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The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns.

With the notable exception of palaeoanthropology, African archaeology has always seemed to lie on the scientific periphery. Many archaeologists, who should know better, consider Africa to be out of the mainstream of later prehistory, a continent on the frontiers of Ancient Egypt, that did little more than supply raw materials to others. This massive volume, the last of the One World Archaeology series generated by the controversial 1986 World Archaeology Conference, will convince even the most Eurocentric scholars of the error of their ways.

The archaeology of Africa has been long in gestation, partly because of the complex logistics involved, but also because the four editors rightly elected to commission chapters to fill geographical gaps and flesh out topics inadequately covered at the meeting itself. The result is a well-organized volume that centres around carefully chosen themes. The first is terminology, always a complex issue in African archaeology ever since the landmark Burg Wartenstein Conference on the subject in 1965. The debates surround the desirability of using European terminology, such as 'Neolithic' or 'Iron Age' in an African context, and a recognition that archaeology in Africa, as elsewhere, has moved beyond mere descriptive culture history towards a concern not only with ecological adaptation, but with the structure of society and the processes of culture change. As is clear from the contributions to this book, Africanists are retreating slowly not only from the term 'Neolithic', but from the 'Iron Age', a label once so firmly embedded in the literature that several syntheses of later African archaeology use the term on their title pages.

'This book is about change in Africa, the changes that have occurred over the last twenty milennia', we learn on p. 1. It is, the authors claim, a story written in the earth, a multidisciplinary study of innovation and diffusion, the second major theme for these essays. Until less than a decade ago, even the most learned of archaeologists and historians assumed that innovations such as agriculture, animal domestication and iron-working entered sub-Saharan Africa from outside. Thus it was that theories of migrating Hamites and expanding, 'bellicose' Bantuspeakers, of cattle complexes and divine kingship, tended to dominate the literature, theories that stemmed from ethnocentric perspectives and from decades of colonial rule. Now the focus has shifted, from grandiose migrations to small-scale movements, to the study of unique cultural expressions, a compelling theme in many chapters.

Hand-in-hand goes the third topic, that of environmental reconstruction, perhaps the most exciting in the book, for we are only now beginning to comprehend the profound influence of climatic change on recent African history. The papers by A.T. Grove and J. Maley demonstrate the critical importance of the Sahara Desert and the rainforest in influencing the course of African history. No longer is Africa's environmental map a static display, unchanged since the end of the last glaciation. We now know that short-term rainfall cycles and environmental uncertainty profoundly affected the ways in which Africans adapted to their diverse homelands. For example, the effects of ever-fluctuating Nile floods on ancient Egyptian civilization are revolutionizing our interpretations of that long-lived society. At the same time, several articles in these pages make it clear that it is often intangibles such as shifts in centres of political power that were as important as proximity to pasturage and water in shaping the course of African societies.

Food production is a dominant theme. Botanist Jack Harlan gives us an all-too-short summary of what is known about the origins of African crops, while Juliet Clutton-Brock does the same for domesticated animals. Both these contributions make it clear that African domesticates -- sorghum and millet, and, above all, cattle -- played an influential part in shaping early agricultural societies in Nubia, the Sahara, and in the tropics. And Fred Wendorf's research team working at Nabta Playa, and Wetterstrom in the Nile Valley, make it clear that wild native plants played a vital role in early food production, for it was a shortage of these that led to African farming.

The chapters on food production for the most part cover well-trodden, relatively predictable ground. Muzzolini summarizes what little is known of early pastoralism in the Sahara, while several authors treat of the Kintampo complex and the beginnings of West African farming. The ethnoarchaeological paper on Tiv agriculture and settlement patterns seems somewhat out of place, for authors Folorunso & Ogundele offer little more than general statements about the importance of their research to the study of early West African agriculture. It is here, too, that one comes up against a major lacuna in the book, one that results from the controversies over South Africa that bedevilled the conference. One would like to have seen a paper by Andrew Smith of the University of Cape Town, who was unable to attend the meeting. His recent book on African pastoralism is a model of clear synthesis and evaluation, and he would have added much to this conference. The chapters on eastern, central and southern Africa cover much familiar ground, but those by Phillipson on Ethiopia, by Juwayeyi on southern Malawi and Sinclair and others on Mozambique are valuable summaries of little-known regions. Perhaps the most useful essay in this section is that by Manfred Eggert on the issues of archaeology in the equatorial forest, which finally puts to rest any notions that early African farmers did not clear rainforest until very recent times. What is encouraging is that so many young scholars are working in hitherto neglected areas like Cameroon and Mozambique -- countries that have been blanks for generations. An explosion of new data is the happy result.

African archaeology has been a multidisciplinary enterprise since the 1960s, engaged in a scientific paradigm that has brought historians, linguists and others into a profitable marriage. The essays in The archaeology of Africa move relatively seamlessly from archaeology to linguistics, for historical linguistics has always loomed large in later African archaeology, ever since the pioneer days of Greenberg, Guthrie and the great Bantu dispersal controversies of the 1960s and 1970s. The linguistic chapters here cover a broad array of topics. R. Blench attempts a summary of ethnographic and linguistic evidence for African livestock, and an essay on recent developments in the genetic classification of African languages. Christopher Ehret gives us an, as always, articulate reconstruction of the remote past, this time attempting to associate Nilo-Saharan speakers with early Saharan food producers. This reviewer is not qualified to assess these essays, but I cannot help feeling that the lack of chronological control makes anything but the most generalized conclusions of dubious value. Nevertheless, they add a depth and richness to the archaeological data which goes far beyond the naive correlations of pottery types and linguistic diffusions of yesteryear. It is a pity that the editors did not commission a long, closely argued synthesis of linguistic prehistory and African history: it would have added a powerful dimension to the archaeological data evaluated in these pages.

The literature on early iron technology in tropical Africa is proliferating rapidly, even if much of it is long on theoretical observations and short on archaeological data. The papers here cover West Africa and the Sahel, Zaire and East Africa, but do not offer the kind of comprehensive overview on African iron-working that would put them in a broader context. This is, of course, always a problem with volumes that result from conferences, however carefully edited. In this case, the editors' difficulties were compounded by the exclusion of South African archaeologists and others who were either banned from the meeting or felt they should stay away. As a result, only Collet's paper covers southern Africa, and that in very general terms. I wish the editors had been able to commission a paper that summarized the salient issues, to put the contributions from further north in a broader context. Having said this, it should be pointed out that most of the iron-working papers in the volume are useful contributions, including those that look at the political, religious and social contexts of iron technology.

It is encouraging that we have moved far beyond the simplistic preoccupations with the origins of iron-working in Africa that occupied such a central place in the literature a generation ago, partly because so little was known. Today, we can appreciate the remarkably diverse ways in which Africans throughout the continent exploited the new technology to serve many ends -- not only because iron working edges were more efficient for clearing woodland.

Perhaps the most important chapters are those that treat of the general theme of urbanism and social complexity. Hassan and O'Connor give us a wonderful synthetic treatment of towns and villages in Ancient Egypt, from which it is clear that any definitions of town and city in Africa must be flexible, and that the relationships between larger and smaller population centres often have great symbolic importance. One powerful feature of this book is the way in which the important papers by Egyptologists like David O'Connor (on urbanism on Bronze Age Egypt) blend seamlessly into those on other parts of Africa. This is one of the few books where Egypt is treated as part of its mother continent, not as some aberrant appendage. Other chapters examine not only Aksum and the mysterious Land of Punt, but themes of towns and trade, of regional commerce and its effects on social organization. The chapters on the eastern African coast are of particular importance, for they represent a significant departure from the more narrowly focused studies of the 1960s and 1970s. They make the point that the East African towns were part of a much wider world and that Islam provided an important unifying force that linked widely separated and often culturally very diverse societies. I found Horton & Mudida's paper on marine resources a stimulating contribution, for they use faunal remains to highlight the importance of both cattle and fishing in the development of Swahili society. Such studies are what archaeology often does best, and offer rich promise for the future. And Abungo & Mutoro's important, but, alas brief, article on the coastal hinterland finally breaks down the intellectual isolation that has marked so much of earlier East African coastal archaeology. This is a long book, but one cannot help, yet again, lamenting the large gaps from southern Africa. Only Sinclair and his colleagues treat of Shona states, when we know that a wealth of new research deserved exposure in this international forum.

After wading through 44 contributions, I was left with three impressions: first, it is a tragedy that politics have to interfere with scholarship, for so much was missing from these deliberations. Second, how encouraging to see later African archaeology moving ahead on so many fronts, and in so many capable hands. Third, more than ever we need, not more conferences or synthesis articles, but more basic data from the field. As always happens with conference papers, there is a lot of tantalizing stuff here, some of it even potentially revolutionary. I only hope that those who tantalize us are going back to excavate, and publish, their data. With its superb bibliography and extremely useful introductory essay, this is a book that should be on many archaeologists' bookshelves, not only those with a narrow focus on Africa itself. Unlike most conference proceedings, The archaeology of Africa contains an unusually high proportion of important papers, many by African scholars, and many of them close to the methodological and theoretical cutting edge. Grit your teeth, shell out the pounds, and buy a copy of this important work: you will consult it many times. And if you know nothing of Africa's past, it is time you did, and this book will introduce you to a lot of sound scholarship. Congratulations to the editors for having the faith and persistence to see what sometimes must have been a nightmare task through to a triumphant conclusion.
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Author:Fagan, Brian
Publication:Antiquity
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:1976
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