The stage has been set for an explosive academic debate in West African archaeology after archaeologists from the University of Michigan (USA) probed 11th century funerary patterns in Sine Ngayene, an old Senegalese settlement south-east of Dakar, off the Senegambian highway.
The sleepy and ageing settlement became the centre of attraction in 1980 after a French-Belgian archaeological team led by Prof Guy Thilman excavated and found huge skeletal remains at Tiekene Boussoura, east of Kaula, within the mammoth Senegambian archaeological corridor that stretches 300km east to west and 150 km north to south.
In his report, Thilman spoke of the existence of a 170BC skeletal find which exhibited an elaborate mass funerary system where the dead were deposited in a ringed formation of 18, 32 and 45 bodies. Huge stone monuments standing as pedestals were then hauled from local quarries, a few kilometres to the burial sites and erected to form circular tombstones.
According to Thilman's report, the multiple burials indicated some form of decapitation which could be interpreted as the result of mass burials in war or other forms of mishap.
Although archaeologists had always known about the Senegambian corridor, no significant work had been done before Thilman's report, which characterised the Boussoura finds as evidence of the existence of "a culture of primary burial", a thesis that held sway for two decades in archaeological circles.
But now, Thilman's thesis faces a sharp challenge from Prof. Holl, an archaeologist born in Cameroon, trained at the Sorbonne, and currently the curator of the University of Michigan's archaeological museum, which is rated as the leading archaeological institution in the US.
Holl is contending that Thilman's thesis is fundamentally flawed because all the evidence collected from the monuments (skeletal and metal data) indicate "not a primary, but a secondary burial culture".
"We might be dealing here with a culture of how prestigious families re-bury their own in a manner that recalls the practice of erecting halls of fame," Holl said during a recent visit to the Sine Ngayene site.
Pending the results of laboratory analyses of about a thousand samples that Holl and his team of two PhD students and five undergraduates are shipping to the US, the clouds are now...