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The Lake Chad region as a crossroads: an archaeological and oral historical research project on early Kanem-Borno and its intra-African connections

Carlos Magnavita, Zakinet Dangbet et Tchago Bouimon
p. 97-110


L’histoire de la région du lac Tchad est intrinsèquement liée à celle de l’empire Kanem-Borno (viiie-xixe siècle après J.-C.), l’État le plus ancien, le plus durable et le plus puissant du Soudan central. Cette réussite politique résultait en grande partie des relations économiques et culturelles que l’État avait naguère établies avec des régions africaines plus ou moins éloignées. Si les historiens sont conscients des liens très lointains que Kanem-Borno a entretenus au début avec l’Afrique du Nord et, plus tard, avec quelques régions de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, ses liens avec des régions orientales telles que le Darfour et la vallée du Nil restent jusqu’à présent mal compris. Dans le cadre d’un nouveau projet de recherche interdisciplinaire, les auteurs ont pour objectif de vérifier l’hypothèse selon laquelle la région du lac Tchad, au-delà de ses liaisons transsahariennes, était autrefois un carrefour majeur pour une route trans-soudanienne est-ouest non documentée reliant la vallée du Nil moyen à l’Afrique de l’Ouest à l’époque médiévale. Les auteurs présentent ici le contexte historique et archéologique du projet de recherche, son calendrier, ses objectifs généraux et les méthodologies utilisées pour comprendre l’un des thèmes les plus déroutants de l’archéologie et de l’histoire du Soudan central.

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  • 1 The designation Kanem-Borno is a geographical concept commonly used by historians to designate this (...)

1Kanem-Borno1 (ca. 8th-19th century AD) is acknowledged as the most powerful Central Sudanic polity and one of the largest and longest-lived pre-colonial states from sub-Saharan Africa. Centred on Lake Chad, it was located on a crossroads of unique historical, cultural and economic significance for medieval and post-medieval Africa. Strategically well-located at the southern terminus of the central trans-Saharan route, the region is indeed best-known for its early role in the Arab-driven commerce that linked Islamic North Africa with the Bilad al-Sudan (cfinfra). In contrast to our comparatively extensive awareness of its connections to the north, we are still extremely poorly informed of the relationships that Kanem-Borno very probably maintained with other African regions during its early history (8th and 14th centuries). On the one hand, this has to do with the constrained nature of information conveyed by the available written sources on the region; on the other, it is the result of a major research gap.

2Presently, nearly all we know about Kanem-Borno beginnings, its heyday and later development derive from documentary sources collected and interpreted by historians in the course of the last 150 years. The careful and critical analysis of those indeed allowed scholars to recognize significant historical events and thus retrace the fortunes of the state in the course of its more than one thousand-year long trajectory (Barth 1857: 253-82; Nachtigal 1881: 399-409; Urvoy 1949; Smith 1976; Lange 1977; Lavers 1980). All in all, however, we are presently much better informed on the last 500 years of Kanem-Borno history than on the foregoing period (Dewière 2017). In this regard, especially the extant picture of the early centuries (8th-14th) remains, in view of the lack of new and better data, in general fragmentary and enigmatic. That source-specific historiographical bias is, however, just the one side of the coin. The other stands for the similarly unsatisfactory status quo of a further major source of information: archaeological research. Unlike its historical counterpart, the current archaeological bias does not result from unavailability of material remains; it is rather the product of the almost universal paucity of targeted research programs embarking upon the investigation of relevant archaeological localities related to Kanem-Borno. In fact, the general scarcity of archaeological data has been not only detrimental to our overall understanding of the late (15th century on) developments in the region; it has been a particularly constraining factor for the comprehension of Kanem-Borno’s early historical phase (ca. 8th-14th centuries), one of the most challenging research gaps in the Central Sudan (Gronenborn 2001: 104).

3Whilst the flux of written historical documents as a major source of knowledge on the early centuries of the state long dried up, both archaeological and local oral historical sources (oral traditions) remain largely untapped. Presently, they are indeed the only remaining ways to obtain new insights into the cultural, economic and socio-political development of the region prior to the 15th century. This paper presents the background and objectives of a new research project that intends to start changing the current research situation above described. It is a new and concerted effort by German archaeologists and Chadian historians to tackle major questions related to early Kanem-Borno and its intra-African connections. The project is one of nine others composing the Priority Program ”Entangled Africa” (SPP 2143) funded by the German Research Council (DFG). The program overall objective is to encourage research on a supra-regional scale, stimulating interdisciplinary investigations on potential intra-African relations between ca. 6000-500 years ago2.

Background of research: documentary evidence and its interpretation

Kanem-Borno beginnings

4The date and circumstances of the emergence of Kanem-Borno as a polity with evolving state-like structures are still a matter of debate amongst historians. The interpretation of king lists as a major source of the state’s early centuries turned out to be a largely complex task and the results of such efforts greatly vary from author to author. Some scholars have reasoned in due consideration of other written sources that the first Kanem-Borno rulers may have ascended the throne sometime between the end of the 6th and beginning of the 7th century (Palmer 1936: 90; Lange 1977: 142-3), whilst more orthodox views by H. Barth (1857: 262) and Urvoy (1941: 27) bracketed those beginnings to the period 8th-9th centuries CE (cf. also Cohen 1966: 61). Just as in the case of little chronological precision, the historical circumstances leading to the rise of Kanem-Borno are currently throughout obscure. By using the little documentary evidence available and a touch of imagination, historians have at least proposed a number of scenarios that may account for the socio-economic background processes of the nascent state, its ethnic heterogeneity and the character of the political organization (e.g. Triminigham 1962: 115-6; Cohen 1970: 187-8; Smith 1976: 158-161; Lavers 1980: 189-190; Lange & Barkindo 1988: 445-9). Common to most reconstructions are the acknowledgement that Kanem-Borno was a polity of nomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers. Whilst the form of government in the first centuries are from author to author variously regarded as decentralized to centralized (e.g. Cohen 1970: 187; Lavers 1980: 189; Lange & Barkindo 1988: 446), most reconstructions agree that economic interests played a central role in the formation and early development of the state. At those initial stages, governmental measures toward the regulation of trade in regional resources (salt, grain, fish, slaves, iron) as well as the control of trade routes must have had been taken as ways of securing state revenue and authority. As in the case of the king lists, however, the time those processes were set in motion is open to debate. Whilst there is a chance that they may pre-date the advent of Arab-driven trans-Saharan commerce in the 7th-8th century, data that might support the latter notion still has to be unearthed in the Chad Basin. In fact, by the time that the first reliable documentary evidence on Kanem-Borno’s economy appears in the 9th-11th centuries (Al-Yaqubi, Al-Muhallabi and Al-Bakri in Cuoq 1975: 49, 78, 82), the state was already involved in the trans-Saharan trade.

Documentary evidence to Kanem-Borno’s intra-African contacts

5According to those early texts, the Lake Chad region was primarily a major centre of enslavement and export of humans for the markets of Islamic North Africa (Al-Yaqubi, Al-Muhallabi and Al-Bakri in Cuoq 1975: 49, 78, 82). Apart from cloth (Al-Bakri in Cuoq 1975: 82), the kind of goods received in exchange are unknown but they possibly also included horses and other luxuries such as jewellery, foodstuffs and weapons. Over the next centuries, Kanem-Borno’s privileged geographic situation at the central trans-Saharan route coupled with an aggressive policy of neighbour subjugation not only enabled the state to gain and long maintain a regional monopoly over the export of slaves (and perhaps ivory) toward North Africa; during the 13th-14th centuries it also came to control the entire central trade route up to Fezzan and Waddan in Libya (Ibn Sai’d and Ibn Khaldun in Cuoq 1975: 209, 342). Nonetheless, Kanem-Borno’s main concern regarding the control of the northern trade route was not immediate profit through taxes and tolls. Its chief interest was to secure the stability of the central trans-Saharan road and thus perpetuate the trade that apparently was so vital for the state’s survival (Fisher 1977: 263; Lange 1984: 249-250). In fact, over more than one thousand years, Kanem-Borno had often to fear minor and major trade disruptions along its northern lifeline. Whilst occasional attacks of caravans by Saharan nomads represented a constant annoyance, the major problem of the central route long remained the Fezzan region at its northern end. Other than its southern section from the Kawar oases to Lake Chad, which was almost continuously under Kanem-Borno control from at latest the late 10th to the 18th century (Al-Muhallabi in Cuoq 1975: 79; Lange 1977: 67; Martin 1969: 21-6), its northern terminus was repeatedly threatened by the political instability in North Africa. Especially in view of its thriving economy (Lange 1984: 249), the Fezzan became for centuries a plaything of various North African groups and dynasties, what ultimately led to a succession of rulers from different origins (Martin 1969). Whilst the impact of those political upheavals on trans-Saharan commerce remains uncertain, the fact is that Kanem-Borno was not indifferent to the political events in North Africa. On the one hand, it is well known that the rulers at Lake Chad seldom missed opportunities of maintaining healthy diplomatic and economic relations with North African monarchs over the centuries (Martin 1969); on the other and in at least one occasion in the 13th-14th c., they likewise played a more active role in the security of the northern end of the route (Ibn Said in Cuoq 1975: 209).

6These glimpses into the political history of the central trans-Saharan route not only highlight the great importance of the north-south trade for Kanem-Borno over a millennium; they inevitably also raise questions concerning the state’s short and long-term economic and political strategies in relation to close and more distant neighbours, particularly between the 8th and the 14th centuries. In fact, can it be that a so powerful and long-lived state almost exclusively relied on the central trans-Saharan route for keeping its political economy running? Or was North Africa instead merely one of a series of near and distant African regions with which the state maintained relations as a means of ensuring its existence?

7For the period the project is especially concerned with – the time prior to the 15th century – we have extremely little but highly informative historical data on Kanem-Borno’s intra-African connections. Apart from its well-known commercial contacts to North Africa, we are presently only aware of the trade relations that the state maintained with a location in the southern Air region: Takedda (Azelik). According to Ibn Said (in Cuoq 1975: 218), that copper-producing location was possibly under the authority of the Lake Chad rulers in the 13th century, whilst in the mid-14th Kanem-Borno was receiving from there copper in exchange for slaves and saffron-dyed cloth (Ibn Batutta in Cuoq 1975: 319). In the 15th century, military, commercial and cultural relations between Kanem-Borno, Hausaland, Borgu (Nigeria, Benin) and Gonja (Ghana) are relatively well attested through the Kano Chronicle and the Bayajida and Kisra legends (Lovejoy 1978: 185; Sutton 1979: 197-9; Adamu 1984: 279-280; Laya 1992: 455-457; Lange 1993; Kuba 2001). Kano and a number of other Hausa city-states were then tributary to Kanem-Borno, and Urvoy (1949: 46) has suggested that those relationships might date to the beginning of the 14th century. Except for those largely acknowledged later pieces of evidence as well as suggestions concerning the extent of Kanem-Borno’s remaining sphere of influence around Lake Chad (fig. 1), there is presently no consistent evidence explicitly hinting at further pre-15th century commercial connections between Lake Chad and more distant African regions. Though few in number, the above mentioned instances provide the contextual background for suggesting that Kanem-Borno may have had more African trade partners outside the Chad Basin than the extant documentary evidence appears to suggest. The questions that remain to be answered are: which regions could have attracted the political and economic interests of Kanem-Borno in the past? At which times could those hypothetical relations have been established? And how can we demonstrate that they indeed took place?

Figure 1 – Kanem-Borno’s area of influence in the fourteenth century AD, according to Y. Urvoy (1949: 43)

Figure 1 – Kanem-Borno’s area of influence in the fourteenth century AD, according to Y. Urvoy (1949: 43)

Further documentary evidence and their interpretation

8Some hidden clues of areas that might have been early in the focus of Kanem-Borno’s attention are potentially furnished by the external testimony of medieval Arab geographers. By describing the kingdoms and countries to the south of the Sahara, they often expressed the respective importance or political weight of those political entities by mentioning either their extent (e.g. in days of travel), the peoples they subjugated and/or their neighbours. In the case of Kanem-Borno, especially two authors of this period, Al-Muhallabi (late 10th century) and Ibn Said (late 13th century, citing his contemporary Ibn Fatima) are relevant.

9Writing in 990 CE, Al-Muhallabi (translated from Cuoq 1975: 78) states that:

“This kingdom [Kawkaw] is more prosperous than that of the Zaghawa [Kanem-Borno], although the country of the latter is larger. (…) It is a country south of Ifrikiya [Tunisia]. (…) The Zaghawa kingdom is one of the most extensive. To the east it borders on the Nuba kingdom in Upper Egypt, and between them there is a ten-day march. They consist of many peoples. The length of their country is 15 stages as much as wide (...).”

10Writing in 1286 CE, Ibn Said (in Cuoq 1975: 209-211) comments that:

“At an angle of the lake, 51° longitude, is Matan, one of the famous towns of Kanem, at 13° of latitude. South of this town is the capital of Kanem, Djimi, at 53° longitude and 9° latitude minus a few minutes. Here resides the sultan famous for his jihad and his acts of virtue. (...) Of this sultan depend [the countries] like the sultanate of Tadjuwa, the kingdoms of Kawar and Fazzan. (...) East of Matan, there are the territories of the Zaghawa, who are mostly Muslims under the authority of the ruler of Kanem.

Between the south-east bank [of the Nile] and Tadjuwa, the capital of Zaghawa, 100 miles to go. It is located at 55 longitude and 14° latitude. Its inhabitants became Muslims under the authority of the sovereign of Kanem. (...) The territories of Tadjuwa and Zaghawa extend over the distance between the arc of the Nile (...). They [the Tadjuwa and Zaghawa] form only one race, (...). They are idolatrous, in rebellion against the sovereign of Kanem; they live in the desert and the mountains (...).”

11These accounts give a coarse idea of the geography of power as perceived by those who traveled the region between Lake Chad and the Nile Valley in the 10th to 13th centuries. Whilst distances and coordinates are less helpful due to their inherent imprecision (but see Lange 1980 for a reconstruction of the geography of the Lake Chad area after Ibn Said), the general approach related to the information given on Kanem-Borno by the two authors is clear: they attempted to convey knowledge that provide a general notion of the relations of power between different peoples living in the region. Thus according to Al-Muhallabi’s informants, Kanem-Borno in the 10th century was a multi-ethnic kingdom or empire. Its eastern borders apparently coincided with the western borders of the Nuba people who probably lived west of the Nile. Writing almost 300 years later, Ibn Said insisted that the kingdom of a people known as Tadjuwa was subject to Kanem-Borno. According to the king lists and oral traditions collected by G. Nachtigal (1889: 358) in Darfur, the Tajuwa (probably the ancestors of the modern Dadju or Daju) are recognized as the people that provided the first dynastic line of the Darfur sultanate at the Marrah Mountains in today’s Sudan (see also McGregor 2000: 34; O’Fahey 2008: 21-25). In this context, it is remarkable that both the accounts by Al-Muhallabi and Ibn Said suggest an eastward expansion of Kanem-Borno influence toward the Nile, respectively in the 10th and 13th centuries. In the case of the information provided by Ibn Said, the perhaps most interesting point is that the land of the Tadjuwa is explicitly mentioned as having had a similar subordinate status as did Kawar and Fezzan. As seen above, both regions were located on one of the most important trade routes for Kanem-Borno’s economy at the time. Since Ibn Said ranks the Tajuwa sultanate as politically equivalent to them, could it mean that the Tajuwa was likewise on a similarly significant trade route to the Lake Chad region? Is there possibly a relation between political allegiance and trade? Unfortunately, Ibn Said does not mention explicitly the reason(s) for the subjection of the Tajuwa. However, their alleged political situation conceivably parallels the circumstances under which Kanem-Borno forced Hausaland into a tributary relationship in the 15th century (Adamu 1984: 279). As commerce demonstrably played a role in early relations between Lake Chad, Fezzan, Kawar and Hausaland (cf. supra), we think that this was similarly the case of the Darfur-Kanem connections.

12Interestingly, the perception that Kanem-Borno may have been significantly more influential in the northern part of Africa before the 15th century than hitherto thought is not restricted to external sources. The alleged expansion of its power is similarly echoed by an internal source of the 16th century. Writing in 1567, Ahmed ibn Furtu (Palmer 1967 [1928]: 16), the chief iman of the capital Birni Gazargamo, reported that:

We have heard from learned Scheikhs that the utmost extent of their power [i.e., of the rulers before Daud ibn Nikale alias Daud ibn Ibrahim (ca. 1366-1375 CE)] in the east was to the land of Daw and to the Nile in the region called Rif; in the west their boundary reached the river called Baramusa.”

  • 3 On this subject, see also Dewière 2015: 151-158.

13H. R. Palmer (1967 [1928]: 73) has seen the stretches mentioned in the passage as encompassing the regions between lower Nubia and the Niger3. The Rif is indeed the medieval name of Upper Egypt (Burmester 1939: 97-100), whilst Daw was the late capital and the short name for the Christian kingdom of Dotawo in lower Nubia, dated at latest to the 12th-14th centuries CE (Ruffini 2016, 2017: 63-4). However, the account by Ibn Furtu is not problematic (Dewière 2015: 158) and Urvoy (1949: 44) regarded it as a reminiscence of a perceived glorious imperial past, the limits mentioned at best being related to areas subject to raids. Whilst those are possibilities that must be considered, the persistence with which Kanem-Borno is associated with an alleged eastward expansion in the documentary evidence is nevertheless significant and urge for other possible explanations. Particularly Ibn Said’s detailed 13th century account is a useful reference for reviewing previous views on the theme and putting forward own thoughts. Concerning the information that the Tadjuwa kingdom was under the sway of Kanem-Borno in the 13th century, D. Lange (1984: 252) was extraordinarily prudent in accepting that evidence at face value. He indeed doubted that “Kanem extended to the east as far as the outskirts of Darfur” (ibid.). Other than D. Lange, Arkell (1952: 270) not only accepted Kanem-Borno supremacy over Darfur, but offered an explanation for that resolute state action. He concluded that the interest of the empire in the region was the control of the Darb el-Arba’in, the trade route that, bypassing Makuria, directly linked Darfur to Asyut, ca. 375 km south of Cairo (Arkell 1952: 264, 269-70). Though meanwhile acknowledged that trade through that route only flourished from the end of the 17th or early 18th century with a modest use documented in the early 14th century (Walz 1979: 213; McGregor 2000: 7), Arkell’s notion of commercial interests as the factor spurring the sway over Darfur is appealing.

14Drawing upon that line of reasoning, we similarly propose that, if Kanem-Borno indeed exerted political influence on Darfur in the 13th century as the documentary evidence appears to suggest, the primary concern for doing so was to maintain control over trade opportunities and trade routes to that region and beyond (fig. 2). In fact, we suggest that Darfur may not have been the terminus but rather a major transit point on a commercial route to the Nile. Whilst A. J. Arkell favored Egypt as final trade destination, we consider an easterly and substantially shorter route to the Middle Nile – perhaps through northern Kordofan – as the main connection. Based on information by Al-Muhallabi, we moreover argue that Kanem-Borno (indirect?) trade linkages with the Nile might date back to the 10th century CE at latest. Though presently highly hypothetical, the development of a trade route toward the Middle Nile Valley at that early date would be significant for Kanem-Borno rulers, particularly in the light of the latent risk of disruptions of the central trans-Saharan route to North Africa (cf. supra). In fact, an eastern trans-Sudanic route might have been a true alternative to North Africa, as the Middle Nile was then equally in the position of providing the state with access to essential commodities, particularly horses and other luxuries. After all, the hypothetical trade route to the Middle Nile might have been merely the formalization of a series of anyway active natural lines of communication between the Nile Valley and Central/Western Africa from the first millennium AD at latest. It is indeed through trans-Sudanic roads that horses were very probably brought into the Lake Chad region possibly as early as the 7th-8th centuries CE (MacEachern et al. 2001: 64-65) and chickens may have traveled even further west in earlier centuries (MacDonald 1992: 307; Dueppen 2011: 144).

Figure 2 – Proposed area of influence and trade relationships of Kanem-Borno in the thirteenth century

Figure 2 – Proposed area of influence and trade relationships of Kanem-Borno in the thirteenth century

© C. Magnavita

  • 4 But see R. Dewière (2017: 239) who suggests that this route may have been open for pilgrims as earl (...)

15At this point, we must admit that besides the circumstantial evidence of the cited Arab written sources, we presently have not a single concrete hint of direct contacts between the Nile Valley and the Chad Basin predating the 15th century. Whilst it is acknowledged that the two regions were linked through a pilgrimage route perhaps as early as the 16th or 17th centuries4 (Oliver & Atmore 2003: 103, 109), virtually nothing (except for the documented Arab movements into the Lake Chad Basin in the late 14th century) is known of previous times. Scholars indeed conventionally claim that the Christian kingdoms of Nubia on the Middle Nile (particularly Makuria) worked as an effective barrier hampering any travel, trade and political relations between the Nile Valley and the Central Sudan regions in the 6th-13th century period (Shinnie & Shinnie 1965: 263; Devisse 1988: 373; Oliver & Atmore 2001: 103). However, that notion solely rest on the circumstance that the textual evidence be it Arab, Nubian or Central Sudanic is generally silent on the subject of any kind of contacts along the eastern Sudanic belt (Shinnie & Shinnie 1965: 272; Ruffini 2016). Even archaeology has thus far failed to demonstrate any direct or indirect relations between the Middle Nile Valley, Darfur and Lake Chad (especially Kanem) before 15th century, but this may simply reflect the paucity of modern field research at the two latter key areas (for Darfur see McGregor 2000: 4; for Kanem cf. infra). The perhaps greatest proponent of medieval contacts between the Middle Nile and Lake Chad was Arkell (1952, 1959, 1960, 1963). Though he regularly presented finds and theories in support of those putative contacts, none of them seriously bore up against critical assessment thus far (Edwards 2004: 253, 272; McGregor 2011: 134).

16With that in mind, the present research project is a new attempt to throw fresh light on the question of trans-Sudanic contacts in the period antedating the 15th century. Other than previous work carried out from an outsider’s perspective (e.g. Bivar & Shinnie 1962; Arkell 1963), we will be on the lookout for new evidence of commercial and cultural long-distance contacts through the analysis of material remains and other data from within the Lake Chad Basin, particularly from Kanem (east of the Lake). As a large part of the region around the lake was under the political control of Kanem-Borno for a long time, we expect that especially the investigation of local elite sites may furnish relevant evidence of supra-regional connections in the period concerned.

Background of research: archaeology and oral tradition

  • 5 See also: Gonzemai A. (2002) – Les briques cuites du Kanem (Tchad). N’Djamena, Université de N’Djam (...)

17In the Lake Chad region, the most conspicuous archaeological vestiges hinting at long-distance cultural contacts are fired-brick constructions linked to the Kanem-Borno kings or to related elite groups. Altogether, twenty-six sites featuring such kind of constructions are yet known west (10) and east (16) of the lake (Lebeuf 1962; Magnavita et al. 2009)5. This is indeed the highest concentration of this site type in sub-Saharan Africa outside the Middle Nile Valley (Nubia), making the region unique in the context of the archaeology of state-level societies in the continent. In contrast to vernacular building practices, the architectural tradition and the technology involved in the erection of fired-brick structures are alien to the Lake Chad region, hence pointing to strong cultural connections of the latter with North Africa and/or the Nile Valley from some point in time (cf. infra). Whilst being the most glaring evidence of intra-African connections, archaeological fieldwork devoted to investigating those fired-brick constructions and the sites they are embedded has been overall extremely rare and partial. West of Lake Chad, in the region known as Borno (SE Niger and NE Nigeria), only four of ten locations associated with this kind of structures were yet targeted by archaeological test investigations (Connah 1981: 229-233; Hambolu 1996; Haour 2008; Magnavita et al. 2009; Magnavita & Magnavita 2017). East of the lake, in the region Kanem (SW Chad), no excavations ever took place at the various fired-brick elite sites known there and in the vicinities of the Bahr el Ghazal (Lebeuf 1962; cf. note 4; fig. 3). This is overall regrettable, as archaeological research remains, given the virtual lack of local written information, one of two major sources capable of providing original data on those constructions and the people who lived therein. In general, questions regarding chronology, function(s) and extent as well as cultural, historical and intern spatial contexts of those sites still remain as virtually unexplored as those referring to intra-African contacts and technological/architectural origins of fired-brick constructions. Apart from that, the wide-ranging dearth of archaeological research is equally largely problematic from a cultural management point of view. In fact, several of those exceptional fired-brick structures are greatly jeopardized by looting or even already completely lost (Magnavita & Magnavita 2017).

Figure 3. Location of the project sites Tié and Eri, ca. 45 kilometers east of Mao and ca.100-150 kilometers from Lake Chad, along with 14 other fired-brick elite locations (black squares)

Figure 3. Location of the project sites Tié and Eri, ca. 45 kilometers east of Mao and ca.100-150 kilometers from Lake Chad, along with 14 other fired-brick elite locations (black squares)

Modern cities, towns and villages are shown as black or white circles.

Modified by C. Magnavita after A. Gonzemai (2002: 11).

18In Borno, most of the post-14th century AD constructions are today throughout badly damaged or do not any longer exist in view of destruction and systematic plundering that occurred in the course of the last two hundred years (Binet 1952; Bivar & Shinnie 1962; Connah 1981: 229-233; Magnavita 2010). Whilst the long vanished structures can be yet hardly physically salvaged and reconstructed, it was just recently demonstrated, and otherwise suggested, how critical information on both their plans and chronology might be still effectively retrieved by using appropriate methodology (Magnavita et al. 2009; Magnavita 2011; Magnavita & Magnavita 2017).

19Just as in the case of Borno, most of the fired-brick structures known from sites in Kanem and the Bahr el Ghazal nearby are heavily plundered and, to a large extent, levelled with the ground (cf. note 4). Thus far, archaeological work tackling those ruins was limited to general descriptions and the production of sketch maps of visible structural remains; none however was designed to unravel the archaeological and historical problems posed by them (Bivar & Shinnie 1962; Lebeuf 1962, 1972; cf. note 4). Currently, the tiny pieces of information available on the locations east of Lake Chad derive not from archaeology but from oral traditions. Oral hearsay accounts recorded in the last century amongst people living close to the Kanem and Bahr el Ghazal fired-brick sites chiefly attribute their foundation to the so-called Bulala (Lebeuf 1962). In the history of Kanem-Borno, the Bulala are recognized as a group of people who was ultimately responsible for the exodus of the Empire’s royal clan, the Magumi, and its dynastic line, the Sayfuwa, from Kanem to Borno in the late 14th century AD (Lavers 1980: 191-192). Whilst the actual origins and identity of the historical Bulala remain so far obscure and object of an exciting historical debate (Magnant 1993; Lange 1993), it seems not at all improbable that at least a number of the fired-brick elite sites near the Bahr el Ghazal were indeed founded by the historical Bulala between the 15th and 16th centuries AD (Lebeuf 1962; cf. note 4).

20The Bulala hypothesis is tantalizing and largely logical in illuminating the grounds for the foundation of at least some of the fired-brick sites east of Lake Chad. Apart from that, however, it remains not only untested; it does also not account for the origins of the architectural tradition of fired-brick constructions in the Lake Chad region. In fact, there are good reasons to suggest that the historical Bulala were not the first elite group to have used fired bricks as building material. Instead, they may have merely adopted a pre-existing architectural tradition, possibly as a symbolic means of legitimating their own supremacy over Kanem in post-Sayfuwa times. The rationale behind this assertion is that the dynastic line of the Sayfuwa is acknowledged – as the very first Central Sudanic royal house – to have professed Islam as early as the 11th century AD (Lange 1977: 69). In this line of thought, it can be hypothesized that the increasing Islamic influence on the ruling class resulted in major cultural changes, amongst others in the way the royal dynasty started displaying its status and authority (Magnavita & Sule in press). It is possibly within this early period and hypothetical historical context that fired-brick architecture and technology was first introduced into the Lake Chad Basin. The historically documented shift of the early Kanem-Borno royal seat from a place known as Manan or Matan to another named Njimi (Ibn Sa’id in Cuoq 1975: 210) may be therefore not only emblematic for the adoption of Islam as state religion and an almost concomitant dynastic change in Kanem (Lange 1977: 68; Zeltner 2000: 40-42); hypothetically, it also set the stage for the construction of the very first fired-brick structures in the Lake Chad Basin. So far, however, none of these places have been confidently identified on ground (Gronenborn 2001: 104).

21If the above outlined scenario is correct, the most plausible source of the fired-brick architecture and technology introduced to Lake Chad appears to be Islamic North Africa. However, there is also evidence calling that suggestion into question. In fact, not only North Africa has a long fired-brick architectural tradition dating back to Punic times (Fantar 2011: 451); this is similarly the case of the Middle Nile Valley since the Meroitic period (Edwards 2004: 153-155). Particularly for the time in question (8th-14th centuries AD), it cannot be therefore excluded that the Lake Chad region were once in (indirect?) contact with the Nubian kingdoms (particularly Makuria and Alodia), where the use of fired bricks for elite constructions (churches, palaces, graves) was well established from the 6th-10th centuries AD (Shinnie 1996: 129; Edwards 2004: 221). In this context, especially the find of pottery at the Kanem fired-brick site Tié (see below) which, according to Bivar and Shinnie (1962: 9), resembles ceramics known from Makuria appears significant. First, that pottery may not only indicate the existence of cultural and, perhaps, trade contacts between Medieval Nubia and Lake Chad. If correct, it may also be seen as a first hint of the ultimate origin of the fired-brick architectural tradition in the Lake Chad region. Of course, these are however hypothetical issues that will have to be critically tested in the course of fieldwork and post-fieldwork analyses.

22Whilst, as local oral accounts suggest, most of the fired-brick elite sites in Kanem and the Bahr el Ghazal may be 15th century or later in date (Lebeuf 1962), a few are probably earlier and thus definitely related to Kanem-Borno beginnings (cf. supra). A potential pre-15th century location is the above mentioned site Tié or Ciye, visited by A. D. H. Bivar in 1959 (Bivar & Shinnie 1962: 7) and later on by J.-C. Zeltner (2000: 146-7) and Gonzemai (cf. note 4: 46-49). Situated ca. 43 km east of the current province capital of Mao (fig. 3), Tié’s position not only comes closest to the location of Kanem-Borno’s Islamic capital Njimi as described by Ahmed ibn Furtu in the late 16th century (Zeltner 2000: 143-8; Lange 1986/1987: 36-7, 1987: 159). There is also promising etymological and oral historical evidence suggesting that it may be identified with Njimi and thus date to pre-Bulala times. Concerning etymology, there is a striking correlation between the names of modern villages, the local appellation of the fired-brick site and the late historical record. In fact, the names of at least seven villages in the site’s surroundings begin all with the root term Tié (or Ciye) as in the case of Tié Koulkou, Tié Isiri, Tié Tou, Tié Dirdinga. In the middle of the 20th century, the fired-brick site as recorded by Urvoy (1949: 27) was locally known by the phonetically interchangeable name of Njimi-Ye or Cimi-Ye. This implies that the root Tié (or Ciye) of the modern villages names very probably derives from the contraction of Cimi-Ye or Njimi-Ye (Zeltner 2000: 23). Almost one hundred years earlier, Heinrich Barth (1857: 279), certainly relying on local informants speaking Kanuri-Kanembu and Arabic, similarly gives the name of the former Kanem-Borno capital as Njímiye, what closely relates to Urvoy’s designation for the site. Apart from the site’s name, preliminary interviews by the authors (D. Z. and C. M.) in March 2017 with two elders from the villages Tié Koulkou and Tié Isiri indicate that local oral traditions on that and another fired-brick site in the surroundings (Eri, ca. 9 km south of Tié, fig. 3) link them with the early Sayfuwa kings of Kanem-Borno rather than with the Bulala. In this respect, Tié and Eri rank as two of few fired-brick elite sites locally not attributed to the latter group, a conclusion already drawn by Zeltner (2000: 110) through local interviews conducted by him in the 1970s. Though admittedly faint, all that initial evidence along with pottery found by A. D. H. Bivar and P. L. Shinnie (1962) suggest that Tié is a pre-15th century location and that the site could be also tentatively identified with Njimi, the first Islamic capital of Kanem-Borno, probably founded sometime after the mid- to late 11th century AD.

23It becomes obvious that the actual historical significance of both Tié and Eri as well as questions related to Kanem-Borno’s intra-African connections can only be conclusively addressed by means of new targeted field research in the region. Through focused collaborative efforts involving the only two sets of information sources yet available for the period and region (archaeological remains and oral traditions), we expect that the project will make original contributions to Kanem-Borno’s early history, filling a major research gap in Africa’s Central Sudan region.

The project: timeframe, objectives, methodologies

24‘The Lake Chad region as a crossroads’ is a research project involving archaeologists and historians. It is planned to run over a total period of six years with a first phase in 2019-2021 and a second in 2022-2024. As extensively explained above, the hypothesis underlying the project is that the Lake Chad region, alongside its acknowledged trans-Saharan linkages to North Africa, was a key hub for a yet undocumented east-west trans-Sudanic route linking the Middle Nile Valley with Central and West Africa in the period pre-dating the 15th century. Some thirty years ago, historians have already considered the possible existence of such an early connection via Lake Chad (Devisse 1988: 435; Lange & Barkindo 1988: 437). More recently, J. E. G. Sutton (2001: 52) and Blier (2011: 118-9) indeed regarded it as the most practical itinerary for trade items and cultural elements arriving in the West African savanna and rainforest in the late first to mid-second millennia CE. In spite of those ideas, the notion of an east-west connection remain thus far untested. To a large extent, this results from the lack of modern archaeological research at relevant regions along that putative route (i.e. Kordofan, Darfur, Wadai) but especially at sites in the Lake Chad area, where artifacts hinting at east-west relations are expected to form part of local find collections. The central objective of the project is thus to uncover material and other evidence that may substantiate the pivotal role of the region as a crossroads in an alleged trans-Sudanic exchange network, thus contributing to a broader understanding of Kanem-Borno’s economy and politics in medieval times.

25Within the scope of the first project phase (2019-2021), we will be carrying out archaeological and oral tradition research on the yet poorly understood early period of Kanem-Borno development, i.e. prior to the 15th century. Given the paucity of previous research in the Kanem region, we will be starting the very first field investigations in order to attaining a basic understanding of sites, constructions and materials belonging to that period. Those investigations are going to focus on the Kanem fired-brick localities of Tié and Eri and will involve geophysical surveying, archaeological excavations and the record of oral traditions on those places.

Summary and recent developments

26Our present knowledge of Kanem-Borno (8th-19th centuries) is still largely fragmentary. Whilst the interpretation of available documentary sources have furnished a reliable chronological framework into which to fit major historical events, we are presently much better informed on the later 500 years of Kanem-Borno development than on the longer period of its formation and early growth. On the one hand, this has to do with the limited character of the information contained in the early historical evidence available; on the other, with the virtual paucity of archaeological research on relevant elite sites in the Lake Chad region. That historical and archaeological bias is for instance not only responsible for our ignorance regarding the exact location and physical characteristics of Kanem-Borno’s pre-15th century capitals; it is also the reason for our patchy knowledge of the connections that the state possibly had with near and distant African regions.

27Currently, we are relatively well acquainted of the nature and date of commercial and political relations that Kanem-Borno maintained with North Africa (at latest from the 9th century onwards) and with areas to the northwest and west of Lake Chad (Takedda, 13th-14th c.; Hausaland, 14th-15th c.). However, those are probably only a fraction of the distant regions with which the state might have been in contact prior to the 15th century. Based on documentary accounts from the 10th and 13th centuries, we propose that the Lake Chad region similarly maintained by then political and trade relations with the Darfur region and (perhaps only indirectly) with the Middle Nile Valley. Some years ago, historians and archaeologists pondered about trans-Sudanic commercial and cultural relations in medieval times, but the paucity of corroborative data was detrimental to pursuing that idea. A major objective of the present project is to search for new archaeological, oral historical and other evidence that might substantiate that notion.

28By the time this paper was written and submitted to publication (September-October 2019), the authors had already conducted a first season of fieldwork (January-February 2019) and were just starting the second. The data collected during the first field season are currently being analyzed and interpreted and, alongside those of the second season, will be published within the scope of two or three forthcoming papers to appear in 2020 and 2021. We expect that by then we can offer a more differentiated view of the pre-15th century archaeology and oral traditions of Kanem-Borno and possibly some clues to its known and yet unknown long-distance connections.

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1 The designation Kanem-Borno is a geographical concept commonly used by historians to designate this Central Sudanic polity. It refers explicitly to the two regions bordering Lake Chad in which the empire conventionally had its successive political and administrative centers: Kanem, east of the lake, between the 8th and the 14th centuries, and Borno, west of the lake, between the 15th and the 19th centuries.

2 cf.

3 On this subject, see also Dewière 2015: 151-158.

4 But see R. Dewière (2017: 239) who suggests that this route may have been open for pilgrims as early as the late 14th century CE.

5 See also: Gonzemai A. (2002) – Les briques cuites du Kanem (Tchad). N’Djamena, Université de N’Djamena, mémoire de maîtrise, unpublished.

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Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 268k
Titre Figure 1 – Kanem-Borno’s area of influence in the fourteenth century AD, according to Y. Urvoy (1949: 43)
Fichier image/jpeg, 368k
Titre Figure 2 – Proposed area of influence and trade relationships of Kanem-Borno in the thirteenth century
Crédits © C. Magnavita
Fichier image/jpeg, 372k
Titre Figure 3. Location of the project sites Tié and Eri, ca. 45 kilometers east of Mao and ca.100-150 kilometers from Lake Chad, along with 14 other fired-brick elite locations (black squares)
Légende Modern cities, towns and villages are shown as black or white circles.
Crédits Modified by C. Magnavita after A. Gonzemai (2002: 11).
Fichier image/jpeg, 183k
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Carlos Magnavita, Zakinet Dangbet et Tchago Bouimon, « The Lake Chad region as a crossroads: an archaeological and oral historical research project on early Kanem-Borno and its intra-African connections », Afrique : Archéologie & Arts, 15 | 2019, 97-110.

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Carlos Magnavita, Zakinet Dangbet et Tchago Bouimon, « The Lake Chad region as a crossroads: an archaeological and oral historical research project on early Kanem-Borno and its intra-African connections », Afrique : Archéologie & Arts [En ligne], 15 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2019, consulté le 19 février 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Carlos Magnavita – Frobenius Institute for Research in Cultural Anthropology at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, Norbert-Wollheim-Platz 1, 60323 Frankfurt, Germany

Zakinet Dangbet – Université de N’Djaména, Faculté de Sciences Humaines et Sociales, BP 1117 N’Djamena, Tchad

Tchago Bouimon – Université de N’Djaména, Faculté de Sciences Humaines et Sociales, BP 1117 N’Djamena, Tchad

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