In a very true manner of speaking, African Archaeology can be said to be the story of African colonization. From supporting Eurocentric ideals granting White supremacy based on race alone, to championing African rights to protect their antiquities from foreign governments in more recent times, it has indeed been a very long, bumpy journey out of the dark and into the light.
Exploration Period (1860-1919)
The history of African Archaeology essentially begins with French colonization in the 1800s and the introduction of European ideologies that promoted subjugation, rights of conquest, and ultimately, enslavement. Initially conducted by soldiers, civil servants, and unskilled technical personnel (geologists), artifacts were usually stumbled upon during military maneuvers, mining, and scientific expeditions, or unearthed during construction projects.
During this “Exploration Period” (1860-1919), the prevailing evolutionary concepts of scientists like Dutch archaeologist Christian Thomsen (who coined the terms ‘Stone Age,’ ‘Bronze Age,’ & ‘Iron Age’), biologist Sir John Lubbock (who said that evolution had caused biological limitations on cultural utilization), and American Anthropologist C. G. Seligman (who gave foreign origins for African stone tools and cultural accomplishments), dominated scientific thought and focused attention solely on Stone Age discoveries-granting no worth to contemporary occupants or accomplishments. The common scientific consensus (among archaeologists as well) supported the contention that African people are “wretched, depraved, and having the intellect of children,” which Europeans used to justify colonization and human subjugation. Africans were forced to pay taxes and work as slaves while White colonists robbed them of their crops, their religious relics, and their antiquities.
The Speculative Period
Though not a ‘traditional’ archaeologist, Amelia Edwards did much to draw interest to Egyptology in her renowned book, A Thousand Miles of Nile, while helping to establish the “science” of archaeology in the Nile Valley in 1888. And like Edwards, Egyptologist Margaret Murray, whose contribution to this “speculative period” included her hands-on involvement in African excavation and ethnographic studies, as well as her feminist interpretations of African religions, greatly expanded the anthro-archaeological perspective for all archaeologists to follow.
Cultural Descriptive Period (1920-1949)
During the “Cultural Descriptive Period” (1920-1949), African archaeology increasingly became a systematic, trained profession marked by relative dating techniques (what is found deeper in the fossil record is assumed older), juxtaposed against reasserted colonialism–which still considered Africa a primitive ‘backwater’ at this time. Even prominent archaeologists like P.V.R. Lowe still regarded the Sahara as an “evolutionary cul-de-sac where nothing tangible returns”–mistakenly believing that African culture had migrated from north to south–rather than the now widely-accepted south to north “Out of Africa” theory.
Period of First Great Discoveries
It was during this same time that African archaeologist Louis Leaky shifted the focus to human origins studies and made the first discovery of stone tools in Eastern Africa (Kenya) Oldwan in 1931, and in 1932 discovered fossils at Kanam and Kanjera which he (incorrectly) claimed were the oldest true ancestors of modern humans in his rather embarrassing treatise, In Search of Human Origins. His wife Mary Leaky (the “First Lady of Fossils”) proved that our earliest ancestors did indeed come from Africa, but is perhaps best known for her discovery of the 3.6 million-year-old Laetoli footprints–an extraordinary find even by modern standards.
Cultural Historic Period (1950’s-70’s)
By the “Culture Historic Period” (1950’s–70’s), radio-carbon dating was well established while politically, many African nations sought independence. Added to the archaeological roster was Gertrude Thompson who was the first to use sifting screens for excavation, extensive interdisciplinary regional studies (including air surveys), and was quite vocal about the negative impact outside intrusion was having on Africa’s natural setting. But she is best known for her work at Great Zimbabwe where she declared that Zimbabwe is not of outside origin as most scientists had decided: “Instead of a degenerate offshoot of a higher Oriental civilization, you have here a civilization . . . showing the organization of a high king, originality and amazing industry“–which both insulted her contemporaries and undermined European colonial authority that was still trying to keep a strong-hold on African territories. This declaration fueled nationalist, anti-colonial sentiments, as well as the anti-apartheid movement of activist Steven Biko. Also significant to this period was Merrick Posnansky who was the first to espouse the collecting of oral accounts.
Cultural Ecology Period (1960’s-70’s)
The “Cultural Ecology Period” (the 1960s-70s) brought a new focus to environment and diet, with emphasis on how environmental changes affect culture. Advocated by scientists like J. D. Clarke and John Yellen, (whose studies in the Kalahari furnished new cross-cultural models) provided valuable generalizations for archaeologists, apart from religion and customs, a perspective never before considered. This paved the way for the “Post-Processual Studies” of the 1980s which stepped back from environment and technology and sought to understand the human mind; the relationship between ideology and material culture as that found in rock art–which has become the purview of archaeologists like Ian Hodder who said that material culture isn’t just functional, it designates belonging.
In summarizing the political nature of African Archaeology, the University of Cambridge historical archaeologist M. Hall wrote in 1984: “In those countries where the archaeology of the colonized is practiced by the descendants of the colonizers, the study must have a political dimension. While many archaeologists were opposed to the use of history and pre-history to justify White nationalism, most also oppose Black nationalism, which threatens existing social and economic order and the institutions from which archaeological research is conducted.”