Early Evidence for Chickens at Iron Age Kirikongo (C. AD 100-1450), Burkina Faso

Article excerpt



The prehistoric adoption of the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus) into societies throughout West Africa is still poorly known almost two decades after MacDonald (1992) described a method to distinguish the bones of chickens from African fowl (i.e. large galliforms such as francolins and guinea fowl). To date, archaeological evidence for the chicken is tare before the second millennium AD, with only a handful of sites indicating their presence during the late first millennium AD. However, both historical linguistics and widespread cultural practice (the deeply embedded nature of chickens in ritual systems) attest to a much longer presence of chickens in West Africa (e.g. MacDonald 1995a; Williamson 2000). In this paper I present new data flora the West African site of Kirikongo that addresses this chronological gap by demonstrating that chickens were a component part of the Iron Age economy of this community by at latest the sixth century AD, and probably as early as the second century AD. I go on to explore how the ritual and economic dimensions of the chicken played an important role in social transformations at Kirikongo over the course of the Iron Age.


Chickens in the Voltaic region

The Voltaic region (Figure 1) is the area drained by the Mouhoun (Black), Nazinon (Red), and Nakambe (White Volta) rivers, comprising most of modern Burkina Faso, northern Ghana and small parts of neighbouring countries (Delafosse 1912). Today, this area is home to diverse societies, the majority of whom are speakers of Gur languages, but also including a significant minority of Mande peoples. Politically, the eastern Voltaic region is largely inhabited by state-level societies, while the western is mostly occupied by small-scale societies with non-centralised political systems.

Throughout the Voltaic region an important component of social and political action (legitimisation) is historically derived from the ritual petitioning of the divinities (spirits, deities or ancestors) by a representative of a social group (e.g. Delafosse 1912; Tauxier 1912; Cremer 1927; Labouret 1931; Fortes 1945; Manessy 1960; Goody 1962; Capron 1973; Duval 1985; Saul 1991; Dacher 1997; Izard 2003; Kuba 2006; Insoll et al. 2009; Lentz 2009; see also Dueppen 2008, 2011). Although they vary with social setting, ritual-based hierarchies (ascribed and achieved) are common, and positions are held by leaders of families, multi-family houses, communities, kin-groups, age-sets, alliances, craft-specialist groups etc. These individuals are involved in scheduled and circumstantial maintenance of spiritual pacts that in turn legitimise and sanction social roles and institutions. To these are added a variety of ritual practices performed by individuals during activities that have spiritual potency (i.e. hunting, smelting etc.).

A critical feature of many rituals is the sacrifice of animals (both wild and domestic) to satiate the divinities with an animal's soul (e.g. Tauxier 1912; Cremer 1927; Labouret 1931; see discussions in Dueppen 2008). While dogs, sheep, goats and cattle (where present) are today sacrificed, the most frequently sacrificed animal is the chicken, an integral part of both minor and major petitions. Chickens are even categorised based upon colour, size and individual characteristics, and used for different purposes accordingly (e.g. Cremer 1927; Kondombo et al. 2003). Outside their role in sacrificial settings, chickens hold economic value and are frequently exchanged or given as gifts (Kondombo et al. 2003).

I argue that, given the number and diversity of sacrificial rituals in many Voltaic societies, the easy care and low cost of chickens has made them uniquely suited to the maintenance of dynamic spiritual lives in the region. In addition, while chickens are useful in all Voltaic social settings, they are particularly important in egalitarian or non-centralised political systems because, unlike livestock, long-term ownership of chickens does not lead to wealth inequalities. …