Introduction

1This lecture examines the roles of Atlantic history and postcolonialism in the reconstruction of the West African past. These topics have received extensive attention from researchers across the social sciences, though less so in some disciplines than others in West African scholarship. While each presents distinct conceptual vantage, they share themes and foci germane to our understanding of the past and views of modernity. Central to these themes is the history of Europe’s intersection with the non-Western world, how narratives of that intersection are presented, and the recognition of non-European pasts. As I will discuss, however, some of the themes represented, such as cultural and political domination, elite versus non-elite dichotomies and the presentation of certain narratives at the expense of others, are not unique to European expansion but also represented in social, political and cultural relations internal to Africa. The historiographies presented are equally relevant to the understanding of the past – that is, the impacts of initial European contact, the Atlantic slave trade, and colonization – as they are to the present; the social, economic, and cultural landscapes of modernity, and how our conceptualizations of the past shape these landscapes. The purpose of this essay is not to provide a detailed examination of each conceptual vantage but rather to consider the epistemological threads represented and their methodological implications for the study of the West African past. In particular, I examine the increasing focus on Atlantic history, colonialism, and postcolonial studies. While I underscore the hegemonic and transformative nature of the period of the Atlantic World, I equally emphasize the need to situate these developments within the wider scope and temporal depth of the African past. I further consider the source materials and the methodologies used in reconstructing these views of the past. In doing so, I stress archaeology’s central role in providing a holistic understanding of African history, both with regard to its temporal depth and complexity, as well as its unique contribution to the understanding of the era of the Atlantic world.