evidence from sub-Saharan Africa, especially material dating from after the bce/ce transition, combined with ethnographic and historical data, provides important insights into the deep history of ivory, where it has been sourced on the continent, what is known about how it was worked in the distant past, and the changing history of its trade and exchange both within and beyond the continent. Regional and global shifts in its circulation, along with some of the societal and ecological consequences of these have also been studied, with particular reference to eastern Africa. Despite many advances in recent years, there is still a need for further multidisciplinary and multi-sited research informed by posthumanist perspectives and ethics.
Paul J. Lane and Ashley N. Coutu
Nonofho Mathibidi Ndobochani
Africa is the cradle of humankind, with the origin, evolution, and dispersal of hominids understood from this continent. It was not left out in the quest for knowledge on how human beings lived in the past, where they lived, what they used and ate, as well as changes that occurred through time. The development of archaeology in Africa, as elsewhere, had two aspects to it—the volume and inclination of work done as evidenced by extensive fieldwork and publications, and the change in approach that saw a shift toward philosophical and methodological concerns. Terminology broadened as there was a shift from merely establishing evidence of occupation and the presence of material culture, to studying the subtleties and processes underlying the material culture. The human mind is complex; it generated a dynamic material culture temporally and spatially, and notwithstanding the environmental impact on past cultures, humanity also colonized landscapes. Appreciation of an interchange between humanity and the environment became necessary to sync and contextualize the development of ideas, concepts, and worldviews, and whether they emerged from within societies or were externally influenced, they were shared across time and space—necessitating multidisciplinary approaches to studying the past. To an archaeological scholar in Africa, the problem is compounded. The study of the past has always been from an observer’s point of view, resulting in the call to “decolonize archaeology”—Africans were alienated in studying the past and the tendency was to have them not see this past as their heritage. Archaeology must be relevant to Africa’s issues of environmental management, food security, and socioeconomic challenges such as youth and women’s empowerment. What can the discipline offer? Is the archaeology of Africa accessible to its population, and do we see possibilities for an intergenerational beneficiation of Africa’s past? Most importantly, Africa still has a wealth of knowledge to offer in the study of the paleoenvironment, human evolution, food production and processing, historical ecology, multidisciplinary approaches, and computer technology. Their contribution to a better understanding of the rich, complex, and dynamic African past is of utmost importance.
Abidemi Babatunde Babalola
The earliest glass beads in the archaeological record in West Africa dates to the 7th through 5th centuries bce, predating the Islamic trade in the region. By early 2nd millennium ce, the occurrence of glass beads had increased exponentially following the influx of goods and people. Thus, glass beads on the subcontinent are traced to outside sources. Compositional analysis has revealed that most glass beads in West Africa were made from soda-lime-silica glass fluxed with either mineral soda or plant ash. A group with soda-lime-alumina and another with high concentration of lead have also been identified. The origins of the glass beads of these compositional groups have been traced to the Middle East, Mesopotamia, the Levant, the Eastern Mediterranean, South Asia, and medieval Europe connecting West African to the global interactive system. Archaeological investigations since 2010 at Ile-Ife, Southwest Nigeria have revealed the existence of the first-known West African primary glassmaking workshop dated to early 2nd millennium ce. The workshop at Ile-Ife mass-produced glass beads and became a regional center supplying glass beads to the trade network. Three techniques of glass bead manufacture are common in West Africa: drawn, wound, and molded/powdered. While drawn and wound beads have early occurrence in West Africa, molded/powdered beads appeared later, popular from the 16th century. Morphologically, glass beads of all colors, shapes, size, and diaphaneity have been recovered from archaeological context. Glass beads are ubiquitous materials in West Africa. They are materiality of globalized world, insignias of power and status, indicators of West African ingenuity and creativity, and emblems of social, political, and religious complexity.
The contexts of hunter-gatherer rock arts of the southern Maloti-Drakensberg are characterized by enduring patterns of cultural acquisition and social transformation, resulting in communities with highly contextual identities and cultural possessions, but with nonlinear relationships between the two. Attempts to mitigate discontinuities between ethnographic source and interpretive subject, however, have left interpretive methodologies to represent authorship in more singular terms, to the exclusion of potential contextual sources who express identities not outwardly San, despite ancestral trajectories overlapping those of the artists. Recognition of the inheritances of the communities of the present Maloti-Drakensberg, and their transformative histories, necessitates their inclusion not only as sources, but as contributors to ethnoarchaeological process.
Patrick Randolph-Quinney and Anthony Sinclair
The Osteodontokeratic (ODK for short) is a technological and cultural hypothesis first proposed by Raymond A. Dart in 1957, based on fossils recovered from the South African cave site of Makapansgat. Dart proposed that the extinct hominin species Australopithecus prometheus were predatory, cannibalistic meat eaters, and specialized hunters. He suggested that they manufactured and used a toolkit based on the bones (osteo), teeth (donto), and horns (keratic) of prey animals, and that these first tools were evidence for the “predatory transition from ape to man” as a distinct stage in human evolutionary development. Dart based his hypothesis on the analysis of bones of fossil ungulates and other prey species found at Makapansgat. The parts of the skeleton recovered from the cave were biased toward the skull and limb bones, whilst the thorax, pelvis, and tail were largely absent, indicating a selection agent at work. The bones also exhibited evidence of damage, which Dart suggested could only have been caused by intentional violence. Many of the bones were blackened, which he suggested was due to burning or charring in a controlled fire. In his mind, the hominins of Makapansgat were prodigious hunters who used organic tools to kill their prey, whereupon they cooked and ate the meat, discarding waste bone but utilizing some of the skeletal material to make new tools. Dart developed a detailed typology of complete or modified bones that he indicated could be used as clubs, projectiles, daggers, picks, saws, scoops, and cups—in doing so, he confused form with function. Dart and the ODK were championed by the American playwright Robert Ardrey across four hugely successful popular science books starting with African Genesis in 1961. Following Dart, these books portrayed our early ancestors as aggressive hunters killing prey and each other, driven by a need to protect their territory. This concept infiltrated popular culture through the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey released in 1968, making the ODK perhaps the most famous scientific claim for an original form of human technology. Dart’s hypothesis was not widely accepted by contemporary scientists such as Kenneth Oakley, Sherburn Washburn, John Robinson, and C. K. “Bob” Brain, and led Brain to conduct his own field research on the agents of fossil accumulation and site formation processes in South Africa. Brain later demonstrated that the pattern of bone damage and skeletal part representation recorded by Dart at Makapansgat was the result of nonhuman modification, particularly accumulation and dietary processing of ungulate carcasses by large carnivores such as leopard or hyena. Furthermore, the blackening of bone was caused by manganese mineral staining. In testing and falsifying the ODK hypothesis, Brain and fellow researchers laid the experimental groundwork for the discipline of vertebrate taphonomy (the laws of burial and postmortem processes) which is now a cornerstone in paleolithic archaeology and the study of early human origins. It is debatable whether this scientific specialism would exist in its present form without Dart’s claims for the ODK.