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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Newsletters
  • Reference Works
  • History of Research
  • Earliest Settlement (Early and Middle Stone Age)
  • Later Stone Age
  • The Archaeology of European Colonialism
  • Religion and Ritual
  • Trade
  • Ethnoarchaeology
  • Heritage and Cultural Resource Management
  • Postcolonial Theory and Decoloniality

African Studies Archaeology of West Africa
Natalie Swanepoel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0212


West Africa is a vast geographic region that in archaeological terms is usually circumscribed by the Tropic of Cancer in the north, Cameroon in the east, and the Atlantic Ocean in the west and south. It encompasses a great deal of variation and diversity on environmental, linguistic, cultural, and political fronts. One of its defining features is the parallel environmental zones that run east to west so that as the traveler moves south to north, they pass through coastal, forest, savanna (wooded and grassland), and Sahelian zones until they reach the Sahara in the north. The region’s modern-day political borders created by European colonialist competition cut through existing ethnolinguistic groups and erstwhile kingdoms and states. Politically, during the last 2,000 years West African societies ranged in scale from decentralized agricultural societies to mobile pastoralists to state-level societies and empires. As is to be expected, West African archaeology reflects this complexity. It is for this reason that, rather than reducing it to an “ages and stages” formulation, most West African(ist) archaeologists speak about the material record as a “mosaic” which varied over time and space. In comparison to the rest of the continent, very little is known about the very early period of human history, with scant evidence for settlement during the Early and Middle Stone Age periods. The region’s past is better known from about midway through the Holocene (Later Stone Age), 6,000 BCE. This is also coincident with wide-ranging transformations in the lifestyles of hunter-gatherers in the region, as this is when the transition to food production occurs, first with pastoralism and later with crop cultivation. Iron technology was introduced in the 1st millennium BCE, and the rise of complex societies with their accompanying institutions occurred in the 1st millennium CE. Any discussion of the literature will be partial, but this is exacerbated by the patchy archaeological coverage of the region. This is for a number of reasons: the size of the area to be covered, the variable history of archaeological research in different parts, the difficulty of working in some ecological settings such as the forest zone, conflict-ridden zones that make it unsafe to conduct research, and difficulties in African scholars accessing resources and funding. Despite this, considerable progress in our knowledge of the region has been made.

General Overviews

Due to the sheer complexity of the West African archaeological record, there are relatively few comprehensive overviews of the archaeology of the region. Many review works focus on a selective time span or a selective theme. Andah and Okpoko 2006 is an edited volume that covers the full time span of the archaeological record, except for the Atlantic era. It appears to have been published to serve the purpose of a course text at Nigerian universities. The series of articles McIntosh and McIntosh 1981, McIntosh and McIntosh 1983, McIntosh and McIntosh 1988, and McIntosh 1994 together offer a comprehensive overview of the archaeology of the West African region, including how larger shifts in the cultural record can be correlated to large-scale climatic and environmental trends. Although these are by now dated, subsequent research by other scholars extends rather than overturns the observations contained in these overviews. Stahl 2005 is an edited volume that contains two chapters dealing directly with West Africa (on the Later Stone Age and the last 2,000 years). Mitchell 2005 seeks to place Africa within the framework of its global connections. Because of West Africa’s role in both the trans-Saharan and the Atlantic trades, a substantial portion of the book is devoted to a discussion of West Africa. Connah 2004 is a reader-friendly introduction to the archaeology of Africa with many West African examples.

  • Andah, Bassey W., and A. Ikechuwu Okpoko, eds. Foundations of Civilization in Tropical Africa. Lagos, Nigeria: Concept, 2006.

    This special book edition of the West African Journal of Archaeology (vol. 36, issues 1 and 2) has chapters offering coverage of the environmental and archaeological history of West Africa, excluding the Atlantic era.

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

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203511800

    An accessible text about the archaeology of Africa aimed at students and the general public. Presents a series of vignettes relating to food production, metallurgy, and sites such as the urban centers of Jenne-jeno, Igbo-Ukwu, Nok, Ife, and Benin as well as the trans-Saharan trade. The discussion of West African archaeology has an emphasis on Nigeria.

  • McIntosh, Susan K. “Changing Perceptions of West Africa’s Past: Archaeological Research since 1988.” Journal of Archaeological Research 2.2 (1994): 165–198.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02232720

    Summarizes research between 1988 and 1994 with a focus on the introduction of ironworking and the emergence of complex societies in the 1st and 2nd millennia CE. Problematizes the “ages and stages” approach to West African history in view of the ethnolinguistic, environmental, and sociopolitical mosaic that characterizes the region and highlights where the African experience runs counter to evolutionary expectations.

  • McIntosh, Susan K., and Roderick S. McIntosh. “West African Prehistory.” American Scientist 69.6 (1981): 602–613.

    Reviews the chronological developments in West Africa over a period of 10,000 years, including the shifts in subsistence from foraging to pastoralism to metal-using agricultural societies and the growth and development of complex societies. The changing climate and the ecological zones of the subregion are addressed. Subsequent research in West Africa has expanded on the themes outlined here.

  • McIntosh, Susan K., and Roderick S. McIntosh. “Current Directions in West African Prehistory.” Annual Review of Anthropology 12 (1983): 215–258.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Offers a comprehensive overview of the literature at the time of publication of the archaeology of West Africa from the Early Stone Age until the end of the 1st millennium CE. The debates relating to the emergence of agriculture and metallurgy are reviewed, as well as the issue of the lack of coordination of terminology between the French and English scholars working in the region. Students may find the latter particularly useful.

  • McIntosh, Susan K., and Roderick S. McIntosh. “From Stone to Metal: New Perspectives on the Later Prehistory of West Africa.” Journal of World Prehistory 2.1 (1988): 89–133.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00975123

    Addresses the question of how West African societies were transformed from largely stone-tool-using foraging societies in the two millennia BCE to increasingly socially and politically complex societies in the two millennia CE (both prior to and after the emergence of the Islamic trade in the 9th century CE).

  • Mitchell, Peter. African Connections: Archaeological Perspectives on Africa and the Wider World. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2005.

    Situates Africa within the broader global picture. Four chapters relate directly to West Africa dealing with farming systems, the trans-Saharan trade, the Atlantic trade, and the African diaspora, respectively. It is especially useful for its detailed discussion of trade systems and goods. The illustrations are also very informative.

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

    Survey text covering temporal and thematic themes in African archaeology. Authors also critically discuss the theoretical orientations that have shaped debates and interpretations. Two chapters deal with West Africa directly, but the chapters on urbanism, metallurgy, agriculture, and so on discuss the West African evidence within a broader African perspective. A useful text for students.

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