Vegetation History and Archaeobotany

, Volume 23, Issue 5, pp 591–606 | Cite as

Archaeological charcoals as archives for firewood preferences and vegetation composition during the late Holocene in the southern Mayumbe, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

  • Wannes Hubau
  • Jan Van den Bulcke
  • Koen Bostoen
  • Bernard Olivier Clist
  • Alexandre Livingstone Smith
  • Nele Defoirdt
  • Florias Mees
  • Laurent Nsenga
  • Joris Van Acker
  • Hans Beeckman
Original Article


Analysis of charcoal from an archaeological assemblage near the Lukula community located at the southernmost boundary of the Mayombe forest (Bas-Congo, DRC) yielded 30 taxa used as firewood between 1,200 and 700 cal. b.p. Local people mentioned 71 taxa preferred for use nowadays. The identified taxa belong either to mature rainforest, pioneer forest, regenerating forest or woodland savanna, indicating that ancient and current local populations gathered firewood in several different forest types. Modern firewood preferences do not seem to agree with the archaeobotanical composition. Also, linguistic evidence does not indicate a long exploitation history for all of the recorded taxa. Furthermore, no particular wood qualities such as wood density, calorific value or magical or medicinal properties seem to determine the Lukula assemblage, which was probably composed of waste material from various activities which required different specific firewood characteristics. As such, taxa composition is not biased by human selection, suggesting that it reflects the surrounding environment, which was characterised by mature rainforest with patches of regenerating forest and open vegetation types. Unlike the origin of present-day forest-savanna mosaics from human activity, fragmentation around 1,000 cal. b.p. may have been provoked by a well-known climatic event coinciding with the Medieval Climate Anomaly, which undoubtedly had a significant impact on Central African forest composition.


Firewood preference Charcoal identification Central Africa Forest fragmentation Archaeobotany 



We are indebted to the Special Research Fund of Ghent University for financing the doctoral project of Wannes Hubau. Currently, W.H. is supported by the ERC Advanced Grant ‘Tropical Forests in the Changing Earth System’ at Leeds University, UK. We thank the Commission for Scientific Research (Faculty of Bioscience Engineering, Ghent University) and the King Leopold III Fund for financially supporting the fieldwork. Furthermore, we thank the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the École Régionale Post-universitaire d’Aménagement et de Gestion Intégrés des Forêts et Territoires Tropicaux (ERAIFT, DRCongo) and the Institut National pour l’Étude et la Recherche Agronomique (INERA, DRCongo) for logistic support. Specifically, we thank Geert Lejeune and Bruno Pérodeau for their services and discussions in the field and all WWF eco-guards who guided us through the Luki reserve. We thank the Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren, Belgium) for financing radiocarbon dating and for organising the SEM sessions.

Supplementary material

334_2013_415_MOESM1_ESM.xls (68 kb)
Taxa preferred for charcoal production in five villages in the neighbourhood of the Lukula community. Those that are in the top five of reported taxa for a certain village are indicated in light grey. Taxa that are also among those recorded in the ancient Lukula assemblage are indicated in dark grey. Data on ecology and morphology are derived from African Plants Database (2012), Lebrun and Gilbert (1954), Protabase (2012), Burkill (1985) and Leal (2004) (XLS 68 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Wannes Hubau
    • 1
    • 2
  • Jan Van den Bulcke
    • 1
  • Koen Bostoen
    • 3
  • Bernard Olivier Clist
    • 3
  • Alexandre Livingstone Smith
    • 4
  • Nele Defoirdt
    • 1
  • Florias Mees
    • 5
  • Laurent Nsenga
    • 1
    • 2
  • Joris Van Acker
    • 1
  • Hans Beeckman
    • 2
  1. 1.Laboratory for Wood Technology, Department of Forest and Water ManagementGhent UniversityGhentBelgium
  2. 2.Laboratory for Wood BiologyRoyal Museum for Central AfricaTervurenBelgium
  3. 3.KongoKing Research Group, Department of Languages and CulturesGhent UniversityGhentBelgium
  4. 4.Department of Prehistory and ArchaeologyRoyal Museum for Central AfricaTervurenBelgium
  5. 5.Department of Geology and MineralogyRoyal Museum for Central AfricaTervurenBelgium

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