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Anthropology Unit

Anthropology Unit | University of Geneva

Eric Huysecom

Professeur honoraire


25 years of research have focused on the understanding of the history of human population, with the means of different approaches (prehistory, ethnoarchaeology, numismatic), both in Europe and in Africa.

Current research

The study of the human population in West Africa and its relation to climatic and environmental changes; emergence of the African Neolithic

The study of the human population in West Africa and its relation to climatic and environmental changes; emergence of the African Neolithic.

Our excavations in Mali, started in 1985, have allowed us to discover an original Neolithic industry which we named the 'Neolithic facies of the Baoulé' and which evidenced for the first time a line of retreat of the populations, from the Malian Sahara to the Atlantic coast at the Cap Vert, as a consequence of the increasing aridification of the Sahara since 2800 BC.

This subject has been taken up again and enlarged since 1996, as a result of the discovering of the site of Ounjougou (Dogon country, Mali), which consists of several dozen archaeological sites spread over an area of more than 10 km2. The particular geomorphologic setting of the site allows us to study a stratigraphic sequence of over 16 meter, displaying archaeological material from the Lower Palaeolithic until today. Exceptionally for sub-Saharan Africa, the levels offer a wealth of micro- and macroplant remains.

The richness of the site made us set up the international and multidisciplinary research program «Human population and paleoenvironment in West Africa» whose general objective is the study of the past and present population history as well as the analysis of the reactions and responses of the different populations to climatic and environmental variations. Furthermore, we attempt to put the findings of Ounjougou into the context of the population history of the sudano-sahelian zone, to identify relations between that area, the Sahara and the southern tropical forest and to reveal the emergence and/or diffusion of certain technologies. In order to achieve our objectives, we have set up a multidisciplinary team, which allows us to do highly synergetic research work in a number of disciplines: archaeology, geomorphology, sedimentology, paleoclimatology, botany, ethnoarchaeology, ethnohistory, linguistics, paleometallurgy and hopefully in the near future, genetics.

This multidisciplinary research program which is under the auspices of the Malian and Swiss commissions of the UNESCO is in full development and the team consists today of 26 researchers from 11 universities and institutions in Switzerland, Mali, France, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Our personal research area in this project is the population movement between the end of the Pleistocene and the onset of the Holocene in the perspective of its paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental context and the different adaptations of the way of living which lead in the end to the African Neolithic». The recent discovery of grinding implements and pottery (in a well defined geological and archaeobotanical setting) counting amongst the oldest of such artefacts even worldwide allows us to improve our understanding of phenomena of techno-economic inventions.

Parallel studies of African rock art allow us to differentiate several well individualised styles and to associate them to separate phases of the peopling of the continent.

The ethnoarchaeology of pottery, metallurgy and economy

The ethnoarchaeology of pottery, metallurgy and economy.

We define ethnoarchaeology as displaying regular links which exist between the material culture of today's populations and its meaning. In analogy to this, these «regularities» allow us to interpret artifacts found at archaeological sites by means of a constructed context of reference.

This approach has been applied since 1988 for the study of today's pottery of the Inland Niger Delta. It allowed us an ethnical, functional and technical interpretation of the ceramics found during the excavation of the site of Hamdallahi, the capital of the Fulani Empire of Massina. This site is chronologically and geographically close to the study area.

On a larger scale, this study has made it possible to interpret a potters implement, the clay pestles and to show the diffusion of a mounting technique for pottery which is original to Africa and common in the whole sudano-sahelian area from Sudan to Mali, and this since the Iron Age. This study has been taken up recently and shows that this technique might be related to the peopling of Nilo-Saharan speakers.

Additionally, ethnoarchaeology has also been used for a study of the metallurgy of the Dogon people, which allowed us to observe, describe and film the traditional ways of exploitation of iron ore, the construction of a furnace, and the reduction of the ore and the smiting of the iron. This study has ended in the making of a scientific documentary movie (Inagina, the last house of iron, translated into several languages) and has encouraged us to go further with an interdisciplinary study of the population history of the Dogon blacksmiths, by using data issuing from archaeological, historical, linguistic, archaeobotanical and paleometallurgical research. At present, this aspect is part of the research project discussed under topic 1.

The analysis of the way of life of the people living at present in Africa has helped to redefine the concept of the «African Neolithic», a concept which suits that continent better.

Past research

North-European Megalithism and Neolithic: evidencing long-distance cultural contacts (from 1976 to 1988)

Northern-European Megalithism and Neolithic: evidencing long-distance cultural contacts.

Our studies between 1976 and 1988 have focused on megalithic burials in north-western Europe and the evidencing of cultural links between final Neolithic population in northern Germany and the Franco-Belgian area, precisely between the Wartberg and the Seine-Oise-Marne populations. In addition, we put a particular interest in long-distance cultural contacts during the European Final Neolithic. Our research, focusing particularly on a certain type of pottery, the collared bottles, and on burials, which we named «collective funerary huts» allowed us to show eats-west relations during the European Final Neolithic between Ukrania and Brittany.

Roman and Celtic numismatics (from 1973 to 1988)

Roman and Celtic numismatics.

Apart from several studies on Roman numismatics focusing on beforehand unknown minting workshops, several results of research in Celtic numismatic have been undertaken and published between 1973 and 1988. As a result, a new approach to Celtic coins has been proposed due to the concept of the «circulation spectrum». These studies have also allowed us to precise the data for the Celtic population of Gallia Belgica and to propose a new chronology of the production of money during the first two century BC.

Eric Huysecom
Eric Huysecom
University of Geneva
Dpt. of Genetic & Evolution
Anthropology Unit
Quai Ernest-Ansermet 30
1205 Genève
Ph +41 22 379 69 67
Fax +41 22 379 31 94