The Nigerian archaeologist investigating ancient farming in West Africa
Emuobosa Akpo Orijemie always wanted to be a research scientist. A degree in botany led to a PhD looking at the crops cultivated by early communities. As a Newton International Fellow at Cambridge, he is making most of the opportunities that will help him establish a strong research base in Nigeria.
If you do an internet search for “ancient farming West Africa” very little comes up. What does appear is mostly research carried out by European and North American archaeologists. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But we do need West Africa’s early career researchers to engage with the archaeology of their own region and tell its stories from their own perspectives.
My research focuses on the Tiv people of Benue State, Nigeria. We think that people living in the region currently cultivated by the Tiv were growing crops in these fertile lands at least 3,000 years ago. They started with yams, which remain an important staple crop, and then moved on to millet and sorghum. Through learning about these crops, we gain knowledge about past climates.
What we do know about early farming in West Africa comes from linguistic sources. Stories were passed down through oral traditions as were farming techniques and an understanding of the seasons. Some of this work was carried out by Cambridge-based anthropologist and linguist Roger Blench from the 1980s onwards.
Tools also offer clues to the history of farming. The Tiv people use wooden tools for harvesting yams, even today, while their neighbours the ‘Bantu’ people, a much larger ethnic group, are more associated with metals. Wooden tools, such as hoes and digging sticks, are less likely to damage tubers like yams.
We’re looking at two contrasting sites in Tiv. One is a rock shelter on a hillside, the other an ancient settlement on the plains. The rock shelter was being used by humans at least 2,000 years ago and the settlement 500 years ago. At both sites, the soil contains evidence of what people cultivated and ate. Samples of pollen and macro-botanical material are being tested to give us accurate dates.
I’m the only Nigerian postdoctoral fellow working at Cambridge’s Division of Archaeology. Nigeria is a nation of around 180 million people with a rich diversity of cultures. So being the only Nigerian in the Division is a big responsibility. If I do well here, I’ll pave the way for others to follow in my footsteps.
As a boy, I always wanted to be a scientist working in a lab. My friends just laughed. They wanted to be doctors, engineers and lawyers. At school my best subjects were geography and history. I loved reading about Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Learning about them gave me the idea that the world was even bigger than Africa.
I studied botany almost by mistake. I wanted to take microbiology at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s top university. But the course was full. Instead, I was offered a place to study botany. I wasn’t even quite sure what botany was — I had to look it up in a dictionary. I liked what I read and made a decision that changed my life.
For my PhD I switched to archaeology as it offered more possibilities. While studying for my first degree I’d met the researcher who has inspired me ever since. Professor Margaret Adebisi (Bisi) Sowunmi is now almost 80 and still working. She had done her PhD in Sweden under Professor Gunner Erdtman, the father of modern palynology — the study of pollen grains in archaeology.
Bisi Sowunmi was extremely strict with her class and set regular tests that we all dreaded. She made us think analytically and independently. She also insisted that we did a lot of reading. On occasion she even took us to the library and showed us the books on the shelves so that we had no excuse for not reading them. I thought this is the kind of person I’d like to be — in fact I’d like to be even better.
After getting my PhD I worked on a project called African Farming Network. It looked at early farming in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. The project brought together academics from a number of institutions — including Cambridge. The archaeologist Matthew Davies (then at Cambridge now at UCL) suggested that I applied for a Newton International Fellowship.
Cambridge is opening up a whole new world for me. In Nigeria the electricity service is erratic. You’re working in your lab and you’re suddenly plunged into darkness. Here basic services are taken for granted — and the facilities are excellent. At Cambridge I’m meeting and talking to the people whose books I’ve read, including Professor Martin Jones, a world expert on the history of millet.
It’s great that so many people are willing to share their knowledge. The opportunities open to you at Cambridge are huge. Symposia, workshops, conferences and extra training — there are so many ways of extending your knowledge, talking to people one-to-one, and becoming a better person.
Scholarship is a unifying force. The idea behind the Newton International Fellowships is that beneficiaries will return to their home countries in a stronger academic position and with networks of scholarship to support them. I will go back to Ibadan better equipped both as a teacher and researcher — and able to inspire and mentor others.
In our fieldwork in Tiv, we’re involving the local community as much as we can. Learning about the crops that were cultivated in the past may help in the development of crops and techniques to cope with current farming challenges brought about by changes to soil and climate.
Local schoolchildren have been participating in our archaeological excavations. By getting them involved, we hope to create a great platform for children to learn more about their culture and their history. Who knows, some of them might even consider becoming archaeologists themselves.
This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.