This book is the publication of Jacques Aymeric Nsangou’s PhD thesis on the indigenous fortifications of the Falémé Valley in eastern Senegal. It deals with a group of West African archaeological structures that are often highly visible, but still poorly researched. The book is well structured and encompasses eight chapters.

Chapter 1 briefly introduces the topic of Senegal’s native fortifications and previous work on some of them. After addressing the objectives of his own research, the author describes his methodologies and data collection, delimits the geographic and temporal scope of his study, and presents the overall organization of the volume.

Chapter 2 addresses both local and general definitions and concepts related to fortifications as units of analysis. Universal terms such as fortification, structures defensives, and communauté are scrutinized, as are local (Mande) designations for various types of defended localities such as tata, sanié, and dyasa. A noteworthy section of this chapter discusses what a fortification is: Unlike the orthodox definition as constructed defensive spaces, Aymeric Nsangou’s definition also includes natural places of refuge with or without any anthropogenic defensive modification. Although it is debatable whether a naturally defendable rock spur featuring no additional protective structures can really be called a fortification, it can nevertheless be seen as an element in a continuum of defensive human strategies. After discerning and discussing three generally accepted explanations for the construction of fortifications, the author turns the reader’s attention to the question of the specific causes behind the construction of the fortifications from eastern Senegal. This is the most significant section in the chapter, providing historical background information necessary for understanding the rise of these structures. It becomes clear that a concatenation of several major short- to long-term historical processes, such as the final demise of the Mali Empire in the seventeenth century, the Atlantic slave trade, and the formation of new and competing states, is probably responsible for the now visible archaeological evidence.

Based on some of the concepts from the previous chapter, Chapter 3 provides a general classification of indigenous West African fortifications. The author first distinguishes between fortifications naturelles and fortifications artéfactuelles. While the first category only encompasses examples of modified places of refuge, he differentiates three types of fortifications artéfactuelles: végétales, excavées, and construites. The fortifications végétales involve using materials such as thorny bushes and trees to establish lines of defense around settlements. The author only mentions twentieth-century, ethnographic examples of such defensive structures, but certain indigenous historical chronicles such as the “The Borno expeditions of Idris Alauma (1564–1576)” indicate the widespread use of similar defenses in the past too (Lange, 1987). The fortifications excavées encompass large spaces apparently defended by one or more ditches, as well as subterranean refuges such as those recently found in the Abomey Plateau in Benin. Given their visibility, the fortifications construites, consisting of stone or clay walls, are the most widely known in West Africa, and the author lists a series of sites from second millennium AD featuring these well-preserved structures. While superficially valid, the differentiation between fortifications excavées and construites may not always be straightforward, especially for older sites where the remains of ditches are preserved, but decayed clay walls are not (e.g., Magnavita et al., 2006). For this reason, the author’s classification should be used with caution. The chapter closes by presenting the state of research on indigenous fortifications in Senegal.

Chapter 4 deals with the environmental characteristics of the Falémé Valley, while Chapter 5 introduces the occupation and political history of this and surrounding regions between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Importantly, the latter provides background information on the competing Fulani and Malinke states and neighboring polities (e.g., Bambouk, Fouta Djalon) whose power dynamics were at play when the Falémé fortifications in this study were constructed and used.

Chapter 6 forms the core of the book and presents the results of archaeological surveys, excavations, and historical research conducted within the scope of the thesis. Altogether, fifteen fortifications (tata) distributed between the lower and the upper Falémé and the territories of three (Boundou, Dantila, Bafé) out of five contemporaneous polities were examined. The author conducted archaeological surveys around, and collected historical information on, all of these places, but only carried out excavations at five of them. The fortifications’ outer walls and interior structures were constructed in stone, clay, or a combination of these two materials. Being less than one hectare in size, most of the archaeologically discernible stone fortifications appear to have been primarily small state border fortresses and fortified elite residences that may also have given temporary shelter to threatened people living nearby. Some few others, like the royal sites Boulebane and Koussan or the places Medina Dantila and Bembou, were apparently much larger places with peripheral clay walls that encompassed entire villages on a permanent basis. Some of the fortifications had defensive towers (often no longer visible) and/or loopholes and bastions that underline their defensive, military purpose. The historical and radiometric dating of the Falémé fortifications indicate that their construction, use, and abandonment occurred between the seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries, except for one site that was apparently occupied sometime between the late thirteenth and late fourteenth centuries.

Chapter 7 provides major synopses of the research results presented in previous chapters and discusses new questions about the relation between fortifications and ethnicity, population density, heritage, and, most pressing, the connection between fortifications and slavery. Regarding this last point, the Falémé fortifications are often regarded as state and communal protective structures, but Aymeric Nsangou raises the legitimate question of whether some of them were not also at times used as temporary storehouses for captives. Even though the answer to this question was beyond the scope of research, the fact is that the historical and political framework of the sites presented strongly link those places with the general social insecurity brought about by internal conflicts and, indirectly, the Atlantic slave trade. The final Chapter 8 closes the book by providing a retrospect of the research developed and future directions.

If there is something to be criticized, it is the author’s peculiar way of introducing the names of historical persons (e.g., Samory Touré, p. 11), places (e.g., Sikasso, p. 10), and people (e.g., Bamoun, p. 13) at the beginning of the book, without direct explanations of them. Although the author assumes that readers will already be aware of this historical context, these details should have been furnished in the text and on a map. In fact, the absence of this latter hampers a straightforward understanding of the spatial distribution of the numerous West African archaeological sites, regions, and polities mentioned in Chapter 3 and later chapters. The book is well edited, but one table and two figures were printed twice, and in part feature wrong captions.

Despite these minor points of criticism, Aymeric Nsangou’s work is commendable, especially because questions about African fortifications cannot be resolved by archaeological means alone; one must also consider the available historical data. For eastern Senegal, the author has done this work in an authoritative way.