Monday, 16 January 2012

African Archaeobotany 2011

I am still trying to see through my Holiday period intention of flagging some of the archaeobotanical highlights of 2011. Africa, as a continent, remains one of the archaeobotanically least known and so it worth noting a number of contributions over the past year.

One of the best itegrated studies (from anywhere, not just Africa) of wood charcoal alongside seeds, pollen and other lines of evidence for the study of changing cultivation practices, including shifting cultivation in Burkino Faso by Hohn and Neumann, which is in press but on-line.

A important book released in 2011 was Marijke van der Veen's monograph in the Journal of African Archaeology series on Consumption, Trade and Innovation, which reports the archaeobotanical evidence from the Red Sea trade port of Quesir, an site with both Roman and Islamic era evidence as a port site [table of contents PDF]. It has excellent illustrations and straight forward quantitative analyses that highlight the different food traditions of the Roman and Islamic periods, highlights trade in foods (fruits, nuts, spices), and the much more 'globalized' of pan-Indian Ocean in character, with lemons, eggplants and watermelons consumed for their seeds. I am particularly taken by the evidence for two-way flow. This is not just about importing spices and bananas from the East, but I am struck by how many European imports, like hazelnuts, were also consumed in the Egyptian desert. The evidence for imported spices in Roman and Medieval western Europe, reviewed by Livarda 2011, is remarkably Asian-centric (black pepper, cardamon, a single medieval nutmeg) but some African Melgueta pepper has been reported from European Medieval contexts.

Some small contributions from the lab here in London came out, too:
Manning et al. reported the earliest archaeological Pearl Millet, with direct dates between 2500 and 2000 BC from the Tilemsi valley in NE Mali, and evidence from chaff impressions for non-shatteing domestication traits. The discussion (and supplement) include a database summarizing the whole archaeological record of pearl millet.

Giblin and Fuller reported the first archaeobotanical results from the first flotation in Rwanda, dating from ca. 400 AD to 1200 AD, with sorghum, pearl millet and cowpea from the earliest samples. Of note is the recurrence of finger millet, and this article includes a discussion and supplementary database of the whole archaeological record of finger millet.

Nixon, Murray and Fuller published the archaeobotany from Tadmekka/ Essouk in NE mali the trans-Sahaan trade route. It was Islamic era trade city, with excavated material between 700 and 1400 AD. Amongst the staples were pearl millet and wild grains (Echnichloa, Brachiaria), but there is also evidence for wheat (imported or locally irrigated) and cotton processing (imported or locally irrigated), and several fruits. It includes an effort to tabulate the sum of archaeobotanical evidence for medieval west Africa.

Ruas and Tengberg (from the Paris archaeobotany lab) published an archaeobotanical study from Igiliz in southern Morocco, the first ever from the region, which included a detailed consideration of Argan oil production (blogged previously).

Although not strictly Africa, another study from the Paris lab, Bouchard, Tengberg and Pra report evidence from Mada'in Salih in Saudi Arabia, which expands our archaeological evidence for cotton cultivation, and is discussed alongside that from Bahrain, in relation to the role of arid Arabia in producing cotton as part of date palm oasis cultivation systems in Antiquity.

The last article taken with Sarah Walshaw's article on Swahili era Pemba from the previous year (World Archaeology 2010: "converting to rice"), frames the northern and southern limits of early Old World cotton production.

One looks forward to the new contributions at this years African Archaeobotany Workshop. For my part, we are making some progress on flots from SE Kenya, SW Ethiopia, and some from Mali from Kevin MacDonald's Sorotomo project.

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