In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Precolonial Political Systems

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile
  • Stateless and Decentralized Societies
  • City-States
  • Trading Empires
  • Religion and Political Authority
  • Gender and Political Authority

African Studies Precolonial Political Systems
Rebecca Shumway
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0100


Prior to European colonization in the late 19th century, Africa had a very long history of state building as well as a rich variety of social formations that were decentralized or stateless. Some of the first examples of state formation in human history developed in the Nile River valley in the 4th millennium BCE. Nevertheless, during most of Africa’s precolonial history, a significant portion of African people lived in small-scale, egalitarian societies in which government was more a matter of consensus among the entire adult population than rule by an elite few. One of the major contributions that historians of precolonial Africa have made is to demonstrate the enormous variety and complexity of precolonial African political systems and to challenge the notion that political complexity only exists in centralized states.

General Overviews

African political systems are described in a number of textbooks and general books on African history. Ehret 2002 emphasizes the diversity and long history of precolonial social and political formations, whereas Curtin, et al. 1995 focuses on social, economic, and intellectual trends up to the end of the colonial era. Connah 2001 provides more information about the archaeological evidence for early African history. Coquery-Vidrovitch 2005 is a history of African cities. The General History of Africa (Ki-Zerbo, et al. 1981–1988) is a collection of historical studies by a diverse group of historians. Hamilton, et al. 2010–2011 provides a reassessment of the history of South Africa in the wake of that country’s transition to majority rule. Phillipson 1993 and Stahl 2005 survey the main contributions from the field of archaeology, a crucial discipline in the study of precolonial African political systems. See also the Oxford Bibliographies articles Archaeology and the Study of Africa and Early States and State Formation in Africa.

  • Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Examines the physical evidence for the development of cities and states across the African continent over the past four thousand years. Includes numerous illustrations and maps.

  • Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. The History of African Cities South of the Sahara: From the Origins to Colonization. Translated by Mary Baker. Princeton, NJ: Wiener, 2005.

    A history of urban Africa from ancient times to the 20th century focusing on the role of cities in historical processes of cultural dissemination and social and political change.

  • Curtin, Philip D., Steven Feierman, Leonard Thompson, and Jan Vansina. African History: From Earliest Times to Independence. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1995.

    A textbook covering the full range of African history, compiled by four prominent historians.

  • Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

    A textbook appropriate for undergraduates or readers with a general interest in early African history, this book provides overviews of African political systems through the end of the 18th century. The author’s approach emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary research in the study of the early African past, particularly historical linguistics. Highlights Africans as innovators in world history.

  • Hamilton, Carolyn, Bernard Mbenga, and Robert Ross, eds. The Cambridge History of South Africa. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010–2011.

    A reassessment of South African history in light of the country’s achievement of majority rule in the late 20th century. Includes chapters by leading South African historians covering the period from the Early Iron Age to recent times.

  • Ki-Zerbo, Joseph, G. Mokhtar, M. El Fasi, I. Hrbek, D. T. Niane, and Adu A. Boahen. General History of Africa. 8 vols. London: Heinemann, 1981–1988.

    A collection of essays on topics in African history by an international collection of scholars. Topics range from ancient civilizations to recent history.

  • Phillipson, David W. African Archaeology. 2d ed. New York and Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

    A summary and synthesis of African archaeology from prehistory to the age of European colonization. The work spans the entire continent from the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope and explains the relevance of archaeological research to the understanding of Africa today. Fully illustrated.

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

    A multiauthored study of archaeological knowledge about Africa’s past with an emphasis on challenging misconceptions and questioning the approaches that have shaped archaeological research in Africa. Some chapters address specific research sites, whereas others explore thematic topics.

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