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Cultural Anthropological Archaeology and Historical Ethnology

What cultural dynamics have contributed to the diversity of different population groups as well as to urban development, state formation and trade in Africa over centuries?

How does the interaction between indigenous and external agents in the management of resources in Asia manifest itself in political, social and cultural terms, and how does this interaction influence dominant forms of food and economic practices in the long term?

These and other questions are at the centre of research projects that examine the richness of human cultures in their current diversity as well as in their change through time. For example, topics such as human coexistence and the relationship between human cultures and their natural environment, not only with regard to the present, but also in a diachronic perspective as well as in relation to other epochs are looked at specifically under archaeological and historical aspects. The corresponding projects rely on local participation and local knowledge of the past, they are open-ended as well as multidisciplinary, and they ultimately aim to expand the spectrum of methods in cultural anthropology.


Completed and ongoing third-party funded projects: 

Resource Cultures of Rice and Wheat in South and Central Asia. Religious and (agrarian) economic dimensions of cereals
(Roland Hardenberg, SFB 1070, 2021-2025)

The Lake Chad Region as a Crossroads. First studies on archaeology and oral traditions of the early Kanem-Borno empire and its intra-African connections
(Carlos Magnavita, Dangbet Zakinet, DFG 2019 2024).

Cultural entanglements on the lower Guadalquivir. Interacting resource cultures and socio-cultural change in the south of the Iberian Peninsula.
(Martin Bartelheim, Roland Hardenberg, SFB 1070, 2021-2025)

Loan words and objects of exchange. Archaeo-linguistic network analysis and modelling of cultural interconnections along the Niger, between Sahara and rainforest (700 1500 AD)
(Henning Schreiber, Nikolas Gestrich, DFG, 2019 2021)

The relationship between pottery form and function through lipid and protein analysis in West Africa (sub-project of the DFG project loan words and exchange objects).
(Soren Feldborg Pedersen, Nikolas Gestrich, 2021-2024)

Markadugu: the relationship of urbanism and trade to state power in the Segou region of Mali
(Nikolas Gestrich, Volkswagen Foundation, 2016-2021)

Use of landscape as a resource and socio-cultural change on the Iberian Peninsula
(Martin Bartelheim, Roland Hardenberg, subproject in SFB 1070, 2017-2021)

Salvage crops, “savage” people: a comparative anthropological and archaeobotanical investigation of millet assemblages in India
(Roland Hardenberg, Netherlands Research Foundation, 2021-2025)

From “poor man’s food” to “nutri-cereals”. On the emergence of a new millet assemblage in Odisha, India
(Roland Hardenberg, DFG, 2021-2023)


Projects in the application phase

Planting pomegranate trees, creating gardens, making paradise: from Ancient Mesopotamia to California
(Susanne Fehlings)

Extractivism, resistance movements and environmental concepts: The interweaving of environmental dispositifs in the highlands of Odisha, India.
(Roland Hardenberg, sub-project in the SFB initiative "GeoRessourcenVerflechtungen und WeltAneignungen" of the Montanarchäologie of the University of Bochum, application phase)


Further information on the research focus...

The research focus “Cultural Anthropological Archaeology and Historical Ethnology” has a long tradition at the Institute, since the cultural morphology founded by Frobenius was ultimately aimed at understanding the development of cultures without writing. Although Frobenius' assumption that each of these cultures went through the phases of comprehension, expression and application is at best of interest today in terms of specialist history, his insight into the historicity of Africa distinguished him from many of his contemporaries and was later to earn him the gratitude of African intellectuals such as Léopold Sédar Senghor. In addition, Frobenius repeatedly used decidedly archaeological surveys and excavations, for example in investigations of the Ife culture in Nigeria (1910), of Neolithic stone tombs in Algeria (1914) and of prehistoric ruins of the Mwenemutapa culture in Zimbabwe (1929).

Historical questions were also pursued at the Institute after the Second World War, for example in the research of Frobenius' student and successor Adolf Ellegard Jensen and of Hermann Niggemeyer on megalithic cultures in Africa, Southeast Asia and India. In the mid-1980s, Eike Haberland made a major contribution to the founding of the interdisciplinary collaborative research centre "Cultural Development and Language History in the Natural Area of the West African Savannah" and to the renaming of the Seminar for Ethnology as the "Institute for Historical Ethnology" at Goethe University. At the Frobenius Institute he supported archaeological excavations in southern Algeria. Haberland's successor Karl-Heinz Kohl participated (as did Holger Jebens after him) as an applicant in the research training group "Value and Equivalence" run jointly by representatives of ethnology and archaeology, and with Jens Lüning, a prehistorian was first a member and then chairman of the Institute's scientific advisory board for many years.

Today, the Institute hosts several third-party funded archaeological projects, in the context of which its own excavations and surveys are carried out. Among other things, those involved use the example of the Kanem-Borno Empire and its intra-African connections before the 15th century to investigate the formation of state politics and urban settlement systems in the Sahel region of Africa. In the process, processes are revealed that in part show clearly different patterns from Middle Eastern or European models and that exert considerable influence on the political culture of the region today. Long-distance trade in the West African Middle Ages with the beginning of supralocal economic systems, migration and the exchange of goods and ideas along the Niger River, the Sahel and Savannah Belt and through the Sahara (AD 500-1500) is also being studied. The corresponding projects each work at the interface of archaeology, written history, oral tradition and - in the case of West African long-distance trade - historical linguistics, so that they contribute to a methodological further development of African research into the past.

Studies with a stronger ethnological-archaeological orientation deal with landscapes on the Iberian Peninsula and the entanglements between the local population and immigrants in the use of resources such as ores. In addition, representatives of archaeology, archaeobotany and cultural anthropology have joined together to form a multidisciplinary research consortium under the leadership of the Institute and have developed their own web presentation in order to investigate, within the framework of several German-Dutch research projects, the cultural and social embedding of millet, rice and wheat in particular, i.e. cereal varieties whose importance is likely to increase significantly in the foreseeable future. The participating researchers exchange their respective special knowledge about the legal, religious and political aspects of dealing with millet, rice and wheat, using the concept of "assemblages" as a common focus or language.

For the next few years, it is planned to extend the current research on trade and globalisation in West Africa to Guinea, Nigeria and Chad. In addition, an interdisciplinary research group is in the application phase, which deals with the emergence and development of the state as well as urbanity and trade connections in the Central Sahel. Other projects, for example on the beginnings of pearl millet cultivation and on the effects of catastrophic climate change in Mauritania, are currently in the planning stage, as are various workshops and publications that should conclude by 2025 the research currently taking place in India, Kazakhstan and Spain as part of the Collaborative Research Centre “Resource Cultures” (SFB 1070), co-chaired by Roland Hardenberg. In addition, cooperation with archaeologists and historians working at the Goethe University will be further expanded through joint courses and the conception of joint research projects, with a particular focus on the already existing African focus of the Institute for Archaeological Sciences.