In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Archaeology and the Study of Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • History of African Archaeology
  • Early Hominins
  • Early Modern Humans
  • Pleistocene and Holocene Hunter-Gatherers
  • Holocene Transitions
  • Ceramic Technologies
  • Pastoralism
  • Cultivation and Plant Use
  • Metallurgy
  • Village Life
  • Religion and Ritual

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


African Studies Archaeology and the Study of Africa
Ann B. Stahl
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0013


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

General Overviews

A number of books—both single-authored and edited collections—provide overviews of African archaeology, most focused on the archaeology of the continent from the Sahara south (see also Textbooks). Of the single-authored books, Klein 2009 provides an introduction to the Plio-Pleistocene archaeology of Africa (2.6 million years until several hundred thousand years ago), while Mitchell 2002 surveys the full temporal scope of southern Africa’s past. Edited collections tend to be more topically, temporally, and/or regionally focused. Kusimba and Kusimba 2003 offers insights into the later-period East African archaeology, while Connah 1998 is a collection that is broader in geographical scope despite its similar temporal and topical focus. Shaw, et al. 1993 is similarly focused on topics in later prehistory (plant and animal domestication, metallurgy and urbanism), with broad geographical coverage. Two other edited volumes are thematically focused and represent the first works in African archaeology to address these themes: Kent 1998 on the archaeology of gender and Reid and Lane 2004 on historical archaeology, a rubric that first emerged in North America to encompass contexts in which archaeology is aided by textual sources.

  • Connah, Graham, ed. Transformations in Africa: Essays on Africa’s Later Past. London: Leicester University Press, 1998.

    A collection of commissioned essays focused on the dynamism of Africa’s later past. Contributors explore the changing adaptations of hunter-gatherers, the effects of food production, metallurgy, urbanism, climate change, trade, and maritime connections, with a primary focus on West and East Africa contexts.

  • Kent, Susan, ed. Gender in African Prehistory. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 1998.

    First systematic attempt to address issues of gender in African archaeological studies. Case studies range from early Holocene/later Stone Age contexts to recent centuries and focus on societies of varying social and political complexity. Three concluding essays contextualize these studies in relation to gender studies more broadly.

  • Klein, Richard G. The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

    A substantive compendium that provides background on evolutionary theory and nomenclature, primate evolution, and the biology and associated archaeology of early hominins through early modern Homo sapiens. Extensive bibliography and useful illustrations make this a good resource for students. Originally published in 1989.

  • Kusimba, Chapurukha M., and Sibel B. Kusimba, eds. East African Archaeology: Foragers, Potters, Smiths and Traders. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2003.

    Focused on the last two thousand years, the volume explores the diversity of East African economic and political forms, with chapters focused on the archaeology of foragers, farmers, pastoralists, and states. Several chapters on iron metallurgy are augmented by a chapter on ceramic ethnoarchaeology.

  • Mitchell, Peter. The Archaeology of Southern Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    A comprehensive survey of archaeology of the southern subcontinent, from the Zambezi River south, and covering sites ranging in time from the earliest archaeological traces to recent centuries. Lucidly written with a valuable bibliography.

  • Reid, Andrew M., and Paul J. Lane, eds. African Historical Archaeologies. New York: Kluwer Academic, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4419-8863-8

    Contributors consider the value and utility of “historical archaeology” in this first collection to adopt the North American–inspired rubric. Chapters discuss the use of multiple sources, the interpretive challenges posed by multivocality, colonial processes and transformations associated with modernity, and the relationship of past and present in contemporary Africa.

  • Shaw, Thurstan, Paul Sinclair, Bassey Andah, and Alex Okpoko, eds. The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns. One World Archaeology 20. London: Routledge, 1993.

    A compilation of papers from the 1986 World Archaeology Congress in Southampton, UK. Contributions center on topics including Quaternary climates and environmental relations, terminological debates, studies of food production, metallurgy, and urbanism. Extensive references provide useful pathways into literature prior to the early 1990s.

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