ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PRE-COLONIAL AFRICA: ARCHEOLOGY, HISTORY, LANGUAGES, CULTURE, AND ENVIRONMENTS. JOSEPH O. VOGEL, ED. WALNUT CREEK, CA: ALTAMIRA PRESS, A DIVISION OF SAGE PUBLICATION, 1997, 605 pp., cloth $124.95.©
Joseph Vogel's edited volume is a welcome compendium of topics on pre-colonial Africa. It brings together an impressive array of authors, topics, and ideas that will allow the book to serve as a reference for those needing to venture outside their specializations on Africa. African history can suffer from the same problem that other colonized areas experience in the minds of many, that is the assumption that its history starts with colonialism because a comparative abundance of records from that era exists. This volume, then, serves the wider purpose of bringing, in an easily accessible way, some balance to this problem. The encyclopedia format is useful, not so much for ease of reference, but for the shorter pieces contained in the volume, allowing a much more amplified breadth than would otherwise be possible.
After a fairly comprehensive introduction, the book is organized into five sections dealing with African environments, histories of research, technology, people and agriculture, and the prehistory of Africa. Regrettably, the shortest section is on African environments. It covers an enormous range of time and space in too few pages. Given the large interest in various disciplinary communities with the type and extent of vegetation zones existing prior to recorded history, it is surprising that this topic is given such short treatment.
The section on histories of research contains, among others, pieces on the history of archeology in several regions, historiography in Africa, and a history of the search for human origins. It is largely about the individuals, institutions, and trends involved in African archeology, and seems a bit out of place with the other largely descriptive sections. Apart from those specifically interested in the discipline of archeology and the popular ramifications of archeological finds, this section may be of limited interest to the general reader. The subsequent sections on archeology itself, however, are the real meat and utility of the volume. With extremely limited existing documentation on pre-colonial Africa, it is archeology that must locate and interpret the available evidence on a wide range of topics--and this appears to be the driving idea behind the book.
The section on technology is quite good and is a very informative introduction to the ways in which human groups come to utilize aspects of the environment to make a living. The presentation style in a number of the pieces of mixing specific information regarding place, dates, and finds together with interpretations is especially appealing. Figure 14 in the section on copper metallurgy could have been done with a little more care, however, as some of the political boundaries appear problematic, e.g., Somali-land, Western Sahara, Eritrea, Namibia.
The section on people and culture is longer than the previous sections and contains sub-sections on languages, forager lifeways, pastoral lifeways, farming lifeways, and ethno-archeology. While these topics are spatially distinct, both between and within lifeways, the only two maps in this section pertain to West African languages. Nevertheless, this section provides the reader with an important glimpse into the use of the environment by different groups in different regions.
The final section on the prehistory of Africa is the largest, comprising almost half of the book. It contains sub-sections on the emergence of humanity, first footsteps in Africa, advanced foragers, rock art, the ceramic late stone age, beginnings of food production, iron age, social complexity, trade and commerce, and historical archeology. The detail here is quite good, descriptive, and explanatory without being overly technical. In fact, the introductory, explanatory tone of the book is one of its hallmarks, and reveals a well thought-out-project. With a book of this breadth, it would be the rare reader who would be able to wade through technical language on so many fronts. The utility of this section is twofold: (1) as a treatment of humans in pre-colonial Africa; and (2) as a treatment of the early evolution of humans in general. In this regard, this final section will make the volume of interest to classes and scholars of human evolution, in addition to Africanists.
Graphically, there is a good selection of maps and charts, but most impressive is the large array of "rock art" reproductions. The analysis and interpretation of this art, in various sub-sections, is quite intriguing, with effective linkages made between culture and environment. This is a vast part of the book, virtually a volume on its own; its treatment of land use, political, economic, and cultural aspects of African development will be of wide interest.
Each of the ninety-four entries in the book (by almost as many authors) includes a short bibliography to get the interested reader started. The index is large and well done, enhancing the reference function of the volume. While the volume will be a significant addition to the shelves of Africanists, ecologists, and anthropologists, the price is fairly intimidating for the undergraduate, which clearly many, if not most, of the pieces were written for.