The upper inland Niger delta of Mali is a seasonally flooded network of waterways with intervening, low-lying islands. Many of these are occupation mounds consisting of the debris of previous human settlements. Two of these, Jenné and Jenné-jeno (or “ancient Jenné”) are adjacent mounds with successive settlements, together recording over 2000 years of occupation.
The 33 hectare mound of Jenné-jeno was partially excavated by archaeologists in the 1970s and 1980s. These excavations revealed six metres of deposit going back to about 250 BC. The earliest occupation was by iron-using people who hunted, fished, kept stock herds, and cultivated seasonal grain crops like millet and rice. By AD 850 this settlement had reached its maximum extent, but it was surrounded by contemporaneous settlements on numerous surrounding islands. This distributed town, known by archaeologists as the Jenné-jeno Urban Complex, housed an estimated 15 000 to 27 000 people. Apart from harvesting the abundance of natural and farmed produce, their economy involved imported trade goods such as iron ore, copper, and exotic stone, suggesting that urbanisation and population growth were stimulated by increasing trade with neighbouring communities. Evidently West African urban settlement and long-distance trade preceded the advent of the trans-Saharan trade conducted by North African Arabs after the 9th century AD. Around AD 1200 the settlement at Jenne-jeno went into decline, along with the settlements on most of the nearby islands. The focus of settlement and economic activity moved to Jenné, three kilometres to the northwest, and by AD 1400Jenne-jeno itself had been abandoned. Why the settlement shifted location is not known, but it may have been due to the ascendency of Muslim traders avoiding a religiously polluted pagan location.
The 45 hectare mound of Jenné, with a modern population of about 10 000 people, contains more than six metres of archaeological deposit, dating back to about AD 1200. It is the site of a large former town which for the past 500 years was an important trading hub in the western Sudan. For instance, in 1512 Leo Africanus recorded that Timbuktu some 350 kilometres to the north received large consignments of dried fish and cereals transported from Jenné by boat on the Middle Niger. Gold mined far to the south was transported overland to Jenné, and then shipped to Timbuktu. Much of this was then transported by camel to North Africa, eventually reaching European markets. The wealth that accrued from such trade contributed to Jenné’s stature as an important regional centre. Jenné’s Great Mosque, built in the 13th century AD, is an adobe (mud architecture) building constructed in the distinctive Sudanic style, which testifies to Jenné’s trade links with North Africa. It is the largest adobe building in the world, and was largely reconstructed in 1907 by the French, using local workmen.
Dating from the 13th century AD, this is the foremost example of a monumental adobe structure with architectural elements in the Sudanic..
For further reading: Connah, G. 2001. African civilizations, 1st edn 1987. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Chapter 4. The West African savanna: 108-143.) McIntosh, R. 2000. Clustered cities of the middle Niger. In Anderson, D. M. & Rathbone, R. eds Africa?s urban past: 19-35. Oxford: James Currey. McIntosh, S. K. 1997. Urbanism in sub-Saharan Africa. In Vogel, J. O. ed. Encyclopedia of precolonial Africa: 461-465. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press. McIntosh, S. K. & McIntosh, R. J. 1993. Cities without citadels: understanding urban origins along the middle Niger. In Shaw, T., Sinclair, P., Andah, B. & Okpoko, A. eds The archaeology of Africa: food, metals and towns: 622-641. London: Routledge.
These texts are based primarily on informations on the Aluka website (aluka.org)