After reading chapter seven in Robert Strayer’s Ways of the World, I wanted to know more about the infamous Jenne-Jeno in West Africa. The city was located along the Niger River, south of Timbuktu in present day Mali. Occupation of Jenne-Jeno began around 250 BCE, and started declining near 1200 CE. Interestingly enough, archaeologists have not found evidence of any kind of state structure in the city. They believe that Jenne-Jeno and other West African cities along the Niger River had a very different mode of operation.
There is evidence of settlements based on various occupations such as weaving, iron smithing, leather working, and potting. Such settlements were scattered around urban centers, organizing themselves into economic castes of a sort. There was even a caste formed of griots, people who recited oral traditions of the society in order to preserve its ways. Excavated remains of Jenne-Jeno show definite evidence of trade with other river valley cities. No sources of iron ore can be found in the Niger floodplain, but with such a booming use for metal to make tools and jewelry, it is certain that the ancient people must have had it imported. There is also evidence of imported stone grinders, salt, beads, copper, and in later years, gold. The floodplain was well-suited for farming, giving the people of Jenne-Jeno an ample supply of rice and grains to trade with. In addition they bartered with smoked meats, fish, and fish oils. In fact, Jenne-Jeno is considered to be one of the biggest trading hubs of ancient West Africa. The city became a commercial trading center, linked by the Niger River to Timbuktu.
Roderick and Susan McIntosh are American archaeologists who have been excavating Jenne-Jeno since the 1970s. Unfortunately, they have found that the site has continued to fall victim to pillagers who sell the ancient artifacts for millions of dollars on the black market. I came across a web page maintained by a woman who is trekking around the world and has written about her encounters with ancient sites such as Jenne-Jeno. She was led by a local guide, and her story of the trip is very interesting. An ancient 12 foot high, brick wall runs 1.3 miles city, where pieces of ground-up pottery scatter the site. The McIntosh’s claim that “next to Egypt, Mali has the richest deposit of artifacts in Africa,” which makes realizing that the majority of them may be lost to pillagers even more devastating.
Scholars speculate that Jenne-Jeno was abandoned due to drying of the region and Islamic influence. Perhaps Jenne-Jeno, which means “ancient Jenne” in languages of the region, was deserted for a new location that provided better trading with Muslims. PBS has compiled documentaries on oral traditions they have heard from local people regarding the decline of ancient civilizations and the influence of the Muslim world. Regardless of the reason, it is sad that the ancient ways of life of the people of Jenne-Jeno were lost due to a reckless black market. One can only wonder what more could be learned about the city if the numerous stolen artifacts were recovered.
Strayer, Robert W. Ways of the World: A Brief Global History. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009. Print.