Lake Chad region, Nigeria


The research in the lake Chad region in Northeast Nigeria focused on the settlement history of the last 4000 years. This period encompasses the immigration of pastoral groups, the appearance of sedentary farmers, early complex societies and towns of historic kingdoms. Except for the immigration of the pastoralists at the beginning of the sequence, the archaeological archives show a predominantly autochthon development without stronger external influence. The essential innovations take place during the second half of the first millennium BCE, roulette decorated ceramics and iron technology emerge, the settlement pattern is changed as well as social organization. It remains open if this abrupt change is a result of immigration of ideas or of men or if it is an autochthonous development.

Early and Middle Holocene

The settlement history of the region during the Holocene is affected by an environmental incident of unique dimension. In the early and middle Holocene, beginning about 10,000 years before today, the water level of Lake Chad rose temporarily to about 40 m above today’s level. Situated in a flat basin, this meant that Lake Mega-Chad was the largest enclosed body of water on earth at that time, attaining the size of the Caspian Sea today. The dugout canoe of Dufuna, which was found close to the former border of the Mega-Chad, is one of the rare finds of human occupation in the region, at that time abundant with water. Being about 8000 years old, it is the oldest known African watercraft. Some ceramic sherds, found at a former beach wall of the Mega-Chad, are about  one thousand years younger. They belong to an early ceramic horizon in West Africa, which in other regions reaches even further back in time(e.g. Ounjougou/Mali).

First cattle herders and farmers (Gajiganna complex)

With the beginning of the Late Holocene, the water level of Lake Chad retreated. At the same time the region became extensively settled. Except for Dufuna and Konduga, archaeological traces of an earlier settling have not been discovered yet. Now, in the early second millennium BCE, cattle herders immigrated into the region from the southern Central Sahara (Gajiganna complex phase 1). Probably the increasing aridity had driven them away. The landscape they settled in had been the floor of Lake Mega-Chad before, and probably consisted of pastures and smaller permanent water-bodies. As mobile, nomadic groups, they only left small camps behind, bearing only few finds.

These camps were replaced by settlement mounds from the middle of the second millennium BCE onwards. Settlement mounds develop through the continuous accumulation of human residues and are a sign of sedentism, which is only possible with sufficient food available or produced. At Lake Chad, like all over West Africa, pearl millet was the first crop, that allowed plant food production. But domesticated animals, prey and collected wild plants remained  important sources of nutrition. Accordingly this settlement phase (Gajiganna complex phase 2a/b) is characterized as agropastoral, as opposed to the strictly pastoral phase before. The settlement mounds are small covering barely three hectares. Probably the settlements consisted of only a handful of clay huts in which – hard to prove – a single familial group lived.

In the early first millennium BCE the groups ran into a crisis. The flat surface sites of this period contain only few finds and do not reach the size of the settlement mounds at all (Gajiganna complex phase 2c). This again points to higher mobility of the groups – the reasons remain obscure. However, an immigration into the southeasterly, formerly inundated clay plains is also documented from 1000 BCE onwards.

Innovations in the middle of the first millennium BCE

A sharp break in the settlement history is constituted by the appearance of large and in some cases fortified settlements from 500 BCE onwards (Gajiganna complex phase 3). With up to twelve (Zilum and Maibe) or even more than 30 hectares (like Malankari) these sites are remarkably larger than those of former times. Together with the size, finds, the amount of finds and burials point to a population of thousands of inhabitants. Such a large agglomeration of people has not existed south of the Sahara anywhere before. Maybe it was caused by population growth, but it is also possible that the population that had lived in rural settlements came together in central settlement complexes.

Besides the deep reaching change in settlement pattern an intensification of agriculture took place. Crop combination of cereals and legumes, as well as new crops, reduced the risk of bad harvest and lead to increasing yields, also accounted for by numerous storage pits in the sites. Social changes accompanied these developments. The emergence of iron working documents specialization. And specialization promoted the organized procurement of missing resources, like stone that is not present in the Chad basin. Around 500 BCE a change in the distribution network occurred, a homogenization of the market. The economic power of traders had probably increased, as just a few centuries later long-distance trade in an trans-Saharan dimension was present. An expression of social differentiation is the organization of considerable communal work, like the construction of trenches, being several meters deep and wide and up to a kilometer long. These works must have been ordered and coordinated by people of power. The function of the trenches, traced via geomagnetic prospections, remains unknown, but the dimension makes fortification probable.

The manifold changes, that start in the middle of the first millennium BCE, represent the beginning of an increasingly complex world. The investigation of sites dating to the consecutive first millennium AD has shown that some of these developments continued. Fortified settlement with trenches kept on existing and reached sizes of up to 50 hectares. A well investigated example is the site Dorota, sized 25-35 hectares. In principle the fortified settlements continue up to the historical towns of the Kanem-Bornu kingdom.



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Breunig, P. 2009. Cultural change in the first millennium BC – Evidence from Nigeria, West Africa. In: Magnavita, S., Koté, L., Breunig, P. & Idé, O.A. (eds.), Crossroads / Carrefour Sahel. Cultural and technologial developments in first millennium BC/AD West Africa. Journal of African Archaeology Monograph Series 2. Africa Magna Verlag, Frankfurt a. M., pp. 15-26.

Breunig, P., Eichhorn, B., Kahlheber, S., Linseele, V., Magnavita, C., Neumann, K., Posselt, M. & Rupp, N. (2006): G(l)anz ohne Eisen: Große Siedlungen aus der Mitte des ersten Jahrtausends BC im Tschadbecken von Nordost-Nigeria. In: Wotzka, H.-P. (ed.), Grundlegungen. Beiträge zur europäischen und afrikanischen Archäologie für Manfred K.H. Eggert. Narr Francke Attempto, Tübingen, pp. 255-270. pdf

Breunig, P., Franke, G. & Nüsse, M. (2008): Early sculptural traditions in West Africa: new evidence from the Chad Basin of North-eastern Nigeria. Antiquity 82: 423-437.

Klee, M., Zach, B. & Neumann, K. (2000): Four thousand years of plant exploitation in the Chad Basin of northeast Nigeria: The archaeobotany of Kursakata. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 9: 223-237

Magnavita, C., Breunig, P., Ishaya, D. & Adebayo, O. (2009): Iron Age beginnings at the southwestern margins of Lake Chad. Crossroads / Carrefour Sahel. Cultural and technological developments in first millennium BC / AD West Africa - Monograph Series Volume 2
by S. Magnavita, L. Koté, P. Breunig & O.A. Idé (eds.). Africa Magna Verlag, Frankfurt a.M., 274 pp., 150 figures (32 in color), 17 tables.

Magnavita, C. 2004: Zilum - towards the emergence of socio-political complexity in the Lake Chad region. In: Krings, M. & E. Platte (eds.): Living with the lake: perspectives on culture, economy and history of Lake Chad. - Studien zur Kulturkunde 121: 73-100. Köln (Köppe)


Magnavita, C. (2003): Studien zur endsteinzeitlichen und früheisenzeitlichen Besiedlung im südwestlichen Tschadbecken (1300 BC - 700 AD). Doktorarbeit. Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main.

Rupp, N. (2004): Land ohne Steine. Die Rohmaterialversorgung im nigerianischen Tschadbecken - von der Endsteinzeit bis zur Eisenzeit. Doktorarbeit. Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main.

Wendt, K.P. (1997): Beiträge zur Entwicklung der prähistorischen Keramik des inneren Tschadbeckens in Nordost-Nigeria. Doktorarbeit. Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main.

Wiesmüller, B. (2001): Die Entwicklung der Keramik von 3000 BP bis zur Gegenwart in den Tonebenen südlich des Tschadsees. Doktorarbeit. Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main.

MA/diploma thesis

Bigga, G. (2008): Archäobotanische Untersuchung von Frucht- und Samenfunden aus der Fundstelle Mege (Nordost-Nigeria). Magisterarbeit. Eberhard Karls Universität, Tübingen.

Franke, G. (2007): Malankari - eine früheisenzeitliche Großsiedlung im Tschadbecken von Nordost-Nigeria. Magisterarbeit. Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main.

Kottusch, R. (2000): Die Knochenartefakte der endsteinzeitlichen Gajigana-Kultur Nordost-Nigerias. Magisterarbeit. Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main.

Magnavita, C. (1999): Eine späteisenzeitliche und historische Keramiksequenz in Nordost Nigeria. Magisterarbeit. Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main.

Nagel, K.-P. (2009): Tutumbaye, die östlichste Fundstelle der Gajiganna Kultur Nordost Nigerias. Magisterarbeit. Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main.

Rupp, N. (2000): Studien zu den Rohmaterialien der Gajiganna Kultur, Nordost-Nigeria/Westafrika. Magisterarbeit. Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main.