West Africa


The origins of urbanism in the Middle Niger floodplain of Mali is a continuing research focus, since the 1970s, of Rod McIntosh. Excavation has expanded from the deepest Middle Niger basins — at Jenne-jeno, at present-day Jenne, and Dia — to the desertified “dead delta” of the Méma. Large “tells”, often in clusters, characterize mid- to late-first Millennium BCE urbanism in these regions, with Late Stone Age (LSA) (mid-first millennium BCE?) deposits at the base of mounds in the Méma.

Recent Ph.D. (2011) Doug Park has discovered clustered urban sites on the banks of the palaeochannel Wadi El-Ahmar near Timbuktu (northern Middle Niger). Related sites line this palaeochannel as it penetrates far north into the Saharan dunes. His “Toumbouze model” of late first millennium BCE and first millennium CE urbanism envisages a seasonal dispersal (low flood) alternating with agglomeration (high flood) urban pattern quite unlike the desert-dominated character of Timbuktu today.

Until put on hold by recent political troubles, Graduate Student Peter Coutros had identified a clustered interaction of four quite distinct types of sites (each presumably occupied by different ethnic/corporate groups) in the Gorbi Valley of the Lakes Region of the Middle Niger, west of Timbuktu. The plan for continuing research is to combine palaeoclimate data from Yale’s coring of Lake Fati (funded by the Yale Climate and Energy Institute) with survey and excavation data concerning shifting settlement preferences and a growing population as full urbanism emerges out of an earlier, quite diverse LSA landscape.


Middle Senegal Valley (MSV). Work by Rod McIntosh that began in 1990, in the vicinity of Cubalel on the Senegal River, continues to focus on the location and origins of the Takrur “empire”, the first sub-Saharan state mentioned by the Arab chroniclers. This research is undertaken with collaborators from the Université Ch. Anta Diop (Dakar). A series of settlement mounds in this part of the MSV documents the emergence of social and technological complexity in the first millennium CE. One such mound, Walaldé, yielded evidence of mid-first millennium BCE iron smelting. Cubalel and Walaldé are the focus of sample taking to refine sub-Saharan Africa’s first archaeomagnetic dating curve.

Graduate Student Peter Coutros, collaborating with students from the same university, is excavating the site of Diollowali downriver along the Senegal River. A cluster of multiple mounds on the highlands abutting the river’s floodplain, the site promises insights into local responses to climate change during the last few millennia.

Graduate Student Jamie Inwood is taking bone samples from historical individuals from the Sine-Saloum in the collections of the Institut Fondamental de l’Afrique Noire (Dakar), as well as from MSV prehistoric burials (as well as from Etrusca) for her archaeo-histology study of the history of malaria. With a novel array of six biochemical and microscopy techniques, she can now identify the ravages of malaria in ancient bone. This research takes an historical epidemiological and an ecological approach to the questions of when did human malaria appear, under what circumstances, and what stimulated later mutations into the deadly (cerebral) forms that plague African today.