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.
For scholars of African history, anthropology offers a number of valuable and invigorating methodological avenues, from engaging directly in ethnographic fieldwork to analyzing anthropological data compiled by others. Given the asymmetries of written documents and the biases of archival material for Africa, anthropological methods and sources offer a different type of access to those who, for various reasons, tend not to appear in other forms of documentary record. The materials of past ethnographic research—texts and material objects, produced and collected by anthropologists and their assistants as well as by missionaries, government officials, travelers, and others—constitute one of the largest categories of written source material. However, the contexts in which such research was conducted can present certain challenges when using these materials as sources. For example, the complex entanglements between colonial governance and the making of anthropological knowledge make it imperative for historians to be aware of the discipline’s intellectual history and how its ways of seeing and ordering have shaped portrayals of Africa’s diverse cultures.
Methodologically, historians are also experimenting with field methods that draw heavily on ethnographic techniques. The emergence of historical ethnography has developed a rich, syncretic approach, in which communities’ own relationships with, and understandings of, the past are brought to the fore. Although ethnography is known for its immersive and long-term fieldwork, elements of the technique can also be incorporated into other historical methods. This is in part a matter of approach, rather than of different source material. For example, engaging ethnographically with archives can offer different insights into issues of governance and the production of knowledge.
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.
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 as well as other specialists should be involved in the whole process of archaeological research projects, from their design to fieldwork and data collecting, until final reports and publication. For efficient communication and fruitful collaborations, (leading) archaeologists need to understand the basics of archaeozoological methodology and the range of questions the discipline can answer. Methods vary between archaeozoologists—not in the least concerning 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 analyses of animal remains are done by the archaeozoologists themselves, preferably in circumstances where they have access to a comparative collection of recent animal skeletons, the excavation and collection of remains often falls under the responsibility of the archaeologists. In order to guarantee a minimal loss of information at this stage—on top of all the taphonomic processes of loss beyond our control—appropriate methods are particularly important. The use of sieves with mesh sizes of at least 2 mm is essential in order not to miss the smaller, but not less informative, animal remains. Where project leaders can furthermore play an important role is in providing good storage facilities for archaeozoological remains after excavation and after study. With the quick development of analytical methods, it can be extremely interesting to return to previously studied remains and to sample them.
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.
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, that 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.
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.
The Maghrebi tradition of historical literary production extends back to the early centuries of Islamic expansion and conquest in North Africa and comprises a rich corpus including dynastic chronicles (tarikh), biographies (tarajim), and hagiographies (manaqib/rijjal), and, since the 20th century, positivist national histories as well. While this tradition had evolved since its inception, 19th- and 20th-century Maghrebi historical production both influenced and was influenced by the extension of European military, economic, and political power into the Maghreb. Grappling with the legacies of colonialism, nationalism, and pan-Arabism, among others, Maghrebi historians continue to sow the rich terrain of historical literary production in the postcolonial period by absorbing, reacting to, and building upon new trends in the historical profession.
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.
Sharon E. Nicholson
Environmental constraints have large impacts on populations, especially in semi-arid regions such as Africa. Climate and weather have long affected African societies, but unfortunately the traditional climatic record for the continent is relatively short. For that reason, historical information has often been used to reconstruct climate of the past. Sources of historical information include reports and diaries of explorers, settlers, and missionaries; government records; reports of scientific expeditions; and historical geographical and meteorological journals. Local oral tradition is also useful. It is reported in the form of historical chronicles compiled centuries later. References to famine and drought, economic conditions, floods, agriculture, weather events, and the season cycle are examples of useful types of information. Some of the records also include meteorological measurements. More recently chemical and biological information, generally derived from lake cores, has been applied to historical climate reconstruction. Early works provided in most cases qualitative, discontinuous information, such as drought chronologies. However, a statistical method of climate reconstruction applied to a vast collection of historical information and meteorological data allowed for the creation of a two-century, semi-quantitative “precipitation” data set. It consists of annual indices related to rainfall since 1800 for ninety regions of the African continent. This data set has served to illustrate several 19th-century periods of anomalous rainfall conditions that affected nearly the entire continent. An example is widespread aridity during several decades early in that century.
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.