Kome to Ebome: Oil Pipeline Archaeology in Central Africa, 1999-2003

Story posted December 03, 2003

Scott MacEachern, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, has done archaeological work in Africa since the 1980s, but in recent years he diverged from his usual research by taking on a contract assignment from Exxon (now ExxonMobil). He spoke about the project at a recent faculty seminar.

The oil giant wanted to put an 1100 km oil pipeline in between its oil fields in Kome, in southwest Chad, and the port city of Ebome on the Atlantic coast of Cameroon. The pipeline is extremely important to the company because it is thought that the fields in Chad contain at least three billion barrels of oil. (The pipeline is now completed and the first oil went through a couple of months ago.)

"This is an extremely controversial oil pipeline for a variety of reasons," MacEachern said. The governments of Chad and Cameroon don't have a reputation for being respectful of human rights or of being particularly honest, so some doubt that the people of those nations will benefit from the project.

The archaeological project is one of cultural resource management — minimizing the effect of construction on the cultural artifacts of the region. This type of archaeology is very different from what most Africanists do, MacEachern said. Most often their work is research archaeology, not working with a timeline and a budget to save cultural resources.

"It's a very, very different way of thinking about archaeology," MacEachern said.

In 1999 Exxon was looking for an Africanist archaeologist with oil pipeline survey experience who could speak French and was North American.

"And I appear to be it," MacEachern said.

One of Exxon's priorities was the involvement of Chadian and Cameroonian archaeologists. MacEachern led the project for a year in Chad, working with a Chadian archaeologist. Now the project in Cameroon is run by a Belgian archaeologist with the help of seven Cameroonian archaeologists, and the Chadian archaeologist is working in Chad with several of his students. MacEachern serves as an advisor and consultant to both teams.

The area is important because the expansion of the Bantu people there began in northwest Cameroon, and they moved across the pipeline area. But until now it hasn't been explored much by archaeologists.

"So it is a significant area archaeologically and one we know very little about," MacEachern said.

The pipeline right of way was a three-meter-wide, 1100-kilometer-long path through the area, though it wasn't always a well-marked path — at least once MacEachern and his team lost track of the right of way completely and were wandering lost in the forest for a time. Even when they stayed on the path, the terrain was very difficult to survey in.

Most of the archaeology he'd done in Africa previously was on cleared ground, so it was quite a change for MacEachern. Exxon wasn't even aware of what they'd sent him into: to clear the right of way Exxon had dropped survey markers from a helicopter and sent in local workers with chainsaws to clear the land.

"It's the worst archaeological survey I've ever done in my life," MacEachern said. "Tropical forest is an extraordinarily difficult place to do archaeology."

It was hard to see the ground, and even harder to discover what's under the surface, and to be efficient the archaeologists needed to keep moving at least 10 km a day.

guardsIn addition to the challenges of the terrain, the banditry in the region was something MacEachern wasn't used to. While in Chad he had six bodyguards — armed with Kalishnikovs.

"What it implicitly indicates is the degree of aggression that can be associated with something that I don't normally associate with aggression," he said, "and that is archaeological survey work."

The archaeologists' main concern was the cultural resources, and minimizing the impact of the pipeline could happen in several ways: avoiding a site by diversion of the pipeline right of way ("Exxon hates that, it costs them $1 million a kilometer," MacEachern said), intentionally burying a site, diverting the pipeline path within the right of way or excavating.

MacEachern had a list of things that would require Exxon to divert the right of way, but they never had to do that, though they had to move the pipleline within the right of way a few times.

They found 309 sites in Cameroon and 163 in Chad. After the initial survey they had people monitoring construction and archaeologists did excavation while the pipeline was being laid; they excavated 40 sites in Cameroon and 13 in Chad. About 93% of the sites date to about 5000 years ago or earlier. About 6-7% dated to the mid to late stone age (somewhere between 4000 and 100,000 years ago).

"This is easily the biggest archaeology project ever done in central Africa."

Among some of their finds were the following:

  • Iron-working sites dating to within the last 2000 to 2500 years. These were found in southwest Chad and eastern Cameroon.
    furnaces
    Iron furnaces

    These furnaces are noteworthy because the archaeologists thought they were about 1000 years old, but when they did carbon dating they discovered the furnaces were really about 2100 years old. So these are actually one of the oldest intact remains of iron smelting furnaces in Africa.

  • Refuse pits that were about 2000-2500 years old and probably associated with villages that had structures made of organic material, which had since disappeared.
  • Banana phytoliths, small silica bits that are part of the structure of a banana, that were about 2500 years old. It had been thought that bananas appeared in east Africa about 1000-1200 years ago, and that it would have then made its way to central Africa. These 2500-year-old phytoliths could indicate that bananas appeared in Africa much earlier than previously thought.
  • Stone tools that might be as much as 50,000 years old.
  • A rock shelter site. This was a large rock in the middle of the pipeline right of way with evidence of human habitation beneath it. The site was under a rock about 30 km from the road. ("There would be no way of finding this without the pipeline," MacEachern said.)

    rock shelter
    Rock shelter site

    The team excavated the site to two meters and got about 5000 year's worth of evidence of human habitation, making it one of the oldest dated sequences in this part of Africa.

  • Cameroon has a reasonable legal framework to protect its architectural heritage, as well as an archaeological community. Chad, on the other hand, has neither, but because Exxon was required to do the survey by Cameroon, they extended it to Chad.

    MacEachern hopes that this project will help set a level of expectation of behavior for multinational corporations doing business in southern Africa. Aside from archaeological matters, one of the major questions in MacEachern's mind remains whether the oil extraction will benefit the people of Cameroon and Chad.

    "I very much hope that it does," he said.

    At least on an archaeological level, however, the project has been a success. They got a great deal of information, and the archaeological material is now being studied in Cameroon and Chad. The lab analysis will be done at the end of the year, and a publication will follow.

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