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“Extracting the Past from the Present”, International and Interdisciplinary Conference on African Precolonial History, March 1st-5th, 2021, ULB

A link to the official conference website will be available soon.

Dear colleague,

Scholars of the African precolonial past come from many disciplines: history, archaeology, linguistics, genetics, palaeoenvironmental studies, and maybe we did not even mention your special scientific field. We use different methods and different datasets. Still, we have a common goal: the study of African precolonial history. Collaborations between various disciplines become ever more recurrent, but often remain  project-bound and/or linked to specific topics or regions. We aim at offering an opportunity to discuss with peers facing the same research challenges, yet in different regions in Africa, in other periods and/or regarding different topics, within the setting of an international and interdisciplinary conference on African precolonial history.

This is not the first of its kind. In March 2011, Kathryn de Luna, Jeffrey Fleisher and Susan Keech McIntosh organized Thinking across the African Past: Archaeological, Linguistic and Genetic Research on Precolonial African History at Rice University, a two-day conference during which they invited speakers to reflect on the dialogue between the disciplines involved in African precolonial history and the challenges of cross-methodological collaboration. The interest in the interdisciplinary dialogue and in African precolonial history was also at the forefront in Kongo Atlantic Dialogues: Kongo Culture in Central Africa and in the Americas (February 2014, University of Florida – Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art),which brought together a large number of scholars working on the Kongo Kingdom and the diaspora. Recently, conferences have been focusing on the  genetic contributions to the field (Africa, the cradle of human diversity, May 2019, Uppsala University, and Peopling History of Africa, June 2019, University of Geneva). Ten years after the conference at Rice University, we invite you at the Université libre de Bruxelles for what we hope to become the first of a series of meetings  for exchanging and updating on new methodologies and results.

We welcome papers concerning the precolonial history of Africa, both theoretical and presenting research results, mono- and multidisciplinary. We especially encourage contributions reflecting on the central theme of the conference: “Extracting the Past from the Present”. Many of us analyze data that have been collected recently – words and phrases, observations of contemporary pottery techniques, genes, etc. – in order to formulate hypotheses on the past. Hardliners argue that only direct evidence – such as ancients objects – may inform us on the past and that such inferences are mere speculation. Yet, many of the insights we value today are based on contemporary evidence, for instance the theories on the Bantu Expansion. The use of contemporary data is also at the core of our own ERC research project, BANTURIVERS, with anthropology receiving its proper role within historical research. The anthropology of technologies such as pottery, subsistence strategies or navigation techniques, but also insights in sociocultural dynamics, offer an interface between different disciplines as well as between present and past. The anthropological observation and documentation of contemporary technologies allows an understanding of dynamics currently at play. Through the analysis of the respective vocabulary these dynamics can be traced into the past, and may eventually be linked to direct evidence from archaeological excavations. At the Université libre de Bruxelles and the Royal Museum for Central Africa, we map contemporary evidence (pottery traditions, words) in space before travelling into time. For this, we are looking into the possibilities of cartography and the spatial approach as a common language to speak of history across the various disciplines. This is the direct incentive for the focus of our conference on the use of contemporary evidence as a frame for decoding the past. Given its controversial nature, we also welcome critical approaches.

Practical information:

The conference will take place from March 1st until 5th, 2021, at the premises of the Université libre de Bruxelles. We foresee five days of conference because we want to avoid parallel sessions and instead foster the exchange between scholars working at opposite sides of the continent, on different epochs and diverging research interests, but all facing the same multidisciplinary challenge. We also plan several social activities, amongst which an excursion to the renewed Royal Museum for Central Africa.

Submission details:

Please send an abstract of no more than one page, including all authors and references, to no later than June 30th, 2020. All accepted papers should result in a 20-minute oral presentation at the conference.

You may submit abstracts individually. However, if you would like a panel on a particular topic, related to or other than the central theme of the conference, you may invite colleagues for a session of 4 to 6 presentations. In this case, we ask the organizer of the panel to send us the individual abstracts together with a brief introduction to the panel (again no more than one page) in one e-mail, not separately. In this case, the abstracts of the same panel will be reviewed together.

We encourage participation from scholars based in Africa and we invite these colleagues to mention in their reply if they wish financial support for travelling.

Important dates:

Abstracts due: June 30th, 2020.  
Notification of acceptance: September 30th, 2020.

We are looking forward to meeting with you in March 2021!

Best wishes,

Birgit, Daou, David, Shingo, Els, Ali & Laurent           
~ the BANTURIVERS team ~



Organizing committee:

Birgit Ricquier, ULB

Daou Véronique Joiris, ULB

David Kopa wa Kopa, ULB – UNIKIS

Shingo Takamura, ULB

Els Cornelissen, RMCA

Alexandre Livingstone Smith, RMCA

Laurent Nieblas Ramirez, RBINS


Scientific committee:

Chiara Batini, University of Leicester

Koen Bostoen, Ghent University

Kathryn de Luna, Georgetown University

Pierre de Maret, ULB

Jeffrey Fleisher, Rice University

Olivier Gosselain, ULB

Alexa Höhn, Goethe University

Susan Keech McIntosh, Rice University

Alice Mezop Temgoua, University of Yaoundé 1

Karim Sadr, University of the Witwatersrand

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