Connecting the lower middle Niger through borrowed words and shared objects: Archaeo-linguistic network analysis and modelling of cultural entanglements between the Malian Sahara and the Nigerian forests (AD 700-1500)

Photo: Nikolas GestrichFunding: German Research Foundation (DFG), Priority Programme "Entangled Africa"

Project duration: April 2019 - March 2021

Directed by: Dr. Nikolas Gestrich, Prof. Dr. Henning Schreiber (Hamburg)







The population on the banks of the River Niger downstream from Gao is extremely diverse. From northern Mali to the Kainji dam in Nigeria, languages from three language phyla are spoken in a bewildering number of ethnic groups. How did this come to be? While historical sources point at early empires (Kawkaw, Kanem-Bornu, Songhai, Hausa, Oyo), oral traditions speak of migration, and the known archaeological sites have evidence of trade, the cultural dynamics and population history along the lower middle Niger remain underexplored. Yet from the available evidence, we can fully expect this region to have been of central importance to the political and economic history of large parts of West Africa. The Niger, we argue, functioned as a corridor of exchange of all forms, linking the Saharan fringes to the tropical forests, and enabling interactive cultural processes that continuously bred new languages, new identities, and new material expressions. Over the centuries, this has led to the complex ethnolinguistic situation we observe there today.

In this project, we will explore the mechanisms and details of this cultural contact along the Niger between 800 and 1500 CE. We approach these questions from a joint perspective of historical linguistics and archaeology, applying a dynamic network approach to create a network model of regional interaction. Our use of recent advances in loan word research and their connection to archaeological data means that this project pioneers a new form of co-operative research between historical linguistics and archaeology in Africa.

DFG project website  

Science Clip

Connecting the lower middle Niger through borrowed words and shared objects
In spring 2020, the team was able to conduct important archaeological and linguistic research in Mali.
Filmed in Mali by the team of the project "Connecting the lower middle Niger through borrowed words and shared objects"