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African History: Sources, Methods

Sources and methods in African history refer to the different types of evidence and techniques used to study and understand the history of the African continent.

Zulu warrior demonstrates traditional dance in South Africa. Photo: Joseph Kiesecker | Flickr

Sources of African history can be divided into two broad categories: primary sources and secondary sources.

Primary sources include original historical documents and artifacts, such as letters, journals, government records, maps, photographs, oral histories, and archaeology. These sources provide direct evidence of historical events and experiences, and offer a unique perspective on the past.

Secondary sources, on the other hand, are written by historians or other experts who have analyzed and interpreted primary sources. These sources may include books, articles, and online resources that provide an overview of a historical event, period, or theme.

In terms of methods, historians of Africa employ a variety of approaches to studying the past, including:

  • Archival research: Historians examine original documents, such as government records, maps, and letters, to gain insights into historical events and people.
  • Oral history: Historians collect and analyze the memories and experiences of individuals who lived through a particular period in history.
  • Ethnography: Historians use cultural anthropological techniques to study the beliefs, customs, and traditions of a particular group of people.
  • Archaeology: Historians use archaeological evidence, such as artifacts and structures, to reconstruct past cultures and civilizations.
  • Comparative history: Historians use comparisons between different societies, regions, or periods in order to gain a better understanding of the larger historical picture.

Each of these methods has its strengths and limitations, and historians must use a combination of sources and methods to build a complete and accurate picture of the past.

Importance of Oral Sources in African History

Oral sources play a crucial role in the study of African history. They offer a unique perspective on the past that is often not found in written sources, and provide valuable insights into the cultural, social, and political aspects of historical events.

Ethiopian Religious Painting
Church of Debra Berhan Selassie, Gondar, Ethiopia. Emperor Iyasu the Great, a grandson of Emperor Fasilides, built the Church of Debra Berhan Selassie, which means “The Light of the Trinity” in Amharic. Emperor Iyasu ruled from 1682 until his assassination in 1706. Photo: A.Davey | Flickr

Here are some reasons why oral sources are important in African history:

  • Preservation of indigenous knowledge: Oral sources have helped preserve the traditional knowledge and cultural practices of African societies, which would have otherwise been lost.
  • Insight into everyday life: Oral sources offer a glimpse into the everyday experiences of ordinary people, providing a more nuanced understanding of African history.
  • Emphasis on local perspectives: Oral sources provide a local perspective on historical events, which is often missing from written sources created by outsiders.
  • Re-interpretation of history: Oral sources can challenge and re-interpret accepted narratives of history, bringing new perspectives and insights to the fore.
  • Connection to cultural heritage: Oral sources help connect present-day Africans to their cultural heritage and provide a sense of continuity and identity.

However, it’s important to note that oral sources can also be subject to biases, interpretations, and inaccuracies, just like any other historical sources. Therefore, historians must approach oral sources with a critical and nuanced perspective, using them in conjunction with other types of evidence to build a complete and accurate picture of the past.

Problems of Sources in African History

African history, like the history of any region, has its own unique set of challenges when it comes to sources. Here are some of the most significant problems:

  • Lack of written records: Many African societies prior to colonization had oral traditions and did not have a system of writing. This means that much of the history of these societies has been passed down through word of mouth, which can be subject to change and interpretation over time.
  • Bias of colonizers: Many of the written records that do exist from Africa’s colonial period were created by European colonizers, who often had a biased perspective and may have deliberately skewed the history to justify their colonization.
A camel waiting for its ride in front of Pyramids at Giza, Egypt. Photo: Arvind Balaraman
| Flickr
  • Destruction of African heritage: Many African monuments and artifacts have been destroyed, either intentionally (such as during the colonial period) or unintentionally (such as through neglect or the effects of time and weather).
  • Political suppression: In some African countries, governments have suppressed information and deliberately manipulated historical records in order to maintain political control.
  • Language barriers: A significant portion of African historical sources are written in European languages, which can make them difficult for African scholars to access and interpret.

Despite these challenges, there are still many valuable sources of information about African history, including archaeology, oral traditions, and more recent written records from African scholars. By combining these sources, historians can gain a more comprehensive understanding of Africa’s rich and complex history.

Problems of periodization in African history

Periodization is a method used to divide historical time into specific periods or eras, and it has been used to study the history of many regions and civilizations, including Africa. However, periodization in African history has faced several challenges and controversies. Some of the problems with periodization in African history include:

  • Lack of written sources: In many parts of Africa, there is a scarcity of written sources, particularly from the pre-colonial period. This can make it difficult to establish clear and accurate periods, as historians have to rely on oral traditions and archaeology to piece together the history of the region.
  • Diverse cultural and political histories: Africa is a vast and diverse continent, with a rich and complex history that has been shaped by a wide variety of cultural and political influences. This diversity can make it difficult to establish a single periodization scheme that applies across the continent.
  • Eurocentric approaches: Many early periodization schemes in African history were developed by European scholars and were based on European concepts of history and civilization. This has led to a eurocentric view of African history, in which African societies and civilizations are seen as peripheral and inferior to European ones.
  • Lack of continuity: In some cases, African societies have experienced significant breaks or discontinuities in their history, such as the impact of colonialism, slavery, or war. These events can make it difficult to establish clear and continuous periods of time.
  • Political considerations: Periodization in African history has sometimes been influenced by political considerations, with different periods being established or emphasized to support particular political narratives or agendas.
  • Problem of labeling: Most African states and kingdoms had histories of colonialism. So, when we use labels such as precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial in describing periods in African history, which periods do these labels apply to? Using Oyo Empire as an example, the application of precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial to the histories of all these societies needs more clarifications to capture their true histories. For such societies, European colonialism is not the first colonial experience. So, the application of labels such as precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial must bear true witnesses to their histories.

Overall, these problems with periodization in African history highlight the need for a more nuanced and inclusive approach to the study of African history, one that takes into account the rich and diverse cultural and political histories of the continent and that is sensitive to the challenges and controversies surrounding periodization.

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