Interrogating Identity: The Fluidity of Social Boundaries in African Archaeology

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 80th Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA (2015)

The concept of identity within archaeological discourse is sometimes uncritically linked to modern or historically-known ethnic groups and political entities. At the same time, archaeologies of identity that consider multiple scales of identification (tied to gender, kinship, locality, subsistence regime, status, religion, mobility, and ethnicity, to name a few) have made important contributions to the field, moving us far beyond the old “pots equal people” paradigm. In African archaeology, for example, there is growing recognition that the human past is characterized by intricate socio-economic mosaics, where foragers, herders, agriculturalists, and individuals who transcended these categories can be essential constituents of complex polities. In these environments, interpersonal and intergroup interactions both reify and erode various social boundaries, demonstrating that identities are both enduring and highly mutable. The papers in this session seek to further this discourse by interrogating the twin issues of interactions and identity within Holocene African archaeology. Presenters use a broad range of methodological techniques and cover topics from throughout the continent.

Other Keywords
IdentitySocial BoundariesResilienceCeramicsHouseLithicsTaxonomyMobilityCommunityWest Africa

Geographic Keywords

Resources Inside This Collection (Viewing 1-11 of 11)

  • Documents (11)

  • Beyond the Grave: Regional Interaction in the Senegambian Megalith Zone (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Cameron Gokee.

    Over the past century, archaeological reconnaissance and survey in the Senegambia region of West Africa has identified more than 2000 megalithic cemetery sites dating to the Iron Age (circa 500 BC – AD 1500). Although a number of research programs have explored the histories of individual sites, it remains unclear how these related to one another within a regional tradition of mortuary practice and monument construction. This paper begins to address this issue through integrated geospatial and...

  • Boko Haram, coupeurs de route and slave-raiding: identities and violence in a Central African borderland (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Scott MacEachern.

    To this point, most analyses of Boko Haram have stressed its origins in Salafi/Wahhabi radicalism in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria. Equally important to the development of this organisation, however, has been its utilisation of frontier zones in the Lake Chad Basin, as refuges and areas for the development of political and military power. In this paper, I will argue that aspects of Boko Haram activities can be profitably understood through the deep-time...

  • Bringing the Mountain to the Mara: The role of obsidian quarrying on Mt. Eburru in structuring early pastoralist socio-economic identities in southern Kenya. (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Steven Goldstein.

    Despite recent advances in characterizing the socio-economic mosaics associated with early pastoralism in East Africa, how this diversity affected social boundaries and manifested identities remain underexplored. Exclusive exploitation of a single obsidian source on the upper slopes of Mr. Eburru in the Central Rift Valley by communities associated with "Elmenteitan" material culture is a strong line of evidence for dimensions of shared identity linking some of these herding communities in...

  • Economies and Identities in Flux: Consequences of the Arrival of Specialized Fulani Pastoralists in Mali’s Inland Niger Delta (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Abigail Stone.

    In the Sahel, the Fulani are considered the archetypal cattle herders. Although their spread across West Africa is poorly understood, their arrival had profound effects on local populations. In Mali’s Inland Niger Delta, historical sources and isotopic analysis of archaeological cattle, sheep, and goat teeth from the site of Jenné-jeno and the modern town of Djenné suggest that specialized Fulani pastoralists arrived in the Delta between the 13th and 15th centuries AD. This coincided with...

  • In Death Do We Join: Community Building in Ancient Ethiopian Funerary Practices (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Dil Basanti.

    Aksum was the capital of northern Ethiopian kingdom that is famous for its numerous pre-Christian funerary stelae dating to the first four centuries A.D. The six largest stelae employ a peculiar "house" symbolism carved into their surfaces. Art historians have also noted that later Christian churches in the Ethiopian highlands, also sites for burial, mimic the layouts of old Aksumite elite houses. Beyond this, there has been little serious interpretation on what the "house" symbolism indicates...

  • Iron producers, iron users. (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Louise Iles.

    Participation in technological activity in sub-Saharan Africa is often discussed in terms of identity, whether that is framed by gender, kinship, status or ethnicity. In particular, social distinctions between iron producers and iron users are well known from the ethnohistorical and ethnographic records of numerous African regions, providing important information as to the social organisation and values of a particular society. However, recognising these identities in the archaeological remains...

  • Material complexities in dispersed communities: archaeology of 2nd millennium CE southeastern Burkina Faso (West Africa) (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Daphne Gallagher.

    In several regions of the West African savanna, the pre-colonial complex polities described in oral and written histories have left a minimal archaeological signature on the landscape. One such region is the Gobnangou escarpment of southeastern Burkina Faso, where from the early second millennium CE, the archaeological record consists almost entirely of small, ephemeral sites, likely resulting from short term occupations of household compounds. Broadly dispersed on the landscape, and almost...

  • Opening the House: Transforming Identities at Kirikongo over the 1st and 2nd milleniums CE (Burkina Faso, West Africa) (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Stephen Dueppen.

    Located at the intersection between Voltaic and Mande historical traditions, contemporary western Burkina Faso (West Africa) is a complex cultural mosaic in which local identities transcend linguistic boundaries and cultural practices, exemplifying the difficulties of employing bounded social categorizations in anthropological archaeology. The site of Kirikongo, located in this region and occupied continuously between 100 and 1700 CE provides an important case study to explore the changing...

  • Resilience and identity: the ethnoarchaeology of the Kel Tadrart Tuareg (SW Libya) (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Stefano Biagetti.

    In the Tadrart Acacus (SW Libya), ethnoarchaeological research carried out between 2003-2011 has shown that its current inhabitants, the Kel Tadrart Tuareg, are a successful example of adaptation to extreme climatic and environmental conditions. Their exceptional resilience, characterized by high degree of variability and opportunism, escapes some of the traditional assumptions often done in ethnography and archaeology regarding the classification and identification of societies, such as...

  • Salvage Excavations on Greefswald: Leokwe Commoners and K2 Cattle (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Thomas Huffman.

    The relationship between Leokwe and Leopard’s Kopje people represents the first known ethnic interaction in pre-colonial southern Africa. As the subordinate partner, Leokwe had roles befitting their ‘first people’ status. Salvage excavations at the Leokwe Main Rest Camp uncovered ‘extra’ cattle kraals, while Leokwe faunal assemblages there and elsewhere contain high percentages of low-status cattle bones. Thus, Leokwe herdsmen were probably tending the cattle of K2 elite. Two sites on Schroda...

  • What’s in a Label? Archaeological Taxonomies and Social Processes Past and Present (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Ann Stahl.

    The Banda area of west central Ghana is a quintessential example of what Igor Kopytoff (1987) long-ago dubbed the Internal African Frontier—an ‘interstitial’ region between ‘established societies’ that is home to a dynamic composition of people, languages and practice forged by newcomers and autochthones alike. In presumed contrast with their ‘established’ neighbors, frontier societies are ones in which processes of improvisation and the negotiation of social boundaries seem more apparent. While...