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Swiss archaeologist digs up West Africa's past

The ravine at Ounjougou allows access to layers of sediment over 30,000 years old (Eric Huysecom)

A Swiss-led team of archaeologists has discovered pieces of the oldest African pottery in central Mali, dating back to at least 9,400BC.

The sensational find by Geneva University's Eric Huysecom and his international research team, at Ounjougou near the Unesco-listed Bandiagara cliffs, reveals important information about man's interaction with nature.

The age of the sediment in which they were found suggests that the six ceramic fragments - discovered between 2002 and 2005 - are at least 11,400 years old. Most ancient ceramics from the Middle East and the central and eastern Sahara regions are 10,000 and between 9-10,000 years old, respectively.

"At the beginning, the very first piece we found stayed in my desk drawer for years, as I didn't realise how old it was," Huysecom told swissinfo.

Huysecom heads a 50-strong interdisciplinary team, composed of 28 international researchers – mainly from Germany, Mali, Switzerland, France and Britain - on the largest current archaeological research project in Africa, entitled "Human population and paleo-environment in West Africa".

Ounjougou was selected as the location, "as everything led us to believe that there we could follow the evolution of man, the environment and the climate", explained Huysecom.

The site is an archaeologist's dream: a ravine made up of layers of easy-to-date sediment rich in West African history.

Significant findings

Since the launch of the project in 1997, the team has made numerous discoveries about ancient stone-cutting techniques and tools, and other important findings that shed light on human development in the region.

But the unearthing of the ancient fragments of burnt clay is one of the most significant to date. Huysecom is convinced that pottery was invented in West Africa to enable man to adapt to climate change.

"Apart from finding the oldest ceramic in Africa, the interesting thing is that it gives us information about when and under what circumstances man can invent new things, such as pottery," he explained.

"And the invention of ceramic is linked to specific environmental conditions – the transformation of the region from desert into grassland."

Grasslands

Some 10,000 years ago, at the end of the ice age, the climate is thought to have fluctuated between warm and cold periods. This led to the formation of an 800-kilometre-wide band of tropical vegetation extending northwards from the Sahel region, which attracted people who slowly moved north from southern and central Africa.

Wild grasses and pearl millet started sprouting on the former desert land. But for man to be able to eat and properly digest the new plants, they had to be stored and cooked in pots.

"Man had to adapt his food and way of life by inventing pottery," said the Geneva professor.

The invention of ceramic also coincided with that of small arrowheads - also discovered by the team – and which were probably used to hunt hares, pheasants and other small game on the grassy plains.

To date, East Asia – the triangle between Siberia, China and Japan – is the only other area where similar pottery and arrowheads have been found which are as old as those in West Africa, explained Huysecom.

"This is important, as they both appear in same way, at the same time and under similar climatic conditions, which indicates that man has certain modes of adaptation to cope with environmental changes," he commented.

Ahead of the final publication of the team's research findings this year, Huysecom is returning to Ounjougou to rejoin his colleagues, in particular those from West Africa "who are extremely proud of the discovery".

He plans to scour the region for caves and other settlement sites to try and find out exactly where the pottery came from so as to determine more precisely the age of the fragments.

"We know [from the sediment] that they are at least 11,400 years old, but they could be 50 or even 1,000 years older."

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

Key facts

9,400BC: invention of pottery in Mali, West Africa.
9,400BC: first use of wild cereals in the Sahara and Sahel regions.
8,000BC: invention of pottery in the Middle East and Sahara.
7,500BC: domestication of pigs, sheep and goats in the Middle East.
7,000BC: domestication of cows in Africa.
5,700BC: development of irrigation in Mesopotamia.
3,800BC: use of the wheel in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions.
3,700BC: first large city, Uruk in Iraq.
3,400BC: first phonetically readable script in Egypt.

Cradle of humanity

Africa is considered by most paleoanthropologists to be the oldest inhabited territory on earth, with the human species originating from the continent. Fossil remains have been discovered of several species of early apelike humans thought to have evolved into modern man.

Since the mid-1990s, several groups of prominent scientists have begun to challenge East Africa's position as the evolutionary cradle of humanity, suggesting that it may have been more in central or western Africa.

In 1995 a group of French scientists discovered a 3.5-million-year-old jawbone of one of man's ancestors - an Australopithecus afarensi - west of the Rift Valley in Chad, central Africa.

In 2001 a Chadian student discovered a seven-million-year-old skull of a hominid, or Sahelanthropus tchadensis, dubbed "Toumai", possibly one of man's more distant relatives.


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