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29 January 2007
Archaeologist digs up West Africa's past

A Swiss-led team of archaeologists has discovered pieces of the oldest African pottery in central Mali, dating back to at least 9,400 BCE. 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.
     Huysecom heads a 50-strong interdisciplinary team, composed of 28 international researchers on the largest current archaeological research project in Africa, entitled 'Human population and paleo-environment in West Africa'. 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.
     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-km-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 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.
     Huysecom is returning to Ounjougou to rejoin his colleagues. 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.

Source: NZZ Online (19 January 2007)

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