Types of Sources in History Research Paper

Sources are the evidence upon which historians base their ideas and interpretations. Historians inevitably spend a lot of time reading each other’s writings, but the real historical work is done – and the real enjoyment is to be heard – in studying the sources, the actual ‘stuff’ of history. Historians study the sources that the past has left behind. No statement about the past can carry conviction unless it can be supported by reference to the historical sources. In this article, we will talk about the different sources of history.

What is a source?

A source is anything that has been left behind by the past. It might be a document, but it might alternatively be a building or a picture or a piece of skeletal remains or a plastic cup. They are called ‘sources’ because they provide us with information which can add to the sum of our knowledge of the past. However, sources only become historical evidence when they are used by a historian to make a point. What they are evidence of will depend on what the historian is trying to say.

Without sources, history is almost worthless as it cannot hope to have the same reliability, or even understanding, as a well-researched piece of work because differing viewpoints are not synthesized or challenged, leaving an argument bare both perhaps factually and intellectually. Sources then are the building blocks of history from which historians can make choices to build an individual interpretation of an event, but they must be approached neutrally so that sources with conflicting accounts or arguments can all be considered to allow a fuller interpretation of events to occur.

The interpretation of past events in the study of history inevitably requires that historical sources be studied to gain a much fuller understanding of an event or timeframe, leading to a much better-developed interpretation. In this sense, the study of history is interwoven with searching for sources from which to base and develop interpretations.

Sources in History

Oral sources

In this regard, a major material is oral sources, comprising largely of proverbs, riddles, song and drama text, poetry, praise names, which have come to be accepted as significant parts of African oral literature. Many occasions give rise to the recitation of oral tradition or oral evidence for land and succession disputes, marriage and funeral ceremonies, installation of chiefs, court ceremonies, annual festivals, etc. historians are now using all these to broaden their knowledge of the past. Although oral history is no less useful, it entails careful handling to ensure its reliability.

Myths and legends are rarely separated from history in indigenous classifications but are regarded as true historical narratives distinct from folktales, which are believed to be fictitious. Proverbs are frequently employed to elucidate facts and give good openness to the conversation. In Africa, the proper and skillful use of proverbs is usually a sign of erudition and elegance of speech. Many proverbs are subtle and can be understood only by those familiar with the user’s culture.

Oral Tradition facilitates a better understanding of history. It is a veritable source of historical material. Historians’ utmost concern is the possibility of gaining the knowledge of events and actions that happened in the past, which are no longer available for scrutiny or direct study. Since the persons or events in which they are interested are gone, historians have to rely on the information on any evidence from the past concerning these past events or persons. Anything, material, or immaterial that bears witness to the past is a historical document or source, and herein lies the immeasurable value of oral sources. It is the oldest source of history. Oral Tradition is as old as man himself. Other sources, such as written accounts, often rely on Oral Tradition. Even in places where writing was introduced very early in their history, they found oral tradition useful for chronicling their pre-scientific era. Oral tradition is largely a primary source. In other words, it sometimes carries first-hand information. The participants in an event may take part in its transmission, and such eyewitnesses or actors can usually supply comprehensive and first-hand information.

Cons of oral Tradition:

Based on the transmission from one generation to the other, many details become lost during the process. It depends on the memory, which is an imperfect storehouse of information; hence to complement the missing or forgotten details, a history or an account becomes distorted.

Also, the narrator’s account may be his/her version of the story to promote a particular viewpoint. Hence, we can say without fear that the likelihood of exaggeration and omission are great with this source of history.

The absence of chronological data is another major challenge of oral tradition coupled with the element of contradictions harbored by this historical source that affects the credibility of history.

Written sources

Written sources are those stories that are documented in written form, thus making them permanent. Some examples of written sources are contemporary letters, eyewitness accounts, official documents, political declarations and decrees, administrative texts, and histories and biographies written in the period that is to be studied.

The unmatched level of detail presented by written sources, in general, is an obvious goldmine to the historian. Moreover, reading a written source tends to tell you something about the author and the context in which they are writing just as well as the topic they concern themselves with.


Now, let us look at archaeology as a source. Archaeology has long been accepted as a scientific discipline providing tangible evidence for building up history’s superstructure. Its claim is accepted as supreme, especially in such periods where written records are absent or have remained undeciphered.

Archaeology is the scientific study of past human culture and behavior, from the origins of humans to the present. Archaeology studies past human behavior through the examination of material remains of previous human societies. These remains include the fossils (preserved bones) of humans, food remains, buildings’ ruins, and human artifacts—items such as tools, pottery, and jewelry. From their studies, archaeologists attempt to reconstruct past ways of life. Archaeology is an important field of anthropology, which is the broad study of human culture and biology. Archaeologists concentrate their studies on past societies and changes in those societies over extremely long periods.

Archaeological material, however, has to be interpreted to determine its real character and significance. Therefore, the precondition is of complete objectivity aided only by such reasoned and controlled speculation as is warranted by facts. To the extent that objectivity is sacrificed, the results are bound to be erroneous. This will also largely depend on the interpreter’s field of experience or versatility, for a person with limited knowledge and experience is likely to overlook or misinterpret the facts.

Archaeology has been a particularly useful ally of history in the area of dating. One method of dating that is peculiar to archaeology is the use of radiocarbon dating. Through this method, it is possible to determine when certain great cultures of Africa existed. The dates, however, are not very precise. Despite this imprecision, archaeological data give a fair idea of when things excavated existed, or when things associated with some events happened.

Despite being an allied source of history, archaeology has helped to take care of what other sources have not been able to do. It has enriched our knowledge of the pre-historic periods, which written records and Oral Tradition can do little or nothing about. Oral Tradition cannot be relied on to deal with pre-historical events; simultaneously, a written record is too recent to perform such a task. Thus archaeology has helped a great deal in reconstructing early African history in this direction. Without a doubt, archeology is an extremely veritable source of history.


Finally, we want to look at linguistics as an important source of history. This is the scientific study of languages and their relationships. By examining contemporary related languages, the linguist can reconstruct a lot about the parent language.

Because of its potential use in tracing and understanding languages to its routes, Linguistics has turned out to be a very useful tool for historical construction. Indeed, through the study of these languages, linguists can classify many Nigerian languages into the Kwa subgroup of the Niger-Congo family. Thus, it won’t be wrong to say that linguistics aids tracing of tradition of origins. It also helps to highlight where acculturation took place years ago.


These sources mentioned above are the major sources for the study of history. From the discussion, it is evident that all sources of history rely on each other for the historian to achieve the best result.