AAREA is an ERC-funded interdisciplinary research project examining the long-term sustainability of two east African agricultural systems (Engaruka in Tanzania and Konso in Ethiopia) through a combination of archaeological, geoarchaeological, archaeobotanical and modelling techniques. In doing so the project aims to move beyond a focus on these sites to present a frank and realistic appraisal of the role archaeology can play in sustainability debates worldwide, and to actively engage with broader developmental and conservationist agendas by directly liaising with governmental and non-governmental agencies that explicitly or implicitly act upon perceptions of long-term resilience.

Excavated stone-lined water channel, Engaruka Excavation 2002 (Photo: Daryl Stump)

The rationale for this stems from the fact that the twin concepts of sustainability and conservation that are so pivotal within current debates regarding economic development and biodiversity protection both contain an inherent temporal dimension, since both refer to the need to balance short-term gains with long-term resource maintenance. Proponents of resilience theory and of development based on ‘indigenous knowledge’ have thus argued for the necessity of including archaeological, historical and palaeoenvironmental components within development project design. Indeed, some have argued that archaeology should lead these interdisciplinary projects on the grounds that it provides the necessary time depth and bridges the social and natural sciences. The AAREA project accepts this logic because to ask whether a system is sustainable is to simultaneously ask: sustainable for how long, sustainable for what size of population, and sustainable under what economic and climatic conditions? However, despite confident assertions as to archaeology’s potential in this area it has proved difficult to produce unambiguous examples of long-term sustainable management. Reasons for this include difficulties in distinguishing active conservation from lack of exploitation, and the fact that significant conservation practices such as fallowing regimes and irrigation schedules may be impossible to detect archaeologically. Similarly, although attempts to use computers to model complex human-environment interactions show promise, these have struggled to adequately account for local cultural preferences. Given the renewed contemporary relevance offered by sustainability studies it is understandable that archaeologists have tended to downplay these weaknesses. This field will not progress, however, unless projects are designed that accept and address these limitations from the outset.

The AAREA project aims to do just that by focussing on two historic agricultural landscapes in east Africa. Both employ or formerly employed sophisticated terracing and irrigation systems, and thus unlike more expansive forms of agriculture are highly archaeologically visible. Moreover, both are located in areas in receipt of international aid; and both have been cited within developmental debates: Engaruka in Tanzania having been seen as an example of degradation and ecological collapse, while Konso in Ethiopia is thought to have been in use for at least 500 years and has been described by the UN FAO as one of a select few African “lessons from the past”. The two areas thus appear to represent contrasting precedents in terms of sustainability, but they also offer different archaeological constraints and opportunities.

The lack of historical records pertaining to Engaruka means that it can only be studied archaeologically, but its complete abandonment during the 18th century AD after an occupation of some 300-400 years means that physical and chemical signatures of previous activities remain undisturbed. The continued occupation of Konso, in contrast, presents issues of physical and chemical preservation, but also allows for contributions from agronomic, ethnographic and historical studies. Employing a combination of established and groundbreaking archaeological and modelling techniques, the AAREA project aims to assess the long-term resilience of these agricultural systems, but in doing so it will also present a frank and realistic appraisal of the role archaeology can play in sustainability debates worldwide.

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