A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
For too long, many scholars dismissed Africa as a cultural backwater
unworthy of serious study. But 50 years of archaeology have shown that the
continent has pottery thousands of years older than that of the Near East
and Europe, true steel two and a half millennia before its
nineteenth-century European "invention," and urban civilizations without
despots and wars. These are more than just African insights; they are
fundamental revelations about how humans have interacted with each other
and their environment and how societies have changed in the past.
Archaeologists long thought that agriculture must always have preceded
herding, but during the last 20 years, evidence has emerged that in Africa
full-time herding appeared as early as 7500 B.C., millennia before farming.
It was also thought that the idea of plant domestication was imported from
the Near East around the turn of the third millennium B.C., but experiments
with sorghum and millet began as early as 9,000 years ago, and full
domestication independent of Near Eastern developments happened as early as
900 B.C. Furthermore, some regions of Africa have all the hallmarks of
sedentarism (living year-round in the same place) without agriculture,
quite at odds with the traditional model of the emergence of villages,
derived from the Near Eastern Neolithic, as a consequence of cereal
In Africa and just about everywhere else, archaeologists long assumed that
monuments, palatial architecture, and conspicuously wealthy burials
reflected some degree of stratified, state organization. A number of
African cases, however, suggest that more egalitarian societies could also
build great monuments, and that large cities could develop without palaces
and elite burials.
Archaeologists long argued that the spread of Bantu-speaking people
throughout Africa was rapid, no earlier than the first millennium A.D., and
facilitated by their superior knowledge of iron technology. But excavations at various sites
have shown that there is no abrupt change from the Late Stone Age
(supposedly pre-Bantu) to the Iron Age (early Bantu). Stone remained in use
even after iron was introduced, and so-called proto-Bantu ceramics appear
even before iron. This is not to underestimate the importance of iron in Africa. Iron furnaces have been found dating from
the eighth century B.C., and possibly as early as 1300 B.C.; true steel was
invented by the middle of the first millennium B.C.
We can also now appreciate that the African response to outside
contact was anything but passive. Slave forts and colonial cities had
adjacent African trading settlements, and new states arose thanks to the
economic realities of the times or new technologies like firearms or
Despite severe financial crises, several African nations have a
well-trained second generation of archaeologists trained in Africa. The challenge for these scholars is to cajole their
governments into adequately funding field research, museums, and research
institutions; to ensure the passage of cultural property protection laws;
and to find ways to make archaeology relevant to the concerns of all
citizens. If they succeed, not only will they have won a victory for
Africa, but they will have set an example for the rest of the world.
Roderick J. McIntosh is a professor of anthropology at Rice University.