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Archaeology Challenges the History of Development and Poverty in Africa [Excerpt]

The challenges of poverty in rural Ghana are tied to a long and rich history of economic development and globalization, archaeology and oral history reveal
ghana-skeleton



Courtesy of Edward Carr

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Edward R. Carr's Delivering Development: Globalization's Shoreline and the Road to a Sustainable Future.

When we hit what we thought was another trash pit in the Ghanaian village of Dominase, we had seen so many of these that we did not expect anything terribly interesting. A quick glance at the first artifacts out of the pit confirmed a late 1800s fill date, much like all the other trash pits we found. This sort of find had become so routine that I left my field assistant Francis Quayson to supervise its excavation and went to oversee other crew members in another part of the site.

Things changed rapidly when Francis called a halt to his group's digging and came to me with a long bone he could not identify. We routinely found goat and sheep bones in these trash pits, and even found one cow bone, which was surprising, as beef is expensive and cattle are not raised in or around these villages. However, this bone was different. I was reluctant to identify it as human, because the Fante people of central Ghana treat their dead with some reverence and usually bury them at least six feet underground, or as deep as they can go until they hit bedrock. After closing that excavation area for the day, I took the bone to the Cape Coast compound where the larger Syracuse University archaeological team was based, and found our physical anthropologist, Joe Johnson. I showed him the bone and said, "Please tell me this isn't people." Joe looked at the bone for a few seconds and then stated, "Oh, that's people."

The next week of my life was dedicated to clearing the trash pit out to find the rest of the body. As it turned out, at the bottom of the pit there was a nearly complete skeleton lying on its side in a slightly flexed position typical of burials in this area. There was no sign of a coffin, suggesting burial in a shroud. The acidic clay soil had taken a serious toll on the bones. The smallest and most spongy bone materials had long since dissolved, but the long bones, ribs, and other significant bones were intact. All that was missing was the head. I believe it was accidentally broken up and removed by the person who dug the pit in the late 1800s, unaware of the burial below.

There is something very intimate about sitting in a grave with a skeleton, gently brushing soil off bones, beads, and other burial goods. The bones told us that this was a young man, probably around 19 or 20 years old at the time of his death. They did not provide any clues to the cause of his death. However, the grave goods associated with this young man told us a great deal about the connections between the people of this village and the larger world in the earliest days of the settlement. The materials in the grave all date to around 1825—the burial is the earliest evidence of occupation we have for this village. Buried with the man were beads from Venice and Bohemia (today the western part of the Czech Republic), a Dutch clay smoking pipe, and British sheet brass that had been hammered by an Akan craftsman into a vessel called a forowa, used to hold personal items. The markers of status and respect accorded this young man in his burial were global goods from various parts of Europe. This burial alone makes it clear just how integrated the people of this village were into the global economy, even in the earliest days of Dominase's settlement. These goods were common enough, and had been around for long enough, to be incorporated into their lifeways such that they made sense as burial goods. This burial leaves little doubt that those who settled these villages were at least partially motivated by accessing this global trade, as well as integrating into the regional political economy.

Dominase and Ponkrum were not settled at random in the coastal hinterland of Elmina in Ghana. Instead the first residents set up alongside a road that the historian and archaeologist Gerard Chouin has identified as Asante Road #7. This road linked Elmina, the principal trading post in the area, to the powerful Asante kingdom inland. In the early 1800s slaves, gold, and various materials passed down this road from Asante to Elmina and the waiting ships of the Dutch, who controlled the trade around Elmina at that time. A tremendous variety of materials returned to Asante by this same route. By settling along this road, the founders of Dominase and Ponkrum positioned themselves to obtain trade goods in exchange for their crops along a reliable route to the markets at Elmina. These settlements are therefore creations of the interaction of a globalizing economy with this part of the world. In fact, places we often characterize as lacking, or needing, development are often better understood as the outcomes of development and globalization in the past.

Engagement with global trade also radically reshaped agriculture in the area around Elmina. While we have no direct records of the crops farmed in Dominase and Ponkrum at the time of their establishment, we know that engagement with the Portuguese and, later, Dutch owners of Elmina castle contributed greatly to the transformation of agriculture in this area. The Portuguese introduced a large number of crops from South America, including maize, cassava, sweet potatoes, groundnuts (peanuts), hot peppers (capsicums), and tomatoes. Other crops introduced later include bananas, oranges, sugarcane, pineapples, pawpaws, cashews, mangoes, plantains, and many species of beans. These introductions were not, by and large, imposed on the population, but rather were efforts by local farmers to take up some of the crops farmed by the Portuguese for their own needs. Cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats were also introduced to this area in the same manner. Thus, the contact with Europeans resulted in a remarkable transformation of the local agroecology, with farms throughout the region incorporating these new crops with great speed.

Such incorporation is no simple task, as the introduction of a new species to an existing ecology comes with several risks. The species may not survive because the soils, timing of seasons, weather, or pests in the area can present insurmountable barriers. The new plant might survive but cause other crops with which it is intercropped to have lower yields because of the way it uses water and/or soil nutrients or because of the pests it might attract. In some cases new species might become remarkably successful in a new setting and start to take over, choking off existing food crops and other local species. None of these outcomes appears to have occurred with plants introduced in and around Ponkrum, which speaks to the skill of local farmers in managing this process of incorporation.

Over time the introduction of new crops to the colonial holdings that would later become Ghana, including the area around Dominase and Ponkrum, became a part of official policy. The slave trade, though abolished by the British in 1807, did not wind down for a decade or two, making trade with this area less and less profitable. To earn income for their mercantile efforts, the European powers began to introduce cash crops that might be exported for profit. For example, by 1820 the British were promoting the growth of oil palm in their holdings around Cape Coast, less than ten miles to the east of Dominase and Ponkrum. While Elmina was a Dutch holding at that time, it is likely the oil palm trade reached the newly settled villages of Dominase and Ponkrum. George Mclean, the British governor at Cape Coast, pushed for the expansion of this trade, and by 1850 oil palm products were the principal items of trade in the area.

Without the slave trade, the Dutch owners of Elmina castle found their investment less and less profitable. In 1872 they transferred their West African holdings to the British, who consolidated the territory around Elmina with other territories to the north to form the Gold Coast Colony in 1901. To ensure these holdings were profitable, the British colonial government focused on the export of gold and the introduction of cash crops. Production of oil palm for export peaked in 1884, before going into a long decline due to challenges from other products in virtually every area of its utility. This instability gradually eroded oil palm's popularity as a cash crop. Although palm products accounted for about 50 percent of the total exports of British West Africa in the period up to 1900, by 1930 its export share had declined to 33 percent, and by the 1950s to 15 percent. Therefore, by the late nineteenth century the Gold Coast Colony (it would not be known as Ghana until independence in 1957) was still seeking an alternative export to replace the long-defunct slave trade.

While oil-palm exports began to decline after 1884, the meteoric rise of cocoa production in the forest areas of the Gold Coast Colony furthered this downturn after the turn of the 20th century. Cocoa production was at virtually zero in 1900, but by 1910 the colony exported nearly 40,000 tons of cocoa, and by 1921 over 130,000 tons. By the end of the 1920s cocoa accounted for 80 percent of all exports from the Gold Coast Colony. By comparison, mining of the gold from which the colony had taken its name, as well as other minerals, made up a mere 5 percent of all its exports by the late 1920s.

The ecological changes created by the introduction of cash cropping in and around Dominase and Ponkrum took a form unlike that seen in other parts of the world. Whereas agricultural efforts in Latin America and Asia were marked by the establishment of large plantations growing crops for export, the palm-nut and cocoa industries were run almost exclusively by peasant farmers who cultivated their own small plantations. This allowed farmers to incorporate small cocoa and palm plantations into the forest areas without destabilizing the long-standing system of shifting cultivation seen in Dominase and Ponkrum.

The discovery of the burial helps explain the way these broad trends in trade and agriculture played out in Dominase and Ponkrum. From their settlement until the early 1990s, we have little evidence for the existence of Dominase and Ponkrum or for the lives of their residents. The villages do not appear in any colonial documents until the 1940s. This is perhaps unsurprising for small, relatively remote settlements. There are no writings of the residents to which we can turn, as these villagers were not literate. Indeed, in the early 20th century it would not have been possible for them to have been literate in Fante, the particular Akan dialect spoken here. Only recently has Fante been transliterated, and even now its orthography is under debate. As a result of all these factors, we know relatively little about life in these settlements before the mid-1990s. In the absence of direct evidence, the archaeological evidence provided by the accidental encounter with burials helps us make at least a circumstantial case for the impact of this trade on these villages and their inhabitants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The position of Dominase and Ponkrum alongside a trade route to a significant center for trade gave them an advantage in the marketing of these new cash crops. We cannot know exactly when the farmers here took up these crops, nor can we know the impact of these crops on the lives of the residents. However, the specific burial mentioned earlier provides us with interesting clues. As noted, the Fante typically bury their dead at least six feet underground. To find this burial less than two feet underground is, therefore, odd. Even odder is the fact that we found another burial about twenty feet to the south of the first. This skeleton, too, was of a man about twenty years old. Like the first, he was buried in a semiflexed position, with the head to the east. The burials were almost perfectly aligned, which suggests their locations were not accidental or random.

Before the British assumed control of this area in the late 1800s, the Fante commonly buried their dead under the floors of their houses. Most commonly the person was buried under the floor of his or her bedroom. These two men were buried too far apart to suggest they were under the same house. However, their shared orientation suggests they were buried under different houses aligned in the same direction, much as we see in the archaeological evidence for later structures in Dominase and the alignment of contemporary houses in Ponkrum. What remains is the odd fact that both burials were less than two feet deep. No Fante family would, if they had a choice, bury someone only two feet under the floor of their house. As neither burial shows any signs of being rushed, the only plausible explanation is that these remains were once much farther below the surface.

In other words, the depth of these two burials suggests that the landscape of this village was dramatically reshaped around the time the trash pit was filled, in the late 1800s. It appears that at least part of the relatively flat area on which Dominase stands was once a bit hillier and was leveled by those living in the village in the late 1800s. This leveling likely removed four or five feet of soil, which perhaps they used to construct a large cistern to the south of the village. After leveling this area, and constructing the cistern, the residents of Dominase began to construct their houses on top of the newly leveled area. In short, something rather dramatic happened in these villages in the late 1800s that led to the construction of the cistern to the south and to some sort of reorganization of the landscape that included leveling a portion of the settlement and the structures that once stood here. Given the coincidence of this reorganization with the introduction first of oil palm and later cocoa to the area, this reorganization speaks to a surge in the size of the village, likely motivated by the relative success the farmers here enjoyed. The landscape of Dominase is therefore anything but timeless. Even its topography has been reshaped by the introduction of cash crops, which derived much of their value from a global market.

Yet, the rise of cash cropping alone is not responsible for the transformation of the livelihoods and landscape of Dominase and Ponkrum at the turn of the 20th century. Cash crops require markets and means to get them to market. Thus, the development of transportation infrastructure around these villages is a central part of their story. In the 1890s there were only 32 miles of motorable road in all the Gold Coast Colony. Farmers engaged in the growth of cash crops in the earliest part of the 20th century therefore had to employ people to carry their crops to the nearest market, an expensive proposition that made cocoa production economically infeasible in many parts of the colony. However, by 1919 the colony had 1,200 miles of road, which four years later increased to between 3,200 and 3,400 miles. The mid-1920s introduction of tarmac and the growth of private transport in the 1930s eventually lowered the price of motorized transport far beyond that of human carriage, at least for cocoa. Seeing the cost benefits of motorized conveyances, farmers in rural areas constructed their own roads, thus adding to the total mileage.

The extension of roads into the rural Gold Coast Colony had another effect, that of opening the Upper Guinea Forest's valuable hardwoods, including mahogany and teak, to profitable commercial logging. This reserve of resources comprised a significant segment of the colony's economy, accounting for between 5 percent and 6 percent of the total GDP and 11 percent of total commodity export earnings across the colonial period. Most of these earnings were the products of the sale of unprocessed logs. The rapid expansion of roads meant, however, that forests were opened to commercial logging before the colonial government could police them. In many places the forest became a reserve of resources exploited with little governmental control aside from taxation.

As this broad transformation of the economy and environment took place in the Gold Coast Colony generally, and in the area around Dominase and Ponkrum specifically, the voices of those living in these villages at this time can be heard in a letter to the colonial government. The letter, from representatives of those living in the Eguafo Traditional Area—to which Dominase and Ponkrum belong—and the Abrem Agona Traditional Area, requested funds for the improvement of existing feeder roads. This request, submitted by the Eguafo-Abrem Management Committee, was justified in part by referencing the affected villages as "a thick cocoa centre" as well as a center of palm oil production.

This letter illustrates how closely Dominase and Ponkrum were tied to the broader processes of increased cash cropping and transportation development taking place in the larger Gold Coast Colony. It also shows how clearly the residents of these villages understood their position in this world and how to use that position to maximum advantage. They needed a road through the area to improve their connectivity to local markets, which would have enabled more efficient transport and therefore greater profits from their farm products. Yet, they also knew the British colonial government did not care much about a few dozen farmers living in villages that would have likely been deemed within walking distance of regional markets. So, the farmers attempted to play on the economic sensibilities of the British, referencing their growth of key cash crops in an effort to get the attention of relevant officials who might grant their request. This was not the communication of backward, isolated farmers. This was an effort by some savvy people to manipulate the colonial government into giving them a road that, in the colonial scheme of things, their importance probably did not warrant. Clever as it was, this gambit failed. The British never built a road through this area, and the remnants of Asante Road #7 remained a footpath until the 1940s.

The people of Dominase and Ponkrum would get their road eventually, but not through the colonial government. Instead, they benefited from the growth of logging in the colonial economy and what might be seen as an early effort to privatize infrastructural development. In the late 1940s, George Annan, the Ghanaian owner of a private logging company with local connections, began work on a logging concession to the north of Ponkrum, near Berase. Annan had been one of the people behind the earlier letters to the colonial government requesting the construction of a road. Clearly, he was hoping the government would cover some of the costs associated with his logging operation. When the colonial government refused, Annan was compelled to construct his own road to provide access to the concession. The route he graded ran from Berase south through Dominase and Ponkrum and on to Amoana before connecting to the large north-south road a few kilometers north of the east-west highway. This provided easy access from the logging concession to ports from which logs could be exported.

The opening of this logging concession had a number of impacts on the lives of those living in Dominase and Ponkrum. First, it provided opportunities for nonfarm employment in the immediate vicinity of the villages. While few, if any, villagers were employed by the logging operation itself, several were employed to help maintain the graded road, even a well-graded road will be cut by gullies during the rainy season. These are rarely large enough to prevent the passage of the large flatbed trucks commonly used to move harvested logs out of logging areas, but without constant maintenance of the roadbed such gullies can result in damage to trucks that costs both time and money. Second, the newly graded and maintained road opened up transport access to these villages. While most traffic would have been on the way to, or returning from, the logging concession and the larger villages to the north of Ponkrum, the increased traffic created real opportunities to catch rides to towns such as Elmina, where nonfarm employment opportunities were much more numerous.

As a result of these first two impacts, livelihoods in these villages shifted to incorporate much more nonfarm employment. New job opportunities provided a complementary source of income to back up the agricultural incomes of residents. The result was a third important impact on the lives of the villagers: Household agricultural incomes likely rose as increased efficiency in transportation facilitated the movement of greater amounts of crops to market for less cost in time and money. Circumstantial evidence in the form of changes to the landscape of Dominase, starting in the 1950s, suggests the incomes of those living there likely rose as the road was constructed and maintained.

I know about the changing landscape of these villages because in 1997, as part of my research, I hired a team of workers—Francis Quayson and Samuel Mensah—and surveyed both villages, mapping all structures fallen or standing. In Dominase the vast majority of these structures were long abandoned and collapsed by the time I began my survey. Further, they were often heavily overgrown or even farmed as part of a field. Our efforts to map the 143 structures we could identify took more than a week. Ponkrum had never been completely abandoned, and therefore any fallen structure was located within the boundaries of the village and not overgrown. As a result, the mapping of Ponkrum went much more rapidly.

While this survey mapping was as interesting as it was frustrating, what made it valuable was the connection of individual structures to their dates of construction and abandonment. In Dominase the key resource was the memories of remaining residents. Once we completed the survey mapping, I drew up a map of the village that included the fallen structures. The crew and I then walked over the site with a group of elderly men who had grown up in the village. Remarkably, they were able to identify the owners of nearly every structure and tell when they were abandoned. In some cases they also could remember when structures had been built. They could not provide exact years of construction but distinguished between structures at ten-year intervals; for example, they could separate those that were abandoned in the 1970s from those abandoned in the 1980s. In Ponkrum the absence of abandoned structures simplified our data collection. We simply interviewed the occupants or owners of each to find out its year of construction.

Linking this information to the survey map of the village, I was able to create a series of maps of the landscapes of Dominase and Ponkrum. These maps begin in 1950, the earliest decade for which we have ethnohistorical data, and show paired villages, with Dominase the dominant partner. Dominase grew between 1950 and 1960, likely the result of new opportunities in this village. Ponkrum grew slightly but remained a fairly marginal settlement. This pattern is not surprising. The heads of the principal landholding families in the area all lived in Dominase, and much of the infrastructure of these communities, such as the well and cistern, were located there. Ponkrum had no well and only a simple cistern. Someone moving to this area would likely have chosen to live in the larger village.

Reconstructing as best we can from the landscape of these villages, the activities in their wider historical setting, and the memories of the few remaining residents old enough to remember life at this time, Dominase and Ponkrum were prosperous villages in the 1960s. One long-term resident of Dominase told me the land around the village was very fertile and rainfall more than adequate, resulting in years in which "We left crops in the ground because we had more than we could harvest." While this oral historical evidence might be tempered by a rosy view of the past situation of these villages, the 1960s were a period of generally high rainfall in West Africa. Further, many who lived in Dominase and Ponkrum in that decade were highly integrated into the regional economy and, as a result, into the global economy for the commodities that drove the Ghanaian economy. Of the few remaining residents who lived in Dominase or Ponkrum at the time, nearly all reported significant nonfarm employment, ranging from security guards at the University of Cape Coast 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) to the east to laborers on the logging road through the village. All agree that cocoa was a significant crop in the area, an assertion supported by the earlier letters written by residents of these villages to the colonial government.

As the 1960s wore on, those living in these villages had every reason to be optimistic about their futures. Development in the form of transportation infrastructure, cash crops, and nonfarm employment opportunities had allowed them to connect their lives to a globalized market for commodities and created a situation of unprecedented prosperity for the residents. This is how development and globalization are supposed to work along globalization's shoreline. These improvements in local conditions were highly correlated with population growth in the area. This new population needed access to farmland, which they could obtain only through connections to, or renting from, landholding families in these villages. Therefore, these changes worked to consolidate the authority of those who headed these families. Dominase and Ponkrum were the products of a series of development (or at least developmentlike) interventions that began not long after the villages were settled. This was not a place awaiting development but rather something of a development success story.

Unfortunately, that success was fragile. By the end of the decade, the tide of globalization would go out on these villages, ebbing toward towns such as Elmina, leaving Dominase abandoned and the residents of Ponkrum much poorer and vulnerable to economic and environmental change, even up to the present day. The first 150 years of Dominase's and Ponkrum's history shows that the current situation in these villages, like many places we characterize as lacking development, are better understood as the outcomes of development and globalization.

Reprinted by arrangement with Palgrave Macmillan from Delivering Development: Globalization's Shoreline and the Road to a Sustainable Future by Edward R. Carr. Copyright © 2011 by Edward R. Carr.

 

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