The arid zones of northern and southern Africa have been utilised in very different ways in the past and in the present. Several ethnological, archaeological and linguistic projects within ACACIA are concentrated on the in-depth documentation of various local modes of adaptation to arid environments. Various forms of hunting and gathering, dryland agriculture and pastoral nomadism are being documented in the past and in the present. While E2 looks for the comparison of various case studies, E3 will explore regional and supra-regional exchange systems and analyse the effect of broad regional exchange on local processes of cultural and economic change (and vice versa).
In all systems documented and analysed by projects of ACACIA arid zones played an important role as zones of exchange. Across deserts trade routes have been established which tied inhabitants at the margins of deserts together in an inextricable net of material and cultural exchanges. The trade routes of the Sahara are a classic example of this type of usage of arid lands. At least since the introduction of the camel goods, people and ideas are exchanged between the Sahel and the Sudan zone and the Mediterranean polities. Historians alleged that the rise of the trans-Sahara trade was instrumental in the rise of medieval African kingdoms south of the Sahara. Likewise trade has been instrumental in Africa's south to give rise to e.g. the Tswana kingdoms. The trade of always implicated the establishment of close social relations across social and spatial boundaries. Marriages and ritual friendship consolidated the social basis for peaceful long distance exchanges.
A first look at the different case studies within ACACIA shows that long distance trade has been instrumental for cultural and economic processes at the margins of the Sahara as much as on the margins of the Kalahari. Recent archaeological results within ACACIA suggest that from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom till Hellenic times goods were traded from the Nile Valley across the Libyan Desert to lands lying south of the Sahara. To what extend this trade was essential for the rise of elites in Egypt or conditioned cultural change south of the Sahara is one key question of the project. In southern Africa Tswana kingdoms were established in the 18th and 19th century at the fringes of the Kalahari as centres of trade and the power of rulers was determined by their efficiency to control cross-desert trade. At the northern fringes of the coastal Namib desert we find a similar situation: trade across arid landscapes establishes communities and elites.
The project will start off with a comparative review of five case studies
- Trade across the Libyan Desert in pharaonic times (archaeological sources)
- Long distance trade in pharaonic Egypt (egyptological sources)
- Trade systems connecting northern Chad and western Sudan (historical and ethnological sources)
- Trade systems in the wider Kalahari region (historical and ethnological sources)
- Trade systems at the northern fringes of the Namib (historical and ethnological sources)
A set of questions will be put forward to make these case studies comparable
- First of all we are interested who traded - common people, private entrepreneurs or agents of the state?
- Second we will try to pinpoint what was and what is traded across deserts and how became (and still become) commodities for long distance trade?
- Third we will attempt to describe the modalities of exchange - how do barter systems arise from occasional exchanges between individuals, how does barter develop into highly complex and capital-intensive caravan trade systems and how are caravan systems replaced by state controlled and/or highly mechanised systems of exchange?
For some results of the study of the pharaonic Abu Ballas Trail in the Libyan Desert see now online:
FÖRSTER, F. (2007) With donkeys, jars and water bags into the Libyan Desert: the Abu Ballas Trail in the late Old Kingdom / First Intermediate Period. British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 7, 2007: 1-36.
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