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Africa's Storied Past Volume 52 Number 3, May/June 1999
by Roderick J. McIntosh


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 farming.

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 steamships.

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.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America