Jenne-Jeno is an archeological site on the inner Niger River Delta in Mali. Between the fourth and the twelfth centuries, Jenne-Jeno was an important trade center. It is one of the largest and oldest towns that has been excavated in West Africa. Settled in the third century B.C., it developed into a major commercial hub before 1000 A.D. After the eleventh century, however, the town gradually declined and the site was abandoned altogether by the early fifteenth century. The old city of Jenne-Jeno was replaced by the nearby modern town of Jenne (Djenne); the name Jenne-Jeno means ‘ancient Jenne’.
Jenne-Jeno first attracted worldwide attention due to the work of Roderick and Susan McIntosh, who excavated the site in 1977, 1981 and 1994. Prior to the McIntoshes work, Jenne-Jeno had been mentioned in oral and written histories of the region. According to local people, this large mound of earth three kilometers southeast of modern Jenne (Djenné) was Jenne-Jeno (’ancient Jenne‘), the original location of the town of Jenne (Djenné). When the McIntoshes excavated the mound, they found that it was made up of five meters of debris that had accumulated over centuries of human occupation. The mound had grown up gradually as the inhabitants of Jenne-Jeno built homes, discarded waste, and built new homes on top of the foundations of older ones.
Excavations show that Jenne-Jeno was first settled in the third century B.C. around 200 or 250 B.C. Based on the style of pottery found in the earliest layer of Jenne-Jeno’s settlement, the earliest inhabitants of the town appear to have come from the southern Sahara. Before the third century B.C. the southern Sahara and Sahel regions were wetter than they are today. These humid conditions made the inner Niger Delta undesirable for human occupation because the wet conditions would have encouraged an abundance disease-carrying insects, especially tsetse flies. On the other hand, the humid conditions allowed what is now the southern Sahara desert to support relatively large populations of herders and farmers.
As the southern Sahara became drier, its inhabitants likely moved southward, which led to the establishment of settlements like Jenne-Jeno on the Niger River. The earliest inhabitants of Jenne-Jeno used pottery similar to that of the ancient inhabitants of the southern Sahara and grew crops such as rice, millet, and sorghum. The early residents of Jenne-Jeno also participated in regional trade. For example, they used and worked iron despite the fact that there were no local iron deposits. This shows that some of the earliest Jenno-Jeno residents were trading with people from other regions, importing iron and other items. Excavations also turned up two Roman or Hellenistic beads, which suggests some contact with the Mediterranean world. The contact, however, was probably indirect, with a few Roman/Hellenistic items reaching Jenne-Jeno after passing through several intermediaries.
The town of Jenne-Jeno grew significantly after the fifth century AD. The main building material used in the town was mud from the surrounding floodplain. Jenne-Jeno’s trade expanded during this period, symbolized by the appearance of new imported materials such as copper. Walls around the town were completed around 800 AD. Jenne-Jeno was not the only urban settlement in the inner Niger River Delta during this period. There may be as many as 60 other archeological sites within a four kilometer radius of the modern town of Djenné. The inner Niger River Delta had a relatively large population during this time because of the suitability of the region for growing rice, the availability of pasture for livestock, and the ability to use the river channels for commerce and transportation.
According to the McIntoshes, Jenne-Jeno had a decentralized form of administration. The absence of any large royal palace suggests that there was no single ruler. Instead, the town was occupied by several different ethnic groups or castes, each having their own specialty, such as fishing, herding or farming. Each group lived separately but also traded and cooperated with each other when it came to making decisions that affected the entire settlement.
Jenne-Jeno began to decline after the twelfth century. By around 1400 the town had been abandoned altogether. Many of the other older towns of the inner Niger Delta seem to have been abandoned around the same time. Meanwhile the newer town of Djenné, a few kilometers from Jenne-Jeno, emerged as the regions’ main commercial center. Presumably, many residents of Jenne-Jeno and the other older towns in the region moved to modern Djénné around this time. The exact reasons for the abandonment of Jenne-Jeno and the other older settlements are unclear. Desertification, growing trans-Saharan trade, conversion to Islam, and political changes may have played a role. Whatever the case was, Jenne-Jeno was abandoned by the fifteenth century and remembered only in local oral and written histories until the McIntoshes used these sources to guide them to the site beginning in the late 1970s.
Lange, Karen E. “Djénné: West Africa’s Eternal City.” National Geographic. June 2001: 100-117.
Susan McIntosh and Roderick McIntosh. “Finding West Africa’s Oldest City.” National Geographic. September 1982: 396-418.