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Research in African Literatures 31.2 (2000) 238-239

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Book Review

Encyclopedia of Precolonial Africa: Archaeology, History, Languages, Cultures and Environments

Encyclopedia of Precolonial Africa: Archaeology, History, Languages, Cultures and Environments, ed. Joseph O. Vogel. Walnut Creek: Altamira,1997. 605pp. ISBN 0-76190-8902-1 cloth.

This is a large and ambitious work, whose "primary function" is to be a "summary of the current state of Africanist archeology" (20). As such, it is successful. The volume also includes limited attempts at including information on languages and cultures. Because they draw almost exclusively on archeological sources, the articles on Cultures or "Lifeways" are less successful. Regrettably, the terms "pre-colonial," "colonialism," "pre-historic," and "Stone-age" are not defined and therefore offer some potential for confusion.

The importance of African archaeology is noted by Brian Fagan, pointing out that "Africa's archaeological record [of] 2.5 million years is the longest in the world" (51). He observes that "in Africa, archaeology is a vital intellectual component in fostering national identity and historical consciousness" (54). Yet John Thorton notes that African archaeology is of recent origin and that current political instability as well as lack of funding present great difficulties for current archaeological work in Africa.

The volume includes articles by more than seventy contributors from four continents. It opens with a section on African Environments, emphasizing the geological and geographic context of human biological and cultural evolution. This section includes an contribution by R. I. Pennington on "Disease as a Factor in African History."" While several major diseases are discussed, how they may have affected African history is not explored. The volume continues with Histories of Research, Technology, and People and Cultures. This last section includes three articles on Languages and then divides the materials on cultures into four topics: Forager Lifeways, Pastoral Lifeways, Farming Lifeways, and Ethnoarchaeology. Most of these materials are drawn from archaeological evidence, with the limited exception of the discussions of Foragers. These include some ethnographic evidence, a bit more than the other "Lifeways" chapters. It is notable in this connection that, while there are numerous graphs, charts, and maps, the book contains no photographs. There is much discussion on rock art, with emphasis on the influence of shamanism on its production; however, the only reference to West and Central African art deals with its relationship to state development, as noted by Graham Connah, writing on "Urbanism in Sub-Saharan Africa." Hardly anything is said about African religion.

Ten further sections deal with the Prehistory of Africa. The first of these, "The Emergence of Humanity," discusses the fossil evidence for human origins in Eastern and Southern Africa. The remaining 350 pages, about half of the volume, are devoted to aspects of cultural evolution in Africa, based on archeological evidence. There is some overlap here with the earlier "Lifeway" sections. For example, another six articles are devoted to Rock Art.

In spite of the emphasis on archaeology, some other contributions of interest might be mentioned. K. G. Kelley, for example, discusses "Slave Trade in Africa," in the context of African trade generally. Here he speaks [End Page 238] of "indigenous needs," including domestic and agricultural slavery as practiced by various African societies, the slave trade with the Eastern Islamic world, and the transatlantic or Western trade.

A. F. C. Holl offers an interesting and balanced discussion on "Pan-Africanism, Diffusionism and the Afrocentric idea," including the writings and political program of Cheikh Anta Diop.

--Erika Bourguignon

Erika Bourguignon is Professor emerita and former chair of the Department of Anthropology at The Ohio State University, where she taught courses on African, Caribbean, and Latin American cultures.