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comparison of oral tradition and other sources of African history

8 Mai 2020 , Rédigé par patient benjamin apollinaire Publié dans #education, #histoire, #histoire de la R D Congo


A source is anything that can be used to give information about an event, which took place in the past; the source can be a person, an object, an artifact or the remains. Sources depend more upon what the historian is looking for, it usefulness depends more upon the evidence it is carried.

Samuel A. Nyanchoga (2008), states that: sources of history is not history but an “information store house” that aids the historian in the process of trying to reconstruct the past. There are several sources of history such as oral traditions, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology and written sources. 

A source can be primary or secondary; a primary source is the direct evidence of an event, place, time, people, you are studying; this can be a word, material, artifact produce by an eyewitness or produce by excavation of a place; while secondary sources are interpretations, written by historian scholars, based on their examination of multiple primary source.

In constructing history, historians have used more than one source, because of their complementarity so that objectivity can be made about an event under study.

In this paper however, we are going to discuss how oral tradition as a source of history can complement the following sources: written sources; archaeology, linguistic by looking at each one in relation with the oral tradition.


Oral traditions and written sources

Written sources consist of all the recorded materials, printed or hand written.  Samuel A. Nyanchoga (2008) stated that: written sources still aid historians in the reconstruction of the African history; they can be translated into many languages and made available to the wider public for consumption; they can also be reprinted to ensure continuity; once document has been written, it may not be easy to falsify it.

Written documents have been classified in different types:

Classical document; which is composed with the earliest written documents: these by Greeks traders and the second is the Arabs writings, then the tarkishs and chronicles and lastly the European writings.

We have to recognize the importance of written sources in the reconstruction of African history because for example due to the writing of Arabs, people such as Al Bakri (1029-1094), wrote a book in 1062, in which he described the wealth and the trade of the kingdom of Ghana. Al Idris wrote a book in which He described the trade East-Africa coast, the Muslim conquest of Zanzibar. The Arab and the Greeks writers, have helped in the reconstruction of the ancient African history. However we have to remember that most of the part of Africa was an illiterate society, so that they did not document their history, therefore writing source became limited to a particular period of history and more importantly the interior of Africa was for long time remained unexplored either by Arabs or Greeks so that those in reconstructing the history of those societies before the coming of Europeans, other sources become important.

Oral tradition did compliment written sources in the reconstruction of history of the illiterate societies’ starting from the period of the classical Authors: for example Tarikhs and chronicles were based on oral tradition so that a tariksh consists of a complete written text of oral traditions and a chronicles consists of direct written records of traditions which previously were preserved orally. The Bible old and new testament was for long kept in oral form and the history of the founding of Jewish was transmitted from one generation to the other by word of mouth; so that history before any contact with the external word in Africa were kept in an oral tradition. Jan Vansina stated that: an oral society recognizes speech not only as a means of every day communication but also as a means of preserving the wisdom of ancestors, enshrined in what one might call key utterances, that is to say, oral tradition.

From this we understand that oral tradition was important as they knew it importance, the information it contains was of value for the community.

In most case the history concerning the founding of most African communities was based on oral tradition; for example: Muriuki, in his book, History of the Agikuyu, uses oral traditions to trace the origins of the community; so that before any form of writing in history took place, oral tradition was there, therefore can supplement the information before the contact of Africans with the outsiders.

Oral traditions and archaeology

Archaeology is the study of material remains left by the past societies or people; According to Samuel A. Nyanchoga (2008), archeology is the study of what human beings did rather than what they said, it is concerned with material objects such as tools, human and animal remains, plant remains and pigments among others.

Ogutu, Mattjias Alwodo (1997), look at archaeology as the study of artifacts that have been dug from the earth.

We will say that archaeology is the study of the human, plant and animal remains and artifacts, which helped in reconstruction of the past activity of people such as settlement pattern, trade activity, agriculture, burial and religion.

Therefore, archaeology is important in the reconstruction of history, the cultural history of people, trading activity, agriculture, types of settlement, transport and so on and so forth. David Phillipson (1985) says that: the interpretation of technological skills or economic practices, particularly hunting, agriculture or the herding of domestic animals is generally far more complete and reliable due to archaeology.

Samuel A. Nyanchoga (2008), observed that: archaeology as the source of history has the capacity to fill the gaps left by other sources of history.

Archeology has been useful in the study of the interaction of man with the environment in the past because as says Nyachonga, man always interacts with his environment through his technology; so that it is through man’s cultural material remains that he used to act and react to external environment, that full information about all aspects of man’s past and present lifestyles can be understood fully.

Due to excavation, historians have been able to reconstruct the African history such as: climatic change in Africa; excavation done in Sudan has shown that the past people were rearing cattle due to painting found on rocks and more importantly the painting are also showing vegetation, but the place now is part of the Sahara desert this has given evidence of the climatic change in Africa. Urbanization: for example, due to archaeological records, historians have concluded that The Gedi ruins in the Kenya coastline near Malindi occupied between the 12th and 18th centuries by Arabs was a commercial center because of the currency found to be used, the burial practices. Migration and settlement of people; the Bantu migration was traced due to the dating of the iron, because iron working was associated with the Bantu speakers, so that the finding pieces of iron in various parts of Africa that they did pass by that regions, more importantly this was proven by dating the iron found in different places.

From all these, we may think that archaeology is more complete to be used as a source of history, but we have to recognize that many parts of Africa have not been excavated, and more importantly it is the most expensive way of gathering information so that few are those who are venturing in excavation, so that it is complete by other sources.

David Phillipson (1985), observed that: the archaeologist studying the remains of a pre-literate people will hardly ever be able to learn the names or characters of individuals; He will often find it difficult to make more than very general inferences about social systems or political situations.

So that from this point oral tradition becomes important to supplement archaeology because in most African societies, political history has been collected and written with the help of oral tradition, this include their political organization, leadership and military history. For example, the Yoruba oral traditions mentions titles such as Balogu which means leader of the army and from these we know that Yoruba had military organization. (Samuel A. Nyanchoga. 2008. Aspect of African History pg 32).

Many archaeologists have excavated sites, not because they know, the sites exist in a particular place, but because oral traditions have hinted so. The kingdom of Dagomba in Ghana was excavated through the help of oral traditions. Ghanaian traditions stated that there was a town in the North dated 1500 AD.., and occupied until 1640. Thereafter the capital was transferred to Yedi due to military incursions from the West. Traditions claimed that the capital was enclosed and there were large buildings. Archaeologists followed the lead and found that there were large buildings and enclosures that were meant to protect trade from the North. The Bachwezi traditions led to the discovery of Bigo sites in Uganda;  Bigo Bya Mugenyi is a late Iron Age settlement in Uganda, the capital of the Kitara or Chwezi Dynasty, and occupied from about 1000-1500 AD. (Samuel A. Nyanchoga. 2008. Aspect of African History pg 30).

Oral traditions and linguistics

Linguistic is the scientific study of language; it involves examining aspects such as vocabulary, phonetics and patterns of grammar; the features and patterns of one language are compared to those of other languages to find out which language family it belongs to, more importantly it tells us about the origin of the community. As a vehicle of transmitting cultural values; by studying linguistics, we can trace the interaction between various groups, migration and their economic and religious beliefs. (Samuel A. Nyanchoga. 2008. Aspect of African History pg 13)

Samuel Nyanchoga (2008), identified three ways in which linguistic information is useful in the reconstruction of African history: By reconstructing early stages of the language; by classifying language into classes or language families; by studying vocabularies of languages and structures.

We have to agree that oral traditions is expressed by language so that we may say that oral tradition is part and parcel of a language; the question still how can oral traditions complement linguistic in the reconstruction of African history?

Languages die off, communities that spoke those languages may have been absorbed through conquest or assimilation; languages are influenced by borrowing of others. The loan words that give us various interactions between communities change in meaning from one generation to another. All these may lead the difficulties in reconstructing the original language or the original culture of people; difficult to trace the flow of interaction the original loan word; hence difficulties in the reconstruction of the history when using this source so that oral traditions can be very useful in complementing linguistic in the reconstruction of history. For example oral traditions helped the Jewish people to preserve their traditions hence their history regardless of the many occupation of the outsider such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans. Those traditions could be told to other generation in another language but the content was the same. This to say that even in a situation of conquest, from oral traditions; we can still reconstruct the history of a communities and this would be even through the different traditions concerning the founding.




From this paper We have realize how important oral tradition is in the reconstruction of the history of the illiterate, communities, those communities which did not see any importance in writing but value the transmission of important message, culture and tradition by word of mouth. It was late, when the history of more African societies started being written, so that the oral tradition stand as the source of history before the contact of African communities with the outsider so that it is required when scientifically an explanation cannot be given and more importantly it is a guide to scientific research in history as we said earlier.




David W. Phillipson. (1985). African Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

David Davidson. (1959). The Lost Cities of Africa. Boston: Atlantic Little Brown and Company.

Matthias A. Ogutu and Simon S. Kenyanchui. (1997). An Introduction to African History. Nairobi: Nairobi University Press.

Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, 2004. Product of the Microsoft Corporation.

J. Ki-Zerbo.(Editor).(1999).Histoire Generale de L’Afrique, volume I. Methodology et Prehistoire Africain. Paris : UNESCO.

Samuel A. Nyanchoga, Samson M. Omwoyo and Ben N. Nyariki. (2008). Aspect of African History. Nairobi: The Catholic University of Eastern Africa.






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