Sources and Importance of History | History Form One

Picha yenye mabaki ya zamani.

Definitions of history

History refers to the study of past events, present situation and prediction of the future.

The Importance of Studying History

1. Understand how African societies were formed
Knowledge of history helps us to understand how African societies were formed. For example, how Hehe societies emerged and other African states.
2. Develop our patriotism
Knowledge of history makes us patriotic. When people understand their history, it makes them love the country and be ready to die for it.
3. It help us to predict the future
Through understanding the past and present, that knowledge can be used to predict the future. For example, we can predict the presence of the third world war when capitalist countries start having conflicts.
4. It help us to understand technological transformation in human life
That is from stone age to iron age.
5. Help us to understand our origin
History helps us to know our origins. For example, where is the origin of the Bantu? The answers are found in history.
6. It help people to abandon incorrect assumptions
People have preconceived notions of the past from simple lessons in childhood and media representations, and those notions are often wrong. Studying history and realizing those mistakes teaches a valuable lesson about human fallibility, since early lessons are little more than a sequence of these revelations. Historians quickly become comfortable with the idea that something they thought was a fact could be completely incorrect. They can easily apply this to other fields, which makes them relatively good at admitting their errors and correcting them.

Sources of History

Sources of history refers to the avenues that can be used to get historical information.
They include: Oral traditions, Historical sites, Written records, Archives, Museums, Archaeology, Linguistic studies, Anthropology, Ethnographic sources.

Oral traditions

This refers to the history handed down by word of mouth from one generation to another. It is usually done by talking and listening usually to elders who are believed to be more knowledgeable about past events. It is also the study of our past as revealed by what has been handed down by word of mouth from one generation to another. Oral traditions are widely used in areas where people did not practice the art of writing.

Functions of oral traditions

- It preserves historical information of society.
- It collects and pass historical information between generations in the society.
- It helps researchers in data collection.

Advantages of oral traditions

1. Can easily be understood by everyone
Oral traditions does not segregate; it can be understood by everyone. It is therefore convenient for both the educated and the uneducated as it only requires one to listen as long as it is in a language that everyone can understand.
2. It is accessible as in every area narrators are present
People who can tell history, especially the elderly, are everywhere. So it's easy to get information.
3. It is cheap
One does not need to pay his/her grandfather/mother in order for them to tell one a story. In many societies people used to sit beside a fire and the elders will tell them about what happened in the past and this was passed over from one generation to the other.
4. First hand information
Many people who tell stories through different oral tradition are the primary source or the people who were present at the scene of the matter. This therefore means that the historian will be in a position of getting firsthand information from the respondent.

Disadvantages of oral tradition

1. Can easily be lost if someone who knows the data dies
In many societies it is the elderly who have the information which is passed over from generation to generation, in case the elder dies it means the information he/she had has disappeared with that person.
2. Language barrier
As oral tradition involves the passing down of history by use of the word of mouth, the problem of a language barrier is a big hindrance. For example, a person who might have valuable information might be using a language the historian does not understand this therefore will limit the process of communication.
3. Cannot stand on its own
Poems, stories, jokes etc. do not tell history directly they simply contain valuable information of how people produced and reproduced themselves leaving out the important aspects of the historical touch. It therefore gives the historian a hard time to supplement and analyse the given information critically.
4. Most of narrations are centered on people of status in society
Kings, chiefs, queens are often talked about in such stories, there is often little consideration about the masses.

Historical sites

These do contain remains which show humanity's physical development, activities and the tools they made and used. The major function of historical sites is to make historical facts more practical.
Examples of historical sites with physical remains of man and his artifacts include the following:
Olduvai Gorge, Isimila, Engaruka and Kondoa Irangi in Tanzania.
Nsongezi, Biggo, Ntusi and Magogi in Uganda.
Olorgesailie Gilgil and Lake Turkana in Kenya.
Koobi for a in Ethiopia.
Ingombe-Ilede in Zambia.
Ishango in the D.R.C.
On the other hand examples of ancient towns in Africa with ruins of old buildings and existing old buildings include:
Timbuktu, Gao, Jenne and Audaghost in West Africa.
Bagamoyo, Zanzibar and Kilwa in Tanzania.
Lamu and Mombasa in Kenya.

Functions of historical sites

- They preserve the past material development such as science and architecture.
- They promote tourism in the community.
- They provide employment to people who preserve the ruins and items that are found in historical sites.

Advantages of historical sites

1. As a symbol of social cultural heritage of different societies. Here the society concerned will be symbolized in the site.
2. Helps in the building or the reconstruction of history, as they bridge the gaps that might have been left by other sources.
3. The sites also act as a source of revenue for both the government and private individuals. This is achieved when they act as centre of tourism, and when the tourists visit.
4. Generally, discoveries from historical sites can be used to reveal past settlement patterns, levels of technology, economic development and political organization reached past societies in different times and environments.

Disadvantages of historical sites

1. It brings confusion to interpret the remains found in the historical sites, for example, rock paintings can bring about different interpretations between historians.
2. Historical sites cannot stand on their own to tell history. This means that historical sites do not fully cater for all historical information required even for societies without documented history.
3. History found in the sites cannot be interpreted by everyone and requires a qualified personnel to interpret the information.
4. Historical sites are located in remote areas which are not accessible. This makes it time consuming and expensive working on them. Places where the historical sites are located are often also poorly developed.
5. The historical sites may disappear, as they are often destroyed by natural hazards and changes in the earth like weathering and denudation.
6. Many of the sites are selected on the basis of probability, for example it is assumed that early man lived in caves where there was water nearby and plenty of animals to hunt, fish or catch. This therefore brings in the issue of try and fail that in turn becomes costly in terms of time and resources.

Examples of historical sites in East Africa include:

Nsongezi - western Uganda
Magosi - eastern Uganda
Biggobyamugenyi (Biggo) - central Uganda
Lolui, Mubende in Uganda
Rusinga Island - southern Uganda
Olorgesailie - Kenya
Lake Rudolf - Kenya
Njoro in Kenya
Bagamoyo - Tanzania coast
Kilwa - Tanzania coast
Isimila - central Tanzania
Kondoa - central Tanzania
Lake Eyasi southern Tanzania
Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania etc.

Written records

This refers to the history which has been written down or documented.
Written records include: Books, letters, magazines, newspapers, minutes of meetings, official and private documents, official publications by the governments and parliaments of the colonial powers, peace treaties and other agreements concluded by the great powers between one another and African chiefs, legislative acts, edicts, dispatches of the colonial administration, documents from African companies and individual merchants, letters etc.

Functions of written records

1. Reconstruction of history
history can be reconstructed through a multidisciplinary approach. The written records play an important role of constructing history as they do bridge the gaps that might be left by other sources.
2. To collect and preserve written historical information
As this is the modern and most common source of historical information it plays the function of preserving written records so that those who come in the future will also be able to use this source of historical information.

Advantages of written records

1. It is easily accessible
As almost all areas have books, written materials are like a stone thrown into a pull causing ripples that flow out right across its surface.This therefore means that in at least any place there is at least a written source of something.
2. Usually well explained and well elaborated
Many written records for such as textbooks are well researched, explained and elaborated by the authors. This therefore gives the person using the source actual and vivid material. Usually contains well-researched and concrete data which gives confidence to the researcher or historian.
3. Bridges the gap left by other sources
The written records as a source of historical information play an important role of bridging or filling in the gaps that have been left by other sources. As it is well known that no single source of history can stand on its own to tell history the written records do fill up the gap that other sources might have left. For example it gives evidences to oral traditions.
4. It is very helpful when carrying out research
For research purposes the most helpful source can be found in written records as it has guidelines, which help the researcher in his/her research.
5. Easy to make references
If written material is well organized; many of the written sources act as reference material for the different needs and written records as a source of reference.
6. Easy to get valuable and rare information
It is mainly from written sources that valuable and rare information can be obtained. Many written records are very important as they provide evidence were needed.

Disadvantages of written records

1. It is expensive
Written records require a lot of time and resources to prepare, this makes them expensive to produce as compared to oral tradition. Also purchasing the written material is very costly.
2. Can easily be distorted or misunderstood
As written records are in most cases written in English which recipients might easily misunderstand. Also there might be distortion in the sense that writers might be biased when writing or they might have different approaches on to the same issue.
3. Applicable to educated people only
Written records are limited to a few people in a society. As the people who do not know how to read and write will not benefit from this source of history as he/she will not understand what has been written. This therefore makes it limited to a given section of people.
4. Historians cannot be expected to come to the same conclusion 
this therefore means that written records are continuously rewritten and revised Unless the historian is able to sort out relevant information many written records contain some information that might be irrelevant to the historian there by wasting a lot of time in a given source. Generally, it is very difficult to understand history unless you understand the historian himself first.


Archives are collections of public and private documents. They includes books, and the written records of early missionaries, explores, traders and colonialists kept in books or files. Examples of archives include: Arusha in Tanzania, Entebe national archives in Uganda. They also contained current records of government, parties and other organization.

Functions of archives

- To preserve old books, files, letters and diaries written by leaders and travelers.
- To provide historians and researcher with data or information about the past.
- To preserve original versions of important documents and records such as religious books, constitutions,photographs and map.
- To preserve national heritage and valuable national records.

Advantages of archives

1. It is the best method of collecting and preserving historical information 
Most written documents which do contain historical information are preserved in the archives for future use.
2. It archives a variety of information
It is very easy to get historical information of different people and issues at a given time without wasting time and resources.
3. Getting first hand information is possible
as the documents in archives are the extract materials that were written by the people concerned. For example political parties documents, memories etc.
4. It is very easy to get and identify the exact date of historical events
such as the travels of Vasco Da Gama, African resistance, the scramble for and partition of Africa plus many other important occurrences.
5. Understanding the ideas and the literacy level of the past is very easy
This can be done by analysing the documents in archives and relating them with what we have at the present time and also borrowing ideas from them. For example a current government can use a document of a former government to recognise itself.

Disadvantages of archives

Preserving documents is very expensive
This therefore makes the source more expensive as compared to other sources. Keeping the documents in archives requires much attention and care.
1. This method is also discriminative
as it is only the literate (educated) that can utilise the information as it is usually written in a language that someone who is not educated might not understand.
2. Societies whose information was not documented will not be represented
Societies with no recorded past will not be represented.
3. Retrieving information from the archives is not easy, as it requires a lot of time and perseverance
This therefore makes it hectic on the side of the impatient historian.
4. Archives are not evenly distributed when compared to other methods like oral tradition
For example, in Tanzania one has to travel to either Dar es Salaam or Arusha in order to find an archive.


Museums are special places created for preserving historical information. These are places where information about people and past events are stored.
Specialists in a museum who help explain objects to the people are called Museum Curators.
Museums are created to preserve historical information and also act as tourist centers. Museums contain a collection of all sorts of items which show cultural, social, political, technological and economical developments from the past to the present.
Examples of museum in Tanzania are Kalenga in Iringa, Bujora in Mwanza and Halwego and Handebezyo in Ukerwe. In Kenya the Hyrax Hill museum site in Nakuru district, Kawanda in Uganda and many others.

Functions of museums

- To collect and preserve antiquities under one roof.
- To maintain the original state of all the item.
- To provide opportunity to different social groups to showcase their traditional dances or other performance to the public.

Advantages of museums

1. They preserve the historical information and material
It is in the museum that many of historical remains are preserved for future use and referral.
2. They contain a variety of historical items
It is only in the museum that one can be find a variety of historical remains ranging from artifacts to written records and oral tradition. Therefore a museum is relatively important to historical study.
3. Museums provide objects that give history a practical touch, as they working as teaching aids
Students of history have the opportunity to put into practice what they study as they see the objects in museums.
4. It is possible to learn about the development of technology of early man from museums
The curators play an important role in explaining artifacts to the people and how they were used.
5. Attracts tourists
6. Generating income for the people working in the museums and the government
7. Source of foreign exchange
8. Provision of employment for example the museum curators

Disadvantages of museums

1. They are very expensive to maintain and build
Starting up and maintaining A museum requires a lot of funds. Obtaining and maintaining artifacts is also relatively expensive.
2. Require skilled manpower to operate
Museum curators should have historical bearings and know about the artifacts in the museum.
3. Distortion of historical information, in the museum is possible when the curator is biased
The curator will therefore distort the historical information, as he is subjective in the way he interprets the historical facts.
4. Attitude of the people affects the museum so much that some museums have been forced to be closed
5. People are not visiting museums due to unknown reasons
a case in point the Hyrax site museum in Kenya says that it receives only 10-20 customers on a busy weekend which is very small number compared to the inputs in the museum.
6. Poor preservation of artifacts
for example the pieces of cloth, chains if not well handled can distort the information and the relevance of the historical facts. Due to poor preservation many museums have lost their historical artifacts to the fires other unforeseen circumstances costing them dearly.


This refers to the science that deals with the study of past materials historical remain of man.
People who study archaeology are called archaeologists.
Archaeologists like Dr. Leaky have concentrated on the period of early man; others like Dr. Posnansnky have worked on sites relating to the Chwezi Empire, Chittick and Kirk man have excavated coastal sites of the 12th -16th centuries. How they carry out their excavations is a long story.

Functions of archaeology

- To determine the level of past development.
- To determine the time when man lived in an area.
- To determine places where man lived in the past.
- To determine past human activities.

Advantages of archaeology

1. It provides evidence or authenticity on to historical facts
As the remains are examined thoroughly by the concerned there by supplementing the other sources which might be lacking evidence.
2. Knowledge of artifacts is exposed after excavation
For example pottery, building, rooting plus telling us a great deal about the life and culture of the people long ago through uncovering the buried objects.
3. Archaeology simplifies the past 
As it helps us to know the past relationships between different people such as in trading activities immigration, emigration, birth and death plus political relations.
4. It is probably the only source that can help us in knowing when and how people lived in a certain place and at what time 
This is attained through the use of carbon dating which is a scientific method of finding out the age of dating objects and artifacts .
5. Archaeology helps us to reveal the technology, pastoral agriculture and commercial activities of the past societies
This is achieved through cross examining the remains excavated by the archaeologists.
6. Archaeology is relatively important in supplementing facts that are given by other sources of history
As no source can stand on its own to tell history, therefore it can be reconstructed by the use of archaeology.

Disadvantages of archaeology

1. Archaeology demands much patience
Many artifacts are fragile and delicate which calls a lot of care in the handling of for example fossils.
2. It involves many processes to obtain data out of remains
For example in excavations require radioactive elements and many other procedures which make the process very expensive.
3. Archaeology consumes a lot of time
The archaeologists or researchers take a lot of time during the preparation for excavation, testing the artifacts and in the interpretation of the data.
4. The remains that are excavated cannot tell the full details of a given historical phenomenon
It is therefore clear that one cannot fully depend on archaeology as the complete source of history.

Linguistic studies

This means the study of language. It refers to study and analysis of languages, their sounds, structure and formation. There is a relationship between the different and various language groups. It is believed that people who speak the same language have been in close contact in the past. Linguistics can suggest approximately when and how the language spoke in East Africa came into existence.

Functions of linguistic studies

- To show the time in which a particular language came into being.
- To classify language speakers in terms of ethnic groups according to linguistic characteristics like Bantu, Nilotic and Cushites of East Africa.
- To show how the language developed dialects in different times and spaces.

Advantages of linguistic study

1. Linguistic studies are a lubricant of oral tradition
As it is through oral tradition that given information is acquired from the different sources. This therefore shows the interconnectedness between different sources of history.
2. Through the linguistics it is possible to tell the possible origin of our languages and how the languages have been distorted
As languages that we do use need to be understood in order to understand who we are and where we are going.
3. Bridging the gaps left by other sources
Linguistic studies assist in bridging the gaps that are left by other sources. Basing on the fact that the reconstruction of history requires an interdisciplinary approach therefore linguistic studies are relatively important like other sources.
4. Assists in the development of language
It assists in the discovery of different links between the people of a given communities. Through the use of languages it’s possible to say that at one time the people in the world lived together due to the similarity of some words in the different languages.

Disadvantage of Linguistic Study

1. Language barrier is the major factor that is limiting linguistics
It is clear that not everyone understands all the different languages. It is therefore possible that useful historical information might not be understood due to the language problem.
2. It might result to the omission of some important information
thereby creating a gap in historical information. In the process of translating given historical information from one language to another
3. It is expensive in terms of time and money
Because is not easy to learn a given language this therefore means that one has to take a given period of time and resources in terms of finance to learn a given language.
4. It can easily be diluted by external influences
Different languages have been influenced by external forces which causes those languages to change drastically from their original forms and this therefore disturbs the historian in his effort to reconstruct history. For example many Swahili words have been mixed with other languages.


This is concerned with the study of existing social institutions and their relationships.
An anthropologist is a person who studies the above aspects of society; he has to live among those people and learn their culture thereby enabling him to understand the aspects of life of a certain society and to determine the truth about that society.

Functions of anthropology

- To investigate the ways of life of a particular society.
- To explain skills, political organization, social activities, religion and economic activities.
- To produce information or data about the life of people in various societies.

Advantages of anthropology

1. Helps the historian to find traces of the past in the present social structures of the society
Therefore using the current reliable information helps us to understand how the past was.
2. Helps the historian to reconstruct the past elements of all cultures
The historian studies the information and research techniques used by the anthropologist to arrive at a certain conclusion.

Disadvantages of anthropology

1. The works of anthropology are very limited to time and environment
In the present people may be living in a condition far different from what their ancestors lived; in the long run the anthropologist will not get the necessary information required in his study.
2. The knowledge of the anthropologist in this case is very important as one can easily exaggerate or underestimate or interpret basing on his knowledge a thing that will affect the whole process of trying to reconstruct history. This therefore means that objectivity of history does not mean objectivity of facts but interpretation.
3. This method is too tiresome
The anthropologist has to live among the people and learn their culture which enables him to understand all the different aspects of life of a given society and to determine whether it is authentic and worth studying.

Revision Exercise

1. One of the following sources of history depends on carbon 14 in determining dates:
A. Archives B. Anthropology C. Archaeology D. Museums
2. The historical sites in East Africa are:
A. Morogoro, Maputo, Kapwirimbe and Gedi B. Isimila, Olduvai Gorge, Engaruka, and Rusinga Island C. Nairobi, Engaruka, Jinja and Iringa D. Dar es salaam, Karagwe, Olorgesailie and Lamu.
3. A.D in history means:
A. Years before the birth of Christ B. years of Ancient Greece C. Years after the birth of the prophet Mohammad D. Years after the birth of Christ.
4. The archaeologist who discovered the skull of the earliest man in East Africa was:
A. Dr. David Livingstone B. George Washington C. Dr Louis Leakey D. Vasco Da Gama
5. The Periplus of the Erythraen sea was:
A. A printed guide for the Spanish sailors B. A compass direction C. A  sailors guide to the Greek and Romans D. African King’s diaries
6. Write true or false.
I. History can only be obtained through oral traditions………………………….
II. Protection of the past physical development from destruction is the limitation of historical sites……………………………..
III. Dating is the same as chronology in history…………………………
IV. History can create employment for those who study it…………………
V. Vasco Da Gama arrived in India from Portugal in 1497……………………
7. Define the following terms:
I. History ii. Decade iii. Millennium iv. Carbon 14
8. List and define four sources of historical information.
9. Mention four importance of studying History.
10. Brief explain the advantage of anthropology.

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