Thursday 21 February 2013

Earlier sorghum in Sudan

I have recently been made aware of a small report in Nyame Akuma on Kasala (northeast Sudan), where Italian researchers have restarted research which can be regarded as following on from the 1980s survey headed by R. Fattovich. The new work has included the study of some plant impressions in ceramics published as "Sorghum exploitation at Kasala and its environs, North Eastern Sudan in the Second and First Millennium BC" by Alemseged Beldados and Lorenzo Constantini in Nyame Akuma vol. 75. As its title indicates this study does confirm the present of Sorghum bicolor, plausibly (but not definitively) domesticated, in ceramics from the site of Mahal Teglinos and some from near by survey collections. It reports examination of 25 sherds of which 11 from Teglinos and 11 from survey have sorghum.

As many will know I have been critical of some previous sorghum identification from impressions, in particular coming out the lab in Rome (most infamously those from Oman and Yemen). As a result, in various tallies of early sorghum I have always regarded the 1980s report of Sorghum of the Kasala region survey as requiring a big question mark next to it (e.g. "The economic basis of the Qustul splinter state"). The sorghum here, at least in fig 4, looks legitimate. The suggestion that grains shape (narrow versus wide) can be used to identify both wild and domesticated sorghum is more problematic. Meroitic Umm Nuri produced very very thin but apparently domesticated sorghum (published by me in Sudan and Nubia 2004).What is really needed is clean views of spikelet bases (for wild versus domesticated hulled forms) or evidence for still attached rachillae (especially in free-threshing forms).

I now believe that sorghum is there in Kasala, dated by ceramics (Mokram group) and association to 1500-500 BC. This is important news, as it takes sorghum earlier probably than any of the find in the Nile Valley, which are mainly Meroitic, and with possibly earlier Napatan sorghum at Kawa (in Sudan and Nubian 2004). This is a relief given that it is India before this time by at least a couple of centuries, and maybe more (for an updated review of early African crops in South Asia see by papers in Nicole Boivin, either that in J. World Prehistory on Arabia, or the Etudes Ocean Indien paper [in English]).

Some of the other identifications, notably cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) reported from one impression remain unconvincing, at least as photographed, and I really cannot except them on this sort of evidence. I would also expect pulse seeds to make poor temper for pottery. While we might expect this species in this region and period, as it was in cultivation prior to 1500 BC in West Africa and had arrived in India too by this time, I'll await more convincing evidence.

It is a pity high quality imaging, especially SEMs, were not made of the casts as, then one could see finer details of morphology like characteristic hairs, etc., that really clinch an ID. (See, for example the unicellular  e.g. w&v in the images from the Essouk archaeobotanical report, also a rachis stalk which suggests it is domesticated).

Also tantalizing is the evidence for millet, Setaria, impressions in 3 sherds. As illustrated, one could also propose a Bracharia and we really need better resolution SEMs and husk comparisons to get this to species level. Nevertheless it is plausibly a fit for S. sphaceleata, which is of particular interest as the  "lost" millet of Nubia,which we have evidence for cultivation of from Napatan to Medieval times (Kawa, Qasr Ibrim, Nauri). The origins and history of this lost millet of Nubia really needs to be chased down. It has gone extinct from Nubia in the past millennium, replaced by Setaria italica.

(Thanks to Mike Brass for bringing this paper to my attention)


Frank Winchell said...

The evidence for domesticated sorghum in the southern Atbai could even predate the Jebel Mokram Group finds.

Frank Winchell said...

I should have added that the southern Atbai is also associated with the Kassala-Mahal Teglinos area of the eastern Sahel where these Jebel Mokram Group sherds were located. Similar seed-tempered sherd are also associated with the Butana Group, an earlier archaeological component, and to which the Jebel Mokram, Gash, and Butana Group all belong to the larger Atbai Ceramic Tradition of the southern Atbai.

DQ Fuller said...

This could indeed be a key region for tracking sorghum domestication processes, and a jumping off point for dispersal to India.