Ethnic Ambiguity and the African Past: Materiality, History, and the Shaping of Cultural Identities

Richard, François G., and Kevin C. MacDonald. 2021. Ethnic Ambiguity and the African Past: Materiality, History, and the Shaping of Cultural Identities. Routledge. 

In a strange twist of fate, I read Ethnic Ambiguity and the African Past: Materiality, History, and the Shaping of Cultural Identities at the same time as Amselle and M’Bokolo’s Au cœur de l’ethnie (2005). Deservedly, and ironically considering the frequency with which the first cites the second, it appears that Ethnic Ambiguity and the African Past makes a disciplinary rupture from the preceding thinkers about the study of identity based on ethnicity, and the role of ethnicity in social identification among peoples in the present and the past. I totally agree the words of Christopher R. DeCorse in his brief foreword (p.11-16), where he exposes all the potential developments that the collection highlights for the research on peoples’ ethnicity and identity. However, it also clearly underlines the complexity archaeologists face in trying to understand this kind of extrasomatic phenomenon solely on the basis of material culture. The different case studies assembled together within the book illustrate the importance “of a new generation of research that has revisited ethnicity as an analytic concept” (p.11) and provide a masterful synthesis of the earlier works relating to ethnicity in archaeology, anthropology and history.

Chapter 1, “From Invention to Ambiguity: The Persistence of Ethnicity in Africa”, written by the editors, presents a very complete review of the notion of “ethnicity” from the 1960s until the present. They underline that although ethnicity had been understood as an “invention” – fluid and relational – and an “essence” modulating through history, scholars cannot negate the fact that peoples actually do have precolonial ethnic identities. Recognizing that there are divergences among the contributors regarding the validity of ethnicity as a form of identification, they decided precisely to capitalise on the different acceptations to understand the conditions under which ethnic ambiguities develop in the past and present. This editorial decision encourages the contributors to take a position on the relevance of the concept for them as archaeologists working in Africa. Chapter 2, “Shapen Signs: Pottery Techniques, Indexicality, and Ethnic Identity in the Saalum, Senegambia (ca. 1700–1950)”, by Cameron Gokee, provides a suggestion for the exploration of the archaeological accessibility of ethnicity, considering artefacts as both material practice and “semiotic process that unevenly interprets possible signs of social identity across space, time, and social context” (p.57). Despite the originality and the potential of the proposition, I follow the author’s nuanced conclusions about the necessity of additional evidences to provide a contextual support for the eventual assumptions that could result from such an approach.

In his chapter 3, “‘The Very Embodiment of the Black Peasant?’ Archaeology, History, and the Making of the Seereer of Siin (Senegal)”, François G. Richard brings together ethnohistoric, ethnographic and archaeological information to understand “the making of Seereer subjectivities – real and imagined – in the longue durée” (p.91). Deconstructing the peasant imagery of the Seereer, he explores the role of power, language and externality in processes of ethnogenesis, and uses material culture to examine how the encounters lead to consolidation of settlements and their institutional development. Chapter 4, “‘A Chacun son Bambara’, encore une fois: History, Archaeology, and Bambara Origins”, by Kevin C. MacDonald, aims to develop the critical history of Jean Bazin on the origins of Segou by enriching the collection of local oral histories with corresponding archaeological work. By using pottery’s manufacture and consumption, the author observes that pottery traditions seem to be more linked with political shifts than ethnicity. According to MacDonald, these results illustrate a deep-time, rooted-phenomenon of interweaving populations leading to linguistic and ideological shifts.

The next chapter, “The Uses of the Past: Indigenous Ethnography, Archaeology, and Ethnicity in Nigeria” by Roger Blench, presents the most striking opposition to the claim of ethnic invention within the book. Using language and archaeological records, this chapter shows how “badges of indigeneity can keep members of minority cultures safe, while at the same time, sharpening distinctions that have been growing increasingly hazy with the progress of globalisation” (p.165). The sixth chapter, “What Was the Wandala State, and Who Are the Wandala?”, by Scott MacEachern, seems to be the best representative of the cultural evolutionary perspective sustained by the collective. It proposes to reconsider the nature and the definition of the “state” and rather to observe the “stateliness” which enlighten specific statehood attributes according to different coexisting groups. This chapter proposes a great overture for future research on the relationship between identity and the state. Pierre de Maret and Alexandre Livingstone Smith, in “Who’s Who? The Case of the Luba”, as far as they are concerned, clearly indicate their perception of the pursuit of ethnicity as a “chimera” (p.204). For them, the challenge is “to develop a comparative multidisciplinary approach, combining archaeology with ethnography, art history, history, linguistics” and to anchor archaeology in the present. Although interesting, parts of this chapter are a little “light” and would benefit from being elaborated further more.

Chapter 8, “Political and Theoretical Problems for the Archaeological Identification of Precolonial Twa, Tutsi, and Hutu in Rwanda”, by John Giblin, is an interesting one; it is probably the chapter focusing the most on the problem of the manipulation of ethnic identity, both by state, peoples themselves, and by archaeologists who wanted to conform archaeological records to oral historical frameworks. It sheds light to the problematic “attribution of identity to archaeological remains based on ethnic stereotypes” (p.236) and recalls the importance of exceptions and contradictions among data. The ninth chapter, “Ethnicity, Archaeological Ceramics, and Changing Paradigms in East African Archaeology”, by Paul J. Lane, fits in this vein mainly reviewing historical research “to develop more robust approaches to the archaeological investigation of the origins and subsequent development of specific regional ethnicities” (p.246) as a parallel and complementary source of information about history. The last chapter, “Ethnic Ambiguity: A Cultural Evolutionary Perspective”, by Stephen J. Shennan, is for the most part a review of the nine precedent chapters. It brings some highlights, especially on the complementary strengths between Francophone tradition and Anglo-American cultural evolution. It ends with a wish for the work on ethnicity to be taken forward in a cultural evolutionary framework.

Regardless of where one’s position is regarding the “invention of ethnicity” in Africa (and globally), it seems impossible to maintain disciplinary boundaries while at the same time developing a new knowledge of ethnicity that also echoes the sentiments of the principal actors themselves. So without any doubts, Ethnic Ambiguity and the African Past does not leave the reader in the dark. The pertinence of such a book resides in its original editorial line based on tensions between the contributors. It permits the reader to have a global view on different ideological “acreages” and to situate him-/herself within a paradigm where divergences provide critical thinking on and about propositions. Although the quality of the many figures and tables is not always good (blurred, pixelated, etc.), they do make specific details clearer, and color images would have been even better. In sum, this book provides the reader both an impressive amount of literature and the possibility to select the elements from the texts that are applicable to his/her own work and to link it together to build his/her own critical thoughts on the topic. Surely this book will figure among the references of my own research in West-Africa.

Works Cited:

Amselle, Jean-Loup, and M’Bokolo, Elikia, eds. Au cœur de l’ethnie. Ethnies, tribalisme et État en Afrique. Paris: La Découverte, 2005.

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Anthony Grégoire is a PhD student in Anthropology at the Université de Montréal, and PhD candidate in Ethnomusicology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris. His research reconsiders the importance of colonial and missionary archives in order to build anethnography of a now inaccessible “pre-colonial” past. His work focuses on the contact between Catholic missionaries and the Serer-Noon in Senegal and examines the appropriation of Occidental musical practices and the perpetuation of musical and animist symbols through their music.