A Conversation with Dr. Anne Mayor


Dr. Anne Mayor is a Senior Lecturer in the Archaeology and Population in Africa Laboratory  of the Anthropology Unit within the Department of Genetics and Evolution at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. She is a member of the Human population and Palaeoenvironment in Africa project, an international initiative founded in 1997 that investigates the complex interactions between human populations and changing environmental conditions. Over her career, Dr. Mayor has worked extensively in Mali , most notably in the Inland Niger Delta and Dogon Country, publishing and editing a vast array of articles and books on topics ranging from West African roulette designs to human-environment interaction. More recently she and her team have moved to eastern Senegal, conducting research into deep history along the Falémé River.


TSU: Many of us are aware of your work in the Pays Dogon, but could you briefly describe any current or upcoming research projects you’re working on?

AM: I have worked for more than 20 years in archaeological and ethnoarchaeological research programs conducted by the University of Geneva in Mali, mainly in the centre of the country in the Inland Niger Delta and Dogon Country. There are still many scientific projects that would be of interest to undertake, but unfortunately, given the insecurity linked to Salafism, we had to leave this region to which we were so attached in 2011. We had created strong links with local communities, as part of the development aid projects and the management of cultural heritage alongside our scientific work (www.ounjougou.org, www.dimmbal.ch).

Since 2012, the team from the “Archaeology and Population in Africa” laboratory of the University of Geneva has worked in Eastern Senegal in the Falémé Valley, a tributary of the Senegal River that borders Mali for most of its length. On the banks of the Falémé we have found geomorphological conditions similar to those at the Ounjougou site complex in Mali: accumulations of fluvial and eolian sediments cut by erosion that has exposed evidence of human occupation from different periods from the Paleolithic to the present.

The international and multidisciplinary program “Human population and paleoenvironment in Africa – Falémé” is currently divided into two complementary components:

  1. The first component (co-direction E. Huysecom & C. Tribolo) aims to combine archaeological, paleoenvironmental and geochronological (OSL and C14) studies of a 100-km-long section of the Falémé Valley to establish a new chrono-cultural framework for the Final Pleistocene and Early Holocene in West Africa that will complement and be compared with that established at Ounjougou in Mali. This involves tracing climate and environmental change over at least the last 70,000 years and determining the potential impact on humans in terms of settlement history and technological and cultural change.
  2. The second component (co-direction E. Huysecom, A. Mayor & I. Hajdas) develops the topic of technological dynamics over the last 2000 years, related to settlement, the history of pre-colonial kingdoms and paleoenvironmental variability. These dynamics are addressed through several complementary themes: domestic and defensive architecture, ceramics, extractive iron metallurgy, the exploitation and working of gold and the study of glass beads. The combination of data obtained from archaeological excavations, the study of environmental proxies, archaeometric analyses and ethnoarchaeological reference collections should lead to more comprehensive understanding of the history of techniques and settlement in West Africa. One of the two excavations currently in progress takes place at Djoutoubaya, a large village on the right bank of the Falémé occupied during the 12th and 13th centuries at the transition between the ancient kingdoms of Ghana, Sosso and Mali. Evidence of local gold working, an activity essential for the rise of regional state formations but never documented south of the Sahara for these periods, could be studied here.

Six doctoral theses are currently in progress in the Falémé projects, including five at the University of Geneva, and are part of a program that actively participates in the training of young researchers in African archaeology.

In parallel, I work with Julien Vieugué, a colleague from Paris specialized in the European Neolithic, in a project (PHC-Germaine de Staël) focusing on the study of the functions of ceramic productions. This involves creating an ethnoarchaeological reference collection destined to facilitate the interpretation of the functions of pottery found in archaeological context. To do so, we have developed a recording methodology for the most diagnostic functional criteria, including morphometry (form, size, volume) and evidence of use (use-wear and residues). Our dataset takes into account used pottery belonging to the ethnographic ceramic collections from Mali at the University of Geneva and the National Museum of Bamako. These two comparable collections that we assembled and documented in 1995 for ten different traditions in the Inland Niger Delta and Dogon Country cover the entire range of use functions in the region. We have just completed this collection with a series of ceramics of different functions documented in the Bedik Country in Eastern Senegal (Bassari Country: Bassari, Fula and Bedik Cultural Landscapes, a UNESCO World Heritage site) during field survey conducted for this purpose in February 2016.

Finally, while unable to return to Dogon Country, I am still able to continue my research on this region through a project conducted in collaboration with several colleagues, including Nonhlanhla Dlamini, a South African anthropologist who has received a postdoctoral research excellence grant from the Swiss Confederation in our laboratory. Based on data and samples from cranial bone, dentin and enamel collected in 2015-16 at the Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, the Institute of Human Sciences in Bamako and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, this research plans to combine bio-anthropological and archaeological data to understand questions such as population relatedness, geographic origin and mobility patterns of people, dietary continuity or change, economy, diseases and evolution of funerary practices. To do so, we will apply different methods including dental anthropology, stable isotope analysis (strontium, stable carbon and nitrogen), and a search for pathogens. Numerous AMS radiocarbon dates will also be processed on the human bone remains to obtain a clear picture of the use through time of the different burial caves of the Bandiagara Escarpment, detect possible epidemic events and test the chrono-cultural sequence referenced for more than 40 years by scholars. All analytical data will be compared with archaeological and paleoenvironmental data collected in the framework of our previous research to participate in building a coherent picture of the behaviors in pre-colonial West Africa.

TSU: Why did you choose West Africa as your region of study?

AM: When I was a second-year student at the University of Geneva, I took a class on West African archaeology given by Professor Alain Gallay, and this fascinated me. At the time my only knowledge of Africa was from a few Tunisian oases visited with my grandmother when I was a teenager. In parallel, I rapidly became interested in the questions raised in archaeological interpretation, especially ethnoarchaeology which allows the construction of reference frameworks useful for archaeologists by working on interpretive models for modern societies. Finally, after having participated in prehistoric excavations in Switzerland and France, where the past is already well-known, I wanted to work in other places where archaeology was much less well-developed and where much work remained to be done to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

It worked out that at the moment I had finished my studies, a new ethnoarchaeological research project was launched on the ceramic traditions of the Inland Niger Delta in Mali, co-directed by Alain Gallay and Eric Huysecom. Seeing my firm desire to participate in this project, the latter offered me the chance to carry out a first mission as a volunteer to see if I was able to adapt, and then I was recruited in the project. It was thus a combination of interest and motivation on my part, a capacity to adapt to difficult field conditions and the chance of having been in the right place at the right time that steered me to my career in West Africa.

It is important for students to know how to recognize and seize the opportunities presented to them.

TSU: Your team has recovered the earliest evidence of ceramics in sub-Saharan Africa at the Ounjougou site complex. In your opinion is this an isolated phenomenon or more widespread throughout the region? Do you expect future research to push this date back even further?

AM: The appearance of ceramics at the start of the Holocene is certainly not a phenomenon isolated to Ounjougou; other evidence can be found in the Sahelian band. The difficulty lies in finding, as Eric Huysecom did at Ounjougou, a favorable geomorphological context that allows the preservation of these materials in stratified and dateable deposits, made accessible by modern erosion processes. In addition, in our case, the study of the phytoliths present in the sediments by Katharina Neumann enabled understanding of the climatic conditions and landscapes in which this technological innovation occurred.

The first ceramics could be slightly older in the region, but not by much, probably not older than 11,000 cal BC, because climatic conditions earlier than this would not have been suitable.

TSU: How do you view the state of archaeology, as a whole, today? How does West African archaeology fit into that picture?

AM: It is important for all societies to know their past. Yet only archaeology (and associated disciplines) allows reconstruction of the past for periods and regions that do not have written sources. This field continues to benefit from significant interest of people in general, and programs for promotion and popular outreach are increasingly common. However, in Western countries, archaeological excavations, flourishing especially in the last third of the 20th century, financed and conducted in the context of major highway and railroad construction projects, has significantly decreased in the 21st century with the end of development of such infrastructures.

In Africa, a continent that continues to be incorrectly considered by some as “without history”, archaeology is particularly important for several reasons. On one hand, written sources are rare, most often recent and with a few exceptions by external observers, Arab travelers or European explorers. Oral traditions are important sources, but their historical depth is limited. Recourse to archaeology is thus essential to study the pre-colonial and prehistoric past of this still poorly known region of the world and to give Africa its due place in world history. On the other hand, the infrastructure of West Africa is now developing at a rapid pace. Mining work and civil engineering is leading to the destruction of many archaeological sites and it is urgent to develop reactive and professional structures for preventive archaeology, alongside more long-term research programs.

TSU: What do you think is currently lacking and where do you think we should be focusing our efforts?

AM: Our experience demonstrates that to obtain solid results, it is important to be able to conduct research projects over many years with a multidisciplinary team. West Africa remains a region that should be given priority as relatively little in-depth research has been conducted on well-dated sites that would allow inter-regional or continental comparisons.

In addition, since globalization is accelerating cultural change and the loss of local traditions transmitted from generation to generation, there is a certain urgency to carry out ethnoarchaeological studies in Africa.

In terms of training, it is particularly important today to make an effort to contribute to training high quality African researchers who will have a good command of research methods and techniques and will be able to constitute true scientific partners in the context of more balanced relationships than they were before.

Finally, it is important to encourage archaeologists and heritage managers to better include local communities in the process of research and heritage management, consider how to meet development needs, reveal the voice of these communities concerning their history, and to better disseminate the results of research and new knowledge within the communities themselves.

TSU: Thank you very much for your time Dr. Mayor!


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