Ways Historians can mitigate challenges for a Robust understanding of African past.
For many years, Africa has been alleged by many early European historians to be a continent with no history. The notion of Africa being the “dark continent” was widely accepted and the opinion that Africa had no history prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the 15th century had little counter arguments. Perhaps the availability of little written history in Africa further fuelled the notion that Africa was the “dark continent” until Portuguese ships supposedly brought light to it in 1442.
Hundreds of years after, there are still little to no knowledge of many African states prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Though many contemporary historians unlike their olden day counterparts agree that Africa definitely had a lot of history before the advent of the Europeans, much of this history is still largely unknown to historians and remains lost in the sands of time.
In many articles, writings, researches and texts on African history, the history of many African states are limited to their colonial and pre-independence era. In this context however, only a few African states like Ethiopia can boast of having a rich, unfiltered and documented pre-colonial history.
This unavailability of enough historical data on Africa’s past has for many years proved to be a major defiance to contemporary historians’ insight of Africa’s profound times past. The challenges of insufficient historical statistics should not be the problem facing historians but how could modern historians possibly lessen or solve the challenges that have baffled even the best of historians for centuries?
Archeology is undoubtedly an evidential pillar of history. For centuries, archeology and history have closely walked hand in hand. Luckily, archeology has proven to be a very useful tool in the reconstruction of history. An example of archeology proving to be an essential accessory in the reconstruction of history is the recreation of the biblical life history. Though there are written documentations of life in the biblical periods, archeology also played a very vital role in the understanding of life in the biblical periods. Major discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Moabite Stone, the Lachish Letters, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, the Ugaritic texts and many others are due to archeology and many of these discoveries have helped historians to understand more of the biblical times. In fact, the Rosetta stone which is most often dubbed the greatest archeological discovery could not have been found if not for archeology. The Rosetta stone is now used by historians to interpret and reconstruct more of Egyptian ancient history.
If archeology was widely used in Africa as it is used in locations like Teotihuacan of Mexico, Machu Picchu of Peru, Stonehenge of England, the Ziggurat of Ur or Petra, the odds of archeologists making major discoveries would be higher and the chances of historians getting to understand more of ancient Africa would further increase. If archeology could be used extensively in places like the Olduvai Gorge in present day Tanzania, the Great Walls of Benin which is still being heavily debated upon to be the largest man made earth work in the world, the ancient city of Kush’s Meroe which is located in present day Sudan, Aksum and Great Zimbabwe which still baffles historians till this day, historians would find answers to many of their questions.
Ancient Africa as a continent did not adopt the style of writing down their history unlike their European counterparts. Instead, oral traditions were used. Oral tradition was the undocumented verbal accounts of history passed down from generation to generation .Oral sources can be likened to eye witness accounts that are relayed to others using speech. Though many historians rebuff oral sources of history claiming it to have been infiltrated by myths and legends, oral sources could actually prove to be an essential part of understanding Africa’s unknown history. Many historians also dismiss oral sources of history because they believe many African oral sources consists of three main elements; a tale of creation that happened a very long time ago; a very long break until something important happened; another break and a more recent tale of how the tribe settled down where they currently where. Another con of oral tradition is the lack of uniformity in the accounts.
There are a lot of African tribes that trace back their history far beyond the European advent using oral sources. One of the most significant of these in Africa is the Yorubas of present day Nigeria who give an account of their creation story, their migration and the establishment of various kingdoms, the conquest of kingdoms and the war between their kingdoms. There are about 44 million Yorubas currently living in Nigeria and the oral sources on their history from the mouths of a vast majority of them correlates. Other places where oral tradition also thrive asides Africa is Asia where the earliest Buddhist texts are widely believed to be of oral tradition, the Middle East where the Torah, ancient Jewish literature, Jewish and Christian holy books, and the texts of the beginning of Christianity are established in oral tradition. Also, before the advent of the Europeans in North America, the Native Americans were known to be good storytellers. Storytelling of which is also classified as an oral source of transmitting history.
This proves that no matter how long, oral sources can also prove to be significant in understanding the rich history of ancient Africa.
Anthropology and ethnography are also two factors by which scholars likewise historians can use to get a better comprehension of Africa’s deep history. While anthropology is the field of study that concentrates on the evolution of human languages, cultures, societies and biological material remains, ethnography on the other hand focuses on the scientific description of people and cultures with their customs, habits and mutual differences. To an average individual, the perception of using anthropology and ethnography to alleviate the challenges historians face when trying to understand Africa’s past history might seem out of place however if used properly, anthropology and ethnography can actually be a turning point to the challenges faced by scholars and historians alike.
Many evidences trace back the origins of the modern human being to Africa around some 100,000 years ago. In recent years, discoveries from Eastern and Southern Africa have begun to uncover some facts about the people that once lived there thousands of years ago. Pottery, cave inscriptions, musical instruments, art and even skeletal samples have been studied to get a glimpse of what life in the early ages could have been. Drawings and inscriptions in caves has also provided researchers with hints on how the language system worked too.
Among the findings were the dental evolution of such communities, male and female initiation practices which is still commonly practiced among some African tribes and societies today, menstruation taboos which forbade menstruating women from cooking and partaking in some rituals, cannibalism and many others. There were also numerous discoveries on the technology used at the time. Stones, slingshots, spears, and clubs were also some discoveries that were highlighted using the studies of anthropology and ethnography.
Anthropology and ethnography have both proven to be successes in the areas of exploring the unknown past cultures of Africa. Making use of anthropology and ethnography, scholars and contemporary historians would be able to have a clearer picture of what Africa’s past cultures really were because anthropology and ethnography perfectly serves as a bridge between the modern world and the ancient times.
Another effective approach used by many historians and scholars in understanding Africa’s past history is through geography, climate and the environment. Geography is primarily the field of study that concentrates on people, places and the relationship between man and his immediate environment. Climate on the other hand is the average weather condition in a given area over a long period of time. Unlike geography that only focuses on the relationship between man and his immediate environment, climate delves deeper by including information on seasonal rainfall, sunshine, temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, wind and other meteorological elements.
Over the course of history, changes in climate and overall weather conditions has greatly influenced man in his choice of geographical location. Famines, drought and natural disasters are some major factors that spur man to migrate in search of better geographic locations. Many historical accounts give numerous testimonies of this fact. Perhaps, one of the most popular accounts in this context is the great Egyptian famine of around 2180 BC that affected Egypt and its environs for seven years during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser of the Third Dynasty. This account is very popular because of it’s documentation in Christian and Jewish holy book and is also very prevalent in oral traditions. According to the biblical account, there was a massive unprecedented migration to Egypt because Egypt had food in its store houses.
Studying the geographical and climatic conditions of a particular area increases the chances of understanding what understanding what happened to a particular group of people who lived in ancient times. A very good instance in Africa could be the Shona people who abandoned their structural and architectural master class of Great Zimbabwe. Since history is an inquiry into the past, what happened to the people of Great Zimbabwe should be a subject of debate. What prompted them to abandon their magnificent structures and move up north? Many of these historical enquiries could be directed to climate and geography.
Truly, it is self evident that scholarship on African history is faced with enormous challenges however using archeology, historical linguistics and oral traditions, biological evidences, documentaries and written sources, anthropology and ethnography, climate and geography, demography, historical genres and meeting Africans in diaspora, would give scholars and historians an edge in understanding the unexplored riches of the unknown African history.