Archaeological work in West Africa unearths origins of political system

The revolution led to the development of egalitarian political systems that continue today for several of the nation's many ethnic and religious groups. The country being described might come as a surprise.

Stephen DueppenStephen A. Dueppen, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon, is referring to Burkina Faso in West Africa — one of the world's poorest nations. Many communities in western Burkina Faso are structured by "an ethos of equality," he says.

In his recently published book "Egalitarian Revolution in the Savanna: The Origins of a West African Political System," Dueppen details how — through archaeological digs in the village of Kirikongo — he was able to document a political reformation that took place in the 12th century.

To many people, the picture painted by the book (368 pages, Equinox Publishing) provides a stark contrast to long-lived assumptions about West Africa. "During the colonial era and even in modern times, there is a view of the people living in this area as static and unchanging, but archaeology has a way of revealing the dynamics of societies throughout the world and overturning stereotypes and preconceived notions" Dueppen says.

Cover of Dueppen's bookKirikongo provides a rich history of the emergence of a decentralized political system full of checks and balances and a widespread acceptance of diversity. "I've been reconstructing the history of the village," he says. "We know which household founded the village and how the village grew over time, and what the different households were doing at different points in time."

"Egalitarian Revolution in the Savanna" is geared for political philosophers and anthropologists in general and for advanced-level students in political science and archaeology. It is, Dueppen says, "one of the first English-language looks" at this area in West Africa. His dig site is in the Mouhoun Bend of the Mouhoun River, which flows southward and empties into Lake Volta in neighboring Ghana.

Dueppen came to the UO in 2010 as a two-year fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (http://www.acls.org/). He began his project in Kirikongo in 2004 while a doctoral student at the University of Michigan. The National Science Foundation and University of Michigan funded his research that led to his book. His work, which will likely see UO anthropology students traveling along, continues with funding from the National Geographic Society and the UO.

Graphs in Chapter 6 Dueppen covers his excavations in Kirikongo extensively in Chapter 6. His dig site is "a series of house mounds" where "place is very important to families," he says. Throughout the village's history, residents repeatedly built and rebuilt their homes on top of their families' homes, leaving a remarkably, well stratified history of their lives through time. He details clear delineations in architectural styles and how they changed over time. The chapter is filled with graphics showing soil layers, profiles of structures and the types of materials used to build.

In Chapter 7, Dueppen documents, in precise detail, how residents throughout the village's history progressed in their pottery-making styles, and how these can be used to date different levels of occupation in the village history, from AD 100 to 1700.

From these layers of households, the evolution of the village's economic and political systems emerges. Dueppen is able to detail how the village initially was constructed around a founding house, whose residents co-opted iron working and centralized both power and wealth by the end of the first millennium (AD 1,000).

In the 12th century, something dramatic happened — a revolution occurred that saw a "decentralization of power away from the central house," he says. What emerged were changes in gender roles, more public activities, less secrecy and well-defined changes in pottery making and iron-working.

Society fundamentally transformed, with the emergence of interdependent and differentiated social roles. "Today there are hereditary groups — farmers, iron workers, potters, musicians, fabric workers," he says. These provide a basis for a system of checks and balances and a general reduction in secrecy due to constant exchange and interaction between groups.

He argues that at the core of the revolution may have been the development of the collectivist religions that are today found in western Burkina Faso, and that serve to bind communities together.

"Ours is not the only checks-and-balances system in the world," Dueppen says.

(Hear Dueppen discuss his work in Burkina Faso in a presentation recorded when he spoke in the 2011-2012 African Studies Lecture Series at the UO.)

Story written by Jim Barlow