SPP 2143:  Entangled Africa: Intra-African connections between Rainforest and Mediterranean (ca. 6000 to 500 BP)


Prehistoric axes in the Sahara: a neglected find category. Haches à gorges, necked axes, Darfurbeile – contextualization of a special form. (Applicant Jesse, Friederike)

In 1924, D. Newbold first described a very characteristic axe shape found during his travels to the Libyan desert and named the stone axes, which were marked by a wide hafting groove and a knob or mushroom-shaped neck, as “necked axes” or, according to their area of distribution, “Libyan axes”. Similar axes soon become known from other sites of the central Sahara and West Africa, here under the name “hache à gorge”. In the southern Libyan desert, such axes are known as „Darfurbeil“ or axes of Darfur type and are found on sites of the 4th and 3rd millennium BC. In the Wadi Howar (Sudan), Darfur-type axes are often linked to the “Leiterband” pottery design style. But this is no longer the case in the Laqiya region, about 400 km further north: Darfur-type axes are described here but they are connected with completely different ceramic patterns. Such axes are also known from areas further west, including Chad, Niger and Mali, and are also linked to different cultural entities there. A general assignment to the 5th to 3rd millennium BC is emerging. This is the time of pastoral groups with a particular focus on cattle pastoralism. The widespread distribution of such axes from West Africa to the Nile Valley noted early on has led to their becoming the subject of different theories of cultural links between west and east, but also north and south. However, a comprehensive investigation of this prominent axe type has not yet taken place. This is now to be done within the planned project. First of all, a catalogue of the hitherto known axes is to be created. For this purpose, the previously known axes of Darfur type are recorded and described (e.g. form, size, raw material, traces of production and use). This will partly be done through literature research and partly by direct examination of the material (e.g. in the Forschungsstelle Afrika, Cologne; in the National Museum, Khartoum and in the Musée de l’ Homme, Paris). More extensive mineralogical investigations are planned on selected pieces. On this basis, a typology of the axes is developed. Finally, the function of this special axe form is to be discussed on the basis of the knowledge gained: Are they objects of daily use or are they rather objects of symbolic or cultic value? In view of the wide distribution of this axe type across the Sahara, there are also other questions that are likely to arise: Were the pieces produced locally, or were they negotiated or exchanged? Which networks (also between the different cultural entities) can be identified? The results will be made available online in the form of a database via the African Archaeology Archive Cologne (AAArC).


Connecting Foodways: Cultural Entanglement and Technological Transmission between the Middle Nile valley and central and eastern Africa during the Early Iron Age (Applicant Wolf, Simone)

Our contribution to the study of inter-regional African entanglements will explore cross-cultural connections in central and eastern Africa through the study of past foodways. A number of recently discovered kitchen contexts from the region of Meroe, Sudan, will serve as a basis for identifying a range of material correlates of preparatory and consumptive practices during the Early Iron Age (ca. 1000 BC – 1000 AD). Our multidisciplinary approach will focus on the functional traits of food-related material culture, incorporating a broad suite of laboratory analyses. These high resolution investigations will serve as the first step in generating a detailed model of the regional tradition of food processing and consumption. In a second step, the Meroe case study will then provide the basis for a cross-cultural comparison within the study area of central and eastern Africa, for example Eritrea, Ethiopia and Chad, utilizing excavation material, legacy data and published sources. This way, specific food-related artefacts will serve as indicators of interaction throughout this region, to identify broader African traditions of food technologies.


Interregional Linkage Investigations in Northern Kordofan (InterLINK) (Applicant Lohwasser, Angelika)

The relation between the ancient as well as the medieval cultures of the Nubian Nile valley, and the contemporary African Iron Age cultures of the Chad basin and other parts of the Sahel region has for long been subject of scientific debates. New light was shed on the integration of the cultures of the Nubian Nile valley into an east-west contact zone by some discoveries made in 2011 and 2017 by the intended field director Jana Eger. At Jebel al-Ain in North-Kordofan a Christian complex, most probably monasteries, as well as several archaeological sites were identified. This archaeological record indicates a close connection of this cultural landscape with the (250 km distant) Nile River. The InterLINK project will clarify the questions which arose in the aftermath of these archaeological discoveries, concerning the role of Northern Kordofan as a cultural-historical contact zone – short ranged (connection of the Jebel al-Ain region to the Nile valley and the ancient Kordofanic cultures with the center Zankor) as well as long ranged (the role of Northern Kordofan as a contact zone between the Nile valley cultures and the cultures of the Sahel belt, especially around the Chad basin).This will be achieved by investigations on these questions:

  • Where can ecologically favored zones are identified? Are they possible nuclei and crystallization points of cultural-historical developments?
  • How are the relations between (rather linear) macro-communication and (rather network shaped) micro-communication? Are there material remains of historical traffic networks where long ranged travel (like caravan trade) and short ranged travel (like in pastoral or transhumant economical concepts) can be differentiated from each other?
  • Can any identified macro-communication patterns be connected to interregional technology transfer? This concerns especially the question of mutual influence or independent development of iron smelting technologies in the Meroitic and the West-African (or Chad basin) cultures.
  • To what extend cultural connections between Northern Kordofan, especially the Jebel al-Ain region, and the Nile valley document a political and administrative control of this periphery by the organized Nile-based states? Are there any differentiations concerning this question between the Iron Age and the medieval Nubian states?

For the Iron Age, investigations of water harvesting installations (hafirs) which closely resemble similar constructions in the Keraba can contribute to a clarification, since their possible role as instruments of central political control over the Keraba is debated controversially. For the medieval period, investigations of the Christian complex can provide information about the extent of direct influence of Christian dominated statehood on that desert region.


The Lake Chad Region as a Crossroads: first archaeological and oral historical investigations into early Kanem-Borno and its intra-African connections (Applicant Magnavita, Carlos)

The Lake Chad region was a major crossroads of unique historical, cultural and economic significance for Medieval and post-Medieval Africa. It was the core area of the Kanem-Borno Empire (ca. 8th-19th centuries AD), amongst other things known for its early trans-Saharan relations with North Africa. Central hypothesis of the present project proposal is that, in addition to its northern linkages, the Lake Chad region was also a key hub for a yet undocumented east-west trans-Sudanic route linking the Middle Nile Valley with West Africa in Medieval times. With a view to address that suggestion, the applicants intend to start carrying out the very first archaeological and oral historical investigations at Kanem-Borno fired-brick elite sites pre-dating the 15th century AD. Those yet unexplored localities are per se unambiguous evidence of exterior contacts from some point in time, as the architectural tradition and the technology involved in the erection of fired-brick structures are alien to Central and Western Africa. Primary goal of the currently applied first project phase is to conduct fundamental research required to collect original material and other evidence related to those locations, amongst others pointing to the source and the time of external linkages. That data will ultimately serve as starting point for initial and, within the scope of the second project phase, systematic comparative analysis regarding evidence from other African regions, including the Middle Nile Valley as well as North and West Africa. Placed in the heart of the northern half of the continent, the current project is as a central geographical and thematic link between various SPP 2143-proposals dealing with the time interval 5th-15th centuries AD. Taken as a whole, we expect that “The Lake Chad region as a Crossroads” will generate unprecedented and objective information on Kanem-Borno’s early historical connections, thus contributing to a broader understanding of Africa’s entangled past in medieval times.


Cultivated Landscapes – Land-use and cultural landscape development in north-hemispheric African savannas (Applicant Höhn, Alexa)

“Cultivated Landscapes” aims to develop a model which relates formation, propagation, and development of cultural landscapes to land-use practices and their connected social processes, such as the adoption of certain livelihoods and innovations, as well as to the environmental settings. Based on the analyses of archaeological charcoal from sites in several key regions in the West African savannas, dating between 1000 BCE and 1500 CE, it will trace the consequences of human-environment interactions within space and time. Several hypotheses will be tested:

(1) Cultural landscapes begin to form with sedentary lifeways;

(2) Trajectories of cultural landscape development differ depending on socio-economic drivers and (3) depending on the environment; and

(4) The different trajectories of land-use result in a mosaic of various cultural landscapes in space and time.


With intentional fires, pastoralism and eventually plant food-production, human agents have shaped the African savannas in such a manner that cultural landscapes constitute large areas of this biome today. However, investigations into the past interrelations of land-use practices and the vegetation, as a key component of cultural landscapes, have been rare. An exception is the model of cultural landscape development devised for the Sahel of Burkina Faso: charcoal analysis within a wider interdisciplinary framework revealed that in the course of the 1st millennium CE fallow periods had shortened with intensified agriculture and that the exploited vegetation contained a stronger share of browse species due to the increased importance of cattle around 1000 CE. In order to identify general as well as particular trajectories of cultural landscape development, “Cultivated Landscapes” now takes a supra-regional approach. Within “Entangled Africa”, the significance of the project is two-fold as people acted within landscapes as well as on landscapes: Landscapes set the stage for movement, communication and trade; landscapes are thus the space where people are entangled with one another. Simultaneously, the landscapes themselves are entangled with people, as they are shaped through human land-use in all its forms. To elucidate these past human-environment interrelationships palaeobotanical approaches are essential, because the physiognomy of landscapes is to a large extent shaped by plants. In the African savannas, archaeological charcoal is particularly suitable: it is derived from an important part of the savanna vegetation and it is directly related to human actions through its archaeological context. Based on the analyses of charcoal from savanna sites between the Senegal River and Lake Chad this project will characterize the consequences of human-environment interactions, develop a model of temporal and spatial changes, and tie in with questions and evidence from other projects within “Entangled Africa” by integrating data related to environment, socio-economic systems and human impact.


‘De-Greening’ of the central Sahara: Holocene environmental dynamics in the Tibesti Mountains and the Ounianga Basin, Chad (DeGree) (Applicant Hoelzmann, Philipp)

Today the Sahara, as the world’s largest hot desert, separates northern Africa into two parts, while a Green Sahara facilitated interactions during early and mid-Holocene. Concomitant palaeoecological shifts imply changing resources, thereby affecting subsistence strategies. Environmental variability thus represents both, an important limiting factor as well as a driving force for trans-regional contacts and strategies of human societies trespassing between the rain forests and the Mediterranean during the last 6000 years. The Tibesti and its forelands in northern Chad is a key region for human transit during the ‘De-Greening’ of the mid- and late-Holocene because of their central, inner-continental position and diversity of ecological habitats. Our project therefore focusses on two ecologically related, but topographically different areas in the central Sahara: The high mountains of the Tibesti and the lowland-oases of the Ounianga Basin ca. 200 km further to the east. From both areas, sediment cores that provide continuous, high-resolution archives for the reconstruction of palaeoecological shifts – a prerequisite to assess coherences between palaeoenvironments and culture – are already available. We propose to carry out palynological and sedimentological-geochemical analyses of Lake Yoa laminated sediments, a permanent groundwater lake in the Ounianga Basin, and palaeolake deposits from two craters of the Tibesti Mountains that will provide multi-proxy data to (1) establish a chronological framework of key periods of regional palaeo-ecological shifts as well as their timing, magnitude and significance; (2) assess the potential of the high mountains and oases as refuges for wildlife and humans. Identification of key climatic events with their palaeoecology for northern Africa will contribute to the general understanding of climate-environment-society interrelations in the central Sahara.


Routes of Interaction: Interregional Contacts between the Northern Horn of Africa and the Nile Region (Applicants Gerlach, Iris ; Raue, Dietrich ;  Schütt, Brigitta)

The aim of the project is to investigate various forms of mobility and routes of interaction between the highland cultures of the northern Horn of Africa and the cultures of the middle Nile River, the north-eastern Sudanese Gash Delta, as well as parts of Egypt. The objective is to clarify to what extent the intra-African exchange of populations, ideas and objects contributed to the development of Ethiopian highland cultures, and at the same time to ascertain the influence that the highlands had on the Sudanese-Egyptian Nile valley and the Gash Delta. The chronological framework extends from the 2nd to the early 1st millennium BC. For this timespan transregional, intra-African contacts between the regions are attested in different categories of archaeological material as well as in Sudanese-Egyptian written sources. In addition, this period concurs with the beginning of the formation of complex societies in the northern Horn of Africa. One focal point of the project is the reconstruction of settlement patterns and communication routes in the Ethiopian highlands as well as in adjoining areas, extending as far as the Red Sea (Eritrea). The question as to why settlements were founded at a particular location cannot be answered by means of archaeological methods alone, but will be researched integrating physical geography and landscape archaeology. Therefore, an evaluation of the different lines of inquiry will proceed from comparative archaeological, historical and geographical perspectives. Another focus will be on investigating the relation between the location of ancient sites and interaction routes, based on Least-Cost path analyses, the occurrence of natural resources, the knowledge on palaeo-environmental conditions, and historical travelogues. Transregional and long-distance associations will be revealed through classical methods of studying archaeological material (predominantly ceramics and artefacts made of obsidian), as well as scientific metallurgical analyses and examination of palaeozoological material. The aim is to determine and trace migration movements and flow of commodities – still extant in modern times – from a diachronic perspective, and to examine the interrelationship between strongly contrasting regions as a phenomenon of intra-African cultural development.


ClimCellMed – Climate dynamics during the late Holocene derived from Cell structure measurements of juniper trees in the eastern Mediterranean (Applicant Heinrich, Ingo)

Large parts of present-day Africa are affected severely by global and environmental change, resulting directly in or worsening already existing societal problems. Since the continent has gone through similar changes in the past, it is important to comprehend the regional past climate dynamics in more detail, since it has been hypothesised that environmental change played a significant role in conditioning human expansions, contractions and possibly even extinctions. More reliable regional climate reconstructions will be valuable background information when studying the transformations within human societies and entanglement mechanisms in Africa more comprehensively. In many parts of the world tree-ring based climate reconstructions have been accomplished successfully. African dendrochronology is often difficult because of indistinct, double, missing or wedging ring boundaries. In some instances, tree rings have been used as precisely dated high-resolution climate proxies. Long-term reconstructions derived from trees growing in Africa north of the equator are very rare, which we believe is a crucial gap in the palaeoclimate database. The future prospects for long tree-ring records in Africa north of the equator are generally bleak due to the very limited forested area. Dendroarchaeologically datable wood from African trees is very rare but dendroarchaeologically datable wood from timber (cedar, juniper and cypress) imported from Turkey is common. For dendroclimatological purposes, juniper imported from the Taurus Mountains off Turkey´s southern coast is seen as the most promising species in northern Africa. The main goal of the project is to combine woody juniper material from both living trees and archaeological sites, and to establish, for the first time, a long reconstruction in the Mediterranean back to 3000 BC, utilizing a recently developed method applying confocal laser scanning microscopy for measuring cell structures of tree rings. The resulting cell structure chronologies will be subdivided into several classes, containing only a fraction of cell rows per tree-ring. The resulting sub-chronologies represent sub-seasonal cell growth patterns. Such sub-chronologies will be correlated with seasonal climate data and additional seasonal climate information will be derived. Subsequent analyses will examine relationships to the atmospheric and oceanic modes of climate variability (e.g., ENSO, NAO and Monsoon) in the eastern Mediterranean and northeast Africa, investigate the impact of past volcanic eruptions and identify possible climate effects on human societies in the region.




Learning through connecting: data management as a basis for meaningful use of legacy data (Applicants Eide, Øyvind ;  Lenssen-Erz, Tilman)

The envisaged Priority Programme SPP 2143 “Entangled Africa” is an assemblage of several research projects that will generate a plethora of data on research questions with relevance for the entire programme. Notwithstanding the different formats and disciplinary origins of the data they should be collected and made accessible through one platform. The aim of the project “Learning through connecting” is to establish the node through which the data management and long-term preservation is provided for all the projects of the PP. The feasibility of this approach is ensured by linking the project to the well-established African Archaeology Archive Cologne (AAArC) that through its embeddedness into Arachne is an integral part of the so-called iDAI-World which again guarantees the sustainability of this digital archive. For the handling of particularly complex and weakly standardized digital objects (e.g. audio and video files) AAArC has established cooperation with IANUS, the research data centre for archaeology at the DAI.In the initial phase of the project no new system development will be necessary as there is already a robust platform in place through which thousands of digital objects have been archived. The recommendations established through this process will be discussed with all members of the PP and subsequently the formats for the data curation will be chosen based on state of the art standards. This will enable harmonization of metadata linked to the chronological and geographical terminologies used by the projects. Based on these requirements the project “Learning through connecting” will integrate different aspects based on archaeology and on cultural heritage informatics: information modelling, developing and running the systems, data import and curation, long term preservation. These tasks will be coordinated with all divisions of the PP.



Connecting the lower middle Niger through borrowed words and shared objects: Archaeo-linguistic network analysis and modelling of cultural entanglements between the Malian Sahara and the Nigerian forests (AD 700-1500). (Applicant Schreiber, Henning)

The population on the banks of the River Niger downstream from Gao is extremely diverse. From northern Mali to the Kainji dam in Nigeria, languages from three language phyla are spoken in a bewildering number of ethnic groups. How did this come to be? While historical sources point at early empires (Kawkaw, Kanem-Bornu, Songhai, Hausa, Oyo), oral traditions speak of migration, and the known archaeological sites have evidence of trade, the cultural dynamics and population history along the lower middle Niger remain underexplored. Yet from the available evidence, we can fully expect this region to have been of central importance to the political and economic history of large parts of West Africa. The Niger, we argue, functioned as a corridor of exchange of all forms, linking the Saharan fringes to the tropical forests, and enabling interactive cultural processes that continuously led to new languages, new identities, and new material expressions. Over the centuries, this has led to the complex ethnolinguistic situation we observe there today.In this project, we will explore the mechanisms and details of this cultural contact along the Niger between 800 and 1500 CE. We approach these questions from a joint perspective of historical linguistics and archaeology, applying a dynamic network approach to create a network model of regional interaction. Our use of recent advances in loan word research and their connection to archaeological data means that this project pioneers a new form of co-operative research between historical linguistics and archaeology in Africa.



Boundaries, Frontiers, and Conduits in the Middle to Late Holocene Archaeology and Palaeoecology of the Inner Congo Basin (Applicant Wotzka, Hans-Peter)

Some of the most significant interactions in African prehistory revolve around the timing and nature of human transgression of the boundary between savanna and rainforest biomes. Inter-regional entanglements and the dramatic cultural and climatic upheavals that appear during the middle to late Holocene are the subject of much scholarly speculation, but archaeological evidence is largely absent. This is especially true for reorganisations of the forest-savanna boundary and the conditions under which widespread settlement of the tropical forest zone by agriculturalists took place. Furthermore, entanglement with broader tropical Africa has significant implications for subsequent developments associated with the establishment and intensification of inter-regional social, technological, and ecological interdependencies from the earliest Iron Age (ca. 400 cal BC) through the Colonial Era (post 1850 AD).Linguistic and molecular biological studies of modern African populations provide arguments for a widespread Holocene settlement of the forest zone by subsets of a larger population who spoke ancestral Bantu and were familiar with agriculture. However, basic aspects of African rainforest archaeology such as the routes of human dispersal, subsistence practices, and mobility patterns of these settlers remain unresolved. Equally problematic is that the number of palaeoecological records from the tropical forest zone is insufficient to resolve questions about the degree of forest fragmentation during millennial-scale arid intervals that characterize the Late Holocene or the timing and intensity of anthropogenic disturbance of forests. This project seeks to address two questions regarding the processes by which the Inner Congo Basin (ICB) became entangled in cultural and ecological changes in broader tropical Africa, particularly as it relates to changing cultural and ecological boundaries. First, where are the boundaries between the major cultural complexes identified in the ICB and when do they appear? Second, how does the amplitude and timing of vegetation response to climatic change across the Holocene record compare with the timing of human settlement? The proposed research would require spending 24 weeks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Fieldwork is envisioned to focus on archaeological reconnaissance, survey, and excavations in addition to palaeoecological sampling along two stretches of the Congo River which connect extant project areas established by previous research in the 1970–1980s, and 2015 until present as well as project areas established by contemporary cutting-edge research projects by the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium. New excavations and the collection of sedimentary palaeoenvironmental records will resolve important questions about the boundaries, frontiers, and conduits of entanglement across the ICB as well as the environmental contexts and consequences of these developments.