Prehistoric Timbuktu and Its Hinterland

Article excerpt



Timbuktu and its associated region are located in the nation of Mali in a transitional zone between the southern Sahara Desert and the Sahel, which is a long and narrow semiarid grassland or steppe that stretches across the entire continent (Grove 1978; Tucker & Nicholson 1999: 587). Timbuktu can also be viewed as lying on the southern edge of the Azawad basin (Figure 1). Although now dry and desolate, the Azawad can be inundated during periods of great precipitation with river water that travels more than 150km north through a network of wadis, aquifer-charged lakes, seasonal playas and marshes (Webb 1995; R. McIntosh 1998: 34-48).

During the colonial period, archaeological research in the Azawad was conducted by the French, mainly in areas around military posts or wells along the salt caravan, a strategy influenced by the harsh climate of the region, as well as by unfriendly relations with the Tuareg. Numerous Late Stone Age (LSA) sites were discovered along the banks of now desiccated waterbodies and palaeochannels, with finds such as stone tools, human and animal remains, harpoons and ceramics (Monod & Mauny 1957: 242-7; Mauny & Poussibet 1962: 1-5; Guitat 1972: 896-925; Raimbault 1992: 85-7; see Vernet 1993: 63-73 and R. McIntosh 1998: 38-9).


While research has been inhibited for a number of decades, due to the Sahel Drought and the Tuareg resistance movement, a few post-colonial projects were conducted in the northern Azawad. In 1964 Alain Gallay and his team of specialists produced evidence of diverse, heterogeneous sites of different types clustered together near ancient waterbodies (Gallay 1966: 167-208; Gallay & Huysecom 1993: 357-64). Such research provides information about LSA occupations that may have relevance to the greater understanding of the later prehistoric occupations, both at Timbuktu and within the greater Middle Niger. Up in the far north of the Azawad basin are the remnants of the probable LSA precursor for the largescale, urban clusters of corporate groups of the prehistoric Middle Niger.

Until now most scholarly attention at Timbuktu itself has been focused on the important Islamic history of the city (Pefontan 1922; Mauny 1952; Herbert 1980; Saad 1983; Insoll 1998, 2002, 2004; Hunwick 1999), but equally significant is Timbuktu's prehistoric phase (c. 500-400 BC to c. AD 900-1000). Archaeological survey in 1984 provided the first evidence for prehistoric urbanism at Timbuktu (R. McIntosh & S. McIntosh 1984, 1985, 1993; S. McIntosh & R. McIntosh 1986). The new research of 2008 reported here was aimed at developing a ceramic chronology and establishing a context for the prehistoric settlements in the Timbuktu region. These settlements take the form of tells ranging in size from 10-40ha (or more) in area and 3-9m in height, each of them surrounded by dozens of smaller satellite sites.

Definitions: prehistory and urbanism

Historic Timbuktu is widely believed to have been founded by the Tuareg in the twelfth century AD, an event that changed the role of the region, placing it in a larger pan-African perspective. Prehistory at Timbuktu refers to the period before this, even if in other parts of West Africa, the prehistoric period is considered to end in the eighth century AD with the rise of the Ghana Empire and the influx of Islam from the north. The definition of urbanism in this paper goes beyond the simple equation of urban societies with the emergence of states, to a broader definition that allows different degrees and types of urbanism to various parts of the world at various times (S. McIntosh 1999; Cowgill 2004; R. McIntosh 2005a; Yoffee 2005; Heckenberger et al. 2008). Prehistoric urbanism is certainly expected to be a variable phenomenon in the great swath of the Middle Niger. While there may be a common spatial pattern in the form of clustered settlements situated around a large central tell, different degrees of social organisation are expected across space and time. …