African Environmental History


This discussion- and writing-intensive course explores how Africans changed their interactions with the physical environments they inhabited and how the landscapes they helped create in turn shaped human history.  Topics covered include the ancient agricultural revolution, the “Columbian exchange” of plants and animals amid slave trading, colonial-era mining and commodity farming, 20th-century wildlife conservation, and the emergent challenges of land ownership, infectious disease, and climate change.


Experience studying Africa and/or any of the course themes is welcomed but not required.  The course’s focus is on Africa, but the issues are global and comparative, and therefore course learning is applicable to other places.


The course uses a broad topic to provide opportunities to learn and improve skills – in research, analysis, written and oral communication, as well as project management – broadly applicable to success at the University and beyond.  As a course in History, it emphasizes how people (and not just scholars) interested in the past think and how historians do their work with never-straightforward sources (or “evidence”).  To these ends, participants will learn through doing.  Students will identify research interests and possible resources in the early weeks of the course, and then develop their writing through a series of successive stages, including: topic declaration, working bibliography, two-page prospectus, rough draft, and ultimately a final draft of approximately 18 pages.  This progressive architecture is supported through continual feedback from the instructor and from peers designated as “writing partners.”  Class meetings are opportunities to share, collaborate, negotiate, speak in public, and generally enjoy a collegial and intellectually stimulating atmosphere.


In recent iterations of the course (as a first-year seminar, as a major seminar, as a lecture and discussion course) students have pursued a wide range of research topics, including:  forest clearance and erosion in Lesotho, mining of coltan (a mineral insulator used in your cellphone) as a contributor to sexual violence in Central Africa, the complicated sources for the earliest camels in northern Africa, (male) circumcision as response to the HIV pandemic, crop changes and childhood malnutrition during the Atlantic slave trade, the role of ecological decline in the rise of Saharan-edge terrorist groups, lung diseases suffered by South African miners, conflict diamonds and “blood oil” from West Africa, conservation and “canned” safari hunts, climate change and emigration, and many more topics driven by individual student interest.


The course concludes with a short (three-page) essay on agency in environmental history and an exam.


This course fulfills the College’s requirements in “historical studies” and “non-Western perspectives.”   History majors may use HIAF 3112 as a “non-Western” course for their undergraduate program.

Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904


(434) 924-7147
(434) 924-7891
M-F 8am to 4:30pm
Department Contacts