Seminar: Archaeology, Delafosse and the States of the West African Sahel


Video duration: 
47 min.

This seminar has been organized in cooperation with the Department of Cultural Anthropology, Leiden University.

A century on, Maurice Delafosse’s (1912) monumental Haut-Sénégal-Niger contains a history of these two river basins which, whether we wish to admit it or not, continues to impact on our expectations of the West African past. Delafosse not only defined the principal polities by which we sub-divide western Sahelian history but also supplied a set of territorial expectations for each of these polities. As Jean-Louis Triaud argues in a recent re-evaluation of this famous work, Delafosse’s careful provision of detailed maps for most historic states acted as an important legitimation device, reassuring the reader of the solidity of his account. However, Delafosse’s certitudes were often illusory and based on premature hunches. This is particularly the case in his attribution of names and places to capitals for Ghana, Sosso and Mali, which have led archaeologists and historians by the nose for decades and from which we are only now beginning to break free.

This seminar contrasts archaeological data amassed since the 1960s with the expectations of the Delafosse narrative and suggests new directions not only for practical field research but also for a renewed socio-political archaeology of Sahelian West Africa’s historic past.


Prof. Kevin MacDonald (PhD Cambridge 1994), who has lectured at University College London since receiving his PhD, was appointed to London's first ever chair in African Archaeology in 2011. He has worked primarily in Mali over the past 23 years on issues ranging from the peopling of the Middle Niger to cultural complexity in pastoral societies, and more recently on issues of landscape, slavery and power in the polities of Mali and Segou. He has also directed fieldwork in Mauritania on Tichitt tradition settlements and in North America on colonial plantations and Creole communities in Louisiana. His recent books include Slavery in Africa: Archaeology and Memory (with Paul Lane) and African Re-Genesis: Confronting Social Issues in the Diaspora (with Jay Haviser).


Date, time and location

05 July 2012
15.30 - 17.00
Pieter de la Courtgebouw / Faculty of Social Sciences, Wassenaarseweg 52, 2333 AK Leiden
Room 3A06