Abomey Plateau Archeological Project

Republic of Benin


Prior to intensive contact with European merchants in the seventeenth century this region of coastal West Africa was dotted with multiple small, centralized kingdoms and stateless societies.  These societies were iron producing, farming and fishing communities. Most were settled in large communities, linked into long-distance exchange networks with expansive Savannah polities to the north, and were both ready and willing to engage in commerce with Europeans on an equal footing.  As Atlantic commerce intensified over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, coastal West Africa became dotted with European trading forts seeking a firmer footing in the West African slave trade.  As a consequence, the balance of economic power in the region began a three-century process of shifting south from the Savannah to the coast, resulting in the expansion and consolidation of large centralized states across the region.

West Africa civilizations thereby became closely entangled within global economic forces unleashed by Atlantic commerce.  Available historical evidence clearly indicates that this process had dramatic consequences for the nature of settlement across West Africa.  Royal capitals of those kingdoms actively engaged in the Atlantic slave trade expanded rapidly, providing safe haven both for those fleeing slave-raiding neighbors as well as for those profiting from the new economic opportunities introduced by Atlantic commerce.  New towns emerged rapidly in the interior to control important nodes in emerging regional exchange systems. Populations flocked to the European trading forts on the coast, resulting in towns with populations in the tens of thousands, far surpassing the largest contemporary colonial settlements in North America. The result was a radically transformed network of urban centers, adapted to both maintaining order within their territories and facilitating trade with the Atlantic word.

Under the direction of J. Cameron Monroe, the Abomey Plateau Archaeological Project has explored the dynamics of political and economic transformation in slave trade era West Africa since 2000.  Adopting a landscape approach to this issue, regional survey and excavation has focused on understanding the long-term settlement history of the pre-colonial Kingdom of Dahomey, example of a West African centralized state par excellence and one of principle African partners in the trans-Atlantic slave trade