Augustin Ferdinand Charles Holl, one of the best archaeologists of our time

Augustin Ferdinand Charles Holl is an archaeologist known for his contributions to the study of several areas of Africa and the Levant.

By Sandro CAPO CHICHI from New African Cultures /

Works by African archaeologists dealing with the past of their continent are not well known to the general public. Their contribution to this subject is however remarkable. Among these African archaeologists, the case of Augustin Ferdinand Holl is even more commendable. Unlike many African scholars whose research is restricted to their region of origin, this brilliant Cameroonian archaeologist  has worked on very diverse regions of the continent, contributing to the demonstration of the African origin of some major cultural innovations on the continent such as agriculture and iron metallurgy. Interview with an exceptional scholar.

1)Can you tell us what led you to become an archaeologist?

Augustin Ferdinand Holl : Actually, I became an archaeologist by chance. As a first choice was I wanted to do a Ph.D in Social History at the Ecole des Chartes (a prestigious Parisian  university specializing in historical sciences, Editor’s note). However, as I had no knowledge of Greek or Latin, this was not possible. My second choice was Semiotics at the University of Paris VII, but the applications were under review and I needed a university registration for my residence permit. My third choice was archaeology and my application was accepted at the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, and I registered in archaeology although I had no substantial knowledge of this field.

Actually, I attended courses in European protohistory and thanks to that, I was not involved with ‘Africanists’  (Western scholars dealing with Africa, Editor’s note). I have spent my whole career avoiding Africanists and their neo-colonial inclinations. My primary aim was to work on the origins of agriculture in Africa, which was thought by many to have been brought in from the Middle East and hence refute diffusionist theories.

2) What was your first study subject in archaeology?

Augustin Ferdinand Holl : My first study subject, as I said,  was the origin of agriculture in Africa. In M.A. dissertation, I analyzed the state of the art in this subject and proposed new methods to deal with it through the framework of cultural ecology which was widespread in the US and the UK but was virtually unknown in France. Then, I was invited to join the Prehistoric Mission at Dhar Tichitt in Mauritania by Prof. Henri-Jean Hugot who had read my M.A. dissertation. This led me to to do three months of fieldwork in February, March, April 1981 in the Mauritanian Sahara. I completed my Ph.D in two years and defended it in May 1983. My French colleagues remain flabbergasted by it to this day. I was then offered a position of Assistant Professor at the University of Paris-Nanterre where I started teaching in September 1983. My first book, ‘Neolithic Economy and Society of Dhar Tichitt, Mauritania’, a redacted version of my dissertation was published in 1986 by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

3) You have worked on a great number of geographical and temporal areas such as the neolithic civilization of Dhar Tichitt, a chalcolithic site in Negev, Palestine, African slave cemeteries in the US, the Kanem Bornu empire, the Prehistoric Sahara, or Megaliths in Senegambia. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that many African archaeologists, unlike their European and American colleagues, limit their study subjects to their area of origin. To my knowledge, this is often found in Linguistics, for example. Is this solely due to lesser financial support from local research institutes? Or is there a kind of complex among some African researchers?

Augustin Ferdinand Charles Holl :  I am a ‘stateless wanderer’. I immediately refused to do my Ph.D in Cameroon-my homeland-my  co-supervisor in ‘Paris I’ thought that my project was too ambitious and that I would need at least ten years to complete it. He suggested to me to do a less risked work on the ethnoarchaeology of pottery in Southern Cameroon with financial funding and other advantages. This subject was was very fashionable in the eighties, but I was not interested in it at all. I thanked him for his support, but I told him that I wanted to work on my first subject. When the Ph.D was completed, he became one of my biggest admirers.

One must not make global judgements. There are deep differences between the Anglo-Saxon and Francophone worlds. African archaeologists are often locked into their own country of origin. This may be their choice; this is hard to tell. I had the chance to be offered a position at the University of Paris-Nanterre although I had not asked for it. This was because of my dissertation that I have been contacted for this unexpected offer. A great number of African archaeologists in American universities,  but there again, they still work  on their areas of origin. I am motivated by personal challenge and experimentation. Actually, my whole career path has been the result of meetings and invitations. I had never planned to go to Israel and the US; I have been invited and was offered positions there. African countries do not finance archaeological research. They leave that to foreign institutions, leaving local African colleagues to act like mercenaries and only collect crumbs from foreign missions.  Unfortunately (or fortunately?), I had to play this part in Cameroon as well as in Burkina Faso and Senegal, and this will go on during the summer of 2018 with my Chinese students in Senegal.

I do not wish to make value judgements on my African colleagues. In most of the cases, they have to deal with governmental systems that do not provide support for them actively doing fieldworks.

4) How is the Archaeology of Africa doing in 2018 in your opinion?

Augustin Ferdinand Charles Holl : This would pretentious to give such a general verdict. However, continent wide archaeology is very well. There have been great discoveries such as Homo naledi in South Africa, a 300000 years old Homo sapiens sapiens in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, the astronomical observatory in Nabta Playa, Egypt  and many others.

5) What are the main discoveries your own research has made possible?

Augustin Ferdinand Charles Holl  : Personally, I have contributed to a new interpretation of the neolithic societies of Dhar Tichitt. I have also documented the emergence of chieftains in the Chadian plains for a 4000 years period and I am currently involved into a heated debate about the origins of iron metallurgy in Africa. My last work offers a new synthesis of the Bantu expansion, which answers old questions. In Negev, our work have demonstrated the existence of chieftains. My boldest work to date is an iconographic interpretation of rock art, especially in the Sahara and more recently in Southern Africa-Namibia-‘Beyond Chamanism’.

6)How would you define your personal approach to archaeology?

Augustin Ferdinand Charles Holl  : Fundamentally pluridisciplinary global and comparative archaeology.

7) If you had an unlimited budget and all the time and permits you would need for an archaeological project of your choice, what would it be?

 Augustin Ferdinand Charles Holl :This is a wonderful question that I often ask to my students. This would be a large-scale project dealing the neolithtization of Sahara, in Southwest Mauritania, up to the rise of the Ghana Empire, combining genomics–DNA- nutritional analyses, population movement analyses, and archaeology of political systems in the Longue Durée.

8) The African general public is very interested by Ancient Egypt and would like to see more African archaeologists to work on it. Have you thought on working in Egypt?

Augustin Ferdinand Charles Holl  : No, one does not become an Egyptologist overnight. I have a different view of this issue which will be developed in the upcoming Volume IX of the UNESCO’s General History of Africa. And recent data, especially from genomics, does not allow a racial focus on Ancient Egypt as there was until recently. The supposed Egyptian origin of several African ethnic groups -Senegal, Cameroon, Congo, Gabon- actually everywhere in Africa where there are Egyptologists, does not hold water anymore. DNA does not allow this kind of superficial reasoning anymore.

9) A last word for our readers?

Augustin Ferdinand Charles Holl  : A bit of passion, rigor and enthousiasm and the rest will follow naturally.

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