The organisation was established at the instigation of Louis Leakey in Kenya. Leakey became the organising secretary of the 1st Congress, which took place in Nairobi in January 1947. Fifty-four delegates from 27 countries attended what was then known as the Pan-African Congress on Prehistory. A brief constitution was passed and published in the journal Man (1947: 86-87). The French prehistorian Abbé Henri Breuil was elected the first president and Dr Robert Broom of South Africa the first vice-president. Three sub-committees were created at the 1st Congress to consider discipline-specific matters. The sub-committees were defined as:

  • Geology, General Palaeontology and Climatology;
  • Human Palaeontology;
  • Prehistoric Archaeology.

The sub-committees continued to be active within and between congresses for the next 20 years. They resolved a wide range of regional disputes in practices and terminology and played a major role in forging the PanAfrican scientific nomenclature that we take for granted today.

A key archaeological outcome of the 1st Congress, for example, was the first agreement to standardise the use of Stone Age terminology across all parts of Africa. While ‘Prehistoric Archaeology’ has been a primary focus of all congresses, the mixture of disciplines represented at the 1st Congress has given the organisation a decidedly multi-disciplinary heritage that continues to this day.

As J. Desmond Clark noted in his address to the 8th Congress: “Before 1947, archaeologists in Africa worked usually in watertight compartments; immense distance often separated one lone worker from another and they rarely, if ever, met. The 1947 Congress was significant in that, for the first time, it brought together prehistorians, palaeontologists and geologists from one end of the continent to the other and it served to provide a forum for the exchange of information and ideas.”

Indeed, at the 4th Congress, the importance of multi-disciplinarity was explicitly recognised when the name of the organisation was formally changed to the Pan-African Congress of Prehistory and Quaternary Studies.

Subsequent congresses have criss-crossed the continent, with some predominantly in English (1st, 3rd, 8th), others in French (2nd, 4th, 6th) and one in Spanish (5th). The congress has not yet travelled to lusophone Africa, but we look forward to it doing so soon. Recent congresses have built on the strong foundation of the 1st Congress, creating contacts between students, researchers and practitioners across Africa and in multiple disciplines. The congresses have helped to forge links and friendships that otherwise would not exist and have served to facilitate and promote interAfrican collaboration.

Difficult issues have been faced down by various congresses and resolved. In December 1975 an inter-congress meeting was held in Casablanca at which the Permanent Committee discussed the drafting of a new constitution. The reason was that, with the growing number of African-born scholars, there was broad concern within Africa that the organisation needed to be adapted to meet African interests. Of much importance was the need to ensure that nationals of African states took on more elective and executive offices within the organisation. As one member stated at the time: “It is high time that the citizens of Africa should become the major actors in their own drama.”

A special committee was therefore tasked with drafting a new constitution. This was circulated to all 216 delegates at the 8th Congress in Nairobi in September 1977 and all were invited to comment. The final revised constitution was passed unanimously at the Nairobi plenary session. A new name was adopted for the revitalised organisation: the PanAfrican Association for Prehistory and Related Studies. Among other changes, a Permanent Secretariat was established to ensure continuity within the organisation between congresses.

The 1980s were difficult years for the congress; serious financial difficulties led to congresses being repeatedly postponed. This troubled time ended in 1995 when Zimbabwe organised the largest and most vibrant PanAfrican Congress in our history. Since then, our congresses have been regular and well-attended. The ‘PanAfrican’ is now a key date in the calendars of all those working in prehistory and related fields within Africa.