Since their inception, precolonial mining and metallurgy gradually became essential social, technological, and even politico-economic pillars of African communities of varying time periods. However, the onset of metallurgy and mining and the associated technology and sociocultural beliefs varied from region to region in a way that defies generalization. Owing to their cultural and geographical location, Egypt, the Sudan, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa share some very broad similarities in their metallurgical histories. This in some cases sharply differs from that of many regions such as West, central, East and southern Africa. Interestingly, these regions too are characterized by technological similarity and diversity. When considered together, the multiple trajectories taken by metallurgy and mining in Africa’s different regions are essential for achieving a comparative understanding of the continent’s rich technological history. Achieving this, however, requires an interdisciplinary approach from documentation through data analysis to eventual interpretation. This contribution combines insights from various disciplines to present an overview of precolonial metallurgy and mining in Africa’s many regions.
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
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.
Paul Lane and Anna Shoemaker
Agricultural practices on the African continent are exceptionally diverse and have deep histories spanning at least eight millennia. Over time, farmers and herders have independently domesticated different food crops and a more limited range of animals, and have effectively modified numerous ecological niches to better suit their needs. They have also adopted “exotic” species from other parts of the globe, nurturing these to produce new cross-breeds and varieties better adapted to African conditions. Evidence for the origins of these different approaches to food production and their subsequent entanglement is attested by diverse sources. These include archaeological remains, bio- and geo-archaeological signatures, genetic data, historical linguistics, and processes of landscape domestication.
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 (
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.
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.
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
While there are a handful of defined methods for working with primary historical sources in archaeology, few archaeologists take these as their main points of departure or rely upon them too rigidly. This is to do both with the highly variable nature of the historical and archaeological material available for certain African contexts, and also with how archaeologists conceive of the relationship between these two bodies of evidence: as antagonistic, supplementary, entangled and subjective, mutually creative, and so on. Some methodologies focus on the potentials for consonance and dissonance between written and material sources. Others utilize oral traditions to provide insights into chronology, memory, historical and political dynamics, and the material aspects of these. Still other approaches focus on how historical and archaeological sources offer complementary perspectives on the local and the global, events and processes, and other shifts in scale. While these methods are diverse and contingent, they are united insofar as archaeologists take their cues from objects and from preoccupations with time and space. Archaeologists see their work concerning primary historical sources not as filling in gaps in written records but as addressing the partialities of the records themselves by engaging with an array of complex questions about meaning, authority, and materiality
David K. Wright
Understanding paleoclimates has been an important component of archaeological research for over a century. Human settlement, mobility, and subsistence activities are predicated on interactions with the natural world, and by reconstructing the broader environmental context, archaeologists can recognize the primary external catalyst of cultural change. Modern paleoenvironmental reconstruction methods employ techniques developed over the last century as well as those that are at the frontiers of scientific inquiry. Archaeologists intent on providing basic environmental context must first describe the sedimentology of surficial deposits in order to understand landform evolution. Furthermore, descriptions of soils, which form in stable, weathered sedimentary deposits, are critical indicators of past climate. Soils are first described in excavation test units using macro-scale classification schemes, but increasingly microscopic techniques such as soil micromorphology in thin sections and DNA sequences of endemic microbiota are being used. Various types of plant and animal communities hosted in archaeological deposits also provide critical environmental details as they are often temperature and precipitation dependent. Generally speaking, the simpler and smaller the organism is, the more restricted its habitat tends to be. Therefore, microfauna and floral remains often provide the greatest level of precision in environmental reconstruction. Finally, light stable isotopes of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen can be assayed from a wide variety of organic matter, and they provide specific information about biotic communities and precipitation that are useful to understand paleoenvironments. The simultaneous integration of multiple lines of evidence is being performed in archaeological research projects across the African continent and provides the best means to fully comprehend the framework in which human biological and cultural evolution occurred.