African Studies Historiography and Methods of African History
by
Funso Afolayan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0011

Introduction

The study of African history as an independent and autonomous focus of scholarship is a recent development. Until the late colonial period, it was widely believed among Western historians that Africa, south of the Sahara, had no “civilization” and thus no history. Others insisted that even if there were events of a historical nature, such a history was unknown and unknowable, since African societies, for the most part, were nonliterate and as such left no records that historians could study. The era of decolonization and the immediate post-independence years witnessed a growing rank of Africanists vigorously reject this Eurocentric and anti-African historical epistemology that privileged civilization and written sources as the only rational bases for historical scholarship and that denied the possibility of civilization and history to small-scale and nonliterate societies dominant in Africa. Using an array of sources, these scholars were successful in showing that Africa not only had a history but that its history and the writing of it date back to ancient Antiquity. Ancient and classical writers wrote about Africa, even though their writings were unsystematic. They were followed by Islamic and Arabic writers, who left first- or secondhand accounts of African states and societies that have continued to prove valuable for scholars of African history. The next phase of African historiography was dominated by European traders, travelers, as well as missionaries and other adventurers, whose accounts of Africa, while generally tendentious and Eurocentric, remain major sources for the reconstruction of the African past. European conquest and domination spawned a new era of colonial historiography that justified European imperialism and espoused the ideology of a savage Africa in need of European civilization and tutelage. With decolonization and independence came the era of nationalist and liberalist historiography which rejected the notion of a barbaric and static Africa “without history.” It sought to restore autonomy and initiative to the Africans, as well as authenticity and respectability to the historicity of the African past. Rejecting the privileging of written sources, it argued for and adopted the disciplined, rigorous, and corroborative use of a variety of sources and multidisciplinary methods from archaeology, ethnography, anthropology, linguistics, and art history to oral traditions.

General Overviews

The nature, dynamic, and development of the subject of African historiography have attracted the attention of many scholars. Afolayan 2005 provides us with a succinct chronological overview. Jewsiewicki and Newbury 1986 examines the sociopolitical conditions that shaped the development of historical writings in Africa. Falola 1993 examines the development of Yoruba, Christian Mission, and West African historiography. Ki-Zerbo 1981 is an edited volume that provides the most comprehensive and detailed exploration of different aspects of the subject. Ranger 1976 calls for a new historiographical approach that emphasizes current relevance and usability, a position forcefully castigated by Neale 1985 but welcomed conditionally by Temu and Swai 1981, which was sharply critical of the poverty of ideas inherent in a whole generation of postcolonial historical scholarship in Africa.

  • Afolayan, Funso. “African Historiography.” In Encyclopedia of African History. Vol. 2. Edited by Kevin Shillington, 626–633. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005.

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    A succinct overview that traces the development of African historiography from the earliest written records to the postmodernist accounts of the present. For general readers, undergraduate, and graduate students.

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  • Falola, Toyin. African Historiography: Essays in Honour of Jacob Ade Ajayi. Harlow, UK: Longman, 1993.

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    Examines the importance of oral tradition as a historical source and explores pertinent issues in the development of Yoruba, Christian Missions, and West African historiographies. For general readers and college-level students.

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  • Jewsiewicki, Boghumi, and David Newbury, eds. African Historiographies: What History for Which Africa? Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1986.

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    A collection of essays, by prominent practitioners, reflecting on the social and political conditions shaping the production of historical writings in and on Africa in the first two decades after independence. For specialists and college-level students.

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  • Ki-Zerbo, J., ed. UNESCO General History of Africa, Vol. 1, Methodology and African Prehistory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

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    The most comprehensive and detailed collection of commissioned essays written by pioneers and leading authorities on the subject of the methodology and historiography of African history and prehistory. Readable and accessible to everyone, but a must for graduate and advanced scholars.

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  • Neale, Caroline. Writing Independent History: African Historiography, 1960–1980. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985.

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    Shows how post-independence history writing was predicated on a desire to achieve intellectual decolonization. Also shows how this writing rejects the prevailing notion of primordial savagery for the continent, creates and reaffirms African self-respect, and restores and establishes the continent’s claim to historical Antiquity and civilizations. For general readers, undergraduates, and graduate students.

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  • Ranger, Terence O. “Towards a Useable African Past.” In African Studies Since 1945: A Tribute to Basil Davidson. Edited by Christopher Fyfe, 17–30. London: Longman, 1976.

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    A sobering assessment of the remarkable progress made in the study of the African past from 1945 to 1975. Examines the continuing crisis in African historiography and disillusionment among emerging African historians to make a case for methodological refocusing and sophistication and for more relevant historical approaches. For a general readership.

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  • Temu, Arnold, and Bonaventure Swai. Historians and Africanist History: A Critique: Post-Colonial Historiography Examined. London: Zed, 1981.

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    A biting critique of the postcolonial liberal historical scholarship in Africa, focusing especially on its weak empiricism, its absence of theory, its divestment of itself from the canons of historical professionalism, and its lack of rigor and relevance to pressing contemporary issues on the continent. For specialists and graduate students.

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Bibliographies

Presently there is no single historical bibliography covering the entire continent spatially or in time depth. The few that exist are limited in scope, subject, and chronological coverage. Scheven 1988 provides a comprehensive list of bibliographies published on Africa between 1970 and 1986. ABC-CLIO Information Services 1985 provides a list of journals, journal articles, and book chapters published between 1973 and 1982. The Africa Bibliography, published by the International African Institute, provides an online annual index of published articles, essays, journals, and books on Africa. The International African Bibliography provides a comprehensive quarterly listing of new articles, book chapters, books, periodical articles, and book reviews on Africa. Paden and Soja 1970 is a massive volume and a valuable listing of publications on colonial and the immediate postcolonial Africa. Fage 1994 provides a guide to primary sources on the history of Africa available in European collections, while Fordham’s online bibliography Internet African History Sourcebooks provides access to both primary and secondary sources on Africa. Finally, Ballantyne and Roberts 1985 provides a comprehensive list of audio-visual resources available for the teaching of African studies.

  • ABC-CLIO Information Services. Africa since 1914: A Historical Bibliography. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Information Services, 1985.

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    Contains lists of journals, journal articles, and book chapters on Africa in the decade between 1973 and 1982. Valuable for researchers, specialists, and general readers.

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  • Africa Bibliography. 1984–.

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    Published annually by the International African Institute and Cambridge University Press since 1984. Now digitized and fully interactive, it brings together in one single database a rich variety of sources, records, and publications on African studies. Also has indexes of books, periodical articles, essays and book chapters, and book reviews.

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  • Ballantyne, James, and Andrew Roberts. Africa: A Handbook of Film and Video Resources. London: British Universities Film and Video Council, 1985.

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    Produced by the African Studies Association (UK). Valuable for its comprehensive list of audio-visual resources in virtually all areas of humanistic and social science disciplines for the teaching of African studies. Several of these are of a historical nature. Valuable for teachers.

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  • Fage, J. D., ed. A Guide to Original Sources For Precolonial Western Africa Published in European Languages. Rev. ed. Madison: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1994.

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    A comprehensive list of published primary sources on precolonial African history in English and other European sources. Especially valuable for researchers, writers, and graduate students.

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  • International African Bibliography. 1971–.

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    Published quarterly as a key bibliography on Africa and the African diaspora. Arranged by regions with four thousand new entries per year listing monographs, book chapters, and articles in periodicals. Provides cross-references for many entries. For researchers, specialists, and the general reader.

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  • Internet African History Sourcebooks.

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    Presents and preserves an array of primary and secondary sources on African history, from the earliest times to the modern era. Includes original texts and various materials organized to showcase differing perspectives on key issues and debates in African history. Valuable for researchers, as well as for undergraduate and graduate students.

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  • Paden, John N., and Edward W. Soja, eds. The African Experience. Vol. 3a, Bibliography. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970.

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    Massive and comprehensive, though dated. Focus is on the modern era, especially the colonial and the immediate postcolonial periods. Emphasis on social, economic, and political issues. Valuable for researchers, graduate students, and those with an interest in the immediate postcolonial decade.

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  • Scheven, Yvette. Bibliographies for African Studies, 1970–1986. New York: Zell, 1988.

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    A compilation of bibliographies that have been published as books, articles, or as parts of edited volumes in African studies dealing with different disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities. Fully annotated. Updated annually in the African Book Publishing Record each year. For libraries and specialists.

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Reference Works

Several reference works exist for the study of African history. Vogel 1997 provides the most authoritative exploration of issues related to the precolonial history of Africa. For comprehensive and more detailed coverage, consult Middleton and Miller 2008 and Shillington 2005. The most ambitious and most extensive treatment of African history and historiography are to be found in both Fage and Oliver 1982–1986 and the eight-volume UNESCO General History of Africa (UNESCO 1981–1993). Ajayi and Crowder 1985 is a colorful and well-illustrated historical atlas. Zeleza and Eyoh 2003 provides the best single-volume reference work on 20th-century African history. Europa’s annual single-volume Africa South of the Sahara series provides the best-updated, rare, and valuable information on recent history for each African country.

  • Africa South of the Sahara. London: Routledge, 1971–.

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    A major reference work, published annually since 1971. Provides rare and valuable information, a narrative of recent history, statistical surveys, and a directory on each African country. Contains background articles on the continent and key information on African regional and international organizations. Available online by subscription.

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  • Ajayi, J. F. Ade, and Michael Crowder. Historical Atlas of Africa. Harlow, UK: Longman, 1985.

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    Covers a wide range of subjects related to African history and society, from the earliest times and the first hominids to the modern era. Contains detailed, beautiful, multicolored, large-format maps as well as photographs, numerical data, and accompanying historical narratives on more than seventy subjects. Essential reference work for researchers.

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  • Fage, John D., and Roland Oliver, eds. The Cambridge History of Africa. 8 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982–1986.

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    Detailed survey of African history from the earliest times to the mid-20th century. Written exclusively by British and American historians. Has extensive bibliographies. In-depth coverage for the specialists as well as for undergraduate and graduate students.

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  • Middleton, John, and Joseph C. Miller, eds. New Encyclopedia of Africa. 5 vols. New York: Scribner, 2008.

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    The most comprehensive encyclopedia on Africa in print. Co-authored by a historical anthropologist and a historian. Contains numerous entries on African history and historiography. Coverage extends beyond historical topics to other subjects, unlike Shillington 2005 and Zeleza and Eyoh 2003. For a general readership. Essential library collection.

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  • Shillington, Kevin, ed. Encyclopedia of African History. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005.

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    Several articles dealing with different aspects of the sources, methods, and historiography of Africa. On African historiography generally, see pp. 626–633. On historiography of Western Africa, see pp. 633–636. On sources of African history, see pp. 636–650. Contains essential reference materials for public and institutional libraries. Also available in digitized e-book version.

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  • UNESCO. UNESCO General History of Africa. 8 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981–1993.

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    Unlike the Cambridge History of Africa (Fage and Oliver 1982–1986), this was written primarily by African specialists with a greater focus on archaeology, oral history, and African initiatives and contributions. Has extensive bibliographies at the end of each volume.

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  • Vogel, Joseph O., ed. Encyclopedia of Precolonial Africa: Archaeology, History, Languages, Cultures, and Environments. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira, 1997.

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    A comprehensive and readable exploration of key issues and themes on the peoples, languages, and history of precolonial Africa. The bulk of the volume (pp. 247–560) examines a wide variety of topics on the prehistory of Africa.

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  • Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe, and Dickson Eyoh, eds. Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century African History. New York: Routledge, 2003.

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    Compact and continental in focus, the volume explores the history of Africa in the 20th century. Focuses on the development of its historiography and on the varied, massive, complex, and contradictory sociopolitical transformations the continent has experienced in the last hundred years.

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Journals

Many journals on African history exist. The most authoritative is the Journal of African History, which publishes on all areas of African history, as does International Journal of African Historical Studies. History in Africa is focused specifically on historical methods, with emphasis on the use of nonwritten sources. African Studies Review publishes on all areas of African studies. Africa concentrates on society and culture, while African Economic History concentrates on economic history. African Studies Quarterly is an online publication of time-sensitive research results. Cahiers d’Études Africaines is a bilingual publication on African and African Diaspora studies. Nearly all of the journals cited here are now available and accessible online, either directly through the individual publisher or through JSTOR.

Development of African Historiography

The development of African historiography can be organized into different periods and trends. For example, ancient and classical writers wrote about Africa, and while their primary concerns were not always about the history of the continent, they left materials of historical value. These were followed by Arabic and Islamic scholars, whose writings became valuable sources for the reconstruction of the history of Islamic Africa. Closer to the modern era were writings by European traders, travelers, missionaries, and colonialists. The accounts left by these various groups were often biased, tendentious, and sometimes patronizing (or even denigrating) toward their African subjects, clients, and hosts; as contemporary records, they have remained valuable sources of the African past. Decolonization and independence ushered in the eras of nationalist and modern historiography.

Ancient and Classical Period

The classical writers were the first to write on Africa. Some of them, such as Herodotus (see Herodotus 1964), personally visited Africa, while some wrote accounts based the writings of others. While these accounts were few, fitful, and scanty, they provide scholars with the first inklings of the place of Africans in the ancient and classical worlds. The controversy over slavery, especially over the origin of racism in the United States, has spurred renewed interest in the place of Africans in the classical world. Snowden 1971 and Snowden 1991 argue that ethnic and cultural prejudice rather than racism was the order in the classical world, a position roundly rejected by Isaac 2004, whose author insists that racism was common in that period. Hansberry and Harris 1981 examines the perspectives of Africa and Africans from classical writings, while Djait 1981 looks at the nature, categories, and value of these writings on Africa.

  • Djait, H. “Written Sources before the Fifteenth Century.” In UNESCO General History of Africa. Vol. 1, Methodology and African Prehistory. Edited by J. Ki-Zerbo, 87–113. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

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    Examines the different types and categories of extant written sources for African history composed before the 15th century. Focused mainly on Greek, Roman, and Arabic-Islamic sources. Include a comprehensive four-page spreadsheet itemizing the sources from 2065 BCE to 1450 AD.

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  • Hansberry, William Leo, and Joseph Harris. Africa and Africans as Seen by Classical Writers. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1981.

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    A pioneering study by a groundbreaking Africanist at Howard University, William Hansberry, who established the first African Civilization program in the United States (1922). Insightful critique of classical sources on Africa showing their strength and limitations. Special focus on writings by poets, playwrights, historians, and geographers.

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  • Herodotus. Histories. London: Dent, 1964.

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    Written by the reputed “father of history,” who visited Egypt and sailed down the Nile until stopped by the Cataracts. He wrote copiously about what he saw and his impressions of Egyptian civilization and its relation with inner Africa. He described Egypt as the “gift” of the Nile and noted that its original inhabitants were black Africans.

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  • Isaac, Benjamin. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

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    An analysis of ancient sources and a corrective to Snowden 1971 and Snowden 1991. Argues that racial (and not just ethnic and cultural) prejudice was common in the ancient world. Greco-Roman proto-racism became the prototype for modern-day triple ideologies of enslavement, imperialism, and anti-Semitism. Readable and thought-provoking.

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  • Snowden, Frank. Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1971.

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    Scholarly and painstaking study of classical writings, epigraphs, papyri, and numismatic and archaeological evidence of the black African experience in the Greco-Roman world. Africans emerge not as mysterious beings or racial inferiors but as dignified and respectable equal players. Encyclopedic in scope and richly illustrated.

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  • Snowden, Frank. Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

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    Uses ancient writings to analyze three thousand years of complex black African history of cultural interactions with the classical and Mediterranean worlds. Shows the absence of virulent racial prejudice against Africans in Antiquity. Richly illustrated.

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Arabic and Islamic Period

Islam is a religion of the Holy Qur’an, and literacy is required of its most faithful adherents. The islamization of Africa resulted in the production of Arabic writings by Muslim scholars, either foreign or indigenous. Works were also composed in some of the local languages using the Arabic script. Most of these works are eyewitness accounts, much like that of Ibn Battuta (Hamdun and King 1975) and much of Leo Africanus (Leo Africanus 1956); other writings were composed from secondhand sources. Among the most notable collection of these sources are Levtzion and Hopkins 1981 and Cuoq 1975 on West Africa; Koubbel and Matev 1965, which contains primary Arabic texts with Russian translations, as well as Kamal 1987 (with its French translations), are continental in focus. Hunwick 2005 reviews extant internal and external Arabic sources for sub-Saharan African history and the problems associated with utilizing them. Djait 1981 examines written sources before the 15th century.

  • Cuoq, J. M., ed. Recueil des Sources Arabes Concernant l’Afrique Occidentale du 8e au 16e siècle. Paris: Éditions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1975.

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    Translated with notes by J. M. Cuoq. Collection focuses on West Africa. There are considerable overlaps with Levtzion and Hopkins 1981, but this work contains twenty-three pieces not in the aforementioned book, including the epigraphs of Gao and al-Maghili’s replies to questions by Askia Toure of Songhai. Also indicated here are the source materials for the translations.

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  • Djait, H. “Written Sources before the Fifteenth Century.” In UNESCO General History of Africa. Vol. 1, Methodology and African Prehistory. Edited by J. Ki-Zerbo, 87–113. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

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    An exploration of the various written sources available for the writing of African history composed before the 15th century. Identifies the types, nature, spread, strength, and limitations of the sources. Includes a spreadsheet listing of Arabic sources before 1450 AD.

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  • Hamdun, S., and N. King. Ibn Battuta in Black Africa. London: Rex Collings, 1975.

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    A compilation of writings on Africa by the most famous Arab travelers in medieval Africa. Detailed and illuminating firsthand accounts of the practice of Islam, hospitality, gender issues, politics, and court lives in western and eastern Africa during the mid-14th century.

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  • Hunwick, John O. “Arabic Sources for African History.” In Writing African History. Edited by John Edward Philips, 216–253. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005.

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    Reviews the challenges of interpreting known published and unpublished external and internal Arabic sources for sub-Saharan African history. Sources in African languages written in Arabic scripts, such as Hausa and Swahili, are also examined. Includes an appendix of archival collections and extensive notes and references.

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  • Leo Africanus. Description de l’Afrique. 2 vols. Paris: Librarie d’Amérique et d’Orient Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1956.

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    Originally written and published in Italian in 1550. Though it contains some factual inaccuracies, this remained the main source of information in Europe on the history and geography of Africa for nearly three centuries.

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  • Kamal, Youssouf, ed. Monumenta Cartograhica Africae et Aegypti. 6 vols. Frankfurt: Institut fur Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften an der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universitat, 1987.

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    Presents a collection of maps of Africa. Continent-wide in approach, this book, however, excludes the Maghreb. Extensive collection of all known descriptions of Egypt and Africa in their original languages with English or French translations.

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  • Koubbel, L. E., and V. V. Matev. Ancient and Medieval Sources on the Geography and History of the Peoples of Africa South of the Sahara, Seventh to Twelfth Centuries. Moscow, 1965.

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    Takes a broad continental approach. Includes materials on Egypt and black Africa and also Arabic primary texts with Russian translations.

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  • Levtzion, Nehemiah, and J. F. P. Hopkins, eds. Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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    The most comprehensive collection of early Arabic sources on African history in print, with sixty-four entries arranged chronologically and dating from 846 AD to 1632 AD. Translated by J. F. P. Hopkins. Contains an extensive notes section (pp. 375–433), a brief introduction, and a bibliography.

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European Explorers, Traders, and Missionaries

European exploration, commerce, and missionary activities provided another major source for the writing of African history. The nature, scope, strength, and limitations of these sources have been the subject of much scholarship. Fage 1994 provides a guide to these sources written in European languages. Hrbek 1981 provides a general overview of a different range of written sources from the 15th century onward. Anyake 2005 lists, describes, and contextualizes various written sources in the different European languages. Jones 1987a examines the limited scope and coverage of European written sources. Heintze and Jones 1987 highlights the value as well as the problems and limitations of using these sources. Jones 1987b analyzes the relative value and weaknesses of various published European sources’ accounts and edited collections. Thornton 2005 examines the geographical spread as well as the biases of and inspiration for these sources. Hilton 1987 explores the strength and limitations of using missionary sources for reconstructing African religious history.

  • Anyake, Joseph B. C. “Sources of African History.” In Encyclopedia of African History. Vol. 2. Edited by Kevin Shillington, 636–650. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005.

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    A brief survey of the major sources for the writing of African history, from the earliest times to the present. Important for its listing, description, and contextualization of extant written sources in Arabic and in the various African and European languages. Includes sources not covered in Hrbek 1981, Djait 1981 (cited under Ancient and Classical Period), and Thornton 2005.

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  • Fage, John D. A Guide to Original Sources for Precolonial Western African Published in European Languages. Madison: Program of African Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1994.

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    Listings of published books and collections on European sources on Africa. Includes critical annotations on the sources as well as their publication history. More comprehensive in coverage and listing of sources than Jones 1987b and Thornton 2005.

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  • Heintze, Beatrix, and Adam Jones, eds. European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa before 1900: Use and Abuse. Proceedings of a symposium held at Bad Homburg, West Germany, in July 1986. Paideuma 33. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1987.

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    An overview of the problems and challenges, as well as the immeasurable value, of using European sources. Examines the biased and tendentious nature of the sources, their limited geographical scope, and the general failure to identify sources of information.

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  • Hilton, Anne. “European Sources for the Study of Religious Change in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Congo.” Paideuma 33 (1987): 289–312.

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    Examines the strength and limitations of extant European sources for the reconstruction of African religious history. Special focus on missionary records, reports, correspondence, newsletters, and other materials. Illustrative of the value of using eyewitness missionary accounts in spite of their obvious biases and limitations.

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  • Hrbek, I. “Written Sources from the Fifteenth Century Onwards.” In UNESCO General History of Africa. Vol. 1, Methodology and African Prehistory. Edited by J. Ki-Zerbo, 114–141. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

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    An introductory survey of available written sources on the African past composed since the 15th century. Main emphasis on sources in Arabic, Oriental, European, and indigenous African languages. Brief survey of archival sources, private papers, official reports, and other records. Continues where Djait 1981 leaves off.

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  • Jones, Adam. “The Dark Continent: A Preliminary Study of the Geographical Coverage in European Sources, 1400–1880.” Paideuma 33 (1987a): 19–26.

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    Shows that the value ascribed to these sources was way out of proportion to the geographical areas covered by them. Uses illustrative maps to show that approximately 80 percent of the continent was out of the purview of European observers and writers.

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  • Jones, Adam. Raw, Medium, Well Done: A Critical Review of Editorial and Quasi-Editorial Work on Pre-1885 European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987b.

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    A review of published accounts, collections, and editions of European sources on precolonial African history. Tries to separate the chaff from the wheat by highlighting their strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and usefulness. Useful for specialists and graduate students.

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  • Thornton, John. “European Documents and African History.” In Writing African History. Edited by John Edward Philips, 254–265. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005.

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    A brief overview of the extent, geographical spread, and scope, as well as the variety and problems, of European sources for reconstructing the precolonial history of Africa. Discussion of the motives and biases underpinning European sources.

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Colonial Era

The needs and exigencies of European colonialism resulted in the production of written documents, many of historical nature and value. Colonial accountability and efficient administration required the keeping of accurate records and the maintenance of regular written correspondence among administrators, as well as with the colonial offices in the various European capitals. Tax assessment, labor recruitment, and administrative organization led to population census, district assessment reports, as well as annual, periodic, and other special reports with much information of historical value. Many of these records are now preserved and are generally available in the various national archives in Africa, as well as in colonial records offices or other repositories in Europe. Some of these records are on microfilm while some are becoming available digitally. Fetter 1979 provides a collection of some of these colonial primary sources. Afigbo 1993 and Falola 2005 give a general critique of the colonial sources. Jones 1974 and MacGaffey 1978 examine the relations between history and anthropology during the colonial period. Sanders 1976 reviews the debates over the Hamitic hypothesis. Spear 2003 criticizes overstating the invention thesis, while Cooper 1994 insists on the critical questioning of the use of European categories in the comprehension of the African colonial experience.

  • Afigbo, Adele E. “Colonial Historiography.” In African Historiography: Essays in Honour of Jacob Ade Ajayi. Edited by Toyin Falola, 145–165. London: Longman, 1993.

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    An insightful critique of colonial historiography, highlighting its strengths and weaknesses.

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  • Cooper, Frederick. “Conflict and Connection: Rethinking Colonial African History.” American Historical Review (December 1994): 1516–1545.

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    An overview of the colonial experience. Eschews the concept of subalternity to reject the primacy of European epistemological categories, its universalizing claims, and the totalizing arrogance of its modernizing ideologies in the study of African experience of and reaction to colonialism. Emphasizes African appropriations and reformulations of the colonial categories.

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  • Falola, Toyin. “Mission and Colonial Documents.” In Writing African History. Edited by John Edward Philips, 266–283. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005.

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    A brief survey of the range, nature, and scope of the Christian missionary and European colonial sources on African history. Shows how the needs and objectives of missionary and imperial ventures generated a massive production of documents. Examines the contents, scholarship values, and limitations of these sources.

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  • Fetter, Bruce, ed. Colonial Rule in Africa: Readings from Primary Sources. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.

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    A collection of primary sources, with notes and critical appraisals. For general readers, as well as for undergraduate and graduate students.

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  • Jones, G. I. “Social Anthropology in Nigeria during the Colonial Period.” Africa 54.3 (1974): 208–289.

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    An introspective critique of the relations between anthropology and the colonial service by a former colonial administrator turned anthropologist. Examines the social, political, and intellectual formative influences on the development of anthropological and historical writings during the colonial period.

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  • MacGaffey, Wyatt. “African History, Anthropology, and the Rationality of Natives.” History in Africa 5 (1978): 101–120.

    DOI: 10.2307/3171481Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using Zaire as a case study, examines many of the misconceptions and misunderstandings underpinning much of the anthropological and historical writings on Africa during the colonial and postcolonial period.

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  • Sanders, E. R. “The Hamitic Hypothesis; Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective.” Journal of African History 10.4 (1969): 521–532.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700009683Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A review of the controversy surrounding the Hamitic hypothesis, which denied initiatives to Africans and offered external explanations for their achievements. Shows the invalidity of the hypothesis and the validation of African initiatives, historicity, and civilizations.

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  • Spear, Thomas. “Neo-Traditionalism and the Limit of Invention in British Colonial Africa.” Journal of African History 44 (2003): 3–27.

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    A critique of the invention of the “tradition” thesis, which the author argues has been generally overstated.

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Indigenous Historiography

The emergence of a new and Western-educated elite, especially during the colonial period, set the stage for the development of an indigenous historiographical tradition. This process began early, as evidenced in the eclectic but rich collection of early Christian Ethiopian primary sources in Beckingham and Huntingford 1954. Pankhurst 1966 gives the dynastic history of Ethiopian kingdoms from the 11th to the 20th centuries. Other pioneers include Solomon Plaatje (Plaatje 1916): From an indigenous perspective, Plaatje provides valuable insights on life and the nature and impact of race relations in early-20th-century South Africa. Reindorf 1895 details the indigenous laws, customs, and history in the then Gold Coast. And Samuel Johnson provides a seminal contribution to Yoruba history, as detailed in Falola 1993. Hrbek 1981 provides an overview of written sources on Africa since the 15th century, with special focus on indigenous production.

  • Beckingham, C. F., and G. W. B. Huntingford, eds. Some Records of Ethiopia, 1593–1646. London: Hakluyt Society, 1954.

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    A collection of a wide variety of Ethiopian literature such as folklores, poems, monastic histories, religious polemics, and hagiographies. Many of these contain valuable historical information. One of these was The History of the Galla, composed by an Ethiopian monk named Bahrey in 1593.

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  • Falola, Toyin, ed. Pioneer, Patriot and Patriarch: Samuel Johnson and the Yoruba People. Madison: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1993.

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    A collection of essays written by notable scholars on Yoruba history, exploring the importance of Samuel Johnson and especially his seminal book The History of the Yorubas (Johnson 1921) in the development of indigenous historiography in Africa and in the writing of Yoruba history.

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  • Hrbek, I. “Written Sources from the Fifteenth Century Onwards.” In UNESCO General History of Africa. Vol. 1, Methodology and African Prehistory. Edited by J. Ki-Zerbo, 114–141. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

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    Examines written sources on Africa since the 15th century. Special explorations of key indigenous writers and leading works in European languages and in various indigenous languages of Africa composed in customized or Arabic scripts, from the Gonja chronicles in West Africa to the Merina chronicles in Madagascar.

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  • Johnson, Samuel. The History of the Yorubas from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate. London: Routledge, 1921.

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    Originally completed in 1897. Probably the most famous, the most cited, and the most celebrated example of indigenous historiography. Provides a comprehensive account of early Yoruba history and the 19th-century wars. Valuable information on Yoruba language, customs, and government. Work celebrated and critiqued in Falola 1993.

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  • Pankhurst, R. K. P., ed. The Ethiopian Royal Chronicles. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Oxford University Press, 1966.

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    One of the earliest indigenous records on the kingdom of Ethiopia. Recordkeeping began in the 13th century and contained some details for nearly every reign up until the 20th century. Valuable source of information on the royal courts and key events of each reign.

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  • Plaatje, Solomon T. Native Life in South Africa before and since the European War and the Boer Rebellion. London: P. S. King, 1916.

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    A pioneer in South African indigenous historiography. Written in protest against the South African Land Act of 1913, to affirm African peoples’ antecedence, autonomy, and agency in South Africa in the face of racial oppression, colonial land dispossession, and sociopolitical dehumanization.

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  • Reindorf, Carl S. History of the Gold Coast and Asante. Basel, Switzerland: Reindorf, 1895.

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    Author was a catechist and medical practitioner as well as a participant in many of the 19th-century events he describes. There is much information on indigenous laws and customs, and this is designed to serve as a corrective to prevailing distortions and misunderstandings about the culture and customs of the peoples and societies of the Gold Coast.

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Nationalist, Liberal, and Modern Historiography

The late colonial and the immediate postcolonial era inaugurated a new approach to African history in which emphasis began to be placed on African autonomy, agency, and initiative prior to and in the face of European advent, as evidenced in Denoon and Kuper 1970 and Omer-Cooper 1966. In the atmosphere of decolonization and independence, the past was deployed to affirm the authenticity of African civilization, achievement, and pride: This was a position sharply castigated in Neale 1985, which argued that post-independence African historians’ failure to free themselves from the stranglehold of affirmative historiography (with its emphasis on self-respect) stymied progress in historical scholarship for decades after independence. Lonsdale 1968 presents nationalism as a recent post–World War II power-grabbing phenomenon. To Arnold J. Temu, who traced nationalism to the late-19th-century resistance to colonization (see Temu 1969), nothing could be further from the truth. Ranger 1976 calls for a historiographical approach that emphasizes relevance. Ajayi 1968 insists on putting colonialism in its proper perspective, arguing that emphasis should be placed on continuity and adaptability and not just change, while Tamuno 1973 warns against undue glorification of the past and the misuse of history to legitimate the present.

  • Ajayi, J. F. A. “The Continuity of African Institutions under Colonialism.” In Emerging Themes in African History. Edited by Terence Ranger, 189–200. Nairobi, Kenya: East African, 1968.

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    Argues that while colonialism was important, it was neither overwhelming nor crushing in its impact. It did not stop African societies in their tracks, nor was it a complete break with the past. Insists emphasis should be placed not just on disruption but on Africans’ continuity and adaptability to change.

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  • Denoon, Donald, and Adam Kuper. “Nationalist Historians in Search of a Nation.” African Affairs 69.277 (1970): 329–349.

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    Focusing on Tanzania, article presents the establishment of nation-based histories in independent Africa as the direct by-product of the establishment of national universities in the newly independent states. The ultimate goal was to recover African initiatives in the making of African history. Compare to Kapteijns 1977 (cited under Radical, Marxist, and Postmodern Historiography) and its focus on Nigeria.

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  • Lonsdale, John. “The Emergence of African Nations: A Historiographical Analysis.” African Affairs 67.266 (January 1968): 11–28.

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    Presents nationalism in Africa as a recent phenomenon and a post–World War II development directed principally at seizing political power from the colonial administrators. Compare to Temu 1969, which insists that the nationalist story should be traced back to the era of African resistance to European conquest.

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  • Neale, Caroline. Writing Independent History: African Historiography, 1960–1980. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985.

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    A blistering critique of the nationalist and liberalist historiography. Shows how it jettisoned the contemptuous European view of the African past but failed to free itself from an ethnocentric view of history that privileged the existence of states, cities, and other elements of advanced civilizations as enunciated by Western historians.

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  • Omer-Cooper, J. D. The Zulu Aftermath: A Nineteenth-Century Revolution in Bantu Africa. London: Longman, 1966.

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    A resounding affirmation of the nationalist thesis affirming African initiatives, agency, and autonomy in his historical development. Presents the Mfecane, or Zulu revolution, and the resultant wide variety of sociopolitical systems as a direct result of internal rather than external stimuli and as a testament to African capabilities.

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  • Ranger, Terence O. “Towards a Useable African Past.” In African Studies since 1945: A Tribute to Basil Davidson. Edited by Christopher Fyfe, 17–30. London: Longman, 1976.

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    Examines the continuing crisis of African historiography and the challenges and implications of defining new and relevant approaches to the study of the African past predicated on responding to the prevailing crisis of nation building and disillusionment of the post-independence years.

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  • Tamuno, Tekena N. History and History Makers in Modern Nigeria. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1973.

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    Rejects the use of history to either glorify the past or legitimate the present. Emphasis placed on good leadership, on the individual, and on merit, as well as on security, stability, and the welfare of all the component parts.

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  • Temu, Arnold J. “The Rise and Triumph of Nationalism.” In A History of Tanzania. Edited by I. N. Kimambo and Arnold J. Temu, 189–213. Nairobi, Kenya: East African Publishing House, 1969.

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    Rejects the view in Lonsdale 1968 that nationalism was a recent post–World War II development in Africa. Argues that the various efforts organized to resist European conquest in the late 19th century should be seen not as reactionary measures but as manifestations of African latent nationalism.

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Radical, Marxist, and Postmodern Historiography

The triumph of the Marxist revolution in Russia, China, and eastern Europe, as well as the nearly universal failure of development and nation-building efforts in the newly independent African states, resulted in widespread disillusionment and the adoption of a more radical and Marxian approach to the study of African history and society, as seen in Bernstein and Depelchin 1970. The daring but still-debated Rodney 1974 lays the root of African underdevelopment at the feet of its unequal relations with Europe over the last five hundred years. The reconstructed golden age of the past gave way to a mode of production in which inequality and class oppression began to feature prominently, as evidenced in Conquery-Vidrovitch 1969, an article that emphasizes mode of production and control of long-distance trade, and Meillassoux 1964, which focuses on subsistence production as well as local and long-distance trades. Neale 1985 emphasizes how and why the Marxist historians parted ways from the nationalist ones. Kapteijns 1977 analyzes historical writing by Nigerians to underscore the limits and constraints of independent history. Gutkind and Waterman 1977 explores the varied and conflicting positions and controversies of the Marxist approach, a position further reinforced by Robin Law, who saw little but flux and ambiguities in the approach (Law 1978).

  • Bernstein, H., and J. Depelchin. “The Object of African History: A Materialist Perspective.” History in Africa 5 (1970): 1–19.

    DOI: 10.2307/3171476Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that the construction of theories of particular modes of production is a prerequisite for the production of historical knowledge but does not constitute the knowledge itself. Insists that the object of African history should be the deployment of theories to the investigation of concrete local historical phenomena.

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  • Conquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. “Recherches sur un mode de production africain.” La Pensée 144 (1969): 3–20.

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    Defines an African mode of production as one in which the position of the ruler is based on the control of long-distance trade. Good to read this against Bernstein and Depelchin 1970, which calls for theoretical formulations, and Meillassoux 1964 and Law 1978, both of which emphasize a materialist approach.

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  • Gutkind, Peter, and P. Waterman, eds. African Social Studies: A Radical Reader. London: Heinemann, 1977.

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    An anthology of key radical writings on Africa, mostly from a Marxist perspective. Contains a valuable introduction highlighting the different positions, debates, and controversies within the Marxist school on Africa. Includes an exhaustive bibliography by Christopher Allen with references drawn from all fields of the social sciences.

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  • Kapteijns, L. African Historiography Written by Africans, 1955–1973: The Nigerian Case. Leiden, The Netherlands: African Studies Center, 1977.

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    Focusing on Nigeria, it analyzes how African elites attempted to chart a new course in the writing of African history. Important for its examination of the pros and cons of a history research agenda emphasizing identity, cultural affirmation, freedom, and independence. Compare to the more continental focus in Neale 1985.

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  • Law, Robin C. “In Search of a Marxist Perspective on Pre-Colonial Tropical Africa.” Journal of African History 19.3 (1978): 441–452.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700016248Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A review article. Examines different Marxist approaches to African history. Insightful exploration of the conceptual and the methodological flux, uncertainties, disarray, and incoherence inherent in the deployment of Marxist categories to the study of the precolonial African societies.

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  • Meillassoux, Claude. Anthropologie economique des Gouro de Cote d’Ivoire. Paris: Moulton, 1964.

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    A bold application of the materialist approach to the understanding of precolonial African society by a leader of the French Marxist school of anthropology. Focuses on precolonial African modes of production with emphasis on subsistence and the peasantry, as well as on the control of local and long-distance trade.

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  • Neale, Caroline. Writing Independent History: African Historiography, 1960–1980. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985.

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    See especially chapter 6 (pp. 151–183), which provides a critical overview of the changing nature of the Marxist Africanist historiography and its connections with and eventual departure from the nationalist thesis. A succinct analysis of contributions by key Marxist historians of Africa, from Samir Amin to Walter Rodney.

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  • Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974.

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    Widely acclaimed classic of the underdevelopment thesis. Rodney incisively applies the Marxist approach to lay the root of African under-development squarely at the feet of its unequal and crippling historical partnership with Europe. Covers from the era of the slave trade through colonialism to neo-colonial dependency.

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Afrocentric Historiography

The development of African historiography has been marked by the emergence of several perspectives. None has been so trenchantly contested and so controversial as the Afrocentric approach. One of the earliest exponents of this approach is Diop 1989, which propounds a black African origin for the civilizations of ancient Egypt. Reinforcing Diop’s position, Asante 1987 appropriates ancient Egypt as the cradle of sub-Saharan African cultural history. Bernal 1991 pushes the boundary beyond Africa to make ancient Egypt the mainspring of inspirations for the Greco-Roman classical civilization. This was a position and postulation roundly rejected by Lefkowitz 1996 and Lefkowitz and Rogers 1996, as well as by Howe 1998: All of these scholars vehemently denounced the various strands of the Afrocentric perspective as ahistorical and untenable interpretations driven not by academic concerns but by wishful thinking and ideological agendas.

  • Asante, Molefi K. The Afrocentric Idea. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.

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    A more recent affirmation of the Afrocentric perspective, first articulated in Diop 1955, which sees Egypt as a nation of black people and the cradle of black African culture. Postulates an approach to Africa’s past with Africans as subjects rather than objects of history. Provocative and polemical.

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  • Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilizations. London: Vintage, 1991.

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    Argues for an Afro-Asiatic origin for the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome, with Egypt as the principal source of inspiration: a position accepted in Asante 1987 but vehemently rejected in Lefkowitz 1996, Lefkowitz and Rogers 1996, and Howe 1998. Multidisciplinary in scope and especially controversial.

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  • Diop, Cheik Anta. Nations nègres et culture. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1955.

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    Uses hieroglyphic writings, artworks in painting and sculpture, and linguistic data to establish close genetic relationships between Egyptian vocabularies and sub-Saharan African languages. Presents ancient Egypt as an antecedent civilization, a creation of black African peoples.

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  • Diop, Cheik Anta. The African Origins of Civilizations: Myths or Reality? Edited by Mercer Cook. New York: Lawrence Hill, 1989.

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    A classic of the Afrocentric historiography, this book uses historical, archaeological, and anthropological evidence to argue that ancient Egypt was a black civilization. Extends and consolidates Diop’s earlier arguments in Diop 1955. For both specialists and the general reader.

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  • Howe, Stephen. Afrocentricism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes. New York: Verso, 1998.

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    Follows the trail already cleared in Lefkowitz 1996 and Lefkowitz and Rogers 1996. Rejects the postulations in Diop 1989 and from other Afrocentricists that Greek civilization derived largely from Egypt and that a common cultural tradition can be ascribed to the peoples of Africa. A dense volume, more appropriate for specialists.

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  • Lefkowitz, Mary. Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentricism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

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    A critique of the Afrocentricist idea that “black Africans” of ancient Egypt were responsible for the civilization of ancient Greece. Arguing for an autonomous authenticity for these two cultures, the author dismissed Afrocentricism as a myth, as a pseudoscience, and as anti-intellectual.

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  • Lefkowitz, Mary, and Guy M. Rogers, eds. Black Athena Revisited. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

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    A collection of essays debunking the main thesis of Martin Bernal (see Bernal 1991), connecting the culture of ancient Greece to Egypt. Dismissed the arguments of Diop 1989 and Asante 1987 as deriving not from academic commitment but from a racist and ideological agenda. Highly technical and for the advanced reader.

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Methods of African History

The writing of African history has required the use of a wide variety of methods and sources: written and unwritten. The fact that most African societies, especially those outside the reach of Islam, were nonliterate until the 19th (and in some cases, the 20th century) meant any attempt to reconstruct the history of these societies must of necessity rely on nonwritten sources. Among these sources are oral tradition, archaeology, linguistics, ethnography, and art and art history, to mention the most notable. Known as the “heritage of the ear,” the range of oral tradition includes historical narratives, epic poems, chants, songs, proverbs, performances, and reenactment ceremonies. Through oral traditions, the history of nonliterate societies have been recaptured and reconstructed. Archaeology allows us to penetrate beyond the reach of human memory to recover the long-forgotten past through the material remains buried centuries or millennia ago. Linguistics has proved extremely valuable in providing a reliable and scientific map of the origins and the interconnections between and among the various African peoples, languages, and culture. Available written sources on Africa include: papyri and inscriptions from ancient Egypt; Greco-Roman classical writings; Arabic writings that spanned much of Islamic Africa; writings by Europeans and others in European languages; and more recently writings by Africans and in African languages. The corroborative use of all these sources, where and when available, has made possible remarkable progress in the unearthing of the past of the African peoples and societies.

General Surveys

A number of valuable general survey books and essays exist on the methods of African history. Fage 1970 offers a succinct introduction to written and nonwritten sources, while McCall 1969, though dated, is still the only one focused on the various nonwritten sources. Falola and Jennings 2003 and Philips 2005 are valuable collections of essays dealing with different challenges of using the various sources, oral and written. Ki-Zerbo 1981 is probably the most authoritative and the most exhaustive one-volume exploration of the subject of methodology and prehistory. The UNESCO 1984 collection of documents serves as a compliment to this. Anyake 2005 provides an illuminating overview of written sources and explores the importance of the evidence of auxiliary and related disciplines. Finally, Spear 2006 is a short but incisive review of the state of scholarship on the methods of writing African history.

  • Anyake, Joseph B. C. “Sources of African History.” In Encyclopedia of African History. Vol. 2. Edited by Kevin Shillington, 636–650. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005.

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    An illuminating survey of the major sources and methods for the writing of African history, from pre-Islamic Antiquity to the modern era. Brief explorations of auxiliary and related disciplines of archaeology, linguistics, anthropology, and geography, as well as of literary, pictorial, and film evidence.

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  • Fage, John D., ed. Africa Discovers Her Past. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

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    A collection of short essays on the written and nonwritten sources and on methods and approaches for the reconstruction of early African history. Lucid and accessible for the general reader and for undergraduates. Compare to the more comprehensive treatments in Falola and Jennings 2003, Ki-Zerbo 1981, and Philips 2005.

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  • Falola, Toyin, and Christian Jennings, eds. Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2003.

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    A collection of essays by leading and up-and-coming scholars, providing us with a snapshot of 21st-century African historical research. It emphasizes the disparate and boundless diversity of sources available for the recapturing of the African past.

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  • Ki-Zerbo, J., ed. UNESCO General History of Africa. Vol. 1, Methodology and African Prehistory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

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    A comprehensive collection of essays by leading figures in the field of African history and prehistory, with focused and detailed chapters on the various methods and techniques for the study of the African past. For specialists as well as for undergraduate and graduate students.

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  • McCall, Daniel F. Africa in Time-Perspectives: A Discussion of Historical Reconstruction from Unwritten Sources. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

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    A pioneering work and a compelling treatise on the validity and technique of using unwritten sources for the reconstruction of the history of nonliterate societies. Focused treatment of oral traditions, archaeology, linguistics, anthropology, biology, botany, art, and chronology.

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  • Philips, John Edward. Writing African History. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005.

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    A review of the progress made in and the continuing challenges pertaining to the use of unwritten sources for the reconstruction of the African past, since the publication of the pioneering text by Daniel McCall in 1964. Multidisciplinary contributions from scholars in different disciplines. Varied in quality, depth, and coverage.

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  • Spear, Thomas. “Methods and Sources for African History.” Journal of African History 47 (2006): 305–319.

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    Uses the opportunity of a review of Philips 2005 to carry out a succinct and penetrating exploration of the state of historical scholarship with regard to the use of unwritten sources in the writing of African history. For undergraduate and graduate students.

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  • UNESCO, ed. La méthodologie de l’histoire de l’Afrique contemporaine: Documents de travail et compte rendu de la réunion d’experts organisée par l’Unesco à Ouagadougou, en Haute-Volta, du 17 au 22 mai 1979. Histoire générale de l’Afrique 8. Paris: UNESCO, 1984.

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    A collection of essays and documents on the methodological challenges faced in the study of contemporary African history. For specialists, and undergraduate and graduate students.

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Oral Tradition

For a long time the study of much of the African past was considered impossible due to lack of written sources. Today oral tradition is considered to be as valid and authentic as written sources, when subjected to rigorous and critical appraisal. Vansina, the Belgian anthropologist turned historian, led the way with his pioneering magnum opus on the oral tradition as history (Vansina 1985). McCall 1969 followed in his steps and looks at various forms of nonwritten sources. Henige explores the solution to the question of chronology (Henige 1974) and provides a practical manual for fieldwork in oral historiography (Henige 1982). Notable case studies in the use of oral historiography can be gleaned from works such as Delivré 1974 on the Merina, which is a penetrating analysis of dynastic traditions. On the Jlao Kru of Liberia, Tonkin 1992 shows the value and the challenges of the application of a multidisciplinary approach to the analysis of oral historical narratives. And the exploratory but incisive accounts of the fieldwork of the various contributors to Miller 1980 present the valuable results of the use of different models and approaches in the study of different forms and genres of oral traditions.

  • Delivré, Alain. L’histoire des rois d’Imerina: Interprétation d’une tradition orale. Paris: Klincksieck, 1974.

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    An analysis of Merina dynastic traditions, in which oral history emerges not just as testimonies but as explanations of the past and reflections of the present. The book’s approach and its study of anecdotes, anachronisms, absolute chronology, and European texts make it a landmark study in oral historical methodology.

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  • Henige, David. The Chronology of Oral Tradition: The Quest for a Chimera. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974.

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    The best study on the thorny issue of chronology in the collection, interpretation, and use of oral sources. For specialists and undergraduate and graduate students.

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  • Henige, David. Oral Historiography. London: Heinemann, 1982.

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    An especially informed and accessible synthesis dealing with the practical issues of methodology, techniques, and challenges of doing fieldwork in oral history. Complements and provides the practical elements of oral research missing in Vansina 1985. A must-read manual for anyone venturing into or returning back to the field.

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  • McCall, Daniel F. Africa in Time-Perspective: A Discussion of Historical Reconstruction from Unwritten Sources. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

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    Examines the challenges of using various forms of nonwritten sources, including oral tradition. Compare to the more current and more in-depth explorations in Henige 1982, Miller 1980, Tonkin 1992, and Vansina 1985.

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  • Miller, Joseph C., ed. The African Past Speaks: Essays on Oral Tradition and History. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1980.

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    A collection of eleven insightful essays, written by leading and pioneering oral history scholars working in eastern, central, and southern Africa. Focused on the methodological challenges of collecting, contextualizing, and interpreting oral sources in nonliterate societies. For researchers, specialists, and graduate students.

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  • Tonkin, Elizabeth. Narrating Our Pasts: The Social Construction of Oral History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511621888Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using an integrated approach and focused on the Jlao Kru of Liberia, this book draws from a wide range of disciplines such as ethnography, linguistics, anthropology, literary theory, and criticisms to examine how oral narratives of the past are constructed and how they should be collected, assessed, and interpreted.

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  • Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition as History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

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    Standard text on the nature, transmission, collection, analysis, and use of different categories of oral sources. A thorough reconceptualization and revision of author’s pioneering work, De la tradition orale, published in French in 1961, and in English in 1965. General approach compared to the more specific case studies in Miller 1980 and Tonkin 1992.

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Archaeology

That Africa is the cradle of mankind, the venue from whence the earliest recognizable hominid ancestors emerged, is no longer in dispute. Archaeology has been a leading contributor to the study of Africa’s past, taking it far and beyond the reach of oral and written sources. Phillipson 2005 provides an excellent continent-wide overview. Connah 2001 paints a picture of an early Africa, south of the Sahara, which was economically dynamic and socially complex. Barmah and Mitchell 2008 situates the African evidence within the global study of human origin and dispersal. Using evidence from the Lake Chad Basin, Connah 1981 rejects the dichotomy between history and prehistory in the study of the African past, but it shows, in clear terms, the many lessons related to development that can be learned from a serious study of man and society’s successful adaptation to the many ecological stresses of this arid region in the last three thousand years. Ehret and Posnansky 1982 shows how archaeology is linked with linguistics. McIntosh 2005 examines the best practices in the application of archaeological methods to the unearthing of the African past, while Stahl 2005 maps out the debates and controversies still prevalent in the field and charts out the current state of the discipline.

  • Barmah, Lawrence, and Peter Mitchell. The First Africans: African Archaeology from the Earliest Toolmakers to Most Recent Foragers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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    A comprehensive, up-to-date, and lucid survey. Combines insights from archaeology, genetics, and palaeoenvironmental science to show the critical importance of the African evidence in the understanding of stone toolmaking, ecological diversity of the hunter-gatherer way of life, and hominid origins and dispersal from Africa. For college-level students and specialists.

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  • Connah, Graham. Three Thousand Years in Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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    Rejects the dichotomy between prehistory and history. Using archaeological evidence from the Lake Chad Basin, the book argues for and presents a “total history” of sub-Saharan Africa stretching over three millennia, emphasizing human adaptation to the environment, climate change, urbanization, and states formation. For specialists, undergraduates, and graduate students.

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  • Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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    Uses archaeological evidence to show that Africa, south of the Sahara, far from being static and timeless, developed dynamic and socially complex societies, cities, and states, thus qualifying it as part of the civilized world. Lucid and readable, even for the general reader. Extensively illustrated and with an extended bibliography.

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  • Ehret, Christopher, and Merrick Posnansky, eds. The Archaeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

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    Using a regional approach, this volume maps out the current state of our knowledge on the use of archaeological and linguistic evidence for the reconstruction of early African history. Eclectic in its coverage compared to the more systematic and comprehensive examinations in Connah 2001, Phillipson 2005, and Stahl 2005.

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  • McIntosh, Susan Keech. “Archaeology and the Reconstruction of the African Past.” In Writing African History. Edited by John Edward Philips, 51–85. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005.

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    Examines the different methodological approaches and interpretative frameworks that have informed and defined archaeological research in Africa. Establishes the similarities of best practices in archaeology to that of history in its emphasis on chronology, analogy, and the rigorous interrogation of evidentiary records to establish their reliability and significance.

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  • Phillipson, David W. African Archaeology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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    An excellent and well-grounded overview of prehistoric and precolonial Africa. Continental in coverage, from the Mediterranean to the Cape. Shows the relevance of archaeology to the understanding of Africa today. Lucidly written and amply illustrated, with a substantial bibliography. College-level text but for general readers as well.

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  • Stahl, Ann Brower, ed. African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

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    A collection of commissioned essays, mainly on sub-Saharan Africa. Challenges presumptions and claims on the African past and examines the current state of debates and controversies, as well as the conceptual, methodological, and pedagogical challenges of archaeological research in Africa. Recommended for college-level and general readers.

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Linguistics

Linguistics has made major contributions to the writing of African history. The effort began with Greenberg 1963, which uses linguistic analysis to decimate the Hamitic hypothesis and map out the Bantu expansion, an epic story of expansion further built on and illuminated by Nurse 1997. Nurse emphasizes the importance of the use of comparative methods, and Schoenbrun 1998 uses comparative linguistics, ethnology, and archaeology to provide a model for writing a deep-level history of nonliterate society. Vansina 1990 shows the centrality and value of historical linguistics in reconstructing the history of political traditions in equatorial Africa. Dalby 1970 shows the connection between language and history, while Eggert 2005 warns against an approach that uncritically lumps languages with history. Ehret and Posnansky 1982 provides case studies highlighting the problems and challenges of adopting an archaeo-linguistic approach to the study of the African past.

  • Dalby, David, ed. Language and History in Africa. London: Cass, 1970.

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    A brief introduction to the value of linguistic studies to the study of the African past. Compare to the more updated examination of the same subject in Nurse 1997 and Vansina 1990.

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  • Eggert, Manfred. “The Bantu Problem and African Archaeology.” In African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction. Edited by Ann B. Stahl, 301–326. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

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    A warning on the dangers of a circular reasoning approach that uncritically associates languages with peoples and culture without careful consideration of available archaeological and linguistic data that may affirm or invalidate possible connections between the different groups.

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  • Ehret, Christopher, and Merrick Posnansky, eds. The Archaeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

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    Using a regional approach, this collection of essays highlights the tremendous potential of, as well as the problems and challenges in, the use of archaeological-linguistic approaches to the study of African history.

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  • Greenberg, Joseph H. The Languages of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963.

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    Refutes the Hamitic hypothesis. Proposes a new classification of African languages, based on pure linguistic criteria rather than racial stereotypes. First study to map out the nature and patterns of the Bantu migration.

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  • Nurse, Derek. “The Contribution of Linguistics to the Study of History in Africa.” Journal of African History 38 (1997): 351–391.

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    Examines the issues of collection, classification, and content, as well as the implications of using the comparative method in linguistic studies in Africa. Shows their strengths and weaknesses as well as their significance in the historical reconstruction of the African past.

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  • Schoenbrun, David Lee. A Green Place, A Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender, and Social Identity in the Great Lake Region to the 15th century. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.

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    Notable for its use of comparative linguistics and comparative ethnology and archaeology to weave a layered social history of interlacustrine societies, with a focus on the issues of gender, health, farming, worldviews, politics, material culture, and the environment.

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  • Vansina, Jan. Paths in the Rainforest: Towards a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

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    An elegant and breathtaking application of the methods of historical linguistics to reconstruct the history of political traditions in the forest region of equatorial Africa in the last three millennia. An extended reflection on the centrality of historical linguistics, especially when other sources are lacking or inadequate.

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Art and Art History

Whether in relation to prehistory or to the modern era, the value of art and art history to the reconstruction of the history of Africa can hardly be overstated. The most authoritative text is Vansina 1984, which presents a systematic method for the historical study of African art. Ki-Zerbo 1981 provides a broad survey of the varieties and styles of African prehistoric art. Bassani 2000 examines the value for historical research of the many artworks and artifacts in early European collections. Drewal 2005 provides an overview of visual art historical study in Africa, while Ben-Amos 1995 uses a wide variety of sources to construct a cultural and political history of art in an African society—Benin, in particular.

  • Bassani, Ezio. African Art and Artefacts in European Collections, 1400–1800. London: British Museum, 2000.

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    A compilation and examination of African art and artifacts in early European collections as valuable data for African art historical research, especially as it relates to issues of innovation, adaptation, cultural transfer, and change.

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  • Ben-Amos, Paula Girshick. The Art of Benin. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1995.

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    Uses Benin’s oral traditions related to art, extant European visitors’ accounts, and archaeological and ethnographic data to construct a broad overview of the cultural and political history of art in an African society. Lucidly written and richly illustrated.

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  • Drewal, Henry. “Signs of Time, Shapes of Thought: the Contribution of Art History and Visual Culture to Historical Methods in Africa.” In Writing African History. Edited by John Edward Philips, 329–347. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005.

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    Examines the value of art, art history, and visual culture as sources for African history. Provides an overview of art historical and visual culture studies in Africa. Compares the disciplines of art history and history to reveal their similarities, differences, and complementarity.

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  • Ki-Zerbo, J. “African Prehistoric Art.” In UNESCO General History of Africa. Vol. 1, Methodology and African Prehistory. Edited by J. Ki-Zerbo, 656–686. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

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    A broad and introductory survey of African prehistoric art with emphasis and a focused discussion on varieties of artistic expressions; dating methods and problems; techniques, genres, and styles; motives and meanings; and influences and migrations.

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  • Vansina, Jan. Art History in Africa. New York: Longman, 1984.

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    A pioneering study. Best single-volume introduction to the subject. Presents a systematic method for the historical study of African art, with particular focus on the medium, technique, style, and meaning of art objects and the creative process that brought them into being. Well illustrated with photographs and drawings.

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Africa in World History

The place of Africa in world history has attracted the attention of many scholars. Curtin 1981 shows how African history disentangled itself from the clutches of European historiography. Feierman 1993 examines how the integration of Africa has helped to redefine the scope and parameters of world history. Yerxa 2008 argues for the adoption of a multicentric approach to the writing and teaching of world history. Thornton 1992 explains the central role of Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, a centrality previously ignored (or, more correctly, denied) in writings about Atlantic history. Gilbert and Reynolds 2008 explores the multidimensional nature of African contributions to the emergence of the modern world and thus provides the most accessible single-volume and best-illustrated introduction to the subject.

  • Curtin, Philip D. “Recent Trends in African Historiography and Their Contribution to History in General.” In UNESCO General History of Africa. Vol. 1, Methodology and African Prehistory. Edited by J. Ki-Zerbo, 54–71. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

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    Examines the major trends in the writing of African history from the late colonial to the modern era. Shows how African history became disentangled from the clutches of European racial and colonial historiography to a history inspired by African values, achievements, identities, and contributions.

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  • Feierman, Steven. “African Histories and the Dissolution of World History.” In Africa and the Discipline: The Contributions of Research in Africa to the Social Sciences and the Humanities. Edited by Robert H. Bates, Y. Y. Mudimbe, and Jean O’Barr, 167–212. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

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    Examines how the writing and teaching of African history in the West, from the late 1970s, began to radically redefine the concept and the teaching of world history. World history began to shed its Western nomenclature to integrate the history of all regions into a single narrative.

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  • Gilbert, Felix, and Jonathan T. Reynolds. Africa in World History: From Prehistory to the Present. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall, 2008.

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    Examines African history in the context of world history. Shows the full range and significance of African contributions to global commerce, capitalism, religious traditions, politics, and artistic culture. Richly illustrated with maps, photos, and other visual and textual sources. For college-level and general readers.

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  • Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1680. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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    Casts a broader perspective on the subject of slavery. Examines the important roles Africans played in the formation of the Atlantic world. Presents African elites as active participants, and for the most part, equal players in the politics and commerce of the transatlantic slave trade.

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  • Yerxa, Donald A., ed. Recent Themes in the History of Africa and the Atlantic World: Historians in Conversation. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008.

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    Leading essay by Joseph Miller, with provocative responses by leading historians of Afro-Atlantic history. Examines the relationships of Africa to Atlantic and world history. Rejects the standard approach to world history and proposes a multicentric approach that gives expression to the various ways Africans have experienced the past.

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Autobiographies, Memoirs, and Reflections

A number of reflective works by some of the pioneers in the field provide valuable insights into the challenges in the development of African history. Vansina 1994 reflects on the author’s experience as an anthropologist figuring out a new methodological approach to the study of nonliterate societies. Curtin 2005 chronicles the author’s odyssey from a Latin Americanist to becoming a leading Africanist, an experience quite typical of other pioneers during this early period. Oliver 1997 attempts to establish African history as an autonomous discipline, most especially in Great Britain. Connah 2004 provides a readable and compelling overview of four millennia of human history in Africa, while July 1987 reflects on the challenges and excitements of teaching and writing on Africa in the halcyon days of decolonization and the immediate post-independence years.

  • Connah, Graham. Forgotten Africa: An Introduction to Its Archaeology. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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    In twenty-nine readable, reflective chapters, this book provides general readers and beginning students with a broad but compelling overview of four million years of African history: from human origins and hunter-gatherers to the era of European colonialism. Richly illustrated with maps, pictures, and drawings.

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  • Curtin, Philip. On the Fringes of History: A Memoir. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005.

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    The author’s professional odyssey, as he moves from a focus on British to Latin American to, finally, African history. Mirrors the experiences of early pioneers in the teaching of African history in North America and in Europe. Vintage firsthand account of African societies, politics, and modern elites in the 1950s.

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  • July, Robert W. An African Voice: The Role of Humanities in African Independence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987.

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    A pioneer American Africanist reflects on decades of teaching and writing about Africa. Underscores the importance of Western thoughts and institutions in the intellectual debates, the crisis of independence, and the sociopolitical transformation of Africa in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

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  • Oliver, Rowland. In the Realms of Gold: Pioneering in African History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

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    Professional reflections by one of the founding fathers of African history scholarship in Britain. Details the twists and turns that marked the establishment of precolonial African history as an authentic and autonomous field of scholarship. Fascinating recollections of contributions by leading pioneers.

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  • Vansina, Jan. Living with Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

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    The doyen of the use of oral tradition reflects on his experience researching and writing on Africa. Details the challenges of a pioneering Western scholar in Africa, as he transits betwixt and between disciplines, continents, and culture groups.

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