Archaeology and the Study of Africa

Ann B. Stahl

in African Studies

ISBN: 9780199846733
Published online October 2012 | | DOI:
Archaeology and the Study of Africa

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  • African History
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Africa is the birthplace of humankind and a continent of tremendous social and cultural diversity. As such, knowledge of Africa’s past is central to understanding our species’ deep history; the diverse pathways of our social, technological, and political economic development; and the mutually entangled character of our continentally siloed histories. For all but the last few centuries of its diverse and dynamic 2.5 million–year history, insight into Africa’s rich and diverse pasts rests on material evidence generated through archaeological investigations. Yet systematic archaeological study of Africa’s pasts is relatively recent and characterized by significant temporal and geographical disparities; some time periods and areas have seen considerably more intensive research than others. Notable too are the effects of preconceptions about Africa and its peoples on the questions posed and answers sought by archaeologists. Deeply held presuppositions led early scholars to deny the capacity of African peoples to make gains on what 19th- and early-20th-century European scholars envisioned as a singular progressive pathway, one modeled on the elevation of European and Near Eastern history to the status of a universal expectation. For early postcolonial archaeology, as for history, colonial dismissals of Africa’s progressive capacity became a rallying cry for research aimed at demonstrating that Africa’s past was dynamic and filled with examples of independent and early innovation. Recent postcolonial decades have seen expanded research, more nuanced engagements with questions of origins and connections, and growing attention to the formative role of material practice in the configuration of social life, as described in separate sections of this bibliography. The focus of this article is the breadth and depth of African archaeology. It directs readers to literatures on the history, goals, and practices of African archaeology, aiding readers unfamiliar with archaeology to gain insight into issues around evidence and interpretation. Other sections provide pathways into the literature on particular topics and technologies, some of which are temporally anchored, as, for example, the study of hominin ancestors and early modern humans. Other topics span broad temporal reaches associated with particular economic strategies (hunting and gathering, cultivation or pastoralism), technologies (ceramics, metallurgy), sociopolitical configurations (states and complex societies, villages), or practices (religion and ritual, siege and slavery). The goal is to introduce readers to some of what is known of Africa’s diverse and rich pasts while providing pathways into literatures that foster critical engagement with that knowledge.

Article.  16084 words. 

Subjects: African History ; African Languages ; African Music ; African Philosophy ; African Studies

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