Pride, Prejudice, Plunder and Preservation: Archaeology and the Re-Envisioning of Ethnogenesis on the Loango Coast of the Republic of Congo

Article excerpt

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Introduction

From a homeland in west and central Cameroon between 3000 and 4000 years ago (Vansina 1990; Ehret 1998), Bantu languages spread across most of central, eastern and southern Africa and by AD 300 covered a region roughly the size of North America. The first stages of the Bantu expansion likely followed river routes through the equatorial forests of central Africa, though little is yet known in detail about this. Other routes may have followed the coastline, bringing new technologies, languages and peoples southward from Gabon to northern Angola.

Archaeological investigations into the prehistory of this vast region, which includes the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Angola, are few and far between and many areas remain completely unknown from an archaeological standpoint (Eggert 1987; Wotzka 1993; Mercader et al. 2000; Clist 2005). The reasons are two-fold: first, a physical environment in which tropical disease is endemic with a terrain blanketed by tropical forest with little infrastructure such as roads or communication networks; and second, decades of political instability and civil war. Over the past 50 years, the difficult environmental conditions, combined with civil strife and warfare, have made conducting archaeological research in equatorial Africa not only logistically arduous but sometimes physically dangerous.

As a result, little is presently known about the social and cultural mechanisms that drove the expansion of Bantu peoples and languages across this vast region, or the diverse social and political forces that inspired the transformation from foraging to food-producing economies that took place over the last 3000 years. The reconnaissance and excavations discussed below present new data relevant to understanding the transformations in the economic, settlement and linguistic prehistory of the central African coast south of the equatorial forest. The cultural chronology presented covers most of the last 3000 years: the period when Bantu languages, sedentary communities, domesticated plants, pottery and metallurgy first appeared in this region. Data from over 200 surface locations, with excavations at 15 sites documented by 40 radiocarbon dates, are summarised. A more detailed presentation setting the data in a wider anthropological and historical context is forthcoming.

Context of research

The project began in 1987 with a chance find by geologists working for Conoco Oil Company who noticed potsherds and stone flakes eroding from a borrow pit near Tchissanga, 45km north of Pointe Noire in what was then the Republique Populaire du Congo, now the Republic of Congo or Congo-Brazzaville (Figure 1). Conoco was in the midst of a bidding competition for new oil leases and, thinking to capitalise on local interest, decided that an archaeological find might give them an edge over their competition. The ceramics recovered at Tchissanga are the earliest so far dated in the Republic of Congo. They are decorated with broadly grooved pendant arcades and rough cross-hatching: motifs and techniques similar to examples recovered between Libreville in Gabon and Ngovo in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Clist 1986, 2005; de Maret 1986; Denbow 1990). The Ngovo ceramics were associated with polished stone axes, tools sometimes used as markers of Neolithic or food-producing economies even though direct evidence for food production in the form of carbonised seeds, phytoliths or animal bones from domesticated species is rare (Mbida 2000). Initial radiocarbon dates placed Tchissanga at the beginning of the last millennium BC (Denbow 1990; Table 1, dates 3-6), a period when the Holocene forests along the Atlantic coast were changing to a more open forest and savannah mosaic similar to the present environment (Schwartz et al. 1996; Vincens et al. 1998; Delegue et al. 2001).

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After a promising beginning, the archaeological excavations at Tchissanga were cut short when the site was destroyed by eucalyptus planting in 1989. …