African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction

Article excerpt

African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction. Edited by Ann Brower Stahl. Maiden, Ma. and Oxford U.K.: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Pp. xiv, 490; 31 illustrations. $36.95 paper

In eighteen chapters and almost 500 pages, twenty-three seasoned archaeologists of Africa give us the latest synthesis of ca. 2.6 million years of the continent's cultural history under the title African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction. The themes covered in this book represent the staples of Old World archaeologies: human origins and foundations of early cultural evolution; food-sourcing strategies; metallurgy; urbanization; and social complexity. This book succeeds in exorcising the ghost of Eurasian models of cultural evolution from African archaeology. Non-specialist readers will, for example, learn why terms such as the "Neolithic" and "Iron Age" are no longer popular in African archaeology.

Archaeologists generally pride themselves in recovering and utilizing the material archives created by ancient people to write about the past. Yet, the interactions between the archaeologist and the material records are often mediated by the ideology, beliefs, and dispositions of the former. The first two chapters deservedly focus on this problematic of representing and interpreting Africa's past from muted artifacts, and how the politics of racial prejudice, colonization, global inequality, and ignorance, and their associated intellectual violence, have mediated perspectives on Africa's pasts with far-reaching negative consequences.

Ann Stahl's introductory chapter raises questions on the production of knowledge about Africa and how archaeological practices have been girded by assumptions derived from other cultural areas and that are often incompatible with the African situation. The reader learns very early that this book is an attempt to correct perceived past errors in archaeological practice. The second chapter, by Paul Lane, offers a critique of uncritical ethnographic reasoning in African archaeology and calls for an emancipatory ethnographic method that will identify with the totality of African humanity in archaeological interpretation. This is surely a sound programmatic and philosophical goal, but how shall we achieve it? Peter Mitchell and Andrew Reid. in Chapters 6 and 14 respectively, provide some clues as to the likely roads to take. Focusing on southern Africa, they use ethnographic analogies to better understand Later Stone Age (LSA) societies and to study hunter-gatherers as historical subjects. The legacy of apartheid and colonialism has no doubt played a role in shaping the "Primitivist School" view of Kalahari hunter-gatherer societies as ethnographic laboratories of prehistoric Stone Age socioeconomics. The recent "Revisionist School" argues to the contrary: that hunter-gatherer societies are products of marginalization "by political processes which had been operating in the broader region over many centuries" (p. 355). The post-apartheid political freedom in South Africa offers new challenges and opportunities to the archaeological study of southern African peoples. Mitchell (Chapter 6) welcomes the integration of contemporary hunter-gatherers of southern Africa, as descendants of the LSA populations, into the process of research design and interpretations of the LSA archaeological record. This even extends to training the Khoisan in archaeological methods. An approach such as this will certainly enrich the archaeological quest for a more robust use of ethnographic analogies, and will move us closer to a humanistic study of the Khoisan as historical subjects.

Chapters 3 through 5 examine complex themes on Paleolithic adaptive strategies and the evolution of modem humans. Thomas Plummer argues that debates among specialists on the "appropriate" models for Oldowan hominid behaviors do not recognize the impact of local ecological diversity and raw material diversity on the makers of Oldowan tools (Homo habilis and erectus). …