Review of ‘African Civilisations – Pre-Colonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa: an Archaeological Perspective’ by Graham Coonah

26th May 2014

‘African Civilisations – Pre-Colonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa: an Archaeological Perspective’ by Graham Coonah, `987, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-31992-7 (pbk)

Review by Zoe Wakelin-King

The aim of this book, as stated in the Preface, is to fill a gap in the otherwise ‘highly specialized’ field of literature documenting the last 3,000 years of African history and prehistory, for the benefit of a wide range of ‘the reading public’, as well as for students and teachers of African archaeology. Unfortunately the academic style used by the author to develop his subject guarantees that this book will have very limited appeal outside of the university library.

A promisingly succinct five-page introduction, which states some of the overall thoughts behind the book in a clear, though dry, way, gives way to a daunting second chapter entitled ‘Concepts and questions’. Here the rot sets in, as we are launched into a verbose discussion, heavily laden with 1960s style sociologese the like of which I have not seen since I mercifully graduated from my days in Queensland University’s Department of Anthropology and Sociology. It is not that the subject of urbanization and ‘state-formation’ necessarily has to be boring, but when it is presented as one theoretical argument versus another in true third-year essay format, laden with references, boring it is!

It is a relief to discover, at the end of this turgid expose, a relatively brief section entitled ‘The basic questions’, which tells us that in the following chapters, ‘Each set of archaeological evidence will be investigated from the point of view of geographical location, environmental conditions, basic subsistence, prevailing technology, social system, population pressures, ideology, and external trade.

And so to Chapters 3 – 8, the ‘substantive’ chapters ( = case studies?), in which the author overviews the state of evidence from archaeology as well as historical sources, for selected cultures which have produced some form of ‘civilization’ (as loosely defined in Chapter 2), within the region of tropical Africa. These include the middle Nile (Nubian Meroe and its antecedent); the Ethiopian Highlands (Axum etc.); the West African savanna states of the ‘Sahel’, and forest states of Benin and Ife; cities of the East African coasts; and Great Zimbabwe and related sites in present day Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). I launched into these chapters with renewed enthusiasm, thinking ‘surely this is going to be interesting’. The material presented certainly is, but it is distanced by language laden with expressions like ‘in the light of’, ‘to some degree’, ‘considerable’, ‘indeed’, ‘appears relatively’ and so on and on. The only time the subject comes to life is when the author lets old historical accounts of African cities speak for themselves.

Nor is it simply a matter of expression. Unfortunately the interesting particularities of the sites and cultures presented is immediately smothered by the author’s concern to generalize in terms of the various ‘factors’ (geography, technology etc. etc.) listed above. Maybe it is just that I am a ‘historical particularist’ from way back, but I can’t see the benefit to the reader (or to scholarship), of watering down viable bits of archaeological evidence with unenlightening tautological generalisations which give an illusion that the process is understood when of course it is not, especially in terms of such limited concepts as are presented here! I present a random selection, the like of which can be found on any page: ‘…provide us with a very persuasive example of trade as a major stimulus toward the develop- ment of social complexity…’, ‘…the direction of such a labour force on a mas- sive project of this sort must. indeed. have implications of the very greatest significance for our enquiry into state formation…’ and my favourite: ‘With the emergence of an elite … social stratification became inevitable’.

The reason for the forced generalisations becomes clear by the concluding chapters: the author’s arguments are aimed at demolishing previously held theories which prejudicially supposed that all evidence of civilization in Africa must be the result of external (= ‘civilizing’) influences from the Classical, Christian, Arabic, Indian, or European colonial spheres. This is a noble, and perhaps long overdue, aim. However, rejecting ethnocentric external explanations in favour of shallow sociology is a little like going from the sublimely ridiculous to the gor blimey.

Chapter 9, ‘The problem of archaeological visibility’, deals rather more sensibly with the unevenness of archaeological fieldwork to date in this region of Africa. Neglected areas include large parts of the Congo, Zaire, Angola, Zambia, Rwanda. Burundi and Uganda. Connah cites the problems posed by the relatively ephemeral nature of many substantial settlements, In contrast to large scale stone ruins. His statement that ‘The whole history of archaeology can be seen as an ever-widening realization of what constitutes data and of how such data can be obtained and analysed’ will strike a cord with students of Australian and Pacific prehistory. He does not, however, go on to discuss recent techniques such as aerial photography which might prove fruitful. Another of his concerns is the tendency in African research to use archaeology merely to prop up assumptions derived from existing historical reports. A parallel in the Australian context may be the lack of adequate archaeological research done into Macassan and other Indonesian sites in Arnhem Land, where work has mainly been done to check out the evidence of written records.

Inevitably, in the final chapter, ‘What are the common denominators?’, the author returns to his previous list of factors, and reiterates generalizations which are supposed to explain how and why it all happened where and when it did. So, the environment is seen as not a key determinant, but providing both opportunities and limits or challenges to human habitation. The story goes something like this: A good subsistence base leads to agriculture or pastoral activity or both, and provides a basis for surplus to store and/or trade. Thence there is an ability to support ‘dense aggregates of population’, often by some improved technology such as irrigation or metal working. The next step is towards functional specialization, and differential access to resources, whether they be land or produce or technical skills. By extension come hierarchies, social control, kings, palaces, royal tombs…the whole catastrophe.

It is not that any of this analysis is likely to be terribly wrong, but simply that it is of such bland generality that it doesn’t really tell us how and why what happened, happened as it did in any particular case. Many questions are begged: Why, In other parts of the world, for example, Australia, did an equally good subsistence base (at least in some areas) not lead to this kind of developmental sequence? Why did intensive agriculture and functional specialization in some parts of Asia not lead to large scale urbanization and hereditary kingships? These questions cannot be answered without a better understanding of particular cultural options, and the congnitive frameworks within which choices may be made. (This belies another of the author’s generalizations: that ideology or religion will automatically come to the aid of the material aspects of culture.) Rationalizing the status quo does not, in short, represent real explanation.

In support of his main theme, Connah is able to emphasize, validly, that the pre-existing conditions of environmental diversity in which these things happened could and did lend itself to significant internal trading networks in Indigenous commodities such as salt, copper, and iron, as well as in surplus produce such as nuts and fish (and slaves). He suggests that the later boom in some centres, though stimulated by external demand for goods such as ivory, gold, and again slaves, basically built on pre-existing trade networks, which were an indigenous achievement.

My concluding thought about this book was: Are African archaeologists really such an unenlightened lot that they need such a heavy handed demonstration of the obvious? The general public may be so unenlightened, but I doubt that they will be motivated enough to ‘get the message’ in this form.

Wakelin-King, Z.
Review of 'African Civilisations – Pre-Colonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa: an Archaeological Perspective’ by Graham Coonah
June 1990
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