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date: 26 April 2019

The Archaeology of Political Complexity in West Africa Through 1450 CE

Summary and Keywords

Political complexity in archaeological research has traditionally been defined as socio-political differentiation (roles, statuses, offices) integrated through centralized systems of power and authority. In recent decades the assumption that complex organizational forms tend to be hierarchical in structure has been called into question, based upon both archaeological research and ethnological observations worldwide, including in classic archaeological case studies of centralization. Moreover, there has been an increasing interest in exploring variability in political legitimizations and articulations of power and authority globally. Until these theoretical shifts, West African complex societies, both archaeological and from ethnographic analyses, were largely ignored in discussions of political complexity since many (but not all) conformed poorly to the expectations of highly centralized power and administration. West African ethnohistoric and archaeological examples are now playing important roles in current discussions of heterarchical organizational structures, checks on exclusionary power, cooperation, urbanism, ethnicity, and the nature of administration in states.

Keywords: West Africa, Iron Age, medieval, heterarchy, hierarchy, state, craft specialization, inequality, trade, religion

Political Complexity in Archaeological Research

For much of the 20th century, definitions of political complexity in anthropology were deeply rooted in 19th-century assumptions that associated complexity with greater centralization of political control and increased elaboration of top-down administrative hierarchies.1 West African ethnographic and ethnohistoric examples that contradicted these assumptions, including highly centralized polities with extensive checks and balances, large-scale non-centralized states and kingdoms, and smaller-scale societies with extremely complex political systems, were largely ignored.2 Since the 1980s, scholars drawing on a wider diversity of ethnographic and archaeological cases have developed more nuanced understandings of power and authority in human societies and now recognize the active nature of both egalitarian and exclusionary dimensions to politics at varying temporal and historical scales.3 Long-term trajectories are seen as dynamic historical political dialogues that can take many forms, including the common examples where power is widely distributed. As a result, archaeologists now tend to focus less on measuring how complex a socio-political system is based upon certain traits and more on examining holistically the ways in which societies are complex.

West African archaeology has played a leading role in these dialogues, as clearly complex societies, like the ancient city of Jenne-jeno (Mali), lacked the traits associated with evolutionary models (e.g., elites, palaces, direct administrative controls, writing systems, monumental architecture) but socially and economically integrated many thousands of people in urban zones.4 West African examples have contributed significantly to early 21st-century concepts of power, space, wealth, and political action in archaeology that are aiding in the reanalysis of even “classic” examples of “civilization,” where models of centralization as complexity are being questioned.5

This article focuses on the origins and development of diverse forms of complexity in West Africa from their roots in political and economic experiments in the last two millennia bce to the diverse political setting of the medieval period (ending c. 1450 ce). The arrival of domestic livestock and the possible local domestication and/or adoption of domestic millet on the northern margins of West Africa began a long-term process of adoption and experimentation with agricultural economies in the region that would ultimately form the economic foundations for diverse cultural traditions. A second major economic transformation later occurred with the adoption/invention of iron-working c. 800–500 bce. On this foundation, societies developed new lifeways, social groups, technologies, and built environments with diverse regional and local variations.

The Archaeology of Political Complexity in West Africa Through 1450 CEClick to view larger

Figure 1. Selected Sites and Polities Discussed in the Text.

The following regional examples present different trajectories of cultural developments in West Africa, including early settlement agglomerations on the edges of the Sahara leading to early urbanism, the development of early trans-Saharan trade and Islamic traditions (eastern Niger Bend), the development of artistic traditions and intensive built environments in Nigeria, and the complex negotiations of agricultural adoption and inequality in central West Africa (Voltaic Region) (Figure 1). Throughout, this article stresses the active nature of political choices in creating different organizational models throughout the region.

Urban Trajectories and Regional Polities in the Niger and Senegal River Systems

Historical trajectories toward early urbanism and the development of regional states and empires in western West Africa have deep roots in settlement agglomerations on the southern margins of the Sahara desert around the Tichitt-Walata escarpments of modern Mauritania.6 Here, from the start of the 2nd millennium bce, agro-pastoralists constructed extensive settlements of dry-stone architecture of varying size, in a location with access to lowlands for farming millet and collecting resources in aquatic environments, surrounded by widely distributed grazing land for cattle, sheep, and goats. Descendants of mobile herding peoples of the mid-Holocene Sahara who had likely moved south owing to increasing aridity, at Tichitt they lived in discrete household compounds with enclosures where livestock could be penned.7 These data indicate the likelihood of corporate families with ownership systems and possibly lineal control over space and inheritance of wealth. In addition, given varying compound and site sizes, it has been argued that hierarchical organizational structures may have been present in and between communities along the escarpment.8 Evidence of economic specializations (e.g., pottery production, herding/farming) or other activities including long-distance trade is more ambiguous as relatively few compounds have been excavated.

As aridity increased in the 1st millennium bce, people moved south of the Tichitt escarpment where economies may have shifted to a greater focus on pastoral products, and iron-working appeared at sites like Bou Khzama in Mauritania c. 800–700 bce.9 Based on similarities in material culture, related peoples colonized the Mema region (today a non-active arm of the Niger river system) and also established a settlement at Dia, a future urban center in Mali on the western edges of the Inland Niger Delta floodplain, where they began to grow domesticated African rice.10 It is likely that the cultural traditions of this area of West Africa developed through complex interactions between peoples moving south from the drying Sahara and local populations they encountered. Deeper in the floodplain, the site of Jenne-jeno was settled c. 100 bce and grew into a 33-ha city in the center of a large urban zone with c. 11,000–22,000 inhabitants in dispersed mound clusters with multiple smaller centers.11 Settlement of Jenne-jeno required trade from the beginning as the area lacks iron ore and stone sources, and long-distance interactions are potentially indicated by the presence of glass beads from the earliest layers. Commercial interactions became more diverse over time, as materials from far afield have been identified, such as copper from the mid-1st millennium ce and gold from the late 1st millennium ce. To date, no evidence for elites has been recovered, which has led scholars to question the presence of centralized hierarchy. The basic spatial pattern of dispersed clusters may likewise indicate the dispersion of political controls in the local area in a heterarchical manner, and given the long-term social anchoring of sites that created thick mounds here, aspects of these identities may have deep histories. Due to the scale of the complex, it is currently unknown how specific economic activities were organized, but a reorganization of iron-working in the later 1st millennium ce could indicate the emergence of new forms of specialization. Given the scant administrative or political evidence at Jenne-jeno, many scholars believe that rather than being a political center it may have primarily been a regional marketplace.12 Jenne-jeno was not an isolated phenomenon, as by the mid-to late 1st millennium ce many other large urban centers were distributed throughout the Inland Niger Delta with a shared material culture tradition (Figure 2).13

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Figure 2. Edge of Archaeological Mound in the Inland Niger Delta, Mali.

(Photo courtesy of D. Gallagher)

The relationship between this populous urban phenomenon and the historically known medieval state of Ghana (c. 5th–7th through the 12th centuries) is poorly known, as historical sources point to its capital at Koumbi Saleh, a settlement located to the north in an extremely arid region to the south of Tichitt-Walata.14 Some recent scholarship has expressed doubts, as despite evidence at Koumbi Saleh for extensive medieval commerce as well as construction of a mosque and a large mortuary monument, the city’s relationship to a larger polity is uncertain.15 Regardless, the city was likely a trade entrêpot that medieval Arabic-speaking visitors may have reached (like Tegdaoust or Timbuktu).

Regional polities may have been centered in the populous Inland Niger Delta rather than on the Saharan fringe. The possibility that Ghana may have been based in this region is suggested by the concordance between al-Bakri’s account of the burial practices of Ghanaian kings and the mortuary site of El-Ouladji, with an elaborate 11th- to 12th-century burial tumulus with internal chambers and bronze and iron objects located in the northern reaches of the Inland Niger Delta.16 Recent research in this area (known as the Malian Lakes Region) has identified dense populations and stone architecture as well as tumuli at this time.17 The historical accounts of the subsequent Malian Empire (13th–15th centuries), West Africa’s largest medieval polity, have also been difficult to confirm archaeologically, as until recently its capital was thought to be at Niani, located near the headwaters of the Niger river system in Guinea.18 Despite claims by the early excavators, archaeological research failed to uncover deposits contemporaneous with the empire.19 Like during Ghana, population centers during the Malian period were also located further north along the Niger River, and it is possible that sites like Sorotomo occupied primarily during the empire may indicate a central political node for Mali.20 However, scholars are uncertain whether Mali had a fixed capital over time.

Regarding the nature of complexity, from the textual and oral historical records, both Ghana and Mali may have had kings who were ritual specialists, drawing power from divine associations or custodianship of shrines. For example, the king of Ghana was described sacrificing to a divine python for societal well-being, while in Mali the origin story of the empire is rooted in the battle in which the Malian king Sunjata, who draws power from hunting magic, defeats the Sosso king, who draws power from blacksmithing, a historically potent divine process in the region.21 From oral and written histories it is also thought that Islam played a role in the latter centuries of Ghana, and many Malian emperors are known to have been devout Muslims, including making the hajj to Mecca.22 However, in both cases these histories indicate that Islam was not the sole religion practiced by leaders and/or the populace. The archaeological record similarly indicates differential evidence for Islam during this era. For example, at Koumbi-Saleh, there was a mosque and Islamic cemeteries, while the burial at El-Ouladji clearly draws on non-Islamic practice.23 Similarly, non-Islamic practices are invoked by the iconic terracotta figurine and urn burial traditions along the Middle Niger during the early to mid-2nd millennium ce.24 A broader conversion to Islam may be marked by the 14th- to 15th-century abandonment of Jenne-jeno and the shift to the neighboring mound of Djenne, home to the iconic Djenne mosque today.25

While the archaeological evidence for political organization is scarce for Ghana and Mali, the presence of larger cultural entities is attested by shared material culture styles and site types throughout the Inland Niger Delta and increasing regional integration in a larger part of western West Africa during the late 1st and early 2nd millennium ce. Current evidence indicates that a variety of economic specializations may have developed in the upper reaches of the Niger and Senegal river systems related to the exploitation of two of the primary sources of West African gold, Buré (Niger), and Bambuk (Senegal). While direct evidence of gold exploitation is unavailable due to the limited archaeological research in this zone, sites such as Diouboye in the land of Bambuk along the Falemé River in Senegal attest to local economies deeply invested in large-scale interregional trade.26 In addition to likely collecting locally available gold, Diouboye, with ceramic affinities to Malian sites, has diverse evidence for intensive hunting and processing of animal products (ivory, skins, leather) and received copper, cowrie shells, imported glass and carnelian beads. In addition to a focus on animals with valuable products, the site also contains pits for tanning and a lithic industry of expedient scrapers used for processing hides. While Diouboye was part of an agricultural society, in the late 1st and early 2nd millennium ce, there is also evidence for foraging populations inhabiting highland regions and perhaps supplying animal and other natural products into interregional economies. For example, at the site of Korounkorokalé in the highlands surrounding the upper Niger River west of Bamako, foragers may have exchanged wild products, receiving iron and perhaps other goods from farming communities.27 Similarly, foragers in the highlands of Liberia and Sierra Leone may have played a role in interregional economies into the early 2nd millennium ce.28

The empire of Mali would ultimately integrate areas even further west downstream along the Senegal and Gambian rivers. Prior to this, however, during the late 1st and early 2nd millennium ce, the Middle Senegal Valley was the setting for a contemporary polity of Ghana, known as Takrur. Mounded sites with very different ceramics from the Inland Niger Delta are known in this area during the 1st millennium ce, implying some degree of social anchoring associated with socio/spatial identities, but the presence of both dispersed mounded sites and more clustered settlements may indicate diverse social and historical processes.29 In the Middle Senegal Valley there are indications of inequalities in mortuary data from the late 1st millennium ce based upon unequal access to trade goods, including copper-based objects, glass beads, and other exotics. While current archaeological understandings of Takrur are limited, the presence of a polity in the Middle Senegal Valley may be indicated by a shift in influence at the site of Arondo, located upstream at the confluence of the Senegal and Falemé rivers where ceramic affinities shifted from similarities to the Inland Niger Delta between 400 and 700 ce to the Middle Senegal Valley, and it is at this point that they imported stone, copper, and ceramics.30 The 40,000 iron furnaces from the 11th to 14th centuries ce surveyed in the Middle Senegal Valley suggest that specialized economies grew in the early 2nd millennium ce.31

The Archaeology of Political Complexity in West Africa Through 1450 CEClick to view larger

Figure 3. Sine Ngayène, Senegal.

(Photo by S. Dueppen)

Complex archaeological sites predating and spanning the expansion of medieval states are also attested further south, where a remarkable landscape of at least 2,000 mortuary tumuli and megalithic stone circles is found in central Senegal and the Gambia, dating between the 8th and 14th centuries ce (Figure 3).32 While associated occupation sites are ephemeral, monumental burials may have socially anchored more mobile communities in territories. Monuments also likely indicate the importance of ancestors, whether individuals or corporate groups, as some were reopened and reused, while others were used for a single person or for group interments. Elaborate mortuary rituals are indicated by trade items (copper, stone beads) and valued local objects, including pots and iron objects, some of which had been ritually killed (bent weapons, holes in pots). Megalithic monuments may have been considered houses of the dead, as evidence from Wanar indicates that earthen mortar was placed between megaliths perhaps in the appearance of a house.33

Central and Southern Nigeria

A different cultural trajectory leading to large-scale urban formations is found in central and southern Nigeria, with roots in early farming homesteads in the mid-2nd-millennium bce Nok culture. Early Nok communities were millet farmers inhabiting widely distributed homesteads, likely indicating corporate groups (families) with dispersed agricultural territories.34 Due to the ephemeral nature of deposits, sites were occupied for a few decades at most, and in the 2nd millennium bce little differentiation is indicated between settlements.

From the start of the Iron Age c. 800 bce to the end of the 1st millennium bce, Nok homesteads are found in higher densities, although the degree of demographic growth is uncertain given the difficulties of establishing contemporaneity. Given current data, homesteads were likely self-sufficient economic units with independent agricultural territories, and compositional data for ceramic production suggests that pottery was produced locally.35 However, specialization may be evident in both iron production, as smelting and smithing debris are not ubiquitous, and in artistic production traditions such as the celebrated Nok terracotta figurines, as compositional data on the clays used indicate that they were made with clay from one area.36 To date, little is known of broader organizational features, although there is no evidence for the development of inequality. Rather, Nok sites share a regional spatial organization (dispersion) and site location choices, ceramic styles and decoration, and the widely distributed use of terracotta figurines. The latter may also indicate the materialization of ancestral beliefs, perhaps connected with increasing lineal descent and ownership systems. Figurines are thought to have been associated with mortuary rituals, although this is unproven due to the poor preservation of bone in Nok sites.37 By the end of the 1st millennium bce, Nok culture sites disappeared and were replaced by a lower-density occupation of the area by farmers with a very different pottery style.

In the mid-1st millennium ce along the forest and forest/savanna margin, the construction of earthworks may indicate the creation of multi-household settlements (e.g., villages) with a formalized socio/spatial layout.38 While little is known of the nature of these divisions given only limited research, they indicate large amounts of labor, and by the late 1st millennium ce even larger communities divided by earthworks appeared, followed in the early 2nd millennium by cities. For example, inhabitants of Ile-Ife, known from oral histories as the origin site of Yoruba kingship, constructed an inner earthwork (7 km) delineating a palace district and an outer (15 km) earthwork surrounding an exterior area, and roads were paved with potsherds arranged in decorative patterns. In addition to the spatial syntax, extensive evidence for social differentiation is found at Ile-Ife, with elite residences and shrines decorated with extensive potsherd pavements and in some cases ceramic wall mosaics. The complex and elaborately decorated city likely indicates the presence of specialized artisans, as does the local production of bronze, iron, brass, and glass beads, some of which were interred in the funerary deposits of powerful elites.39 Bronze-working traditions invoke deeply rooted stylistic elements from Nok with complex technologies and artistic ability and in some cases likely represent individuals. The extensive evidence for glass working/glass making at Ile-Ife suggests a large-scale industry, and products from Nigeria were likely distributed throughout West Africa.40 Both archaeological and oral historical data indicate that Ile-Ife had centralized power structures, with class stratification, prestige goods production, and intensive use of labor for earthwork and other specialized tasks. By the 13th century, southwestern Nigeria was a landscape of competing city-states, including Benin City with its 11.6-km-long earthwork system with an average height of 17.4 meters.41 Some of these cities, like Oyo Ile, would later become the center of empires.42

While lacking earthwork construction, similarly hierarchical political organization may have been also found in late 1st millennium ce in southwestern Nigeria, where the famous burial at Igbo-Ukwu indicates specialized craft production, long-distance trade, and centralized power.43 The individual was buried in a seated position with copper objects, cast bronze, elephant tusks, and over 100,000 imported trade beads. The subsistence base underlying the large population growth in southern Nigeria from the mid 1st millennium ce is poorly understood, but it is likely that societies practiced intensive yam production along with arboriculture and millet agriculture where possible.

Central West Africa

Compared to neighboring regions, central West Africa to the interior of the Niger Bend (Voltaic Region) exhibits a more complex road to agricultural adoption and varying acceptance of institutional inequalities, resulting in extremely diverse models for political complexity. For example, the first evidence for the use of domestic resources in the region dates to the 2nd-millennium bce Kintampo complex centered in modern Ghana, but likely extending into neighboring countries.44 The Kintampo typifies the complex social negotiations related to agricultural adoption in the region, where domesticates may have been adopted and rejected multiple times or incorporated at a low-level into mobile foraging economies over several millennia. Kintampo sites vary widely in evidence for sedentism and the degree to which domesticates (both millet and livestock) were incorporated. Ranging from rock shelters to open-air sites, some sites exhibit experiments in architecture (wattle and daub), and the increasing depth of some sites may indicate locally intensified economies, whereas others may have been short-term activity areas or occupations. While regional identities may be marked by shared ceramic styles, lithic traditions, and iconic artifacts (e.g., terracotta cigars), social differentiation and the subdivision of society into corporate groups are more ambiguous and may have varied significantly throughout the region. By the late 2nd and early 1st millennium bce, sites became rare and may indicate a return to more mobile foraging economies with the changing climate. However, in some locations along rivers in Burkina Faso and Ghana that were favorable to farming in the mid- to late 1st millennium bce, there is increasing evidence for iron production, sedentary farming communities, and complex social organizational features in sites with ceramic affinities to the late Kintampo period (e.g., Kirikongo, Daboya).45

Recognition of corporate groups marking differentiation by family or kin group became more common after iron use, in particular with an increase in mortuary data. For example, rock shelters with clay structures containing burials likely indicating ancestral recognition are present in the Bandiagara cliffs of Mali in the latter centuries bce,46 and possible mortuary sites in Komaland in northern Ghana indicate rituals involving terracotta figurines with libation in the mid- to late 1st millennium ce.47 Complex mortuary practices associated with early iron-working are also found in Togo.48 Data from Kirikongo (c. 100–1700 ce) in the Mouhoun Bend of western Burkina Faso suggest that early sedentary communities may have been oriented around family/kin corporate groupings, with data indicating a social landscape of dispersed homesteads (Figure 4).49 For example, the site began as a single homestead settled c. 100 ce. It was economically generalized, with evidence for farming (with garden hunting), herding, poultry production, shea butter production, potting, and iron metallurgy. Around 450 ce, a second identical homestead was founded to the north, followed by a third shortly thereafter. At this point Kirikongo’s houses started to become differentiated, with iron-working increasingly controlled by the founding house, and a cemetery monument constructed for their dead while those from other houses were buried under house floors. Around 700 ce, differentiation and centralization increased in the archaeological record of the site, as new houses clustered around Mound 4, and the founding house controlled specialized and ritually potent iron production and cattle wealth. By early Red II c. 1100 ce, a ritual structure was constructed at the founding house, and the burials in the cemetery monument became quite elaborate including cowrie shells. Differentiation in house identities is also indicated by divergent pottery styles between houses over time.50

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Figure 4. Red II Compound at Mound 1, Kirikongo, Burkina Faso.

(Photo by S. Dueppen)

In a growing community during the 12th century ce (mid-Red II), the nature of complexity transformed from differentiation/centralization (hierarchy) to decentralization and increasing differentiation (heterarchy), as previous indicators of centralization were removed (e.g., the cemetery was closed, cattle ceased to be kept, iron-working was removed to an exterior mound along with newly specialized pottery production), and new collective activities/spatial syntax emerged (interdependent economy, collective hunting, symbolic warfare, and a shift to more open architectural units), reflecting a new communal identity beyond that rooted in the founding house.51 Kirikongo thus contains a diverse array of evidence regarding social differentiation (complexity) over time ranging from the very nature of social anchoring with mound formation, recognition of ancestors, lineal descent, and ownership systems (including livestock), emergence of craft specialization (pottery and metallurgy), and control over ritual practices. Here, society became more complex as it became decentralized. In addition, at Kirikongo in comparison with neighboring regions, evidence for long-distance trade is limited to cowrie shells that could have been obtained through down-the-line processes, with political power derived from local divine sources. Interestingly, if Kirikongo is representative, diverse pathways to horizontal complexity may be indicated in the ethnohistoric record of western Burkina Faso and neighboring parts of Mali, Ivory Coast, and Ghana, where different societies have found novel ways to distribute power and avoid intergenerational transfers in wealth (e.g., hereditary occupation groups, dual-descent, mobility, communalistic religions).52 Kirikongo was located in a densely inhabited landscape of mound clusters in the greater Mouhoun Bend region during the 1st and 2nd millennia ce.53

To the northwest, between the Voltaic Region and the Inland Niger Delta, the Bandiagara cliffs and adjacent Seno and Gondo plains were inhabited by multiple small communities over the 1st and early 2nd millennia ce. In addition to creating the complex mortuary sites mentioned above, these communities maintained trade connections to societies throughout the greater region and developed extensive iron-working traditions.54 Less is known about processes to the south of the Mouhoun Bend area, but recent research at the stone-built sites of Loropeni in southwest Burkina Faso may indicate that complex societies developed near the Mouhoun gold sources by the early 2nd millennium ce.55

According to oral histories, ancient states occupied the central and eastern parts of Burkina Faso and northern Ghana starting in the early to mid-2nd millennium ce.56 In general, few archaeological projects have focused on this zone, although recent research indicates large scale iron-working north of Ouagadougou in the early 2nd millennium ce.57 In the Mossi state of Yatenga in northern Burkina Faso, scholars have identified an extensive landscape of archaeological mounds, suggesting dense occupation of this zone in the early 2nd millennium ce.58 Oral histories indicate that the creation of Mossi states in Burkina Faso occurred as a noble class originating in part from northern Ghana arrived and asserted control over local populations; however, current archaeological evidence is limited.59

Intensive archaeological research in and around the Gobnangou escarpment in southeastern Burkina Faso has yielded insights into the precolonial Gulmance state.60 In this area, agricultural economies were not adopted until the second half of the 1st millennium ce, with the development of a few scattered mounded sites of iron-using agriculturalists.61 In the early 2nd millennium ce, the settlement pattern shifted to a dense distribution of dispersed household compounds, with plentiful evidence for larger-scale iron production and complex and high-quality patterns of ceramic production, perhaps indicating some degree of specialization.62 Although establishing contemporaneity between these ephemeral habitations is difficult, they strongly resemble the regional spatial patterns historically associated with the Gulmance state, where households moved every few decades with communities more extensively distributed rather than inhabiting clustered settlements.

As indicated in the Upper Niger and Senegal River systems and the late adoption of agriculture in the Gobnangou, highland locations in the 1st millennium ce throughout West Africa may have been occupied by foragers who likely played a role in interregional economies. Similarly late agricultural adoptions are found all along the sedimentary highlands that continue from northern Benin to Gambaga in northern Ghana.63 In fact, the complex road to agricultural adoption in these areas may have, like events at Kirikongo, been related to the ambivalence to the inequalities and ownership systems inherent in food-production systems, resulting in over two and a half millennia of avoidance.

Eastern Niger Bend (Trade and Early Islamic Connections)

With increasing aridity in the Sahara, herders with early domestic millet settled in the Tilemsi Valley of the eastern Niger Bend starting in the 3rd millennium bce.64 Likely through interactions with local populations, millet agriculture had spread throughout this area by the 1st millennium bce.65 The presence of the Tilemsi Valley corridor likely influenced historical developments in this region, as commercial entanglements may have played a relatively larger role earlier in the development of political complexity in the eastern Niger Bend. Here, archaeological data indicate more intensive interregional connections in the 1st millennium ce, perhaps reflecting early trans-Saharan trade routes. Social differentiation marked by unequal access to valued goods, including long-distance trade items, is indicated in early village communities settled around the seasonal ponds at Kissi, Oursi, and Saouga in northern Burkina Faso starting in the early 1st millennium ce.66 Iron production began in the last few centuries bce in this area, where villages grew over the course of the 1st and early 2nd millennium ce. Residents inhabited dispersed house-compounds, grew millet and kept livestock, and buried their dead in cemeteries. At the Kissi cemetery, individuals were interred with locally produced iron weapons and jewelry, clay beads, imported copper, woolen textiles, glass beads, and even chain mail. The nearby late 1st-millennium ce cemetery of Bura in Niger, located near an important gold source (Sirba), contained elaborate terracotta figurines, ceramics, and trade items.67 Some specialization in iron is also found in the region, as iron production near Markoye in northern Burkina Faso grew significantly toward the end of the 1st millennium ce.68

These early connections and diversified local economies may have resulted in the eastern Niger Bend developing into a crossroads region and ultimately led to the rise of the city of Gao in the 8th century ce. Gao was known as the Kingdom of Kawkaw in medieval Arabic texts, and the archaeological city is divided into two areas several kilometers apart: Gao Saney (market center with both trade and artisanal industries) and Gao Ancien (political center) between the 8th and 10th centuries ce.69 Compared to excavations in many areas of West Africa during the medieval period, the evidence for trade at Gao is extensive and varied, with thousands of stone and glass beads, copper-based objects, copper currency, and the celebrated cache of hippopotamus ivory potentially being prepared for transport. Gao Ancien also had an elite structure (possibly a palace) constructed of stones imported from 140 km to the south in addition to fired-brick architecture.70 By the 2nd millennium ce, data indicate an Islamic-styled cemetery with tombs constructed of stone and fired brick and carved epitaphs in Arabic script (similar to that used by the Almoravids).71 Connections between Gao and the Islamic world may have occurred through the Saharan town of Essouk on the route from Gao to Libya, occupied from the mid-8th to the 15th centuries ce.72 Excavations have identified stone architecture, gold molds, and diverse trade items as well as tombs with Arabic script epitaphs 40 years prior to those from Gao. Data from glass beads found in both the eastern Niger Bend down to southern Nigerian sites may indicate an extensive trade axis along the Niger River during the medieval era. Research at Birnin Lafiya in northern Benin, located near the Niger River between Gao and the Nigerian cities, indicates evidence of interregional interactions including commerce and shared cultural practices, including the construction of potsherd pavements.73

Gao may have been perfectly situated at the center of a regional trade system, with iron and grain from northern Burkina Faso, gold from Niger, animal products from throughout the region, exchanged for salt and manufactured goods. Islam likely played a role in developing these commercial networks, with good evidence that at least elites had converted to Islam in the late 1st and early 2nd millennia ce, but within the broader region societies may have maintained local religious traditions, as the use of terracotta figurines in Niger and lack of evidence for Islam in northern Burkina Faso attest.


Social Divisions and Specializations (Differentiation)

A fundamental component of increasing political complexity is the creation of new, more formalized forms of group membership (organizational building blocks), ranging from families to social classes. While in some parts of the world larger-scale sedentary foraging communities developed without agriculture, complex societies in West Africa are correlated with the adoption of agricultural economies, with pre-existing and continuing foraging populations in West Africa generally occupying small sites indicating mobile settlement systems. In the archaeological examples above, evidence for and characterization of the nature of social groups includes markers of territoriality, spatial organization in sites, presence of cemeteries, architectural forms, mound-formation processes, stylistic variables, economic practices, and artistic representations. Regional trends over time vary significantly, with implications for greater political organizational developments.

At Tichitt, sites are divided up into household compounds of varying size with internal storage, although there is no evidence of economic specialization. Here, the durable settlement organization in stone may be drawing from a longer history of corporate ownership rooted in mid-Holocene Saharan herding practices. The clustered mounds of urban systems, like those around Jenne-jeno, also indicate spatially defined social entities, although evidence for functional differentiation between them remains uncertain. In the eastern Niger Bend, sites such as Oursi or Kissi are composed of dispersed, economically undifferentiated households spread over large spaces, while the city of Gao split between two locations: one with evidence for political operations, while the other may have been a market area. In Nigeria, discrete households appear very early during the Nok culture, and a focus on divisions in the built environment is marked much later at sites like Ile-Ife by the construction of earthworks (requiring intensive labor investments) dividing settlements, including elite areas. In central West Africa there are likely diverse forms of social groups represented in the archaeological record, ranging from small households distributed in space (Voltaic states) to clusters of discrete mounds such as those found at Kirikongo. Given the large spatial extent of mounds and the diverse generalized economic tasks performed, mounds at Kirikongo may represent larger spatio-economic groups ethnohistorically known in the region as “houses,” which combine multiple families in an economic unit.

Evidence that social groups were anchored in time and space is evident through the construction of durable mortuary features throughout West Africa; these also became more common after agricultural adoptions. The nature of mortuary traditions varies widely, from the use of ritual caves in Bandiagara to the cemetery at Kissi with many trade goods, the elite burial at El-Ouladji, the megalithic circles of Senegal (both for individuals and groups), and burial under house floors along with an elite cemetery at Kirikongo. Artifacts representing humans may also indicate ancestral beliefs, including the Nok figurines, which may have been associated with human burials, the Koma terracottas of northern Ghana that received libations, and terracottas in the cemetery at Bura, Niger. Representations are not limited to smaller-scale societies, as Jenne-jeno’s iconic terracottas or the bronze works of Nigerian cities attest. It is likely that similar practices are found in other locations as well but, like many ethnographic cases, may have been produced in less durable wood.

Economic specializations developed that may have characterized social groups over time, particularly after the adoption/invention of iron-working. For example, in central Nigeria, iron-working as well as terracotta figurine production may have been specialized to some degree in the 1st millennium bce, and subsequent developments in southern Nigeria speak to artistic specializations ranging from architectural elements to bronze-working and glass bead production. In central West Africa, at Kirikongo there is evidence for a transformation from generalized to specialized houses, including first the co-option of iron-working by the village’s founding-house, and then later the combination of specialized iron-working with specialized potting on an exterior mound, resembling the blacksmith/potter endogamous groups of the ethnohistoric record.

Trading specialists may have integrated different economic specializations by communities or populations within broader regions. For example, the eastern Niger Bend may have had areas devoted to farming (Kissi, Oursi), iron production (Markoye), and gold exploitation (Bura), and cities like Gao may have been specialized marketplaces within the wider region. Similar regional differentiations could have taken place around Jenne-jeno in the Inland Niger Delta, as trade for iron ore and stone were required from the founding of the site. Some fundamental transformations in iron production at Jenne-jeno in the late 1st millennium ce may indicate changing economic specializations. Some communities may have been established to specialize in commodity production and exchange for regional economies. For example, at Diouboye, in addition to the site location in a gold-producing region (Bambuk), the extensive evidence for procurement and production of animal commodities suggests intensified production far beyond local needs. Foraging populations in some highland areas were also likely integrated into regional economies until the early 2nd millennium ce. It is currently unknown when the ethnicity-based specializations (herders, fishers, etc.) of the ethnohistoric record developed.

Based upon ethnohistoric data, the divine associations of economic specializations may have also played a role in ritual/political power, as the founder of the empire of Mali, Sunjata, drew on divine power associated with hunting to defeat a blacksmith king who possessed the occult power of metallurgy. The co-option and specialization of iron-working by the founding house of Kirikongo likely involved restriction of technological knowledge and perhaps ritualized power.

Political Process (Organizational Modes)

To understand the political organization of societies in the region, one must examine how social groups were integrated within a greater system through both vertical (hierarchical) and horizontal mechanisms. Evidence for largely undifferentiated households during early periods (e.g., Nok, Early Kirikongo) or simple differences in size but not function (Tichitt) suggest limitations on centralization in political strategies. In Nigeria by the late 1st into the early 2nd millennium ce, combined evidence for the spatial segregation of leaders and elites, artistic specializations (including representations of individuals), and large labor works (earthworks) may indicate the presence of power centered in certain individuals or families, similar to what is known in the ethnohistoric record. However, the extensive spatial structure of cities may imply some degree of lower-level control and autonomy by resident groups. To the north in the eastern Niger Bend, the cemetery at Kissi with evidence for variable access to local and external prestige goods may indicate the emergence of inequalities, but the degree to which these were achieved or ascribed is unknown. However, by the late 1st millennium ce, elites in the city of Gao inhabited residences composed of imported materials and architectural techniques drawn from the Mediterranean and by the early 2nd millennium ce were constructing Islamic monuments in the cemetery. Here, Islamic leaders may have drawn political power from successfully negotiating interregional trade and religious connections.

The dispersed spatial arrangements of the urban clusters that developed in the Inland Niger Delta over the course of the 1st millennium ce may indicate pulls against centralization and/or the presence of social and economic specializations. The lack of evidence for elites at Jenne-jeno and other Inland Niger Delta sites matches poorly with oral historical evidence for the ancient states of Ghana and Mali, but the elaborate burial at El-Ouladji may indicate that archaeologists have yet to discover where political leadership was based and/or that these states did not have fixed capitals. From both archaeology and oral histories, by the later centuries of Ghana and during the Malian empire, long-distance trade may have played an increasingly important role in political legitimization.

In the Voltaic region, avoidance of inequality may have influenced a prolonged trajectory leading to agricultural adoptions and later shaped the nature of complex societies. At Kirikongo, early sedentary farming houses may have had generalized economies including iron production, but hierarchy and centralization emerged starting in the mid-1st millennium ce based upon a combination of economic and ritual power (iron production, cattle wealth, differential mortuary treatment, and anteriority). The subsequent decentralization of the political system through the removal of political control from the founding house created a horizontally interdependent community with craft specialists and farmers, with cross-cutting activities (e.g., collective hunting). In comparison with sites elsewhere in West Africa, the only trade items recovered were a few cowrie shells, and Kirikongo’s political history is an important example of how localized sources and symbols of power played a role in the development of complexity. Ethnohistoric accounts of Voltaic states also indicate political legitimization from divine sources, with little evidence for systematic long-distance trade until the late precolonial period.

There is great diversity in the relationships between urban origins, state-formation processes, and the development and importance of interregional trading systems throughout West Africa. For example, while cities in the Inland Niger Delta and Nigerian forest regions ultimately participated significantly in trade and may have become important marketplaces, their origins predate the late medieval expansion in interregional trade, and political legitimacy was likely based in other sources of power. In contrast, extensive evidence for early long-distance trade in the eastern Niger Bend (e.g., Kissi) significantly predates the development of urbanism at Gao Saney and may have played a role in urban origins. Ancient states did not necessarily contain cities in West Africa, as many early Voltaic states lacked urban centers, and whether the early cities of the Inland Niger Delta can be categorized as city-states and/or their relation to larger political entities (e.g., Ghana or Mali) is currently unknown.

Political Complexity in West Africa

Pathways to political complexity were varied and dynamic throughout West Africa, representing choices drawn from regional historical processes and local political dialogues. Some areas saw the development of politically centralized cities that mobilized large amounts of labor in monumental architecture, had highly specialized economies, and may have been highly stratified, while other regions exhibit long-term trajectories of avoiding or rejecting inequalities and developed more horizontally organized forms of complexity, with interdependent economies articulated within heterarchical organization. While large-scale states and empires such as Ghana and Mali may be indicated in the archaeological record due to shared material culture, urban practices, ideologies, and interregional commercial networks, less is known about administration, capitals, or organization, and it is possible that these polities, despite having ritually sanctified leaders, were more decentralized, with established controls aiming to manage networks and interactions between agents rather than centrally administer or use force and the degree of inequality within the system less extensive than class-based systems elsewhere in the world. That states could manage political systems and interregional economies without urban centers is also indicated in the Mossi and Gulmance states of the Voltaic Region. Perhaps different models were employed at Gao, where administration may have been facilitated through the use of currency and a clearly spatialized power and class structure rooted in Islam. However, with notable exceptions, in many areas of West Africa, political systems appear to be less pyramidal during the medieval period.

Many gaps are apparent in surveying political complexity in West Africa. In particular, increased attention is needed to understanding the localized forms of legitimization that are foundational to trajectories of complexity. While long-distance trade clearly became an important component of many political economies, oral histories and the timing of the expansion of trading toward the end of the 1st millennium indicate that greater attention must be made to how leaders, communities, urban environments, and complex horizontal societies developed based upon local sources of power and wealth. Large-scale events that resulted from West Africa’s interconnectivity with the rest of the world also deserve increased attention, such as the growing possibility of significant plague events in the 14th and 15th centuries as suggested by multiple scholars working in central West Africa.74 However, with the current evidence, West African data call into question many of the assumptions of general models of complexity worldwide.

Discussion of the Literature

The study of political complexity in West Africa is rooted in historical debates in both socio-cultural anthropology and anthropological archaeology. Comparative political systems were of interest in anthropological research in Africa during the early to mid-20th century, in part drawn from colonial administrative processes. During this era, anthropological research was predominantly interested in understanding political systems from a synchronic structural-functional framework, with the history of the described systems of lesser interest resulting in a fairly static view of the African past.75 A major distinction in these analyses was identified between state and non-state (acephalous) societies, with the latter often discussed as organized through complex systems of segmentation of kin groups. By the end of the colonial era in the mid-20th century, scholars had described a wide diversity of political systems, suggesting that very few systems, whether the aforementioned states or non-states, were characterized by despotic political arrangements. Rather, Fortes and Evans-Pritchard suggested that in many states there were checks on centralized power, or that power was more widely distributed, even if the royal office was of great societal and symbolic importance.76 Similarly, the administrative apparatus could likewise be less centralized.

With a return to evolutionary analyses in anthropology in the mid-20th century, scholars drew from 19th-century unilineal evolutionary sequences in ranking levels of hierarchy as complexity with an assumption of centralization as the integrative mechanism.77 Ethnographic models shifted away from the African examples that poorly fit this framework to examples that tended to be more pyramidal in organization, particularly inspired by examples from the Pacific Islands.78 Archaeologists joined socio-cultural anthropologists and became more actively engaging in political evolutionary research during this era, with a focus on primary state formation, which consequently involved examining prestate political formations.79 Given the complex non-centralized nature of African ethnographic examples, and that their descriptions drew from an ahistorical theoretical framework within colonial concepts of a static African past, archaeologists largely ignored African ethnographic models and little archaeological research was carried out in the region. Moreover, understandings were framed in a presumption that complex societies in the region developed secondarily due to external stimulus from the trans-Saharan trade.80

African ethnography in the post-colonial context moved even further from evolutionary analyses, with a focus on practice, deconstructions of simplistic assumptions inherent in segmentation and descent theories, and theorized reanalyzes of synchronic colonial studies with recognition of historical dynamics.81 Inspired by the post-colonial context, archaeologists became increasingly interested in learning about the dynamism of the West African past, and during the 1970s to 1990s a series of archaeological projects focused on outlining chronologies, basic material culture and economic sequences, and the development of complexity.82 These projects established the long history of agricultural communities in the region and that politically complex societies predated the trans-Saharan trade, but also that ancient West African societies, similar to regional ethnographic examples, didn’t always easily conform to simplistic models of centralized hierarchies. For example, Jenne-jeno lacked clear evidence for elites, and the city lacked many of the traits thought to characterize cities elsewhere.83

In the past two decades, unilineal approaches have fallen out of favor in archaeological frameworks for understanding politics, as scholarship has increasingly acknowledged that centralization is not necessarily correlated with complexity, as dispersions of power, heterarchical political systems, and checks on power and authority are common worldwide.84 The focus on legitimacy, power, and authority has been a productive avenue in West African archaeology, allowing scholars to understand the dynamics of political action more effectively and how these materialize in the archaeological record. Recent analyses have focused on the diversity of forms of complexity in the region, ranging from characterizing African urbanism, states without cities, complex horizontally organized communities in more rural regions, and interregional networks tying different economic lifeways.85

Primary Sources

Sources for political complexity in West Africa through 1450 ce include written accounts (text), oral histories, and archaeological data. For the majority of West Africa, oral historical and archaeological data—and in more limited regions highly contextualized readings of text—are often integrated into research projects providing productive historical dialogues from the perspectives of these data sources.

For the medieval era examined in this article, the textual record is primarily comprised of the accounts of Arabic-speaking travelers to West Africa (both first- and secondhand), as well as rare local documents and grave epitaphs in Arabic script. The text record is extremely limited in scope geographically (largely focused on the extreme northern parts of West Africa), temporally (gaps of centuries between firsthand accounts), topically (primarily oriented around trans-Saharan trade centers and commerce, presence of Islam and comparison to non-Islamic practice, and descriptions of elites), and in terms of their reliability (reiteration of accounts from previous centuries in secondhand narratives as well as debated sources for, contexts of, and accuracy of accounts). Levtzion and Hopkins’s Corpus of Early Arabic Sources remains the standard reference in the field.86

Oral historical data have been increasingly utilized as a source on the past in West Africa. Scholars recognize the methodological complexities but value the broader geographic distribution of oral histories and the more localized perspectives on historical events and processes. Oral histories range from well-known regional epic poems such as Sunjata to examples such as oral histories of Loropeni that are situated in a particular location and analyzed in dialogue with the archaeological and colonial documentary record.87

Over the past few decades, archaeological research has expanded significantly throughout West Africa, including a substantial corpus of work in the savanna and forest regions and broadening of topic and types of site in northern regions. This has resulted in reinterpretations and contextualization of previous understandings—some derived from textual accounts—of political complexity in West Africa. Archaeological finds are typically curated in local, regional, and national museums and research institutes, although more rarely older collections may be housed in museums and universities in Europe and the United States. Archaeological reports are found in international journals and book series, national publications from research centers and universities, and undergraduate and graduate-level theses, a growing number of which are produced at universities in West Africa.

Further Reading

Amblard-Pison, Sylvie. Communautés villageoises néolithiques des Dhars Tichitt et Oualata (Mauritanie). Oxford: Archaeopress, 2006.Find this resource:

Anquandah, James, Benjamin Kankpeyeng, and Wazi Apoh, eds. Current Perspectives in the Archaeology of Ghana. Legon-Accra, Ghana: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2014.Find this resource:

Breunig, Peter, and Nicole Rupp. “An Outline of Recent Studies on the Nigerian Nok Culture.” Journal of African Archaeology 14, no. 3 (2016): 237–255, and other articles in same issue.Find this resource:

Cissé, Mamadou, Susan Keech McIntosh, Laure Dussubieux, Thomas Fenn, Daphne Gallagher, and Abigail Chipps Smith. “Excavations at Gao Saney: New Evidence for Settlement Growth, Trade, and Interaction on the Niger Bend in the First Millennium ce.” Journal of African Archaeology 11 (2013): 9–37.Find this resource:

Devisse, Jean, ed. Vallées du Niger. Paris: Reunion des Musees Nationaux, 1993.Find this resource:

Dueppen, Stephen. Egalitarian Revolution in the Savanna: The Origins of a West African Political System. Sheffield, UK: Equinox Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Gokee, Cameron. Assembling the Village in Medieval Bambuk: An Archaeology of Interaction at Diouboye, Senegal. Sheffield, UK: Equinox Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Insoll, Timothy. The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Kiéthéga, Jean-Baptiste. La Métallurgie Lourde du Fer au Burkina Faso: Une Technologie à l’Époque Précoloniale. Paris: Karthala, 2009.Find this resource:

Magnavita, Sonja, Lassina Koté, Peter Breunig, and Oumarou A. Idé, eds. Crossroads/Carrefour Sahel: Cultural and Technological Developments in First Millennium bc/ad, West Africa. Frankfurt: Africa Magna Verlag, 2009.Find this resource:

Mayor, Anne. Traditions Céramiques dans la Boucle du Niger: Ethnoarchéologie et Histoire du Peuplement au Temps des Empires Précoloniaux. Frankfurt: Africa Magna Verlag, 2011.Find this resource:

McIntosh, Roderick J. Ancient Middle Niger: Urbanism and the Self-Organizing Landscape. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

McIntosh, Roderick J., Susan Keech McIntosh, and Hamady Bocoum, eds. The Search for Takrur: Archaeological Excavations and Reconnaissance along the Middle Senegal Valley. New Haven, CT: Yale University Publications in Anthropology 93, 2016.Find this resource:

McIntosh, Susan, ed. Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Complexity in Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Mitchell, Peter, and Paul Lane, eds. The Oxford Handbook of African Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Ogundiran, Akinwumi, ed. Precolonial Nigeria: Essays in Honor of Toyin Falola. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Ogundiran, Akinwumi. “Four Millennia Of Cultural History in Nigeria (c. 2000 bcad 1900): Archaeological Perspectives.” Journal of World Prehistory 19 (2005): 133–168.Find this resource:

Somé, Magloire, and Lassina Simporé. Lieux de mémoire, patrimoine et histoire en Afrique de l’Ouest: Aux origines des ruines de Loropéni, Burkina Faso. Paris: Éditions des Archives Contemporaines, 2014.Find this resource:

Togola, Téréba. Archaeological Investigations of Iron Age Sites in the Mema Region, Mali (West Africa). Oxford: Archaeopress, 2008.Find this resource:

Watson, Derek J. “Within Savanna and Forest: A Review of the Late Stone Age Kintampo Tradition, Ghana.” Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 45 (2010): 141–174.Find this resource:


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(83.) McIntosh and McIntosh, “Cities Without Citadels.”

(84.) Blanton, “Beyond Centralization”; Blanton and Fargher, Collective Action; Carballo et al., “Cooperation and Collective Action”; Dueppen, Egalitarian Revolution; Jennings, Killing Civilization; McIntosh, “Pathways to Complexity”; and Monroe, “Power and Agency.”

(85.) Agbaje-Williams, “Yoruba Urbanism”; Dueppen, Egalitarian Revolution; Gokee, Assembling the Village; Halpougdou et al., Royaume de Boussouma; MacDonald, “Complex Societies”; McIntosh, Ancient Middle Niger; McIntosh, “Modeling Political Organization”; Monroe, “Power and Agency”; and Ogundiran, “Towns and States.”

(86.) Levtzion and Hopkins, Early Arabic Sources.

(87.) Conrad and Condé, Sunjata; and Somé and Simporé, Lieux de Memoire.