The Emergence of Pottery in Africa during the Tenth Millennium Cal BC: New Evidence from Ounjougou (Mali)

By Huysecom, E.; Rasse, M. et al. | Antiquity, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Emergence of Pottery in Africa during the Tenth Millennium Cal BC: New Evidence from Ounjougou (Mali)


Huysecom, E., Rasse, M., Lespez, L., Neumann, K., Fahmy, A., Ballouche, A., Ozainne, S., Maggetti, M., Tribolo, Ch., Soriano, S., Antiquity


The emergence of pottery in Asia and Africa

Prehistoric populations in Japan, Siberia and China first began to produce ceramic wares between 15 000 and 10 000 cal BC, more than 5000 years earlier than in the Near East (Yasuda 2002:119-42; Kuzmin 2006). The emergence of pottery in East Asia is linked with the climatic amelioration at the Pleistocene-Holocene transition and coincides with the appearance of lithic industries marked by distinctive small bifacial arrowheads (Habu 2004: 26-36). This technological complex is usually regarded as an expression of the intensified exploitation of plant and animal resources, often including small-seeded grasses (Richerson et al. 2001).

In Africa, the earliest pottery has been found in the large mountain massifs of the Central Sahara, in the Eastern Sahara and the Nile Valley. About 30 [sup.14]C and luminescence dates have placed the emergence of ceramics in the Sahara and the Nile Valley between the end of the tenth and the beginning of the ninth millennium cal BC (Close 1995: 24-7; Roset 2000; Jesse 2003: 40-42; Haaland 2007: 171-5). This can be related to the sudden onset of a warmer and wetter climate in the Early Holocene that enabled the resettling of the Sahara after the hyperarid phase of the last glacial maximum, the 'Ogolien' (Nelson et al. 2002: 97-9). The origin of the earliest African pottery is controversial and has been much discussed, with three hypothetical scenarios proposed. The first theory places the emergence of ceramics in the Nile Valley, based principally on the early exploitation of aquatic resources and wild cereals in this region (Haaland 1992: 47). The second suggests an origin somewhere south of the Sahara (Close 1995: 23), but until recently the oldest finds of sub-Saharan ceramics were only dated to the eighth millennium cal BC, both at Lothagam in Kenya (Robbins 1974), and in the Ravin du Hibou at Ounjougou in Mali, for Phase 2 of its Holocene occupation sequence (Huysecom et al. 2004: 584). A third assumes that pottery was invented by relict populations who had survived in ecological refuge zones of the Sahara during the hyperarid Late Pleistocene (Jesse 2003: 43). Within the framework of the international research project 'Palaeoenvironment and Human Population of West Africa' (Huysecom 2002), we have discovered ceramic sherds at the site of Ravin de la Mouche at Ounjougou, associated with an original lithic industry and in stratified contexts dated from before the end of the tenth millennium cal BC. This discovery throws new light on the chronology of the emergence of ceramics in Africa and its environmental context.

The Early Holocene sequence at Ounjougou

The research programme at Ounjougou (14[degrees]20' N, 3[degrees]30' W) began in 1997 and since 2004 has developed in two parallel ravines, Ravin du Hibou and Ravin de la Mouche, where several ceramic sherds were discovered in layers that could be attributed to the initial phases of the Holocene (Figure 1). In our latest field season in September 2007, we established the definitive chronostratigraphic sequence for these two ravines and clarified the position of the pottery and the associated lithic assemblage. In general, the Holocene sedimentary sequence here is primarily composed of channel infilling due to a high-energy flow of water, strongly contrasting with the underlying Pleistocene silts and more recent Holocene silty formations (Rasse et al. 2006). It is now possible to divide the Early Holocene into five large chronostratigraphic units, identified from top to bottom as HA4 to HA0. The high precision chronological ranges in the titles of the next sections are based on Bayesian analysis results of [sup.14]C and OSL dates (see Technical Appendix).

The HA4 formation (6700-8100 cal BC)

The most recent formation, HA4, of fine-grained particle size and particularly well-developed in the Ravin du Hibou, has yielded artefacts from cultural Phase 2 of the Holocene occupation at Ounjougou, dated to the eighth millennium cal BC by five [sup.

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