The Horn of Africa has an exceptional cultural heritage, starting with its manuscript sources, which are among the most important on the continent. It is a heritage that is rich but scattered throughout the region and not always easily accessible, prompting researchers to rely on cutting-edge technology. Since the 1970s, photography and microfilm have been key for preserving this especially valuable heritage. In the Horn of Africa, the “digital turn” has been the latest development in the close relationship between technology and research. For Ethiopian manuscript studies, the advent of digitization has meant more than simply improving old techniques. A new generation of projects is experimenting with innovative methods of research made possible by digital technology. The purpose is no longer just to provide digital copies of manuscripts but to explore the possibilities that computerization offers to study documents and other historical sources.
Increasingly competitive prices and low operating costs have made the digital revolution attractive even for African institutions, which, in recent years, have sought answers to the pressing needs of preserving and enhancing their historical sources. These technological developments have significantly broadened the range of sources investigated. While important, manuscripts represent only a part of the documentary heritage of the Horn of Africa. Numerous archives and a long-overlooked print culture offer equally interesting access points for studying the region.
The experience gained, though temporally circumscribed, has highlighted a number of more or less predictable problems. The projects to date, although they have often yielded only partial results, have highlighted the wealth of sources still present in the Horn of Africa and the way in which digital technology is making a valuable contribution to their preservation. Access remains perhaps the most critical issue. In the Horn of Africa, as in other African regions, digitization does not necessarily lead to Internet access.
Natural and human histories intersect in Africa’s forested regions. Forests of several types cover the continent’s mountains, savannas, and river basins. Most current classifications divide forest by physical structure. Open canopy forests occur in semi-arid regions of western, eastern, and southern Africa, while closed canopy rain forests with large emergent trees cover much of the Congo River basin, the upland forests of Rift Valley escarpments, and the volcanic mountains in eastern and Central Africa. Along the tropical coasts, mangrove forests hug the river estuaries. For much of human history, Africa’s forests have anchored foraging and agrarian societies. In the process of domesticating the landscape through agriculture, Africans modified forests in ways that ranged from large-scale deforestation to forest creation on savanna environments. A boom in forest commodities preceded European colonialism and then continued when foreign governments took formal possession of African territory in the late 19th century. In this context, states ascribed value to forest trees as commodities and so managed them as profitable agricultural crops. Colonial forestry separated people from forests physically and culturally. This fundamental shift in human–forest relations still resonates in postcolonial African countries under the guise of internationally funded forest conservation.
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.
Newspapers have become increasingly important as a source for African history, and the range of historical questions newspapers have been employed to address has expanded dramatically. Newspapers are not only sources for political history, they also have much to teach us about the social, cultural, and intellectual history of Africa. They were spaces of literary and textual experimentation. They also played an important role in the creation of new identities. It is essential, however, that we approach newspapers critically as sources and think carefully about their limitations, as well as the opportunities they present to the historian.
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
West African manuscripts are numerous and varied in forms and contents. There are thousands of them across West Africa. A significant portion of them are documents written in Arabic and Ajami (African languages written in Arabic script). They deal with both religious and nonreligious subjects. The development of these manuscript traditions dates back to the early days of Islam in West Africa, in the 11th century. In addition to these Arabic and Ajami manuscripts, there have been others written in indigenous scripts. These include those 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 writings in indigenous scripts are rare less numerous and widespread, they nonetheless constitute an important component of West Africa’s written heritage. Though the efforts devoted to the preservation of West African manuscripts are limited compared to other world regions, interest in preserving them has increased. 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 print 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 uncatalogued and unknown beyond the communities of their owners.