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Author: Augustin F.C. Holl
Title: Pathways to Complexity: The Rise and Demise of a Chadic Polity
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Pathways to Complexity: The Rise and Demise of a Chadic Polity
Augustin F.C. Holl

vol. 3, no. 1, 2006

Pathways to Complexity: The Rise and Demise of a Chadic Polity

Augustin F.C. Holl


Research on the emergence of complex social systems is a burgeoning subfield. This fact alone explains the high currency of the concept and the fuzzyness around its meaning. The very concept of Complexity, is both ambiguous and straightforward. Straightforward because it is close to the common-sense knowledge of growth with increasing diversity [Complex - Complicated]; and ambiguous because of its narrow technical sense as derived from analyses of "non-linear dynamical systems" [Complex - Chaos] (Lewin 1992). The central issue to be addressed when studying the emergence of Complex Social Systems is that of "order arising out of a complex dynamical systems, global properties flowing from aggregate behavior of individuals" (Lewin 1992: 13) and/or groups. Literally, a system is said to be complex when a large number of independent agents interact with each other in a great many way (Waldrop 1992). Moreover, the very fact of huge amount of interactions " allows the system to undergo spontaneous self-organization" . In general, such complex, self-organizing systems are adaptive. In short, the case under consideration in this paper, dealing with the rise and demise of a Chadic polity, is but a special instance of Complex Adaptive systems (CAS). Here, the focus is on evidence pertaining to social inequality, differential consumption of scarce exotic goods, differential treatment of the deceased, as well as settlement hierarchy.

In West African archaeology, the emergence of complex societies has been addressed almost exclusively in historical terms during the relatively long pioneer period (1900-1970), with research focused on major trade entrepots (Aoudaghost, Kumbi Saleh, etc.) and capital cities of the late first/early second millennium AD kingdoms (fig. 1). This research tradition has produced an important body of data which are unfortunately generally overlooked by recent researchers (Robert, D. & S. and Devisse 1970, Vanacker 1979, Devisse 1983, Polet 1985, Robert-Chaleix 1989, Berthier 1997). Currently, a handful of research projects framed to explicitly address the emergence of Complex social systems includes the Gonja Archaeological project (Shinnie and Kense 1989), the Begho Project (Poznansky 1973), the Dhar Tichitt Prehistoric Expedition (Holl 1986, 1993), the Jenne-jeno project (McIntosh and McIntosh 1980, S.K. McIntosk 1994, McIntosh 1998), and the Houlouf archaeological project (Holl 1988, 1994, 1996, 2002). Different facets of the archaeological record are investigated, and overall, a "single-site" approach is still largely predominant.

Figure 1: Map of West African Kingdoms and Empires

Social Complexity: A View from West Africa

The archaeology of social complexity is fraught with theoretical and empirical difficulties. There is persistent disagreement among scholars on the very definition of complexity when used in the study of the evolution of social systems. There are "Complex Neandertals", "Complex Late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers", "Heterarchic, Intermediate, Middle-range societies", etc. The debate about the range of diversity and peculiar characteristics of past pathways to complexity is a healthy and exciting one, and deserved to be carried on but one has to agree on the major issues being debated (Earle 1991, Yoffee 1993, Feinman and Marcus 1998). How do we choose between alternatives evolutionary pathways? Do we have an Ockham Rasor strong enough to keep on trimming the permanently growing Plato Beard? What is (or are) archaeologists Ockham Rasor? What is the scientific status of the material world of the archaeological record?

These are serious issues raised in present-days anthropological circles; is there anything like a scientific analysis of human socio-cultural systems? The situation is much more difficult in West Africa, and this for several reasons. First, there is a dearth of well investigated region-wide complexes, the single-site approach still being largely predominant. Second, up to the 1970's archaeological research was carried out within a historical-particularistic framework. And third, an anthropological approach to the study of social evolution was virtually non-existent. There has been some improvement during the last three decades with a small number of projects carried out in Niger, Mali, Mauretania, and Northern Cameroun (McIntosh 1995, McIntosh 1998, Ingoll 1996, Holl 1985, 1986, 1993. 1994, 2002).

There is much disagreement among scholars on the genesis and the evolution of complex societies in West Africa (Connah 1987, Holl 1985, 1993, 1996, 2002, Insoll 1996, MacDonald 1998, S. K. McIntosh 1995, R.J. McIntosh 1998, McIntosh and McIntosh 1980). In his attempt to transcend what he termed "entrenched traditional interpretations", and fully convinced that "Jenne-jeno is the best investigated" case for the formation of complex societies in West Africa (McIntosh 1998: 23[see Chavanne 1985: 43 for a different point of view]), Rodderick McIntosh relies heavily on "historical imagination" to reconstruct the long-term history of the Inland Niger Delta, seen from the rise and fall of Jenne-jeno. He states that "without historical imagination to make quick the motivations of the past, history and archaeology are just the driest dust that blows" (McIntosh 1998: xx). Traditional interpretations focus on centralization, craft specialization, settlement hierarchy, and social ranking as complementary facets involved in the process leading to the emergence and reproduction of complex social systems. McIntosh considers such approaches misleading and instead relies on the concept of heterarchy —ie multiple hierarchies, strangely read as "resistance to hierarchy" (McIntosh 1998: xix)— and historical imagination as more relevant alternatives. "Historical imagination is just that: imagined stories made up in the mind of a prehistorian as an attempt to translate his or her intuitions about what were the vital concerns of once - living peoples" (McIntosh 1998: 85).

The material record from the Inland Niger delta, the area under consideration, does not support such a view of the evolution of social systems. The Rousseauistic "Social Contract" approach called upon is refuted by evidence for inequality and differential investment in mortuary facilities, megalithic features, Elite tombs with sacrificed victims, and pooled prestige goods. These disturbing classes of archaeological remains are unfortunately systematically tossed aside (McIntosh 1998: 220-231). In any case, historical imagination seems to loom too large when it is asserted that: "...human sacrifices and mass disposal of luxuries can celebrate an efficient heterarchy [my emphasis] dedicated to the suppression of centralized power" (McIntosh 1998: 231). Following H.T. Wright (1998: 173), one may wonder what all this is about; "are they theater polities, mere symbolic games in the mind of self-appointed princes? Or are they apparatuses that controlled the material resources and lives of their participants?"

Archaeologists theoretical guesses have to be tested through their relevance and capacity to generated an understanding of the material record of past social systems as will be shown below, with the case study from the Houlouf region. Emerging West African complex societies did not record their genesis and changing structures. Therefore, archaeologists have the onerous task to decipher the material record from the past and reconstruct the range of evolutionary trajectories followed in different parts of the sub-continent. "The task of understanding how such polities worked is largely the responsibility of archaeologists, who must proceed by evaluating the consequences of different ideas about the past with material evidence, criticizing the assumptions of the proposals that fail, generating new ideas, and evaluating these again. The process is tedious, but it has enable archaeologists to go beyond idealist and racist conceptions of cultural formation, beyond elementary material/energetic theories of change, to the more complex systemic and existential conceptions that are the focus of research today" (Wright 1998: 173-4).

About Chadic Polities

In his "Cartographica del Mundo" - [Map of the World ]- published in Genoa during the 16th century, Lorenzo D'Anania referred to a number of kingdoms located in the Lake Chad area. He explicitly mentioned Makary, Gulfey, Afade, Kusseri, Logon, and Alph -[Houlouf]— , and offered a glimpse on their political systems and mortuary customs following the death of their kings. Within the same period, also in the 16th century, Ahmad Ibn Furtu, a Bornu scholar, Imam of the capital city (Birni Ghazzargamu) Friday Mosque, and panegyrist of King Idriss Alauma, completed the writing of a book -[Kitab al ghazzargawat al Barnu ]- on his king's deeds. He narrates the wars of expansion of the Bornu state from its core in the Yobe River valley to the north, east, and south. The conquered or exterminated populations were generally called "Sao", referring to the "Others", non-Kanuri speakers, who were clearly the first settlers of the land. These early settlers were all speakers of one or another Chadic language, derived from the evolution of the Central Chadic language sub-family. These Chadic speakers were organized into ranked and centralized societies. They dwelt in small towns surrounded by moats and earthen ramparts. Depending on circumstances, these Chadic polities were called Chiefdoms, or kingdoms, and their rulers, called Miarre - or Sultans (in the later arabized form). The Chadic polities nearest to the Bornu heartland, Makary, Afade, Ndufu, etc., were conquered and integrated in the Bornu state. Those located on the outer-periphery, like Kusseri, were coerced into a tributary status with a Kanuri plenipotentiary appointed in residence to oversee the local government. Others, as was the case for Lagwan, resisted Bornu pressures and went on an expansionist policy of their own. Bornu imperial policy waxed and waned ; the "Kanurification" of the elite went a long way, leveling cultural differences. Islam spread.

European explorers of the 19th century (Denham 1820, Barth 1850, and Nachtigal 1870) witnessed the political situation of the area. The Bornu Empire was tilting toward its end. The Langwan kingdom sandwiched between two regional superpowers, the Bornu empire in the north-northwest and the Barma kingdom in the south-southeast, succeeded in preserving its independence through shrewd diplomatic maneuvering. The situation was further complicated by the sudden irruption of Rabbeh, a slave trader and adventurer from the Bahr el Ghazzal in Sudan, and the onset of European colonization.

The political organization of some of these Chadic polities has been investigated by French ethnographers, starting with Marcel Griaule, Jean-Paul Lebeuf, and A.M.D. Lebeuf, followed by Forkl (1983, 1985). Annie Lebeuf (1969) wrote a remarkable book that includes ethnohistory, and detailed descriptions of the political and territorial organization of the polities she had investigated. The famous "Sao Culture" owes a great deal to M. Griaule inspired book "Les Sao Legendaires"

How did these Chadic polities emerge ? How were they organized? How did they grow and adjust to changing socio-political circumstances? These are some of the questions that have shaped the archaeological project conducted in the Houlouf region from 1982 to 1991 (Holl 1994, 1996, 2002)

Chadian Plain Archaeology

The archaeology of the Chadian plain - the southern shore of the lake Chad - entered the world of archaeological scholarship at the very beginning of the 20th century. F. Wulsin (1932) from Harvard University sunk a number of trial trenches at Gulfey on the left bank of the Shari river. The archaeological deposits he probed were exposed by the meandering river. His results were above all descriptive and did not spark any interest in researching the archaeology of the area.

A more sustained effort and long term implication started with the involvement of Marcel Griaule and Jean-Paul Lebeuf, both ethnographers without any formal training in archaeology. Marcel Griaule was the leader of Dakar-Djibouti expedition, championing the study of beliefs' systems. He was fascinated by the folks traditions of the inhabitants of the Chadian plain, collected an impressive number of oral lores, translated them and published them in his inspired book "Les Sao Legendaires". The purpose of their archaeological research was simple and straightforward: to document, trace, and reconstruct the origins of the "mysterious Sao". They coined and popularized the concept of "Sao Civilization" . The term "Civilization" was a common currency in these days. It was based partly on the concept of "Kultur Kreise" elaborated by German ethnologists (Forkl 1983, 1985). Despite its vagueness, it conveyed the idea of cultural templates that manifest themselves more eloquently in works of art. The Sao produced an intriguing statuary in clay. They made large well fired clay vessels -[So pots] —. They manufactured fine items of personal adornment in clay, copper, alloyed copper, iron, and brass. They built cities protected by moats and earthen ramparts.

Griaule and Lebeuf organized no less than four archaeological expeditions. They tested tens of sites in search for art works, and published several extensive reports in the Journal de la Societe des Africanistes. The material they collected was generally described after a substantial introduction based on ethnohistorical sources. The archaeological record was thus used to support ethnohistorical scenarios that already staged the Sao's achievements. On the other hand, ethnohistorical sources were used to justify and interpret the archaeological record. The circularity of the approach was plain and obvious; migrations were the engine of cultural change. The understanding of the origins and evolution of the "Sao Civilization" became more and more elusive (Lebeuf 1969, 1971).

In the 1960's, Jean-Paul Lebeuf partnering with A.M Detourbet shifted their field methodology with the excavation of Mdaga (Lebeuf et al 1980). They adopted a more scientific approach with tighter stratigraphic control, radiocarbon dating, and a more elaborate sampling strategy. The concept of "Sao Civilization" was dropped even if the term remained in use. The results of the project were startling. Mdaga was inhabited for more than two millennia, from ca. BC 450 to AD 1800. Subsuming such a long occupation under the heading of "Sao Civilization" became clearly untenable. The excavation of Sou Blame Radjil supported the findings from Mdaga, putting the concept of "Sao Civilization" to a final rest.

In parallel to J.P. Lebeuf and A.M.D. Lebeuf research in Cameroon and Chad Republic, G. Connah (1983), then from the university of Ibadan, Nigeria, launched an important archaeological project in Bornu. He selected a number of sites along a north-south transect, from the Mandara mountains in the south to the Yobe river valley in the north. His project was framed in environmental and adaptive terms, with an explicit interest in the patterns of human adaptation to the Chadian wetlands context. The 60 m by 5 m, and 11.5 m deep trench of Daima was spectacular and productive. The evolutionary sequence reconstructed from the series of tested sites stretched from the Late Stone Age (ca. 2000 bc) to the 16th century AD, including the advent of iron technology traced to the later part of the 1st millennium BC. Connah (1983) also found charred remains of sorghum dated to AD 800, as well as evidence of round mud houses. He probed the central part of Birni Ghazzargamo, the capital city of the Bornu kingdom and sunk a number of probes in the Royal palace compound. He described its architectural layout. He however refrained from any discussion of the emergence of the Kanuri state (Holl 2000) and alluded to the process of urbanization that may have driven the political apparatus of the Kanuri Imperium.

In the early 1990's, the University of Frankfurt (Germany) launched a joint project with the University of Maiduguri (Nigeria), led by Peter Breunig. The project rooted in "Culture History" included an important environmental component. The aim was clearly to understand the impact of the Holocene climatic change on human settlement location and subsistence systems. With some variations, they too adopted a transect strategy and sampled the major landforms, from the Bama-Limani-Bongor ridge in the south, to the Yobe river valley in the north. Kursakata, a mound site previously excavated by G. Connah was re-excavated by D. Gronenborn. An intensive archaeobotanical program was carried out by Dr. K. Neumann. P. Breunig directed the excavation of Late Stone Age sites, at Konduga, Gajiganna, and Dufuna - the famous 8500 BP dugout—. Dr. Gronenborn focused on more recent sites, including Dikoa, the 19th century headquarter of Rabbeh. Cattle and sheep/goat husbandry appeared to have been practiced in the area for at least four thousand years. Agriculture on the other hand, was a late comer. Bulrush millet was cultivated around 1000 BC.

Figure 2

A Chadic Polity in the Making

The Houlouf archaeological project was framed with an explicit anthropological stance. The idea was to trace the emergence of Central Chadic polities and investigate their evolution through time. Such a project requires a significant tightening of the boundaries, to allow for a rigorous grasp of the material record at hand. There is a number of elements important for such a project to succeed. 1) The extent and size of the study area have to be manageable. 2) The selected area has to have some cultural and political meaning for the locals. 3) All the documented sites have to be tested to generate a more complex picture of the past. 4) The environmental history of the study area has to be reconstructed as accurately as possible. The field component of the research project took some 11 field seasons to be completed, from 1982 to 1991. Laboratory analyses, data processing, writing up and publishing took some 10 additional years (Holl 2002).

The Houlouf region is located along the Savanna-Sahel margins of the Chadian plain in the northernmost part of the Cameroons. The area was settled at the very beginning of the second millennium BC, and is still inhabited by speakers of Chadic and Semitic (Arabic) languages. The study area measures 400 km. sq., a 20 by 20 km square set in what is considered by the local population to be the heart of the "Land of Houlouf" (figure 3). It is divided into three ecological zones: the Logone-Shari river valley with their sand islands and shores colonized by Borassus aethiopicum palms (figure 4 and 5); the arbustive savanna with a range of Acacia sp. and thorny shrubs (fig. 6), and finally the hinterland depression, called yaere in local Arabic, flooded during the rainy season (fig. 7) turning into prime grassland after the flood (fig. 8). The nature and regional distribution of soils have important consequences on site-location strategies (fig. 9).

Figure 3: The Study Area: topography and distribution of archaeological sites

Figure 4: A Sand island in the Logone River during the dry-season

Figure 5: Vegetation of the Logone and Shari rivers shores

Figure 6: The arbustive Savanna with a grazing cattle herd

Figure 7: The flooded hinterland depression after the rains

Figure 8: The prime grazing of the hinterland depression (Yaere)

Figure 9: Soils and settlements distribution

Fourteen mounds distributed into ten settlements were mapped and tested, providing a 4,000 years long occupation sequence ranging from ca. 1900 BC to the present. The surveyed and excavated mounds vary considerably in size and shape, with some arranged into multi-mounds complexes (fig. 10 and 11). With the exception of the main excavation at Houlouf which measures 120 square meters, most of the sites were investigated with 3 m by 4 m deep probes revealing the sequence of the formation of the mound (fig. 12).

Figure 10: Yakouale, an eroding crescent shaped mound

Figure 11: Deguesse, a circular flat-top mound

Figure 12: View of the stratigraphic sequence of Deguesse probe

During the Holocene period, important climatic fluctuations resulted in significant alteration of the Chadian plain (fig. 13 and 14). The environmental setting of the study area changed radically from a Lake-Lakeshore - Island to a silty, sandy, and clayey flood plain with sand islands.

Figure 13

Figure 14

The settlement sequence of the study area that emerged from the regional archaeological project is divided into five phases of varying length, with some sub-divided into sub-phases A and B. The phasing is based on significant change in settlement patterns, resulting from the foundation of a new village, or the abandonment of a previously inhabited place, and more generally a combination of both.

With the exception of the pioneer settlement phase (Deguesse Phase) which is rather long and still poorly investigated, the sub-phases range from 200 to 250 years. At the end of the third and very beginning of the second millennium BC, the Lake Chad was much larger and deeper and the study area was part of the lake bottom (Holl 1988, 1994, 1996, 2000, 2002).

Deguesse Phase (BC 1900 - 0): Pioneer Foragers/Herders

Deguesse phase settlements dated from ca. 1900 BC to 0 AD have been recorded at the bottom of two sites trenches, at Deguesse and Krenak. (fig. 15). Settlement evidence are shallow, consisting mostly of livestock dung deposits with very few cultural remains. The region appears to have been settled by highly mobile herders, relying on abundant wild grain or practicing a kind of agriculture, which still escapes from archaeologists' grasp. Both sites are found at nine kilometers from each other and may have been sand islands settled during low water seasons.

Figure 15

Krenak Phase (ca, AD 0 - 500): Autonomous Farming-Fishing Communities

Krenak phase (AD 0-500) which follows witnessed a significant increase in the number of settled localities. During Krenak phase A (AD 0-250) there are three settled localities in the study area (Deguesse, Krenak, and Houlouf), all of them confined to the northwest (fig. 16). There is a clear shift toward a more sedentary life style with bulkier dwelling facilities. A single grinder in syenite suggests the existence of imported material from the Waza-Mora-Mandara mountain range at 200-250 kilometers in the Southwest.

During Krenak phase B (AD 250-500), settlement was extended to the southeast of the study area with the foundation of the Ble - Mound complex, consisting of three distinct small tells (fig. 16). Craft specialization is represented by a blacksmith workshop and there is a broader range of imported high-value items such as carnelian beads (one at Houlouf level II), alloyed copper (four buttons from Houlouf Level II), and coarse stone artifacts ( 14 in syenite, 2 in rhyolite, 1 in quartzite).The recorded sites are situated at 5 to 10 kilometers from each other, along marshlands in a deltaic context (fig. 16). Few horse bones (1 first phalanx, 1 distal end of left tibia, and proximal femur) were found at Houlouf in level II, suggesting the import of prestigious riding animals.

Figure 16

Mishiskwa Phase (AD 500-1000): Bi-polarization Process

The Mishiskwa phase (AD 500-1000) corresponds to the extension of human settlement in the clayey hinterland depression. During Mishiskwa phase A (AD 500-750) the number of settled localities increased to ten, and then eleven during Mishiskwa phase B. The settlement system appears to have consisted of two distinct patterns (fig. 17). The pattern found in the northwest consists of five almost equidistant villages with Houlouf in a relatively central position, while the southeastern one (the Ble-Mound Complex and Krenak-Sao) is comprised of five tightly clustered mounds, with one isolated case (Mishiskwa) in the south. Craft specialization is represented by iron-smelting features, blacksmith workshops, weaving artifacts and textile dying installations. There is a significant increase in the amount and diversity of imported high-value goods, within a context of competing central villages.

Figure 17

Ble Phase (AD 1000 - 1400): Competition and Rivalry

During the Ble phase (AD 1000-1400) Krenak in the Houlouf orbit and Krenak-Sao in the Ble-Mound Complex area are abandoned. A new site is founded at Ble-Mound C above a silted-in ancient Logone river channel (Fig. 18). There is a very significant trend toward intensification with massive evidence for fish-smoking in the Ble-Mound Complex, iron smelting features as well as forges installations have been recorded. The manufacture of head-rests, and intensive salt-production are new additions to the craft repertoire. Imported goods include carnelian and glass beads, a broad range of artifacts in alloyed copper, and cowry shells.

Figure 18

The settlement system is clearly bi-polar with Houlouf and the Ble-Mound Complex involved in a socio-political competition, with significant import of exotic prestige items and presumably warfare. The whole area was witnessing the emergence of centralized political systems with peer-polity interactions ranging from elective alliance to outright war (Fig. 19 and 20). An adult male buried with a pair of spurs suggests the emergence of a class [or social category] of Warrior-horsemen (fig. 21-22). The same level revealed a rich female burials with a range of imported prestigious materials (fig 23). Houlouf Level VI provides un-disputable evidence of purposeful destruction of salt-production installations, probably resulting from raiding or more extensive warfare (fig. 24). Comparable evidence have also been recorded at the Ble-Mound Complex with systematic decapitation of clay figurine as well as several hundreds of almost calibrated spherical to sub-spherical coarse stone which may have been used as weapons. There are no direct dating evidence to support this claim but it is highly probable that the Houlouf earthen rampart may have been built in this context of competition and rivalry, during Ble phase A

Figure 19

Figure 20

Figure 21: Houlouf: the Ble phase A (AD 1000-1200) warrior-horseman burial

Figure 22: The Ble Phase A warrior-horseman adornment with 13 copper arm-rings, 2 copper spurs, a carnelian necklace, waist-lace with carnelian and glass beads

Figure 23: Ble Phase A (AD 1000-1200) adult female adornment with a copper torque, a copper arm-ring, a carnelian necklace, and a carnelian and glass beads waist-lace

Figure 24: Destruction of salt-producing installations at Houlouf during the Ble Phase

Houlouf Phase A (AD 1400 - 1600): Rise of Houlouf Chiefdom

During Houlouf phase A (AD 1400-1600), the number of settled localities dropped dramatically from nine to three, with only Houlouf, Deguesse, and Amachita left as inhabited settlements (fig. 25). The beginning of the Houlouf phase coincide with the onset of a particularly dry and arid period that lasted for 100 to 150 years. Houlouf is the central settlement of a polity that will include seven settlements during Houlouf phase B (AD 1600-1800). An elite cemetery dated to Houlouf phase A attests for specific rules of etiquette, orientation and position of the deceased, and this probably for a tiny group of individuals (fig. 26). The structure and spatial layout of this cemetery suggests the existence four factions or descent-groups (Holl 1988, 1994, 2002), all jockeying for power and prestige in the shadow of the ruler. The most prestigious among them seem to have belonged to the class of Warrior-horsemen. The effigy-jar found at the center of the graveyard may have symbolized the paramount chief or the king (fig. 27). Burials are marked by superimposed large jars (Fig. 28) and the deceased buried in a sitting position (fig. 29) with their feet resting in a pot, are all facing the southwest, the same direction as the central effigy-jar. Most of the individuals buried in the Houlouf cemetery belonged to a select group of elite members. Many were warrior-horsemen, some office holders, and a few, rituals specialists (Holl 1994, 2002). Rulers as well as successful office holders display their status with items of horsemanship, specific dress-code, and elements of personal adornment. The copper figurine of the horse-rider (fig. 30), may recapitulate the essence of Chadic warrior-horsemanship.

Figure 25

Figure 26: Partial view of the Houlouf Phase A (AD 1400-1600) cemetery

Figure 27: The Effigy-jar located at the center of Houlouf Phase A cemetery

Figure 28: Super-imposed jars marking a burial

Figure 29: The position of the deceased in the Houlouf cemetery

Figure 30: The Warrior-horseman figurine subsuming the Chadic elite self

The remains of the rulers' residence, still called the "Sultan Palace", is located on a higher small mound - forbidden to archaeologists —. This relatively impressive complex may have been built during the Blé phase. The chronological uncertainty could however not be settled because of the prohibition. Its Houlouf phase features, exposed on the surface were mapped. At the peak of its power, the Houlouf Chiefdom was centered at the fortified site of Houlouf that measured 15.50 hectares in size (fig. 31) at the top of the settlement hierarchy (fig. 32).

Figure 31: Houlouf ramparts from 1930s air-photographs

Figure 32

Twilight or the Rise of Lagwan Kingdom

During Houlouf phase B, and more likely from AD 1650 onward, the Houlouf chiefdom, sandwiched between the expanding Imperial Bornu state and the rising competitor of the Lagwan paramount chiefdom, lost its autonomy and became a regional center of the Logone Kingdom. The Lagwan kingdom conquered Houlouf and Kabe polities along its northern and northwestern boundary as buffer to the expansionist ambitions of the powerful Bornu Empire. Three such paramount chiefdoms emerged from the long-term peer-polities interaction which operated in the Chadian plain during the major part of the second millennium AD, with divergent evolutionary pathways (fig. 33). The Makari chiefdom in the northwest became a province of the expanding Bornu Empire in the 15-16th century. In the central and eastern part of the Chadian plain, the Mser chiefdom with its center at Kusseri was conquered in the 16th century by Bornu troops and

Figure 33

turned into a dependent province, with Bornu officials appointed to supervise the local Sultan and authorities. And finally, the Lagwan kingdom, located in the south, with its capital city at Logone-Birni preserved some political autonomy but was a tributary to Bornu and Bagirmi kingdoms. Both "super-powers" were arch-rivals, competing constantly for regional primacy during almost two centuries, from the late 17th to the end of the 19th century. Very frequently, they used the Lagwan kingdom territory for troops maneuvers and battles.

Probing Pathways to Complexity

There are several cases of the emergence of complex societies all over Africa. The earliest and unique case of pristine Archaic state development is found along the Nile Valley in Egypt. The Kerma culture that emerged in Lower Nubia developed in the indirect shadow of the Pharaohs in the 3rd - 2nd millennium BC. Elsewhere, one has to deal with secondary states , that grew, expand, and collapsed cyclically (Marcus 1992, 1998). It is the case in Western, Eastern, and Southern Africa. The diversity of trajectories and the more or less peculiar research traditions in each of the areas mentioned above made it difficult to outline a comprehensive theory of the emergence of African states. The key theoretical issues to be addressed thoughtfully can be summarized in three major headings: scale, differentiation, and integration.


Scale refers to the precise level of the investigation being carried out. This may be framed in terms of practical matter of fieldwork. An investigation may focus on a single site considered, rightly or wrongly, to subsume all the facets of the developmental trajectory of the societies inhabiting the selected area. The single-Site approach can be combined to various kinds of survey to broaden the sample under consideration. The third option is a genuinely regional approach in which all the documented settlements are sampled. There are different potentials and limits for each of the field strategies outlined above. A genuinely regional approach is nonetheless better equipped to address broader issues of the emergence of complex social systems. It allows for changing patterns of settlement to be brought to light, changes that are, for most the time, enhanced by social and environmental factors.

Scale may also refer to the size and resolution of the excavation unit sunk in a site. It goes without saying that larger excavations conducted within a rigorous and systematic framework provide the researcher with more relevant, context-specific, and accurate information. Research can also focus on narrower parameters, say craft production, exchange intensification, and so on so forth. In summary, the scale of investigation strongly constrains the scope and extension of what can be found about the emergence of complex social systems.


Differentiation on the other hand, is a more relational concept. It refers to the degrees of internal diversification of a social system. It is fundamentally a dynamic process with components added and/or subtracted from the socio-cultural system, at different pace. Each of the components is complex on its own and involves the interaction of many variables. Specialized cultural knowledge and skills, craftsmanship, government, and ritual/ceremonial practices, operate or are activated within more or less open social segments. The results of their stochastic interactions are most of the time unpredictable. Humans tend to favor reliability and predictability, but, the future is fundamentally unpredictable. This entrenched characteristic generates the essential tension imbedded in the evolution of human social systems.

Differentiation is accordingly the engine of social change. It operates at different scales and may work one way or the other, enhance abrupt social change (Revolution) or inhibit adaptation to changing circumstances (Devolution, collapse). Archaeologically speaking, the degrees of internal differentiation of any social system can be accessed through the identification of a number of cultural activities. It is relatively easier with productive operations involving specialized features (apparatus - or [Technomic]), slightly more difficult with organizational patterns (household, Age set, work parties - or [Socionomic]); and much more complicated within the symbolic and ideological domains - [Ideonomic]. Imaginative and interpretive skills may point to one direction or another but cannot substitute for rigorous and replicable analysis. There are horizontal and vertical aspects of differentiation that are conducive to different evolutionary trajectories.


Integration is also strictly relational. It refers to the mechanisms devised by any society to enhance its maintenance and reproduction. It can be split into two polar extremes, horizontal and vertical, with a broad area of overlap. Horizontal integration links distinct social components in a network of more or less equal units. The interaction can be posited on functional and /or symbolic complementarities. The often referred to "heterarchical" systems are good examples of horizontal integration.

Vertical integration on the other hand, generally involves a hierarchical ordering of individuals and social groups. Societies can be ranked and/or stratified. The difference resides in the fact that the former allows for a certain degree of social mobility while the latter does not.

The Land of Houlouf

Shifting back to the Houlouf case, the scale of investigation is explicitly and clearly regional in scope. All the sites recorded were tested. However, sites samples range in size from 12 to 120 square meters. The recorded occupation sequence is 4000 years long, with significant shift in the regional distribution of settlements. The region's landscape also changed radically, from lake's islands, to deltaic, marshland, and flood plain. The nature of settlements changed from seasonal camps of herders/foragers, to even spaced autonomous villages, to end up with polarized chiefdoms with fortified centers.

The degrees of differentiation increased steadily. Pottery making is the only craft represented in the early and long-lasting Deguesse phase. Iron metallurgy is added later, during the Krenak phase, with alloyed copper artifacts present around AD 400. Evidence for long distance exchange, carnelian beads, glass beads, alloyed copper, and imported lithics, are present from the Mishiskwa phase onwards. Intensive fishing and fish-smoking developed at the end of the Mishiskwa phase and peaked during the Ble Phase. The social landscape changed radically with the emergence of rival and competing polities during the Ble phase. The defeat of the Ble Polity paved the way to the rise to primacy of Houlouf chiefdom. A fortified 15.50 Hectares town emerged at Houlouf and exerted a virtual monopoly on exotic long-distance trade, as well as the production and trade in salt. An elite of Warrior/Horsemen, ritual performers, and office-holders, headed by a chief developed.

The complex political apparatus that emerged was supported by farmers, fishermen, herders, craft specialists, ritual performers, and an elite of warriors. Special offerings and very likely, infants sacrifices, were associated with major production facilities, be it salt production, or iron production. Stimulated by the imperial expansion of the neighboring Kanuri state of Bornu, the Lagwan chiefdom rose to paramount status and conquered the Houlouf chiefdom on its northwestern flank. The memory of the once famous Houlouf Chiefdom is still alive and well. It was, once upon a time, a feared and rich Chadic polity; its land is still very well remembered.


Mapping the landscape and delineating chronological developments are relatively straighforward and easy tasks. The reconstruction of patterns of social dynamics is much more difficult. As shown by the excavation of Houlouf, domestic units may also have consisted of a series of houses within fenced or walled contexts. The area was inhabited during a period of significant climatic instability. In this context of instability, one may expect the creation of cultural structures or institutions geared to monitor change in resources availability and ensure order (Halstead and O'Shea 1989, Baines and Yoffee 1998). Such arrangements range from virtually equal groups interaction (Blanton 1998) to unequal and sometime violent domination. How did this operated in this Chadic polity can be modeled using three key concepts outlined and discussed by Baines and Yoffee (1998: 212-214), order, wealth, and legitimacy. "Apparently, the various aspects of rivaling and cooperating groups, both occupationally specialized and socially distinct; the complex routes of circulation of goods, services, and information from both local and long-distance ventures; and conflict with neighboring cities and region all built up a head of sociopolitical and ideological steam manifested in the emergence of new leaders, new forms and symbols of centralized authority, and new demographic shifts" (Baines and Yoffee 1998: 219).

Beyond patterns of settlement hierarchy and the regional distribution of sites, the control of the means of legitimation may have been the critical step in the emergence and routinization of elites groups in the study area. The Houlouf archaeological record shows the social order to have coalesced during the Ble phase (AD 1000 - 1400) into competing polities. The intensification in long-distance exchange and craft specialization went along with accelerated occupational differentiation (Warrior, Horsemen, Office holders, Rituals' specialists), and a narrower definition of the legitimate use of symbols of prestige and achievement. As shown by Baines and Yoffee (1998: 234) in their comparative study of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the emergence and maintenance of elites, and then of elites within elites, lie at heart of civilization: inequality is fundamental. "Elites control symbolic resources in such a way as to make them meaningful only when it is they who exploit them. This appropriation of meaning is complementary to, and at least as important as, other legitimation available to controlling individuals or groups' (Baines and Yoffee 1998: 234).


Shorter versions of this paper were presented at the Northwestern University-University of Chicago Red Lion Seminar in African Studies in April 2005 and at the Africa Workshop, University of Michigan in September 2005. I wish to thank the participants for their questions and comments. I am particularly grateful to Dr. Chap Kusimba, the discussant at the Chicago lecture and to my Michigan colleagues Mamadou Diouf and Frieda Ekotto

About the Author

Augustin F.C. Holl is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, and Curator of West African Archaeology in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.


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