There are two sources for the writing of history. They are the primary and the secondary sources

  • Primary sources

Primary sources are materials produced by the people or groups directly involved in the event or topic under discussion, ether as participants or as witnesses. Some primary sources are written documents such as letters, diaries, newspaper and magazine articles, speeches, autobiographies, treatise, census data and marriage, birth and death registers. In addition, historians often examine primary sources that are not written. Examples are works of art, films, recordings, items of clothing, household objects, tools and archaeological remains.


  • Oral sources (interviews) and eyewitness accounts can be used as primary sources.


This refers to documents or written accounts which give information about past events concerning people. Examples of documentary sources are:

  1. Newspapers
  2. Diaries
  3. Travelers’ account
  4. Journals
  5. Reports of commissions of enquiry
  6. Manifesto parties
  7. Government official records
  8. Minutes of meetings
  9. Private letters
  10. Official reports of officers
  11. Court records
  12. Books
  13. Anniversary brochures
  14. Tributes
  15. Magazines etc.



  1. Easy To Use: It is easier to use written sources in the reconstruction of African history. This is because books or documents can often be carried from one place to another where the reader or the writer wants to use it. This cannot be done in the non-documentary sources.
  2. Accurate and Reliable Facts: Written records of contemporary issues give first-hand information which is naturally more accurate and reliable. This is because dates and events are chronologically well recorded. For example minutes of meetings give exact and accurate date, and the time the meeting was held. Similarly, records written in diaries are recorded on the spot as events occur or soon after. This helped historians to know the exact dates for instance the Asante fought with the British because the wars were documented. Written sources help reduce any tendency of the historian to use guesswork in his work.
  3. Effective Means of Keeping Records: Keeping accurate records of events is very difficult especially where written sources are lacking and people rely solely on oral tradition. One can say therefore that written sources are more effective means or method of keeping records of past events.
  4. Promotion of Research: Written sources of African history promote research work. For instance, when readers feel that there is a deficiency in a written account, they are encouraged to dig further in order to contribute to greater and more accurate knowledge about the issue.
  5. Help Cross-Checking Information: Written sources help in cross-checking data or information collected from oral and other sources of historical knowledge. This help to reach reliable conclusions.
  6. Provision of Detailed Information: Documents provide more detailed information than oral sources, e.g. dates, illustrative pictures, names of participants in events etc..



  1. Easily Destroyed: Written sources can easily be destroyed by termites, rodents, fire, flood, earthquakes, humidity, etc. Written records destroyed by any of these disasters cannot be retrieved unlike oral sources which can be retold. Termites and rodents may also eat away vital information in written forms.
  2. Condition Biases and Distortions: Another major limitation of written sources of history is that they may contain biases and distortions. The writer may intentionally write to suit his opinions or leave out some aspects of the events which are not to his liking. For example some books written by European writers state that slave trading is a blessing to the people of West Africa. Others have written in their books that until the coming of Europeans in West Africa, the history of West Africa was only wars and misery.
  3. False Information: Again, one of the strongest demerit of written source is, once certain materials or information have been written down, people take them to be as fact even when they are not crosschecked. Not all the information found in writing or books should be taken to be historical truth; there could be a little bit of exaggeration, bias or prejudice.
  4. Expensive: Written materials are expensive. The writer needs materials like paper, pen, book, diary, etc to put down events. Also, before one gets written materials, they may have to make use of the other sources like archeology, linguistics etc.
  5. Difficult to get: Once again, written materials are hard to come by, especially in Africa where the art of writing started late. Even in Africa where they are available, they are fragmentary and far between. Since writing began very late in Africa apart from ancient Egypt, written records are generally scanty and scarce. This means that the historian has to rely more on the non-documentary sources, making the work more difficult.
  6. Getting Lost: Written materials can get lost, thus depriving the people the historical information if they are the only sources of information.
  7. Illiteracy: Documentary sources are written materials that have been put into writing and to be able to read one needs to be literate (able to read and write). Many Africans cannot read nor write, hence rendering written sources of African history deficient in the reconstruction of African history.
  8. Consult Experts: Finally, to come out with authentic written materials, the services of experts in the other disciplines like archeology, linguistics, etc. are needed in order to interpret correctly historical events.



This refers to pieces of information about past events collected from sources of history other than books and other written materials. This explains why this section refers to unwritten sources. Examples of non-documentary sources are Archaeology, Oral Tradition, Linguistic, Ethnography, Art forms/History, Ethnobotany, Ethnozoology, Ethnomusicology, Numismatics, and Serology.



Oral tradition refers to accounts of the traditions about the past passed from generation to generation by word of mouth or other methods. It is usually passed on in the form of a story, legend, song, myth, folk tales, customs or other forms of music. There are two forms of oral traditions:

  1. The Fixed Text Type
  2. Free Text Type

The fixed text type of oral traditions have an unchanging format and content and have to be memorized and passed on from generation to generation. Example of ‘fixed text’ type are words of folk music, praise songs, drum music and horn music.

An example of drum music is the Mpintin drums of Denkyira which recall the past hegemony and wealth of that state in two terse lines: ‘kotoko som amponsem’ (the porcupine i.e. Asante serves Amponsem-the king of Denkyira) and ‘Boa Amponsem a odi sika atomprada’ (King Boa Amponsem who uses fresh gold all the time).

Similarly, Abuakwa horn music immortalize the valour of Abuakwa’s Queen Dokuaa at the Akatamanso (1826) they sing ‘Dokua obaa basia a oko oprem ano’ (Dokua the valiant woman who fought before canon).

The free-text type consists of accounts of events usually stool (dynastic) histories and family or village traditions. For example some court officials can memorize some aspects of the state history and can tell others when necessary. Some court officials include the linguist (okyeame), court heralds (esen) and executioners (abrafo) in the Akan states. Also, in Mali the (griot) and Togo (evne) played similar roles.




  1. Easily Accessible: Oral tradition is easily accessible in the sense that, gathering information by the historian does not involve much work. In every community, town or village in Africa, one can get some elders who are ready to give the traditions and historical events in the area. The historian in one way or the other, only need to contact knowledgeable informants and respondents for the necessary information needed.
  2. Main Source of History: In the absence of other sources, oral tradition becomes one of the sole sources of writing history. In a situation where there are no written records or other pieces of information like personal diaries, minutes of meetings, journals etc. the historian often relies to a large extent on the information provided by oral tradition to compile his findings.
  3. Helps Other Sources: Oral tradition as a source of African history has helped to confirm historical facts from other sources. For example, it helps the archeologist to confirm their findings thus throwing more light on the findings of the history of a place. Again, the archaeologist would have to be directed by a story from the local people before he goes to excavate the site. Therefore, without oral tradition, the archaeologist’s work become difficult.
  4. Historical Trends and Events: Oral tradition helps the historian to determine historical trends and events. Through the comparison of several oral traditions, the historian can eliminate biases, inconsistencies or inaccuracies in the written records they are using, to come out with an accurate historical account of the past.
  5. Interpretation of Archeological Findings: Oral tradition has also helped in the interpretation of archeological data dug from the soil. This is necessary because the artefacts found are both anonymous and fragmentary. For instance, if an archaeologist unearthed human skeletons with lost limbs apparently severed by sharp-edged materials, they may deduce that the excavated site was a mass grave where people who died after an armed conflict were buried. They may not conclude with that, but rather validate their evidence by embarking upon personal enquiry, interviewing target groups in the area. If they are lucky, they would have pieces of information about events similar to what they have speculated.
  6. Preservation of History: Oral tradition has done a lot to assist with the reconstruction of African history, this is because Africans have relied on oral traditions to preserve their history for centuries. It is again, the only living source of historical reconstruction because it gives room for further questioning and analysis of the information given to ensure its validity or truthfulness.



  1. Not Precise in Detail: In the first instance, oral tradition is not precise in detail. The narrator may give information in a long clumsy way without any specific point. Important aspect of events and their sequences are forgotten as the informants advance in age. As these stories are retold to subsequent generations, they are filled with misrepresentation of facts.
  2. Exaggerations: Oral tradition is full of exaggeration, biases and prejudices. The narrator might add irrelevant information or might leave out information which does not suit his interest. Narrators normally leave out these aspects of the story consciously or unconsciously leading to one-sided information that cannot serve as a sound basis for historical writing.
  3. Inaccurate Figures: Moreover, oral tradition cannot be dated with certainty. The narrator might forget part of the events or important dates. People tend to lose track of events through no fault of theirs and therefore forget the actual date and time that a particular event took place. For instance, situations where an event occurs frequently, it brings confusion in terms of specifics since the narrator does a lot of guesswork.
  4. Death of Informants: Another shortfall of oral tradition is that, death or calamity affecting people can result in the loss of important aspect of oral tradition since only the living can tell it and not the dead. To top it up, if people were afflicted by a calamity leading to the loss of lives including the key informants, then the information of the affected area would be lost forever.
  5. Mixing Up Facts: Furthermore in using oral tradition as the main source of reconstruction of African history, details and sequences of events might be forgotten with the passage of time since the human mind keeps the history, one might forget some important points as years pass by.
  6. Difficult to Cross-Check: Indeed cross-checking becomes difficult in oral tradition if the narrator is the only source of information. It is a fact that oral tradition is most likely to contain inaccuracies and failures to collaborate the information gathered from other source might produce shoddy work hence the need to cross-check and test events.
  7. Emphasis On Personalities And Events: Oral tradition tends to lay more emphasis on personalities like kings, rulers and leaders as well as events like wars and migration to the neglect of social and economic aspects of people’s history, thus making the historical approach somewhat narrow, to the disadvantages of scholarship and posterity. Oral traditionists are men, and thus there is a gendered bias in what is recalled, and the way it is recalled, which may diminish the role women have played in the African past.

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