Sustainability in East Africa – a York perspective

#TreeMcTreeFace, probably the earliest evidence of inland rice cultivation in East Africa and a ‘moss animal’ dating back 15,000 years. What do these three things all have in common?

Coiln Beale - fire

Fire in the Serengeti. Photo taken by Colin Beale

They are examples of some of the world-leading research findings from various projects across University of York. On 20th May the AAREA project, KITE group, YESI and PALAEO research group brought together researchers to showcase the diverse, yet connected, projects focusing on east Africa that are currently happening in Archaeology, Biology and Environment.


Photo taken by Rob Marchant

Stitching together this research is the theme of environmental sustainability – in all its guises. Initial presentations by Andrew Marshall and Colin Beale focused on the present day, with Andrew (CIRCLE) taking us into forest restoration and an application to buy a 26 hectare forest in Tanzania, not to mention the recent competition to name a newly-discovered tree species, which, like the recent NERC naming competition didn’t go with #TreeMcTreeFace. Colin followed up with his Leverhulme-funded Serengeti Fire Research Project about savannahs and fire ecology, and his work on the larger USAID-funded project to restore degraded savannahs.

Suzi - pollen diagram

Image by Suzi Richer

Colin Courtney-Mustaphi continued by looking at examples showing how we might bridge palaeoecology, ecology, developmental sciences and conservation (this is where the ‘moss animal’ comes in!). And in a similar methodological vein Suzi Richer suggested ways we can use chronology, in particular the Bayesian modelling of radiocarbon dates, as method to link palaeoecological, archaeological and historical records.

Rebecca Kariuki, Esther Githumbi and visiting researcher Anna Shoemaker, all PhD researchers within the Resilience in East African Landscapes (REAL) training network, showed the breadth of research being undertaken in the network. This included community perceptions about the drivers of recent land use change (Rebecca), to palaeoecological (Esther) and archaeobotanical (Anna) evidence.


nkale Vatoveae pseudolabla. Photo taken by Anna Shoemaker

The spotlight on resilience then swung onto agricultural resilience in the past, with detailed presentations from the Archaeology of Agriculture Resilience in Eastern Africa (AAREA) team examining case studies from two  sites: the abandoned irrigated and terraced landscape at Engaruka (Tanzania) and the current farmed terraced landscape at Konso (Ethiopia).


Calcitic pendant coatings (CaC) formed on sub-angular blocky peds in the channel voids (V) from the Gully (XPL). Image by Carol Lang.

Carol Lang presented micromorphological evidence for paddy-like fields at Engaruka, Senna Thorton-Barnett discussed the archaeobotanical evidence and a pilot study undertaken by Carol and Hayley MacParland that revealed early evidence for the inland presence of rice. Tabitha Kabora explained why being able to model past irrigation systems is important in understanding the reasons that Engaruka’s irrigation system went out of use, and how this this relates to sustainability and resilience.

The final presentation of the day by Daryl Stump, Cruz Ferro Vázquez and Carol Lang, showed how the same archaeological techniques that were employed at the abandoned site of Engaruka can be used to better understand an agricultural landscape that is still in use.  Combining archaeological structures, micromorphology and soil chemistry, the paper challenged the accepted model of ‘sustainable agriculture’ for the UNESCO cultural landscape of Konso, showing that the terraces on the hillsides do not conserve the original topsoil as has always been assumed, and instead contain soils that have eroded from higher up the slope.


Terracing at Konso, Ethiopia. Photo taken by the AAREA team.

In fact, in one important river valley at least, all of the original topsoil and subsoil had been eroded away before the terraces were constructed.  This is not to say, of course, that the system is not sustainable, but it does show that archaeological techniques can dramatically change our understanding of these landscapes.  In this case, from an agricultural system that was assumed to have saved its fragile hillside soils, to one that has impressively created new soils after the original soils were lost.


Photo taken by Andy Marshall

While all of the projects are internationally important in terms of the research being undertaken, they also included the local element – the people who live and depend on those landscapes. Local knowledge is key to understanding how these landscapes operate, and much of the work could not be undertaken without the enmeshed involvement of the people living there. And vitally, the insights gleaned from both these past and present perspectives will start to feed back in to the future management of these landscapes through local, NGO and governmental initiatives.

Presentations are available on the Department of Archaeology’s YouTube Channel.

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