Original Article

Vegetation History and Archaeobotany

, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 223-239

First online:

Plant use at an early Islamic merchant town in the West African Sahel: the archaeobotany of Essouk-Tadmakka (Mali)

  • Sam NixonAffiliated withInstitute of Archaeology, University College London
  • , Mary Anne MurrayAffiliated withInstitute of Archaeology, University College London
  • , Dorian Q. FullerAffiliated withInstitute of Archaeology, University College London Email author 

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We present archaeobotanical data from the early Islamic era (ca. a.d. 750–1400) obtained from excavations at Essouk-Tadmakka, an important trans-Saharan trading town site in the West African Sahel and an early centre of the Tuareg. The paper provides insight into a little researched area of arid zone medieval West Africa and presents practically the only substantive archaeobotanical evidence of the medieval Tuareg. The evidence firstly enables us to shed greater light on the Arabic historical references to traditions of wild cereal gathering at Essouk-Tadmakka. It also establishes the presence at the site of a range of important taxa, including pearl millet, date, balanites, cotton and linseed, as well as a host of other fruits, legumes (Fabaceae) and wild plants. Perhaps the most striking finding is the earliest and largest archaeobotanical data set for wheat in West Africa. In addition to providing the first archaeobotanically based discussion of Essouk-Tadmakka’s gathering traditions, agriculture, and grain importation, we also seek to highlight certain evidence for change over time in the archaeobotany recovered. The data seems to suggest that towards the end of the site’s occupation (ca. a.d. 1300) there was a shift to increased presence of fruit and legumes and more limited presence of cereals, and we attempt to relate this to wider shifts in Sahelian culture at this time.


Palaeoethnobotany Agriculture Wild cereal gathering Triticum Tuareg Saharan Berber