This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.
Promoted by scarcity or abundance, trade is one of the most essential cultural behaviors that has promoted contact and variously transformed African communities of different time periods. Historical 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, internal trade, particularly that involving perishable and organic commodities such as grain and cattle, has until now been very difficult to identify due to a lack of well-resolved documentation techniques. By comparison, that some objects such as glass beads, ceramics, and porcelain are high-temperature process products with a high survival rate makes external trade easily visible archaeologically. With the aid of case studies from Africa’s different regions, can standard historical and archaeological sources be combined with scientific techniques to document the dynamics of precolonial African trade of various time periods and geographies.
West African manuscripts are numerous and varied in forms and contents. There are thousands of them across West Africa. A significant part of them consists of documents written in Arabic and Ajami (African languages written in Arabic script). They deal with both religious and non-religious subjects. The development of these manuscript traditions dates back to the early days of Islam in West Africa, a millennium ago. In addition to these Arabic and Ajami manuscripts, there have been other manuscripts written in indigenous scripts. These include texts in the Vai script invented in Liberia, Tifinagh (the traditional writing system of the Amazigh [Berber] people), and the N’KO script invented in Guinea for Mande languages. While the manuscripts in indigenous scripts are limited and less widespread, they constitute nonetheless an important component of West Africa’s less known written heritage. Though efforts devoted to the preservation effort of West African manuscripts are limited, compared to other world regions, there has been increasing interest in preserving them. Some of the initial preservation efforts of West African manuscripts are the collections of colonial officers. Academics later supplemented these collections. These efforts resulted in important non-digital and digital repositories of West African manuscripts in Africa, Europe, and America. Until recently, most of the cataloguing and digital preservation efforts of West African manuscripts have focused on those written in Arabic. However, there has been an increasing interest in West African manuscripts written in Ajami and indigenous scripts. Important West African manuscripts in Arabic, Ajami, and indigenous scripts have now been digitized and preserved, though the bulk remain un-catalogued and unknown beyond the communities of their owners.