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Urbanization in the Middle Niger of Mali  

Roderick McIntosh

When the tell site of Jenne-jeno was brought to light in the vast floodplain of the southern Middle Niger of Mali, archaeologists had to question certain expectations about just what constitutes an ancient city. The city was certainly too early (3rd century bce rather than the expected late first millennium ce) and Jenne-jeno did not conform to the standard city form (a mosaic of satellites rather than the expected agglomeration). But it was the persistent lack of evidence of a centralized ruler, social strata of elites, and of the hierarchical decision-making mechanisms of the state that set this urban landscape so at odds with then prevalent urban theory. The seventy apparently contemporaneous hamlets and specialists’ occupation mounds surrounding Jenne-jeno form the Jenne-jeno Urban Complex. It is a classic example of African originality in evolving urban landscapes. In place of the top-down, often despotic state control as the organizing principle of the city, here there is a classic city without citadel—and thus heterarchy (authority and power relations arrayed horizontally) instead of a social and political hierarchy at the heart of the city can be posited. The search for the pre-Jenne-jeno antecedents has taken a newer generation of archaeologists to look at “pre-urban” landscapes in other, now-dry parts of the Middle Niger deep in the northern. Sahel and Sahara. Back to the second millennium bce, the single site can be found to be the exception; clustering had roots deep in time.