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

Abstract

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 The evidence firstly enables us to shed greater light on the Arabic historical references to traditions of wild cereal gathering at Essouk-Tadmakka.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.

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Acknowledgments

This study is part of the Essouk archaeological research project led by Sam Nixon and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (PhD studentship program), University College London Graduate School, the Institute of Archaeology (UCL) and the University of London Central Research Fund. Thanks are due to the Institut des Sciences Humaines and the ‘Direction Nationale de la Patrimoine Culturelle’ in Mali for respectively authorizing and assisting in fieldwork at Essouk. Thanks are also due to the reviewers for their constructive comments, including aiding with identification of certain taxa. Some of the writing of this paper was completed while DF was a visiting researcher with Professor Sato at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto.

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Correspondence to Dorian Q. Fuller.

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Communicated by M. van der Veen.

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Table S1

Species counts of plant remains excavated at Essouk (*indicates taxa observed in the bulk silicified sample from EKB 6 which was not fully studied and quantified) (XLS 40 kb)

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Nixon, S., Murray, M.A. & Fuller, D.Q. Plant use at an early Islamic merchant town in the West African Sahel: the archaeobotany of Essouk-Tadmakka (Mali). Veget Hist Archaeobot 20, 223–239 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-010-0279-6

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Keywords

  • Palaeoethnobotany
  • Agriculture
  • Wild cereal gathering
  • Triticum
  • Tuareg
  • Saharan Berber