Early Horse Remains from Northern Cameroon

Article excerpt


It is widely recognized that horses played an important part in the development of societies of the Sudanic zone in West and Central Africa through the last millennium. Horse-borne cavalry constituted a crucial military force throughout these regions, with roles both in warfare and -- to the extent that it was set apart from warfare -- in slave raiding. It is arguably more important that horses and ponies in addition acted as potent markers of elite differentiation and status, much as in Europe during the medieval period. We know very little, however, about the origins of these statuses and of horses themselves in these regions. This note reports the discovery of some of the earliest directly dated horse/pony remains so far discovered in West/Central Africa, from Aissa Dugje in northern Cameroon, and examines some possible historical implications of this discovery.

Contexts of discovery

Investigators affiliated with the Projet Maya-Wandala recorded the habitation site of Aissa Dugje (PMW 642) in the course of archaeological survey in northern Cameroon in 1992, and excavation was undertaken on that site through two three-month field seasons in 1995 and 1996 (MacEachern 1993a; Bourges et al. 1999). The site is located in Sudanic wooded grassland, about 15 km from the northeastern extremity of the Mandara Mountains and, as is common in the region, at the foot of a small inselberg. The most noticeable features of the site are the approximately 30 artificial mounds, 1-8 m in height, which dominate the centre of its c. 18-hectare area and are probably the remains of successive phases of building and debris accumulation. Significant cultural deposits, 0.5-2 m in depth, were however found in various areas off these mounds as well. Radiocarbon sequences from excavations on three of the mounds indicate an occupation of the site between the middle of the 1st and the early/mid 2nd millennium AD (Bourges et al. 1999: 11), and quite a rapid accumulation of anthropic sediments at certain periods during that 600-900-year time-span.

Aissa Dugje is only one of a number of such mound sites located between Lake Chad and the Mandara Mountains and occupied during this period (FIGURE 1), although it is certainly one of the largest such settlements close to the Mandara massif itself. The artefacts recovered from the site are again generally comparable to materials recovered from neighbouring sites. Unexpected, however, was the detection of a series of skeletons identified as horses or ponies. These skeletons were recovered from excavations both on and off mounds at Aissa Dugje during the 1995 field season. No such remains were found during the 1996 excavations, which sampled some more peripheral areas of the site, nor has any similar skeletal material been located in the course of archaeological excavations around the northern Mandara massif since research began there in 1984. Skeletal material from equids is rare on West African archaeological sites generally, and the discovery of multiple horse/pony skeletons on this site is quite unusual.


The five skeletons recovered appear in different areas of the site and in rather different depositional contexts (TABLE 1, FIGURE 2). Two individuals (#1 and #2), including one juvenile (#1) (FIGURE 3), were recovered from mound excavations in the central mound area, and appear to have been either interred in shallow pits or placed semi-prone on the mound surface and eventually covered over by sediment. The loose matrix of these units and subsequent hoeing disturbance makes detection of shallow pits difficult. Baked clay figurine fragments, tentatively identified as horses, were located in the course of excavations on Mound 1, albeit not in close association to animal #1.Three other individuals (#3-#5), including one very old animal (#5), were recovered from two excavations away from the central mound area. …