Changing Planet

Pottery shards suggest ancient Bantu settlements deep in the Heart of Africa

We decided to take a big loop out of the river today and to go around a mountain, but it was going to take about 20km in a straight line, so we were up at 03h00. We were out of camp by 04h30, and good we were, because we camped under a hive in a tree, and the bees were already smashing into our headlamps pretty heavily before we left.

I was leading in the dark, and every 50 feet I was getting spider webs in the face; never did like that. We spooked a group of sleeping baboons. With all the racket at first we thought it was red river hogs fleeing, then we heard vocalization. They must have freaked out seeing four lights coming straight for them in the middle of nowhere in the pitch dark.

As it got light and we had some km behind us, what was shocking today is the number of trees that the herders are coppicing for food for their livestock. Tse tse flies were bad, I must have killed 50 of them.

Tree cut for fresh fodder. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Tree cut for fresh fodder. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Fresh-cut bee tree. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Fresh-cut bee tree. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Scadoxus multiflorus. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Scadoxus multiflorus. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Lots of good grazing. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Lots of good grazing. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

We were navigating toward a creek and my eye caught what I have been expecting to find the whole trip: bits of pottery. There was a pretty big area strewn with hundreds of pieces. All over central Africa, pretty much, you find pottery from the 2,500-year-existence of Bantu people here. There would have probably been plenty of villages out here until around the 17th Century, even right up until just before the height of the raids of Senoussi from the north and Bangassou and Rafai from the south.

Pottery fragment from ancient Bantu village. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Pottery fragment from ancient Bantu village. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Pottery fragment from ancient Bantu village. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Pottery fragment from ancient Bantu village. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

Cannibalism

The slave-raiding here continued well into the beginning of the 20th Century. Cherry saw first-hand, just before the turn of the century, the devastation of villages, and slavers on raids. He witnessed cannibalism on a large scale, of the people who were not considered to be fit to be slaves. So these bits of pottery here are the remnants of one of those villages that may have gotten raided. It was nestled deep in the hills. Further to the north here I have seen entire alternate villages built into the rocky hills for protection from the raiders.

Posing with Yaya on granite outcrop. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Posing with Yaya on granite outcrop. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Fresh waterbuck track. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Fresh waterbuck track. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

We saw some fresh waterbuck tracks, fresh roan dung, and very old giant eland dung. We ran into several groups of warthogs in the meadows, that of course should have had antelope. This is yet another route used by the herders. It seems there is not a square inch of this vast territory that they don’t use. The cattle are all still to the south of us.

No tracks in this mud hole. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
No tracks in this mud hole. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
We made the right choice to turn back at the Douyou; creeks still dry. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
We made the right choice to turn back at the Douyou; creeks still dry. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

Where we hit the Chinko it was completely dry for about a quarter mile. Water levels are still dropping. Food is getting low, but we will make it. No illness today, spirits are high.

Dry hardpan savanna. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Dry hardpan savanna. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Primo camp. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Primo camp. Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Photograph by J. Michael Fay.
Photograph by J. Michael Fay.

Africa explorer-conservationist J. Michael Fay is in the Central African Republic, completing an expedition he started in 2014, retracing as best he can the footsteps of the 19th Century American Game Hunter-Explorer William Stamps Cherry. Fay, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and recipient of numerous National Geographic Society grants, has also worked for decades for the Wildlife Conservation Society. His transects through some of Africa’s most remote and inaccessible wildernesses (among them the National Geographic-sponsored Megatransect and Meglaflyover) rank among the most significant in the history of exploration of the continent. You can read all his dispatches at Expedition Through the Heart of Africa.

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Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.

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