- The two last millenniums BC represented a key change in Africa's ecological and cultural history, which has been poorly studied. German multi-disciplinary scientists now are investigating whether the spread of agriculture into Western and Central Africa had environmental roots or if it was related to events in the Sahel. Case studies are made in Cameroon and Nigeria.
The research programme of the scientist group from the Frankfurt University is focusing on the time span between year 2000 BC and year 0 of the Christian calendar. During these two millenniums, vast areas of the African continent experienced profound cultural and ecological changes that have influenced the history of Africa until present days.
The primary focus of the ample research programme was to be the transition from societies of hunters and gatherers to communities basing their economy and culture on agriculture and livestock farming. This cultural transition always "forms a profound point of change in the history of humanity," which "releases developments of great consequences" throughout the world, according to the German team.
However, the "most striking characteristic in Sub-Saharan Africa" had been the late occurrence of this cultural change, the scientists hold. While the introduction of agriculture and pastoralism had happened around 10,000 BC in the Middle East, it only started more than 8,000 years later in Western and Central Africa - before the Bantu expansion in the first millennium AD spread agriculture even further southwards.
This late occurrence and the origin of this expansion of agriculture and pastorialism were the study objects of the new inter-disciplinary German team, the University of Frankfurt yesterday announced.
The team was to concentrate its first case studies on the Sahelian zone of north-eastern Nigeria and the edges of the tropical forests in southern Cameroon. These ethnically very diversified areas have been also pointed out by linguistic specialists as the probable origin of the Bantu peoples that only later were to conquer the rain forest and the southern part of the continent.
The poorly studied first round of agricultural diffusion in sub-Saharan Africa, however, is dated two millenniums before the more famous Bantu expansion. During the transition from Stone Age to Iron Age in Africa, agriculture, pastoralism and blacksmithing was spread throughout an area covering today's coast of Senegal, through the Sahelian and Sudan zones to Chad and southwards through the rain forest, reaching the Great Lakes and northern Angola.
North-eastern Nigeria, where also the archaeological sites of the ancient Nok culture are found, were said to be a good starting point for the historic-ecologic studies of the Frankfurt team. Here, during the first millennium BC, "turbulent cultural developments" could have plaid a decisive role in this issue.
- Parallel to the transitions that took place in the Sahelian zone during the second and first millenniums BC, a large-scale migration of peoples emigrated to the rain forests, according to the University of Frankfurt.
The scientists add that the possible connection between these two events however "still is largely unknown." This was said to be due to the lack of "coordinated research" on this issue until now.
The cultural transitions during these last two millenniums BC could be rooted in cultural developments in the Sahelian region or in environmental changes produced by a climatic shift in the same region at the time. Or those to events - with "a striking coordination in time" - could even be interdependent.
There are indications that drier eras during this time caused the disappearance of most of the lakes and rivers of the Sahara and Sahel as well as a partial collapse of the ecosystem of the rainforests further south, the scientist team says.
However, proof of this was "still very fragmentary and will be upgraded with relevant data" during the new research work, especially from field work in southern Cameroon - the closest rain forest biotope to the ancient Sahelian cultures of north-eastern Nigeria. The two sites chosen for the field work further were located in the transition zones between Sahara-Sahel and savannah-rainforest, areas that are especially sensible regarding climate changes.
The goal of the inter-disciplinary study was to obtain equally fine-masked data on cultural events as on the historic climate changes. These basic data from one discipline could then enrich the data from another.
- We are treating the question to whether, in the time span 2000-0 BC, there is a correspondence between the climate changes and agriculture on one hand, and the cultural transitions and innovations on the other hand, the Frankfurt team says.
- Based on the perspective of the vast area covered, from the Sahel to the rainforest, and the expected importance for further developments in Southern Africa, one may attach a pan-African relevance to the [anticipated] results, the Frankfurt University adds.
Several institutes at the university are to participate in the project, which was decided on 11 July. These included the Institute of Physical Geography and of Archaeology and Archabotany. Further included are the Institute of Early and Prehistory from the University of Tübingen and unnamed "African partners and institutions, with which the research team cooperates most closely."
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