Unearthing African history on Wikipedia

Africa is the birthplace of our species, and the place human civilization began, but outside of Egypt and the Nile Valley, how much do you know about ancient archaeological sites anywhere on the African continent? 

Over the past decade, Kate Grillo’s classes have worked to fix that problem, at least on Wikipedia. Initially at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse and now at the University of Florida, Dr. Grillo’s classes, supported by Wiki Education’s Student Program, have added almost 200,000 words to Wikipedia’s coverage of African archaeology. Student editors in the latest iteration of her class, Introduction to African Archaeology, created four new articles about archaeological sites – Takarkori in Libya, al-Khiday in Sudan, the Jarigole pillar site in Kenya, and Old Oyo in Nigeria. In addition to creating these new articles, the class also made improvements to another 20 articles.

Takarkori is an archaeological site in southern Libya, near the border with Algeria. Evidence of human habitation dates back over 10,000 years to a period when this area, now deep in the Sahara, was much wetter and supported lakes, wetlands, and flowing streams. 

The article provides readers with a sense of the depth of history of the site and manages to meet a reader’s need for background information without delving too deeply into tangential topics. 

A good Wikipedia article needs to strike a careful balance between providing the reader with enough information to keep reading without adding so much background that it ends up duplicating information that should be in a separate article dedicated to the topic. When writing in an underdeveloped area of Wikipedia like this one, getting that balance right can sometimes be a challenge.

Al-Khiday is a group of five sites on the western bank of the Nile in Sudan that were discovered in 2004. The best-studied of these sites, al-Khiday 2, was occupied at least four separate times between the pre-Mesolithic and the Late Meroitic (a time period that relates to the city of Meroë, the capital of the Kingdom of Kush).

This article provides a glimpse at life in the Upper Nile Valley at various points in time over the course of thousands of years. It also lifts the curtain as to how archaeologists learn about life in ancient times through clues like charring in food remains, starch grain sizes, and the imprints of bacteria on prostate stones. 

Jarigole pillar site, a communal burial site in northern Kenya, and Old Oyo in Nigeria, the capital city of the Oyo Empire which was abandoned in 1835 after Fulani attacks, round out the set of articles created by student editors in this iteration of Dr. Grillo’s class. Together, these articles help fill gaps in an area of Wikipedia where significant absences abound.

Popular – and sometimes scholarly – knowledge is shaped by the information that’s available. Wikipedia’s existence has put an incredible amount of information at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection (and a decent command of English or one of the other major language Wikipedias). But the information on Wikipedia tends to reflect the biases in popular content. By adding specific scholarly content in an area that’s less visible in the public imagining of the ancient world, student editors like those in Dr. Grillo’s classes can help chip away at systemic issues in the representation of human knowledge. 

Just by doing a class assignment, they can start to change the world.

Interested in learning more about teaching with Wikipedia and getting started in your own class? Visit teach.wikiedu.org or reach out with questions at contact@wikiedu.org.

Hero image by Luca Galuzzi, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons


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