Laboratory archaeology and population in Africa (APA)

Eric Huysecom

Associate Professor

  • T: +41 22 379 69 73
  • office 4-432 (Sciences II)

We lead multidisciplinary research on African Archaeology from early stone tool productions to historical times, in relation to climatic, environmental and biological changes. Our focus is on the study of Human Evolution and technical innovations over an extended timeframe and we are working on the implementation of reference models in these fields. This research involves different approaches, including studies on stone tool productions, ceramic technology, early metallurgy, zooarchaeology, paleobotany, geomorphology and different dating techniques. These studies are conducted in collaboration with multiple institutions based in Europe as well as in Africa.

Our research area is mainly West Africa, where we are leading an important archeological excavation program in the framework of our Human Population and Palaeoenvrionment in Africa project (see more at http://www.ounjougou.org/). The current FNS project in the Falémé River Valley, Senegal, has the following aims: 1) to unveil the oldest human occupations and provide unprecedented chronometric dates for these sites; 2) to document the period of transition between hunter-gatherer populations and the first ceramic producers; 3) to record the technical diversity of the first iron metallurgy in the region; 4) to assess trans-saharian and gold trade during the medieval period. Other research collaborations involve Palaeolithic studies in Ethiopia and South Africa.

As members of the Archaeology and Population in Africa Laboratory, we are also co-leading the Bachelor and Master programs in Prehistoric Archaeology at the Biology Section of the Faculty of Sciences, and we supervise several PhD candidates on African Archaeology.

Current FNS projects

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  • Peuplement humain et paléoenvironnement en Afrique de l'Ouest - Projet Falémé (100013_185384)
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Links

  • Middle Stone Age Bifacial Technology and Pressure Flaking at the MIS 3 Site of Toumboura III, Eastern Senegal Afr Archaeol Rev (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-021-09463-5

    abstract

    Over the past decade, the increasing wealth of new archaeological data on the Middle Stone Age (MSA) in Senegal and Mali has broadened our understanding of West Africa’s contributions to cultural developments. Within the West African sequence, the phase of Marine Isotope Stage 3 (MIS 3, ca. 59-24 ka) yielded so far the best known and extensive archaeological information. The site of Toumboura III encompasses an occupation dated by optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) to between 40 ± 3 ka and 30 ± 3 ka. It provides the largest, well-dated, and stratified lithic assemblage in West Africa for the MSA and sheds light on an unprecedented cultural expression for this period, adding to the notable diversity of the late MSA in this region. We conducted a technological analysis of the lithic components following the chaîne opératoire approach. The lithic assemblage features a prevalence of bifacial technology and the exploitation of flakes as blanks for tool production. The craftspeople manufactured distinct types of bifacial tools, including small bifacial points shaped by pressure technique. The new data from Toumboura III demonstrate behavioral patterns that are entirely new in the region. By revealing behavioral innovations and technological particularities, these results on the techno-cultural dynamics during the MIS 3 phase of the MSA enhance our understanding of the complex Pleistocene population history in this part of Africa.

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  • Agricultural diversification in West Africa: an archaeobotanical study of the site of Sadia (Dogon Country, Mali). Archaeol Anthropol Sci 2021 ;13(4):60. 10.1007/s12520-021-01293-5. 1293. PMC7937602.

    abstract

    While narratives of the spread of agriculture are central to interpretation of African history, hard evidence of past crops and cultivation practices are still few. This research aims at filling this gap and better understanding the evolution of agriculture and foodways in West Africa. It reports evidence from systematic flotation samples taken at the settlement mounds of Sadia (Mali), dating from 4 phases (phase 0=before first-third century AD; phase 1=mid eighth-tenth c. AD; phase 2=tenth-eleventh c. AD; phase 3=twelfth-late thirteenth c. AD). Flotation of 2200 l of soil provided plant macro-remains from 146 archaeological samples. As on most West African sites, the most dominant plant is pearl millet (). But from the tenth century AD, sorghum () and African rice () appear in small quantities, and fonio () and barnyard millet/hungry rice ( sp.), sometimes considered weeds rather than staple crops, are found in large quantities. Some samples also show remains of tree fruits from savannah parklands, such as baobab (), marula (), jujube ( sp.), shea butter () and African grapes (). Fonio and sp. cultivation appears here to be a later addition that helped to diversify agriculture and buffer against failures that might affect the monoculture of pearl millet. This diversification at the end of the 1st millennium AD matches with other evidence found in West Africa.

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  • A West African Middle Stone Age site dated to the beginning of MIS 5: Archaeology, chronology, and paleoenvironment of the Ravin Blanc I (eastern Senegal). J Hum Evol 2021 Mar;154():102952. S0047-2484(21)00004-X. 10.1016/j.jhevol.2021.102952.

    abstract

    The Ravin Blanc I archaeological occurrence, dated to MIS 5, provides unprecedented data on the Middle Stone Age (MSA) of West Africa since well-contextualized archaeological sites pre-dating MIS 4/3 are extremely rare for this region. The combined approach on geomorphology, phytolith analysis, and OSL date estimations offers a solid framework for the MSA industry comprised in the Ravin Blanc I sedimentary sequence. The paleoenvironmental reconstruction further emphasizes on the local effects of the global increase in moisture characterizing the beginning of the Upper Pleistocene as well as the later shift to more arid conditions. The lithic industry, comprised in the lower part of the sequence and dated to MIS 5e, shows core reduction sequences among which Levallois methods are minor, as well as an original tool-kit composition, among which pieces with single wide abrupt notches, side-scrapers made by inverse retouch, and a few large crudely shaped bifacial tools. The Ravin Blanc I assemblage has neither a chronologically equivalent site to serve comparisons nor a clear techno-typological correspondent in West Africa. However, the industry represents an early MSA technology that could either retain influences from the southern West African 'Sangoan' or show reminiscences of the preceding local Acheulean. A larger-scale assessment of behavioral dynamics at work at the transition period between the Middle to Upper Pleistocene is discussed in view of integrating this new site to the global perception of this important period in the MSA evolutionary trajectories.

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  • New data on settlement and environment at the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary in Sudano-Sahelian West Africa: Interdisciplinary investigation at Fatandi V, Eastern Senegal. PLoS One 2020 ;15(12):e0243129. 10.1371/journal.pone.0243129. PONE-D-19-33803.

    abstract

    The end of the Palaeolithic represents one of the least-known periods in the history of western Africa, both in terms of its chronology and the identification of cultural assemblages entities based on the typo-technical analyses of its industries. In this context, the site of Fatandi V offers new data to discuss the cultural pattern during the Late Stone Age in western Africa. Stratigraphic, taphonomical and sedimentological analyses show the succession of three sedimentary units. Several concentrations with rich lithic material were recognized. An in situ occupation, composed of bladelets, segments, and bladelet and flake cores, is confirmed while others concentrations of lithic materials have been more or less disturbed by erosion and pedogenic post-depositional processes. The sequence is well-dated from 12 convergent OSL dates. Thanks to the dating of the stratigraphic units and an OSL date from the layer (11,300-9,200 BCE [13.3-11.2 ka at 68%, 14.3-10.3 ka at 95%]), the artefacts are dated to the end of Pleistocene or Early Holocene. Palaeoenvironmental data suggest that the settlement took place within a mosaic environment and more precisely at the transition between the open landscape of savanna on the glacis and the plateau, and the increasingly densely-wooded alluvial corridor. These humid areas must have been particularly attractive during the dry season by virtue of their rich resources (raw materials, water, trees, and bushes). The Fatandi V site constitutes the first stratified site of the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary in Senegal with both precise geochronological and palaeoenvironmental data. It complements perfectly the data already obtained in Mali and in the rest of western Africa, and thus constitutes a reference point for this period. In any case, the assemblage of Fatandi V, with its bladelets and segments and in the absence of ceramics and grinding material, fits with a cultural group using exclusively geometric armatures which strongly differs from another group characterized by the production of bifacial armatures, accompanied in its initial phase by ceramics (or stoneware) and grinding material.

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  • Compositional and provenance study of glass beads from archaeological sites in Mali and Senegal at the time of the first Sahelian states. PLoS One 2020 ;15(12):e0242027. 10.1371/journal.pone.0242027. PONE-D-20-15087.

    abstract

    The presence of glass beads in West African archaeological sites provides important evidence of long-distance trade between this part of the continent and the rest of the world. Until recently, most of these items came from historical Sub-Saharan urban centers, well known for their role in the medieval trans-Saharan trade. We present here the chemical analysis by Laser Ablation-Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) of 16 glass beads found in three rural sites excavated during the past decade: the funerary site of Dourou-Boro and settlement sites of Sadia, in central Mali, as well as the settlement site of Djoutoubaya, in eastern Senegal, in contexts dated between the 7th-9th and the 11th-13th centuries CE. Results show that the raw materials used to manufacture the majority of the glass most probably originated in Egypt, the Levantine coast and the Middle East. One bead is of uncertain provenance and shows similarities with glass found in the Iberian Peninsula and in South Africa. One bead fragment found inside a tomb is a modern production, probably linked to recent plundering. All of these ancient beads were exchanged along the trans-Saharan trade routes active during the rise of the first Sahelian states, such as the Ghana and the Gao kingdoms, and show strong similarities with the other West African bead assemblages that have been analysed. Despite the remoteness of their location in the Dogon Country and in the Falémé River valley, the beads studied were therefore included in the long-distance trade network, via contacts with the urban commercial centers located at the edge of the Sahara along the Niger River and in current southern Mauretania. These results bring a new light on the relationships between international and regional trade in Africa and highlight the complementarity between centres of political and economic power and their peripheries, important because of resources like gold for eastern Senegal.

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  • L'occupation humaine de la vallée du Guringin (plaine du Séno, Mali)

    abstract

    Recent archaeological survey conducted in Mali in the Guringin Valley, located in the Séno Plain, as well as at the top of the nearby Bandiagara Escarpment, has produced evidence allowing the characterisation of numerous settlement sites and locations at which prehistoric metallurgy was practised. The latter have abundant surface material, mainly consisting of ceramics that show a considerable diversity of decoration. Analysis of the surface pottery assemblages, complemented by that of stratified assemblages from a test pit at one of the sites, indicates important inter-site differences. The results suggest that water, a rare and precious resource in this sandy Sudano-Sahelian plain, attracted the settlement of different populations from Neolithic times to the present, with a particular density of occupation during the first and early second millennia AD. Groups of sites of similar modest size evoke the rural settlements of the Méma area of Mali more than the settlement clusters of the Inland Niger Delta, which are defined by large sites surrounded by satellite settlements in a context of proto-urbanisation. <br /> Les prospections archéologiques menées au Mali dans la vallée du Guringin, située dans la plaine du Séno, et sur le sommet de la Falaise de Bandiagara toute proche, ont permis de mettre en évidence et de caractériser de nombreux sites d'habitat ainsi que des lieux d'activités métallurgiques. Ces derniers livrent en surface un matériel abondant, constitué majoritairement de fragments de céramiques aux décors très variés. L'analyse des assemblages céramiques de surface, complétée d'assemblages stratifiés issus d'un sondage sur l'un des sites, nous indique des différences intersites significatives. Les résultats suggèrent une occupation de diverses populations attirées par l'eau, rare et précieuse dans cette plaine sableuse soudano-sahlienne, et ceci du Néolithique à la période actuelle, avec une densité particulière durant le premier et le début du second millénaire ap. J.C. Les ensembles de sites de tailles modestes et équivalentes se rapprochent plus des regroupements de sites ruraux du Méma que des clusters du Delta intérieur du Niger, définis par un site principal entouré de satellites, caractéristiques d'un contexte de proto-urbanisation.

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  • Les monuments et manuscrits de Tombouctou In : Gautier Y. (ed), La Science au présent, 2013. Une année d’actualités scientifique et technique, Paris: Encylopaedia Universalis, p. 14-15.

    abstract

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