Czech Institute of Archaelogy hopes to discover "hidden worlds“ in remote area of Sudan

The Mesolithic-Neolithic site of Shaqadud in Sudan is one of the Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences’ flagship sites. First found in the early 1960s by German archaeologist Karl-Heinz Otto, Shaqadud became known as a famous prehistoric archaeological site after a Sudanese-American joint expedition helped publicise it in the early 1980s. The Czech Academy of Science’s Institute of Archaeology started investigating the site in 2021. I spoke with Dr. Ladislav Varadzin, who has been heading the excavation, working in an international team including five Czechs (one of whom is his wife, Lenka Varadzinová). I started by asking him about the aim of the excavation.

“The idea of the project is to understand the life strategies of people in arid areas which lacked permanent open water bodies. So far most of the research has focused on rivers and lakes, but there are these areas away from rivers and lakes, which we can call hinterlands or inlands, which constituted and still constitute some 80% of the area of the Sahel and Sahara.

But here the investigations haven’t been that thorough. So far we only know that there was some settlement in the past, and there are indications that it was important - it wasn’t a secondary area for life compared to the rivers and lakes. The area we are investigating was not anomalous – it was a system which was repeated, and it all happened out of the rivers, out of the Nile – in the mountains, in the hinterlands.

So perhaps we are at the beginning of showing that there were hidden worlds not touched that much by archaeologists so far, which were independent of the rivers and lakes. And these could be areas of a hidden world of life, but also there could be hidden corridors of movements of people from the southerly areas of Africa to the north.

Photo: Petr Pokorný,  Charles University

If we are able to bring strong evidence for that, it means the people – I mean, the early people, even other types of hominids besides Homo sapiens – would have been able to move through these areas and would not have been dependent on the rivers, which would turn the perspective of the current research.

And so we ask the questions: how did the people cope with the dispersed water and food resources? What strategies did they use to mitigate the natural vulnerability of the environment? Because it was only dependent on the local rainfall – in case of dry spells, everything could turn into dust. There were no natural buffers like the rivers and lakes. So the bar for their adaptation was set much higher.

We also ask what role social relations played in these mitigations – solidarity and alliances, things like that.”

“And what kind of people are we talking about – were they still hunter-gatherers?”

“Yes, right – they were hunter-gatherers. But then later, in let’s say the 6th millennium BC, another economic strategy or adaptation was spreading across Africa – pastoralism or animal herding, which arrived in the Sahel around 5000 BC. So the scope of our project is from the very beginning – from the first occupation after the Ice Age, up to let’s say 2000 BC, so it encompasses some 10 000 years.”

“Was there any crop agriculture as well as animal agriculture?”

“That’s a good question – you know, until recently, all scientists recognized that African domestication spread across Africa only during the so-called Neolithization, in the post-hunter-gatherer context. But some three or four years ago, there was a very important finding by our British and American colleagues, who found that there was cultivation of local native African crops among the hunter-gatherers already. And their evidence comes from what is called the pre-domestication phase, which means up to 20% of the wild crops already have some mutations, meaning they’re already on the way to domestication.

Photo: Petr Pokorný,  Charles University

So this is a very important finding, and it’s important that it’s among hunter-gatherers already. This is the evidence that Africans did cultivate and did domesticate even before any influences from the Near East.

And the fact is that this is a very important point – this is the question of human cultural evolution. In the past, these questions were always present, of course, but there was a tendency to only have one answer to them. A very famous Australian archaeologist, Gordon Childe – he answered these questions, or he proposed answers, but at that time he was working only with the evidence which was available. Since then the evidence around the globe has changed rapidly, and it shows that many similar things happened independently in different conditions, and sometimes what was proposed by early archaeologists as the precondition for the change is reversed – first you have the change, and what was supposed to be the precondition you find only later, as a result of this change.

So it’s changing perspectives – this is a question of, for example, the beginnings of agriculture and domestication. It doesn’t have just one denominator. So that’s why it’s very important to reset the research worldwide in a multi-disciplinary and multi-team way.”

“So at the time period you’re interested in there were big climatic changes going on?”

“Yes - this site was considered to be occupied only from 6200 BC onwards, but we found during our two seasons that the beginning of the local occupation was much older – around 10 000 BC, so the very beginning of the Holocene. And the onset of the Holocene was very important for the whole of North Africa, because at that time the whole climate changed from the glacial period, the Ice Age, to more humid conditions, and monsoon rains penetrated more to the north, which allowed vegetation and animals to occupy what is today the Sahel and Sahara, which was absolutely uninhabitable before. But since the beginning of the Holocene, this vast area opened up for ecosystems, including people.

Photo: Petr Pokorný,  Charles University

So actually, what we have now in North Africa – all the states of the Sahel and the Sahara, including Egypt and the Egyptian civilization - it’s actually more or less a direct continuation of the beginning of the Holocene which allowed humans to settle there. And we found out that in these hinterland areas, people were present already at the very beginning, so they were certainly not secondary areas of interest – they were one of the first places they were searching for.

And this is when the Ice Age was shifted into what is called – it has a special term, it’s called the African Humid Period. And this African Humid Period, it was, let’s say, a lush period for North Africa, it’s also called the period of the Green Sahara. And this allowed the occupation and colonization of these vast areas.

But in fact the situation was more complicated. Even during the African Humid Period, these areas – the Sahel and Sahara – were always suffering from inter-seasonal variation, the dry and wet parts of the year. And the ratio between them was more towards the dry. So the contrast between these two seasons was very hard and it very much affected the whole ecosystem, so that means also the people who had to cope with this inter-seasonal variation.

Secondly, the period was not one homogenous period – there were many spells and oscillations. So that’s why, at the same time, we have to, not only study the people and their remains, but we also have to understand the past ecology – I mean the grasses and trees and which animals were living there, but also we have to reconstruct or investigate the changes in the rainfall, in the hydroclimate. And we are lucky because there were springs in the past, of which tufa and travertine deposits remain, and these allow the reconstruction of these changes.

Photo: Petr Pokorný,  Charles University

So we believe we would be able not only to understand the local climate in the past, which will bring the real human scale to the responses to the changes in climate, but also, if we succeeded in building this model of the changes, it would be a very important reference model for northeast Africa, which is missing at the moment.

Just to tie it to the present-day, do you think there’s any hope offered for the current climate crisis by the fact that people in the past were able to adapt, or is the situation just too different?

Well, yes, so, of course, both answers are correct. Of course, things never repeat, so in this respect we are studying something unique, not only in time but also in space. But on the other hand, on a certain level of generalization, I believe we will be able to understand the processes which happened in the past and they can help us to understand the present and the future – in two respects.

The first respect is the natural one. I said that we will try to reconstruct the hydroclimate, and the higher resolution we get, the more we will be able to understand the current Sahelian climate, because there has been a lot of work done by hydrologists and climatologists to propose so-called skillful predictions. Because in the 60s to 90s there were almost no rains in the Sahel and it caused dramatic changes in the lives and even deaths of people and political instability and things like that, and it happens in waves. But the problem is we have no archival evidence for that and these investigations can help very much. So I believe this data can be provided to the specialists of today’s climate and I believe they could use it for their understanding of what’s going on now and in the future maybe.

And the second respect is the human one. Of course, today the globe is inhabited by mostly very complex large-scale communities, while we are focusing on small-scale groups, so in this respect it’s not comparable. But this is like a laboratory case. Even today, if sociologists want to understand how society works, you work with a sample – you select a specific group and you define the conditions for how you select the group, and through this you study specific topics which you cannot understand in the complex.

And this is actually what we do. So I think that especially the questions of solidarity and social networks and settlement and subsistence strategies can really – you know, everything is not only about technology, but also about planning and scheduling and human relations and things like that, so I believe this can contribute to our ideas about today and the future.

What was your impression of Sudan when you first visited?

Well, Sudan for me is like my second home. My feelings were very positive concerning the people, first of all – the Sudanese are very honest people and hardworking, very friendly - and you can believe them, you can rely on them.

But as an archaeologist, I have to say, Sudan is a Klondike. There are so many things to be investigated. It’s really, literally, it’s littered – the surfaces are littered with sites and finds from prehistory and from historic periods as well, so in the future, there are many questions that can be solved regarding the human-environment relations in arid conditions and so on, in Africa but even globally, which can be solved directly in Sudan, because it’s really at-hand. And as I said, nice people. I would say even stable conditions, although there was a political coup. Even though during the covid times it was not that easy, but still, if we compare it globally, it’s a stable area to work in and to really develop longer-term projects.

And is your wife also working on this project?

Yes, yes, she’s actually a field manager, because she can perfectly manage everything and prepare. She’s also a specialist in African rock art – she’s very good at that, and she’s published many books and articles – and thanks to her, we found some prehistoric rock art in the area, which, although there were expeditions before, they didn’t see it.

And what’s it like working with your wife, if I may ask?

Excellent! [Laughs] No, because I can rely on many things, and we can discuss many things, and we have very good relations. Usually you are very tired after let’s say ten days or two weeks (of working in the field), and after that you go into a critical regime, which means you do only things which are needed, and then ease of communication is very important - but this doesn’t relate only to my wife, but to the whole team, because we are not only colleagues - we are friends.