P190 – Crises and Pandemics in Africa (6th-18th c.): Questions, Methods, and New Projects
9 July, 14:00-15:30

Chouin Gérard / College of William and Mary - USA


This panel brings together historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists involved in research component 2 of the ANR Project GLOBAFRICA. This research axis aims to evaluate the possible spread of historical plagues in sub-Saharan Africa before the 19th century, as well as their impact on the long-term history of societies which may have been affected by the disease. The panel is an opportunity for members of the group to present their objectives, research designs, sources to be assessed, and methods to be implemented. A general presentation of the project by Gérard Chouin will provide context for the different contributions. Marie-Laure Derat will present a preliminary assessment of written sources for the history of epidemics in Ethiopia between the 14th and 19th centuries. Hadrien Collet will present his reflections on references to epidemics in the medieval and post-medieval Sudanese chronicles written in Arabic. Patrice Georges and Gérard Chouin will present the part of the project that consists of testing human remains recovered in selected archaeological contexts for Yersinia pestis. This will include results of tests conducted on dental material from a mass burial excavated in Benin City. Finally, Bertrand Poissonnier and Kolawole Adekola will present the preliminary results of recent excavations of medieval enclosures of south-western Nigeria, where evidence is being investigated for a demographic crisis potentially related to the plague pandemics.

Crises et épidémies en Afrique (vie-xviiie siècle): questions, méthodes et chantiers émergents.

Ce panel regroupe des historiens, archéologues et anthropologues impliqués dans le deuxième axe du projet ANR GLOBAFRICA (2015-8). Cet axe a pour objectif d’évaluer la possible propagation des épidémies de peste en Afrique sub-saharienne, avant le xixe siècle, et leur impact sur les trajectoires à long terme des sociétés qui ont pu être affectées. L’atelier donnera l’occasion aux chercheurs concernés de présenter leurs objectifs, les stratégies retenues, les sources à étudier et les méthodes qui seront mis en œuvre dans ce projet. Une présentation générale du projet par Gérard Chouin permettra de contextualiser les différentes interventions. Marie-Laure Derat fera ensuite un premier point sur les sources écrites médiévales pour l’histoire des épidémies en Éthiopie aux xive et xve siècles ; Hadrien Collet poursuivra cette réflexion pour les grandes chroniques en langue arabe du Soudan médiéval et postmédiéval. Patrice Georges et Gérard Chouin présenteront la partie du projet qui consiste à tester la présence de Yersinia pestis dans des restes humains provenant de divers sites archéologiques. Les résultats des analyses sur un échantillon provenant d’une fosse commune de Benin City (au Nigéria) seront présentés à cette occasion. Enfin, Bertrand Poissonnier et Kolawole Adekola présenteront les résultats préliminaires de la première saison de fouilles sur des enceintes médiévales du sud-ouest du Nigeria, possibles témoins d’une crise démographique liée à la diffusion de la peste.

Paper 1

Chouin Gérard / Department of History, College of William and Mary

Plague pandemics in sub-Saharan Africa before 1800: Presentation of the second axis of the ANR-funded GlobAfrica project

This is a short presentation of the central arguments, research design, and team members of the second research axis of the ANR-funded GlobAfrica project (2015–2018), which focuses on determining if the first and/or second plague pandemics spread into sub-Saharan Africa. The project is multi-disciplinary and brings together historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists. I will offer a brief review of the corpus of dispersed archaeological, anthropological, iconographic, paleobiochemical, genetic, and textual evidence the project intends to assess to find new positive evidence of plague in different parts of the African continent during the medieval and early modern periods. As convincing evidence of the spread of the first two historical pandemics of plague eventually emerge, we will need to reflect on the relative invisibility of catastrophic events in our traditional sources. This may entail a radical revision of enduring ‘precolonial’ African historiography that emerged largely from research conducted in the first two decades following the independence of African nations.

Paper 2

Derat Marie-Laure / CNRS, Institut des Mondes Africains (IMAF), France

Pandemics in Ethiopia at the turn of the 15th century and afterwards

Many medieval and early modern Ethiopian documentary sources refer to pandemics shaking the kingdom of Ethiopia and causing thousands of deaths. Chronicles and lives of saints abound in scattered references to the need to bury the victims of these pandemics through a specific process. Also, the saints represented figures of miraculous healing abilities, and the reading of hagiographic texts during mass services provided hope to the victims of these pandemics. However, on the basis of these testimonies, it is often impossible to identify precisely which disease was involved in the pandemics.
The goal of this paper is to present the diversity of the sources and their limitations. It will also focus on the methodology the team working on the Ethiopian sources in the framework of the plague axis of the GlobAfrica project will develop and apply to try to 1) identify the major epidemics that struck the area; 2) understand how Ethiopian societies dealt with them; and 3) assess their impact on these societies. Migrations and territorial restructuring that occurred in the area during the 16th and 17th centuries may have been related to the little-understood demographic and epidemiological dynamics of Ethiopia during the period.

Paper 3

Collet Hadrien / Université de Paris-I, Institut des Mondes Africains (IMAF), France

Looking for the plague: a preliminary study of the vocabulary of epidemics in the Sudan (14th–18th centuries)

As part of the ANR program dedicated to finding evidence of plague pandemics in West Africa before the 18th century, this paper sets out to closely examine the vocabulary used to refer to epidemics in the endogenous literature in Arabic. Seemingly absent from the exclusively exogenous 14th and 15th century literature on Sudan, mentions of epidemics appear in historical Sudanese chronicles written after the 17th century about the history of the area from the 13th century. Building on the pioneering work of Sékéné-Mody Cissoko (Famines et épidémies à Tombouctou et dans la Boucle du Niger du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle, 1968), who worked from available French translations, I will endeavor to identify references to epidemics, check the original texts, and discuss the precise Arabic terms used to refer to the epidemics.

Paper 4

Georges Patrice / INRAP, France

Testing pre-19th century ‘catastrophic’ mass burials for Yersinia Pestis in Europe and Africa: Current understanding and contribution of the GlobAfrica project

From an archaeological perspective, both the first and second pandemics resulted in the excavation of so-called ‘catastrophic’ mass burials. The identification of such ‘plague pits’ is based on the osteo-archaeological demonstration of simultaneous inhumations, and the absence of bone stigmata resulting from interpersonal violence is suggestive of an epidemic context. The latter can be validated only through molecular palaeobiochemical analyses, usually conducted on closed apex monoradiculated teeth. Archaeological evidence for plague is now plentiful in Europe, especially in relation to the second pandemic. In northern Africa, several archaeological findings suggest an epidemic context. In sub-Saharan Africa, the question has been raised only recently; but the genetic studies of modern African strains of Yersinia Pestis suggest that some evolved from an ancient strain whose genome was similar to that reconstructed in London from victims of the Black Death of the 14th century. It is therefore necessary to apply the same protocol used in Europe to the few catastrophic mass burials excavated in sub-Saharan Africa, in order to test for the presence of aDNA of Yersinia Pestis. Our discussion will include the results of a first series of analyses conducted on material from an alleged ‘catastrophic’ mass burial excavated in the 1960s at Benin City, Nigeria.

Paper 5

Poissonnier Bertrand / INRAP, France

Adekola Kolawole / Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Ibadan

The chronology of Ife and Sungbo’s Eredo : Did the plague impact medieval earthworks in southwestern Nigeria?

In West Africa, as elsewhere in the pre-industrial era, a normal response to epidemics was to abandon existing urban settlements for small, dispersed hamlets located on farmlands. In theory, a large-scale pandemic leading to severe mortality, such as we would expect from the spread of the Black Death into sub-Saharan Africa, could have led to what McIntosh called an ‘urban shake’: a shakeup of the urban network, characterized by the abandonment—at least temporarily—of ancient urban centers, leading to large-scale changes in settlement patterns. In the framework of the ANR-funded GlobAfrica project and with the support of the Franco–Nigerian Ife-Sungbo Archaeological project, we intend to re-examine the chronology of Ife, in Osun State, an ancient urban center associated with Yoruba myths of origins, as well as to date the construction and abandonment of the earthwork known as Sungbo’s Eredo, a 160 km-long dyke in the states of Lagos and Ogun, in south-western Nigeria. We hypothesize that both sites may have been impacted in the 14th century following a demographic catastrophe caused by the second plague pandemic. In this paper, we will present the rationale behind such a hypothesis and provide a preliminary report on the first archaeological season scheduled for June 2015.

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