Analogical arguments are central to and pervasive within archaeological discourse. Within these arguments, ethnographic analogies are often seen as being particularly problematic exercises in essentialism, which unthinkingly cast reified ethnographic schema back in time and thus perpetuate ideas about primitive indigenes, awaiting colonial contact to emerge from ahistorical primordial obscurity. The shadow of 19th-century social evolutionism, in which forager communities (not participating in agriculture and leading nomadic lifestyles) were represented as particularly primitive, has cast a pall of suspicion over ethnographic analogical models—especially as forager communities continue to feature prominently in such models to this day.
Archaeologists use ethnographic analogies in a variety of ways; these analogies are heuristic constructs tailored to research questions and to the stubbornness of particular suites of archaeological data. Such uses include inducing imaginative and revelatory modes of thinking about past societies, outside of the archaeologist’s usual experiences, as well as a suite of formal and relational analogies that seek to combine ethnographic data with data drawn from the physical sciences to help constrain archaeological interpretation.
Direct historical approaches utilize a collection of ethnographic and historical sources to construct analogies based on a relation of similarity between the communities of people involved; these frameworks, perhaps, carry the greatest danger of unwittingly casting modern populations as “contemporary primitives.” By emphasizing that source-side ethnographic datasets are heuristic tools rather than reflections of some sociocultural reality, such fears may (at least in part) be ameliorated. Saliently, archaeological data must operate as epistemologically equivalent to ethnographic data in order to resist the tendency to cast back a rich, textured ethnographic case study wholesale into the murky waters of prehistory. Only when this status is afforded archaeological data can is it possible to reveal the ways in which past conditions diverged from ethnographic ones.
James R. Denbow
Present data indicate that the domestication of wild cattle indigenous to the northern Sahara took place approximately eight to nine thousand years ago. This was followed around seven thousand years ago by the domestication of sorghum and millet in the Sahel and Nile regions of the southern Sahara. Other processes of domestication took place on the margins of the tropical forest in central Africa and in the highlands of Ethiopia. As these new technologies expanded southward, there was a moving frontier of interaction between food producers and autochthonous foragers. In some instances these new technologies may have diffused through preexisting networks that linked indigenous foragers. But in most cases it occurred through migration, as populations expanded to exploit the new technological, ecological, and economic advantages these new adaptations allowed. This did not take place in an empty land, however, and in each case complex interactions and negotiations between incoming farmers and indigenous foragers took place for access to resources and rights to settlement. While the details of this interaction varied along with differences in cultural and geographic context, it transformed the linguistic, genetic, and cultural makeup of sub-Saharan Africa after 5000