32. Flight in Senegal during 3000-1300 BCE
Pete takes Ryan to the Westernmost point in Africa to Senegal, where he takes flight with the parrots and pelicans across the glorious landscape, taking in the ancient way of life of the shellfish gathering Serer people in the mangrove swamps, and discovering the Tree of Life itself – the Baobab
Pete and Ryan tackled the Bronze aga (3000 to 1300 BCE) in Senegal on the subject of flight in this episode.
Known as the Republic of Senegal, this is the Westernmost country in the mainland of the Old World, or Afro-Eurasia, with the Westernmost bit of the Westernmost country being the capital city of Dakar.
Whilst the official language is French, Wolof is also in common use, but in fact there are over 30 languages spoken in the country including Fula and Serer.
Senegal is curious in that it almost entirely encloses the country of Gambia, such that the whole area often referred to as Senegambia.
Senegal is approximately 196,722 sq km, making it 35.67% the size of France, but sparsely populated, with just 16 million inhabitants.
The country’s national anthem was actually written by Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was Senegal's first president in September 1960. A well-read man, educated in France, he was a poet and philosopher
Islam is the predominant religion in Senegal, accounting for 95.9% of the population.
Senegal is also known for the concept of teraanga. This is translated as ‘hospitality’ and emphasises generosity of spirit and sharing of possessions– even with strangers.
The famous son of Senegal Youssou N'Dour, has a song about teraanga that says “Someone who comes to your country, when they arrive, welcome them, honour them so much that when they leave they will want to return.”
And part of this hospitality is to give them a drink of bissap. Often called the national drink of Senegal, this red drink is a tea made from hibiscus flowers, served on ice with plenty of sugar or honey, plus personal variations such as mint or vanilla. Pete brought his own attempt to the show and, surprisingly given his involvement, it was rather delicious.
3000 to 1300 bce Senegal flight
3000 to 1300 is the Bronze age, but in fact there was no Bronze age in sub Saharan Africa. It’s not that there wasn’t technology, simply that the development of iron in 3,000 to 1,000 bce was the first metalwork in the area.
On the subject of flight, obviously there was very little in the way of Bronze age helicopters, so we have to look to the birds for our inspiration and fortunately Senegal is a significant stopping off point on the East Atlantic Flyway.
With its coastal islands, estuaries and wetlands the water-dwellers have great places to stay and the dryer savannah areas offer habitats for other types of winged tourists. In fact there are 650 to 700 bird species in Senegal and one third of these are winter migrants, such as the spotted redshanks, which travel over 10,000 km (6,200 miles) on their migratory journey.
Northern Senegal today is home to Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage site and wetland home to over a millions birds a season. This includes the African spoonbill, cormorant, pink flamingo and great egret, as well as the pelican.
The pelican is the bird with the second largest wingspan of all birds after the albatross, coming in at 8-12 feet across. Senegal is home to the white pelican, but these are not born white, in fact emerging from the egg a black or grey colour, whitening as they mature.
Pelicans are famous for large, fibrous skin pouch that dangles from their bill, called the gular pouch (or, occasionally, the gular sac). This is not used to store food but actually functions more like a fishing net.
Although pelicans specialize in eating fish, they also prey on crustaceans, amphibians, turtles, and even other birds.
In medieval Europe, it was believed that whenever food grew scarce, mother pelicans would intentionally stab themselves on the breast with their beaks and then use the blood to feed their chicks. This resulted in inspired medieval artists often including them in religious works.
If our pelican flew further south along the Senegal coast, she would come to the Saloum Delta, also a UNESCO World Heritage site (of which Senegal is home to a remarkable seven).
Saloum delta is an unspoiled unspoiled mangrove swamp approximately 120 km south of Dakar an dhome to fascinating shell middens. A midden is an old dump for domestic waste which may consist of animal bone or shells and in Saloum they have developed over centuries to create man-made islands, so large the first Europeans in the area believed them to be natural phenomena. The shell midden of Diorom Boumack, which measures 250 m 450 m and 12 m high,
Shell middens are of particular interest to archaeologists as they have a high calcium carbonate content, which tends to make the middens alkaline, slowing t the normal rate of decay. And shell middens have been constructed in the Saloum Delta, Senegal for at least 5000 years.
Even today the Niominka (fishermen) of the Sereer people collect and process shellfish, adding to the pile.
Archaeologists have found that the ancient shell middens recorded so far are made up predominantly of two bivalve species, A. senilis, or bloody cockle, and Crassostrea gasar, the mangrove oyster and they noted that all of the sites had deposits of a single species. This suggests that the middens were the result of collection for trade rather than personal use, which would likely have resulted in a more varied deposit.
he creation of tumuli on certain large shell mounds occurred later. It started in the 8th century AD and developed through to the 16th century.
So large and old have these middens become, that ancient baobab trees have grown on them and they have also been used for burial mounds.
In the Saloum Delta, carbon 14 dating of the shell mounds dates the oldest at up to 400 BCE.
Leaving our pelican friend behind, we take a journey with a different bird into the dry savannah of the Senegal interior. The Senegal parrot likes open woodland and savanna, living a life of up to 30 years in the wild and as long as 50 in captivity.
New born chicks are blind for the first two to three weeks, leaving the mother to remain with the nest, whilst the father brings food to the female and chick and guard the nest from threats.
And sharing the landcape with the colourful parrot is the mighty baobab tree.
The baobab is a prehistoric species which was around before people have even been conceived of. It is also the symbol of Senegal, appearing on the national coat of arms.
It is a tree of many names, including the monkey-bread tree, the upside-down tree, the bottle tree and the tree of life, those last two due to the way in which it hold precious water in its bard.
Their massive trunks can grow to circumferences of 25 meters or more during their huge lifespan which can be more than a thousand years. In fact they are so consistent a feature of the savannah they are used as landmarks, as well as in some cases being reconised for their historic importance.
It’s a useful plant. All parts of the tree can be used. The seeds can be pressed into oil, the hard outer shell is waterproof and can be made into items such as calabashes and castanets. The seeds and the leaves can be eaten and the bard can be harvested, and pounded to make rope.
Most popular of all, though, is a drink made from the Baobab, which is prized for being rich in vitamin C.
Sometimes individual trees can be sacred, and can act as burial sites for deceased Griots - the storytellers and keepers of historical records in the oral tradition across generations.
In fact, one Griot, Abdoulaye Sene, said, "We put griots in baobabs because they are considered sages. They’re the ones who reorient the community when there are problems. Griots are the repositories of knowledge. If griots are buried underground, it would be as though we were burying our history. "
So important are these trees, that sixteen baobabs have been classified as historic monuments by the Ministry of Culture.
Finish with a feast
Finally, the episode ended with a Senegales feast, where Pete brought Ryan some flavours of Senegal including Maafe, a meat stew with peanut sauce, Yassa chicken, a rich dish with plenty of caremalised onions, and Senegal’s national dish, Thiebou Djien, made from smoked fish and hearty vegetables.