African Studies Archaeology of Central Africa
by
Pierre de Maret
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0154

Introduction

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

General Overviews

Most of the works dealing with the archaeology of Central Africa have originally been written in French, and only one, Lanfranchi and Clist 1991, presents an overview of the whole region. Although written in the late 20th century, this text still contains a good survey of our knowledge, given the lack of more recent excavations in many areas. Even older, but still useful for the same reason, van Noten 1982 is the only thorough synthesis in English. Books that cover the archaeology, or rock art, of Africa have generally overlooked more or less completely the center of the continent, with some noticeable exceptions, such as Phillipson 2005, Connah 2004, and Connah 2008. The latter two, along with Cornevin 1998, in French, are general introductions designed for first-year students and the general public. In addition, two edited books on the archaeology of Africa, Stahl 2005 and Mitchell and Lane 2013, provide, thanks to several chapters, a very detailed introduction to Central African archaeology. From colonial times until the 1970s most works appeared in series linked to the few research institutions active in the area and in a wide variety of journals, but with often limited circulation. Many excavation results have only been dealt with in doctoral or master’s theses and, increasingly, in reports on rescue archaeology. Most of those unpublished works are deposited in the relevant universities and museums, with the Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale, in Tervuren, Belgium, serving as the major repository of this “gray” literature concerning that part of Africa. The Bibliography on Central Africa’s Archaeology offers online the most thorough listing of all the relevant articles, books, and doctoral dissertations and is continually updated.

  • Clist, Bernard, ed. Bibliography on Central Africa’s Archaeology.

    E-mail Citation »

    This almost exhaustive bibliography was started with Raymond Lanfranchi, at the Centre International des Civilisations Bantu, in Libreville. A most useful tool organized by country, with sections on paleoenvironment, new publications, and the region as a whole. Not covered, however, are Chad, Rwanda, Burundi, and Zambia.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    A short and very readable summary of Africa’s past for a general audience and beginning students by an eminent figure in African archaeology. Well illustrated, in black and white.

  • Connah, Graham. Afrique oubliée: Une introduction à l’archéologie du continent. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 2004, as Forgotten Africa: An Introduction to Its Archaeology (Paris: L’Harmattan) (see Connah 2004).

  • Cornevin, Marianne. Secrets du continent noir révélés par l’archéologie. Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1993, as Archéologie africaine (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose), this brief and well-illustrated overview of African archaeology by a nonprofessional was completely revised but got an unnecessarily sensationalist title in the process.

  • Lanfranchi, Raymond, and Bernard Clist, eds. Aux origines de l’Afrique centrale. Paris: Sépia, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    The catalogue for an exhibition in Libreville, this text remains the only overview of Central African archaeology, with more than fifty brief chapters authored by most of the specialists of the time. Numerous illustrations, but of poor quality. Rwanda, Burundi, northern Cameroon, and Zambia are not considered.

  • Mitchell, Peter, and Paul Lane, eds. The Oxford Handbook of African Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199569885.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    A massive handbook, with several chapters dedicated to Central Africa. Provides the best overview of the state of our knowledge in the early 21st century. A primary reference source, with seventy chapters, written by a large array of archaeologists actively engaged in research. Well illustrated, in black and white, with a detailed bibliography.

  • van Noten, Francis L., ed. The Archaeology of Central Africa. Graz, Austria: Akademische Drück-und Verlagsantstalt, 1982.

    E-mail Citation »

    Centered on what was then Zaire and is, in the early 21st century, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this coauthored book synthesizes the results of a decade of fieldwork by archaeologists from the Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale and their colleagues from the Institut des Museés Nationaux du Zaïre. Remains the only book in English devoted to the archaeology of Central Africa. Beautifully illustrated, with a bibliography that was almost exhaustive at the time of publication.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511800313E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1985 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press). For many years, the most authoritative, concise, and yet detailed survey of the archaeology of Africa as a whole, yet with comprehensive discussions of Central Africa, the author having worked for many years in Zambia. Fully illustrated, with a comprehensive bibliography. Revised and expanded several times.

  • Stahl, Ann Brower. African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    A multiauthored introduction to the archaeology of Africa that critically highlights the research questions and critiques the evidence. A most useful text for advanced students and researchers alike. Has an extensive bibliography but few illustrations.

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