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October 2006 (110.4)
Edited by Ann Brower Stahl (Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology). Pp. xiv + 490, figs. 10, tables 15, maps 21. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, Mass. 2005. $36.95. ISBN 1-4051-0156-3 (paper).
Critically evaluating the archaeology of Sub-Saharan Africa and placing this scholarship within the context of a wide range of paradigms and debates, Stahl’s African Archaeology provides a useful introduction to the primary scholarship on this region. In doing so, the volume examines what we know of this region’s past and how we know it. Stahl’s multiauthored volume covers 2.6 million years and is temporal, topical, and thematic in scope. The book’s central theme is that archaeology is “dynamic and open-ended” (16); it is thus forged through differences of opinion, revision based on new evidence, and the posing of new questions and new interpretations.
Chapters 1 and 2 explore the archaeological research traditions and images of Africa. Chapters 3 through 5 cover the changing understanding of the material signatures of Pliocene and Pleistocene sites due to reassessments of taphonomic processes and site formations. Chapters 6 through 10 examine the Holocene period, with a focus on cultural changes and food-production strategies that defined the period. Chapters 11 through 13 deal with the theoretical debates over metallurgy and its consequences for Sub-Saharan Africa, Bantu urbanism, and problematic linguistic paradigms. Chapters 14 through 16 examine the mosaic of specific socioeconomic interactions and technologies in African societies (except for those in North Africa) for the last 2,000 years and reflect on the myths that prevail in these areas and communities.
Eggert’s “The Bantu Problem and African Archaeology” challenges archaeological scholarship concerning the distribution of Bantu languages across Sub-Saharan Africa largely “shaped by linguistic data and assumptions” (301). His analysis highlights how our understanding of this language distribution has been marked by an absence of critical evaluation of underlying conceptions and methods. This article supports the view that without addressing methodological and empirical difficulties in archaeology, any scholarship on language distribution will be problematic. An important appraisal of current flaws in Bantu archaeology and recommendations for improvement in this area of archaeology is one of the primary assets of this study.
Reid’s “Interaction, Marginalization, and the Archaeology of the Kalahari” challenges the static stereotypes of Kalahari hunter-gatherer societies that has led to these societies being considered inferior to urban societies. According to Reid, archaeologists still rely on such stereotypes to create a framework for understanding past societies in Africa, though archaeologists no longer consider Africa as “the barbaric other” (353). He even challenges their framework by outlining the ways that these hunter-gatherer societies were altered by interactions with Europeans and capitalism. As such, Reid’s analysis contributes an insightful critique of this branch of archaeology.
Other authors examine the origins of African agricultural strategies and the diffusion of these strategies. Casey (“Holocene Occupations of Forest and Savanna”) focuses on the origin of agriculture in southwest Asia and its subsequent diffusion into Europe as a framework for understanding the origins and diffusion of agriculture within Africa. This view is confronted by Newman’s “The Romance of Farming,” which argues that agriculture must have been transmitted to Africa since domesticated crops are absent in Holocene sites. The diffusion of agriculture from the Near East should have been possible even with Sub-Saharan Africa’s monsoonal climate, which would have required long-day plants to be planted in the winter. For example, when Near Eastern crops began flourishing in ancient Egypt, societies in the Sahara and Sudan could have implemented a similar cultivation as they domesticated tropical summer crops. Even though such hypotheses remain unproven in the absence of evidence, they are central to debates about the origins of Sub-Saharan African agricultural strategies.
The volume purports to demonstrate that “older perceptions of African societies as living fossils of evolutionary stages” and “barbarians” have all but disappeared from the archaeological literature. Nonetheless, it acknowledges that “the ghosts of these ideas continue to haunt many of these interpretations” (430). While refreshing, this single admission does not exorcize this colonial attitude from the archaeology of Africa. One of the shortcomings of the volume is its failure to address and discuss the possibility that an intentional distortion or even an innocent trivializing of Africa might have characterized older archaeological scholarship (let alone that it might still exist). For example, until recently, Black South African societies were intentionally excluded from the history of parts of southern Africa by Afrikaner scholars who wanted to advance the view that Black South Africans and Afrikaners discovered these areas at the same time. Similarly, the Arab invasion of North Africa in 639 C.E. undoubtedly brought significant changes to Sub-Saharan African societies, but this is omitted. In this volume, such changes in these societies are largely attributed to interactions amongst themselves, and with Europeans and Asians.
This exclusion of North Africa relies on a popular sentiment that isolates Sub-Saharan Africa from the rest of Africa. An in-depth archaeological analysis of all of Africa would reveal its interconnectedness and make this a stronger and more useful volume.
Nonetheless, with its insightful overview of the current state of African archaeology, this book should make a good contribution to debates in upper-division undergraduate college courses on Africa.
Aaron Peron Ogletree
Detroit, Michigan 48203
Book Review of African Archaeology, edited by Ann Brower Stahl
Reviewed by Aaron Peron Ogletree
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 4 (October 2006)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/470