Environmental Narratives and the History of Soil Erosion in Kondoa District, Tanzania: An Archaeological Perspective*

Article excerpt

Introduction

Archaeologists have often argued that two of the greatest strengths of their discipline are its temporal depth and its interdisciplinary nature. Historians of Africa have also endorsed this, most notably perhaps Jan Vansina, in his review of archaeology's relationship with history with particular reference to the African continent.1 Other historians have made similar observations, if not quite so overtly as Vansina.2 One theme to which these dual strengths of archaeology have much to contribute is the debate over "environmental" or "crisis" narratives. These are the "stories" or "scenarios" that political leaders, planners, development specialists, conservationists, and researchers produce so as to simplify issues in ways that encourage action. These in turn become received wisdom about the causes of a particular problem (such as land degradation) and how the problem can be rectified.3 Once established, these narratives tend to be very persistent and become entrenched in current thinking, even in the face of evidence that directly contradicts the main premises of the narrative.4 Over the last few decades, historians, geographers, and anthropologists have been at the forefront of developing scholarly critiques of such narratives, especially with reference to African settings.5

By contrast, it is only recently that archaeologists working on the African continent have sought to exploit the strengths of their discipline so as to contribute to such debates, and especially those pertaining to the sustainability of different farming, herding, and other land use practices. This is despite the frequent calls from archaeologists for "usable African pasts" that, to cite the Nigerian archaeologist Bassey Andah, "fight "cultural poverty" and negotiate justice at both national and international levels."6 Interestingly, many, but by no means all, of the calls to make archaeological knowledge production more relevant to addressing contemporary challenges have come from African scholars. This is, perhaps, because they are pressed more frequently than their Western counterparts to produce useable pasts.7 Thus, for example, commenting on the current scope and scale of rainforest deforestation in West Africa and the environmental challenges this poses for African governments, Adebesi Sowunmi has argued that archaeologists must become cognizant of the problems and "active in nongovernmental environmental action groups working for the conservation of tropical forests." Additionally, she believes archaeologists should contribute to the "formulation and implementation of new paradigms and policies for ecologically sustainable economic development," and initiate "multidisciplinary and applied research into the archaeology and palaeoecology, as well as history and sociology, of human interaction within the tropical rain forests" (original emphasis).8

Moreover, as Francis Musonda has observed, the need to produce knowledge that has the potential to offer social and economic benefits to a broader constituency than that of academia does not come simply from the personal aspirations of individual archaeologists (important though these may be):

"The expectation of an African government is that a citizen who has acquired training in a discipline such as archaeology should be sufficiently well equipped to offer practical solutions to pressing economic, cultural, social and political problems."9

In the remainder of this paper I outline the results of an ongoing project conducted in East Africa that was specifically designed to fill some of the knowledge gaps concerning the causes, origins, and chronology of soil erosion in the Haubi Basin in Kondoa District, central Tanzania and so provide a more robust knowledge base from which future land use policy and soil conservation measures might be developed. A particular concern of the broader research of which the archaeological work was a part, was to review the evidential basis for previous assessments of the causes of soil erosion in this area and the date of its initiation. …