Current disputes in the theory of African archaeology

🖨︎ Printable version (PDF) LaTeX source
MSID 4003 Community Engagement in the Global South
University of Minnesota Twin-Cities
Dr. Mwanzia D. Kyule


Africa has the oldest evidence of human habitation on the planet. As such, most of its history is open to interpretation by paleoanthropologists. Today, intense disputes occur over the path of human evolution as well as the theory of the field itself. These disputes are discussed.


Housing the geographic origin of humans and their primate relatives, Africa has the oldest archaeological record of anywhere on Earth (Holl 2010). Archaeological discoveries taken as markers of human society, such as tool manufacturing, symbolism, and agriculture, find their earliest occurrences in Africa. The Rift Valley of East Africa alone is home to nearly all stone tools claimed to be the oldest (Torre 2011). The draw of archaeologists and their students to Africa can be attributed to this uniquely ancient, uninterrupted history of human evolution and society. As such, the practice and theoretical underpinnings of African archaeology have existed in a state of intense debate and change, evolving at a faster pace than its subjects. Little is settled fact in this discipline, from the earliest history to the present day.

Western and Colonial Influence on the Development of African Archaeology

African archaeology is inexorably marked by its relationship to the Western colonial project and global capitalism. As a scientific discipline, archaeology arose from the era of Enlightenment in Western Europe, and developed from the era’s understanding of history. As such, the underlying paradigms often conflict with the needs and historical conception of African societies (Schmidt 1995; Shepherd 2002).

The Colonial Era

Colonialism in Africa served to provide labor and resources to Western capital, and anthropologists on the continent were primarily Western Enlightenment-era thinkers, employed by the colonial administration or European universities. Archaeology served as a tool of the colonial government, whose findings coincidentally served as justification for the right of Europeans to rule over the continent. European archaeology denied the extant African population the right to claim as their heritage any complex social structures discovered in the archaeological record, and used this denial to explain the “backwardness” of Africans and thus the necessity for European conquest (Koff 1997).

An exemplary example of this is that of Great Zimbabwe, a series of stone ruins in southern Africa. The South Africa Company in its initial commissions for study of the site specified the necessity to find evidence for their European origin, and denied from the outset any claims Black Africans’ claims to the heritage. Early archaeologists and colonial architects thus attributed the site to ancient peoples of the Levant rather than the resident African population, and would defend this conclusion virulently. The company’s results were used to justify their own conquest of southern Africa as a return to their homeland. Professional archaeologists, many of whom took opposing viewpoints on the origin of Great Zimbabwe and on other southern African historical dilemmas, found themselves censored by the colonial administration (Koff 1997; Shepherd 2002).

Archaeology in Independence Movements

During and after independence, the practice of African archaeology reflected a new social and political system. Some African nationalist movements sought to reclaim the prehistory of the continent, taking their ancestral history back from the colonial empires. Today’s majority-ruled Republic of Zimbabwe, for instance, gets its name from the archaeological site which had been the subject of colonial falsification. Likewise, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, and Zambia all introduced archaeology to the students of their new national universities, allowing Africans to voice their own histories (Koff 1997).

Other nationalist movements were slow to adopt archaeology as a discipline. In Kenya, archaeology outside that of early human evolution has failed to see the light of day, with most archaeologists being Europeans following in the footsteps of the Leakeys (Koff 1997). Schmidt (1995) has argued that this white-dominated focus on paleoanthropology is an ideological choice by the government: the Kenyan ruling elite is threatened by the land claims of the country’s ethnic groups, many of whom had their traditional land holdings replaced with prejudice against each other by the British “divide & conquer” strategy.

Archaeology, if allowed to flourish at a regional level, can easily be identified with an attempt to valorize the history … of one ethnic group at the perceived expense of others. The state’s deep investment in the white intellectuals’ pursuit of ancient human ancestors has been an ideal way to neutralize regional histories … it focuses on a ‘population’ devoid of ethnicity – indeed, devoid of humanness.

Schmidt (1995, 128–29)

Just as archaeology served the ideological goals of the colonial empire, post-independence scholarship continues to reflect the dilemmas within African political spheres.

Rise of Homo sapiens

Despite the African continent’s undisputed status as the geographic origin of early primates and hominins, debate still arises over the particulars of how members of the genus Homo interacted with one another and spread throughout the world. Paleoanthropologists are certain that H. habilis lived exclusively in Africa, followed by populations of H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, and presently H. sapiens, all of whom appear to have had significant presence on the Eurasian continent (Wenke and Olszewski 2007). How these populations interacted and evolved is uncertain.

Early Hominin Expansion

Homo erectus was most likely the first hominin to venture off the African continent, with a range of sites from southeast Asia to the Iberian Peninsula. Compared to H. sapiens, H. erectus had more protruding jaws, smaller cranial capacity, and larger brow ridges (see Wenke and Olszewski 2007, fig. 4.2). H. erectus likely lived in caves and used fire, suggesting adaptability to the cold climates outside Africa. Evidence strongly suggests H. erectus manufactured tools, with H. erectus sites containing tools dating to .6 Ma in Europe and over 1 Ma in Africa. Various improvements in toolmaking may have allowed H. erectus to adapt to the wide variety of climates and ecosystems encountered throughout the species’ historical range. Specifically, the Acheulian hand-axe shows a creativity in its craftsmanship, requiring forethought and an implicit understanding of stone flaking behavior. Its widespread range suggests a versatility in use unmatched in preceding hominin technology (Wenke and Olszewski 2007).

H. neanderthalensis (sometimes H. sapiens neanderthalensis) emerged around .5 Ma in Europe and Central Asia, with a physical structure vastly similar to that of anatomically-modern humans. H. neanderthalensis showed some adaptations compared to H. erectus to the cold weather of their native Europe, with more massive and muscular bodies. The species also appears to have practiced burials and manufactured specialized stone tools, a marked similarity to H. sapiens in comparison to H. erectus.

The lack of a direct line of hominin remains showing flows of single populations, as well as the phenotypical similarities and gradients within the remains of early hominins, make it difficult to pinpoint the origin of anatomically modern humans. Theories have thus arisen to explain the genetic and phenotypical differences current H. sapiens shows across geographic regions.

Out-of-Africa II

The replacement model, better known as the “out-of-Africa II” hypothesis, proposes that H. sapiens originated exclusively in Africa and spread to Eurasia recently. This wave of emigration drove the already-present Eurasian Homo populations, who had migrated nearly a million years beforehand in “out-of-Africa I,” to extinction, “replacing” them. In the 1980s, paleoanthropologists accepted the idea of H. sapiens appearing around .2 Ma and rapidly spreading outside Africa, completely replacing populations of hominins without any population mixture (Kendrick 2014).

The oldest H. sapiens fossils have all been found in Africa, with Richard Leakey’s Omo River Valley fossils dated to 195 ka. Further, transitional fossils have only been found on the African continent, with absences of any transitional remains in Eurasia or Australasia. Morphologically, African fossils show the greatest internal diversity as well as the greatest difference from all non-African populations. Even without genetic testing, replacement theory was accepted as the story of human evolution by the 1980s (Kendrick 2014).

Recent genetic evidence provides further support for this second migration of humans. Because mitochondria have their own genetic sequence and are passed down exclusively maternally, geneticists have been able to hunt for a maternal ancestor of all living humans. Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson (1987) studied the mitochondrial DNA sequences of 147 people and, extrapolating from the known rate of mutation of DNA, concluded that all living populations today derive from one ancestor who lived approximately .2 Ma, likely in Africa.

Multiregional Hypothesis

The multiregional or regional-continuity hypothesis proposes that modern H. sapiens are the result of contact and interbreeding between disparate human populations across Eurasia. What is now one human species is seen as the result of convergent evolution from different members of the genus Homo who interacted and – at least partially – united globally.

Multiregionalists point to the presence of unique genes in European H. sapiens populations, attributed to interbreeding with H. neanderthalensis. Thus, it is likely that what came to be H. sapiens is the result of mergers between formerly distinct hominin populations. Conversely, they criticize the use of mitochondrial DNA by replacement theorists, citing it as based on unfounded assumptions (Kendrick 2014).

Morphologically, the extant peoples of Eurasia and Africa are quite distinct. Followers of multiregional theory use this discrepancy as evidence for distinct evolutionary paths, which gained distinct genetic traits from separate species of Homo (Kendrick 2014).

Prehistoric African Art

Some of the earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans is the art they left behind. Cave paintings, pottery, and beadwork are all major classes of artifacts in African archaeology. Especially with rock art, the existence of these have long enthralled European archaeologists; however, the European conception of art brings with it cultural baggage (Arnaut 1991). Postmodern criticism of these research topics have questioned the veracity of whether we can “know” anything about what the creators of such creations were thinking at the time. It is tempting to consider these from the standpoint of the Western conception of art, yet it is impossible to know what a hominin to which we have no social connection could have ever thought during its lifetime.


  1. property="citation"

    Arnaut, Karel. 1991. “Art and the African World: A Historical Analysis of Their Interconnection.” JASO 22 (2): 151–65.

  2. Cann, Rebecca L., Mark Stoneking, and Allan C. Wilson. 1987. “Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution.” Nature, 31–36. doi:10.1038/325031a0.

  3. Holl, Augustin F. C. 2010. “The Archaeology of Africa.” In Archaeology, edited by Donald L. Hardesty, II:21–66. United Kingdom: Eolss Publishers Co. Ltd.

  4. Kendrick, James. 2014. “Rethinking Modern Human Origins: Getting Out of Out of Africa.” Assemblage 13: 1–13.

  5. Koff, Clea. 1997. “On Two Eras of African Archaeology: Colonial and National.” Nebraska Anthropologist 14: 47–57.

  6. Schmidt, Peter Ridgway. 1995. “Using Archaeology to Remake History in Africa.” In Making Alternative Histories: The Practice of Archaeology and History in Non-Western Settings, edited by Thomas Carl Patterson and Peter Ridgway Schmidt, 119–47. School of American Research Press.

  7. Shepherd, Nick. 2002. “The Politics of Archaeology in Africa.” Annual Review of Anthropology 31: 189–209. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.31.040402.085424.

  8. Torre, Ignacio de la. 2011. “The Origins of Stone Tool Technology in Africa: A Historical Perspective.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 366 (1567): 1028–37. doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0350.

  9. Wenke, Robert F., and Deborah J. Olszewski. 2007. Patterns in Prehistory: Humankind’s First Three Million Years. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.