Foodways in West Africa: an integrated approach on pots, animals and plants

This interdisciplinary project analyses the development of agriculture and culinary habits as well as the evolution of related artefacts in Senegal over the last two millennia. It involves archaeologists, anthropologists, chemists, botanists, historians and zoologists. The project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Sinergia grant).

Coordinators of the SNSF Sinergia Project

Anne Mayor (University of Geneva, Department of Genetics and Evolution) - Principal Investigator

Tobias Haller (University of Bern, Institute of Social Anthropology)

Martine Regert (CNRS - Cultures et Environnements: Préhistoire, Antiquité, Moyen Âge / Université Côte d'Azur, Nice)

General Abstract

Food as social, economic and cultural marker has emerged as a topic of great scholar interest that needs to be addressed with an interdisciplinary perspective. Our project will foster innovative results on two levels. First, it will develop a new interdisciplinary method for identifying foodways by combining different types of analyses based on pottery, plants and animals. Then, based on this multi-proxy approach and on comparisons between ethnographic and archaeological evidence, it targets the reconstruction of the history of agricultural practices and foodways over two millennia in West Africa, with a special focus on Senegal, a favourable country to undertake this kind of study. Our approach consists in building present-day reference databases in the fields of ethnoarchaeology of ceramics, botany, zoology and biomolecular investigations. The acquisition of new data in various communities of Senegal will allow for the construction of interpretative keys to address food resources and consumption in the past. The identification of lipids, proteins, phytoliths and starch grains in residues of ethnographic pottery will contribute to this dataset and allow development of more effective protocols for archaeological sampling. Similarly, samples of faunal and floral components of present-day meals will be collected at various transformation stages in order to offer a comparative dataset for the identification of archaeological remains. Study of archaeological ceramics as well as plant and animal remains from different sites will draw a first sketch of the variability of food practices during pre-colonial times and allow evaluating the impact of post-depositional factors. In addition, historical and socio-anthropological studies based on manuscript archives, oral history and participant observation will show the changes in foodways under the influence of the Atlantic trade since the 15th century, and from colonial times to current globalisation.

This project is highly interdisciplinary and depends on the combined expertise of researchers from disciplines specific to Humanities and Social Sciences (social anthropology, archaeology, history) and to Natural Sciences (chemistry, botany, zoology). All fields will contribute to the dialogue between the present and the past. The strength of the project lies in the close collaboration between members from complementary scientific fields: among the co-applicants, Anne Mayor’s group (Department of Genetics and Evolution, Anthropology Unit, University of Geneva) has expertise in ceramic ethnoarchaeology, African archaeology, archaeobotany and archaeozoology. Martine Regert’s group (CNRS, CEPAM, Université Côte d’Azur) is widely recognized for lipid analysis of residues, and will lead collaborations with other researchers for complementary innovative methods analysing lipidomics, proteins, starches and phytoliths in residues. Tobias Haller’s group (Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Bern) is specialized in social anthropology and food system approaches. Partners from the Botanical Gardens and Natural History Museum of Geneva, the History Department of the University of Zurich, the University of Paris Nanterre, IFAN and UCAD in Dakar complete the team.

The impact of this research will be significant at different scales. At the scale of Senegal, the results will allow to construct scenarios of food changes in various historical, cultural and environmental contexts. They will also contribute to the safeguarding of an endangered culinary heritage and the understanding of the institutional factors hindering current food diversity and resilience. At the scale of Africa, the bio-archaeological data will contribute to a better understanding of the circulation of knowledge about the use of domesticated plants and animals. At an even broader scale, the methodology developed for the analysis of animal and plant residues and the transcultural references will provide useful tools for all archaeologists. The link to current food diversity situations will also provide important data on institutional-political aspects of food security and nutrition.

Research unit at the History Department of the University of Zurich

The research unit at the History Department of the University of Zurich will collect and analyse historical records on animals and plants, agriculture and livestock, crops trade, culinary habits as well as on the food-related material culture and the possible ritual meanings associated to foodstuffs or cooking recipes in Senegambia. The focus is the period spanning from the beginning of Portuguese seafaring to West Africa (mid-15th century) to the early phase of French colonial rule (mid-19th / early 20th century). This chronological frame is defined both by major historical landmarks and by the availability of written source material. Prior to the mid-15th century, written sources on West Africa are very scarce, exclusively in Arabic and cover mainly the inland regions of the Niger bend. With the beginning of Portuguese seafaring in West Africa, written sources in European languages and covering coastal areas increase substantially. Later, the territorial colonization by the French results in an even more drastic upsurge of written sources in European languages, which then start covering as well the continental hinterlands of the region. By examining published sources and manuscript records in French and Senegalese archives, the Zurich team will produce a circumscribed regional study. The expected results will reveal details about spatial, chronological and cultural differences concerning the adoption of new foodways. Insofar the historical data produced will constitute a precious resource for the contextualization and interpretation of archaeological and ethnological findings.

Supervision: Prof Roberto Zaugg

Master student 1: Cristian Consuegra, B.A.

Master student 2: vacant