U of C team explores ancient African Fortress

By Patrick Boyle

Many of us take for granted the fact that most of our home continent has been thoroughly explored. This leads us to conclude that the same is true for the rest of the world, an assumption which could not be further from the truth. Explorers still roam the earth searching for treasures of the distant past; the University of Calgary is fortunate to have one such sleuth as a faculty member.

Anthropology Professor Nic David and his team of research-ers have set off on an exciting adventure to mount the first ever exploration of a complex of ruined granite strongholds in Central Africa. These anthropological marvels are known as "Diy-Gid-Biy" (DGB), which means "eye of the chief on top" in the language of the nearby indigenous Mafa tribe. During their foray into the Mandara Mountains of Cameroon, the ruins have defied odds for centuries by eluding the careful gaze of modern science.

"Part of the reason why DGB has not been subjected to scholarly inquiry is that no one knew about them," said Dr. David. "Furthermore, no one expected to find such complex sites in mountains supposedly inhabited by very simple societies."

The team of 12 researchers, including a U of C graduate student, completed a preliminary survey of the 11 ruined buildings earlier this year. Based on this work, they suspect that the strongholds house complexes of tombs built. Local legends, however, suggest more exotic versions of the past.

"One story has it that they were used by groups who were almost constantly at war," said Dr. David, clearly enthused by the adventurous possibility. "People of the area also relate fantastic legends involving men with coppery skins, horses, cannibals and slaves, although the architecture of the strongholds seems quite unsuitable for trade in slaves."

Dr. David and his group’s success will likely be bolstered by the healthy relationship between the expedition and the people of Cameroon. In addition to co-operation with the many levels of government, the group will include at least one local university student working on a Master’s project. The academics hope that these close ties will prompt Cameroonians to learn something new about their cultural identity.

"We’re going to be looking at the basics: Who built these ruins, when, and why?" said Dr. David. "Although questions like these might not be as immediately interesting as the more theoretical ones, the basics are important in themselves, especially to Cameroonians whose cultural history this is. If our present best guess about their builders–a society mediating, often violently, between the dominant pre-colonial state in the area and the stateless mountain people–is correct, we will have learned something important about the culture process in the region."

In addition to the clear-cut cultural and historical benefits, the dgb site possesses archaeological characteristics that make it unique. The dry stone walls and the dis-tinct rubble platforms are unusual for the region and time frame. Also, the entire complex appears to have been built in phases, which differs from the traditional African building strategy.

Because of the vast size of dgb, it is quite likely that this will not be the last visit. Although Dr. Davidhas now retired and will not be leading future expeditions, this prospect should give aspiring anthropology graduate students something to look forward to. Undergraduateswho are interested in this sort of adventure should check the Society of Africanist Archaeologists website: www.rz.uni-frankfurt.de/~bornu/safa/safa.html.

It may not have the fast-paced action of an Indiana Jones film, but the upcoming expedition to Cameroon should prove to be every bit as interesting. Check back in the coming months for news of the group’s findings.

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