chapter  17
23 Pages

The archaeology of colonialism and constituting the African peasantry

ByMichael Rowlands

For more than 30 years historians and archaeologists have worked to counteract primitivist ideas about the absence of change, the cultural backwardness and technical failure of Africa. In the 1950s it seemed as if little had changed to alter Hegel’s view that ‘Africa is not an historical continent; it shows neither change nor development…as we see them today, so have they always been’ (The philosophy of history, p. 6). If it was still unproblematic for a modern historian to reiterate Conrad’s horror in Heart of darkness, ‘there is only the history of Europeans in Africa… the rest is darkness and darkness is not a subject of history’ (Trevor-Roper 1963, p. 871), then the work of researchers in African history since has been both consciously and unconsciously guided by the quest to refute it and to represent the African past as a unique synthesis of oral tradition, archaeology and history, the autonomy of which was beyond doubt and would support the claim that Africa had made a privileged contribution to the diversity of human cultures (cf. Phillipson 1985, p. 10, Connah 1986, p. 6)

Either justifying or dispelling the desire of Europeans to reach out for an idea of what Europe is not, the ‘primitive’, the ‘Orient’, ‘Africa’ has been the hidden text in archaeological research, resulting in prioritizing certain work strategies and exhibiting a sensitivity to political issues that only recently have begun to impinge more forcefully on the consciousness of those working in the heartlands of the ‘Great Civilizations’. Accounts such as Garlake’s work in Zimbabwe (Garlake 1982), or Hall’s in South Africa (Hall 1984) are graphic demonstrations that writing the past in Africa is always a politically mediated act. It is a sign of some success that writing on African archaeology can no longer be couched in such primitivist language as ‘Africa during the late Pleistocene remained a kind of cultural museum in which archaic traditions continued without contributing to the main course of human progress’ (Clark 1971, p. 181).