Thursday, 26 October 2017

Earlier Sorghum in Sudan (2017)





A few years ago I posted a blog on Earlier sorghum in Sudan highlighting the work by Alemseged Beldados and Constatini on sherd impressions from Kasala from the early Second Millennium BC. At the time I raised the question as to whether or not these impressions were wild or domesticasted. At the time I bemoaned the lack of SEMs and attention to spikelet base remains. That blog post attracted the attention of Frank Winchell (see his comments at the time), and around the same time Frank had met Michael Brass, then a PhD student at UCL. Through these interactions, online and eventually in person, we started a collaboration to re-examine ceramics that Frank has collected and studied from a site of Kasm el Girba 23, to the southwest of Kasala, from field work over 30 years ago. Frank has long been impressed by the present of a large number of apparently seed or chaff tempered ceramics in a ware type called Kharadag Plain, and through extensive examination in the UCL archaeobotany laboratory, casting impressions and SEM study, as well as re-assessing our reference material of domesticated and wild sorghum.


The results are highly significant, and have now been published in Current Anthropology. Domesticated sorghum morphologies were present much earlier than previously found, i.e before 3000 BC, more than a millennium earlier than the Kasala finds or finds in India. In addition the material represents a mix of almost equal parts morphologically wild (smooth spikelet base) and domesticated (torn rachilla). This suggests that the Kasm el Girba material is around midway in the domestication process, and by analogy with the protracted domestication now well documented for rice, wheat and barley, we should be considering this as an advanced stage of pre-domestication cultivation, and seeking the beginnings of pre-domestication cultivation sometime before 4000 BC. This has received some science journalism attention from Nature and Science News.

One of the other highly significant patterns is the Kasm el Girba faunal evidence, as previously published by Joris Peters: it represents a wild hunted savanna fauna. It lacks the evidence for sheep, goat or cattle, in contrast to the evidence for some pastoral component to the economies of the Neolithic around Khartoum from the Fifth Millennium BC at least. This calls into questions the widely accepted notion of "cattle before crops" in Africa (as per Marhsall and Hildebrand 2002). Certainly pastoralism gets established in parts of the Sahara around 6000 BC, long before any evidence for cultivation. It is also true that the earliest evidence for domestication of pearl millet, reported by Manning et al (2011), occurs alongside evidence for cattle and caprine pastoralism. But in this case we seem to see evidence for cultivation of early sorghum and sorghum domestication taking place among fairly sedentary hunter-gatherers and not their Sahelian pastoralist neighbours. This raises some exciting questions for further research in Sudan, and calls for renewed efforts in zooarchaeology and archaeobotany of the Early to Middle Holocene in northern Sudan, etc.

2 comments:

Frank Winchell said...

There is another site, KG28, which represents the Butana/Malawiya transition (of the Atbai Ceramic Tradition) that precedes KG23 (for more information on this, see Winchell 2013). KG28 dates just prior to 4000 BC, and comes out of the Malawiya Group which dates to the mid-fifth millennium BC. It is perhaps during the Malawiya and Butana/Malawiya transition where the domestication process begins in the southern Atbai. On domesticated animals coming into the Butana Group occupations, it is possible that they come from other occupations towards the east near the Red Sea. It is important to note that there appears to be very little connection between other groups along the Nile and the Butana Group.

Frank Winchell

Frank Winchell said...

I will add that based on Andrea Manzo's recent investigations in the southern Atbai and Kassala region, the Malawiya Group probably existed as early as 5000 BC, and looks to have developed out of the earlier Khartoum Variant/Khartoum Mesolithic (Am Adam Group) in the southern Atbai/Kassala region. The Khartoum Variant/Khartoum Mesolithic component in this area of Eastern Sudan probably dates to around the mid-sixth millennium BC. Fra
nk Winchell