Archaeology of Central Africa

Pierre de Maret

in African Studies

ISBN: 9780199846733
Published online September 2014 | | DOI:
Archaeology of Central Africa

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Centered in the basin of the Congo River, the second most powerful river in the world, Central Africa is usually considered archaeologically to comprise the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (previously the Belgian Congo and later Zaire), Cameroon, southern Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, and, eventually, Zambia, or at least its northern part. This vast territory of more than six million square kilometers (ten times the size of France, or the size of the United States east of the Mississippi) remains archaeologically one of the least known areas in the world, even though research started early, at the beginning of the colonial era. The eleven countries that exist in the early 21st century are the result of the conflicting policies of almost all the colonial powers of the late 19th century. Scientifically, the result was a dispersion of efforts and a diversity of publications with limited distribution. On the whole, those powers neglected the scientific study of their possessions in Central Africa, except Belgium, which had no other colonies. The rain forest covering one-third of Central Africa is second only to the Amazon. The difficulties of working in such an environment, as well as underdeveloped or dilapidated infrastructure, political instability, and chronic civil wars, explain why the area has been the subject of only limited archaeological research since independence. However, adaptive research strategies in key areas of the Congo basin in the 1970s and, more recently, in the northwest (Cameroon, Gabon) have yielded a great deal of information on ancient occupation, mostly during the last four millennia. Archaeological data are increasingly supplemented by linguistics, history, ethnography, and genetics, the closer one gets to the early 21st century. In general, publications on Central Africa are very descriptive, in part because of the sparseness of data in most areas and in part because of research traditions stressing empirical evidence over grand theoretical debate. At the center of the continent, the various archaeological traditions show similarities with those of adjacent areas to the east, west, and south. Contrary to those areas, very little is known about the earliest prehistory of Central Africa, owing to the relative lack of well-excavated sites. Flaked cobblestones have been reported in various locations, but their precise age remains unknown. The Acheulean technology that followed c. 1.7 million years ago in eastern Africa is only present later on the southern fringe of the Congo basin, in northern Angola, Katanga, and Zambia. The post-Acheulean stone industries of Central Africa are characterized by the continuation of bifacial techniques, called Sangoan, followed in the Pleistocene (Middle Stone Age) by the Lupemban and in the Holocene by the Tshitolian. This Late Stone Age industry extended in Atlantic Central Africa from Gabon to northern Angola, whereas in the east, the Late Stone Age industries are related to those in eastern Africa. Around the end of the 2nd millennium bce a major change took place in the northwest of Central Africa, with the appearance of agriculture, pottery, the first villages, and, probably a little later, iron metallurgy. As this area is also, linguistically, the homeland of all the Bantu languages, which eventually spread all the way to southern Africa, the possible correlation between these phenomena has been hotly debated. Once those Early Iron Age agriculturalists had gradually settled in the whole area, they developed into hundreds of various ethnolinguistic groups. Archaeology sheds light on how some of those groups became powerful polities and kingdoms, well documented by ethnographers and historians. This article is organized following the usual, although debatable, broad chronological phases, from the Early Stone Age through the Late Iron Age, with the addition of specific sections, including Countries Overview, History of Research, Paleoenvironment, Bantu Migration, Rock Art, Megaliths, Ethnoarchaeology, and Cultural Heritage Management.

Article.  10976 words. 

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

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