The discovery of a 14th century underground burial site deep in Gabon’s tropical forest may shed light on a little known period in Africa’s history. Hundreds of medieval artefacts are scattered with human remains at the bottom of a cave in the southeast of the country, discovered by a French geo-archaeologist in 2018.
“This is a unique discovery in Africa, because human remains are almost non-existent,” said Richard Oslisly, leading an expedition financed by the National Agency of National Parks.There are no golden platters or diamonds at the end of the 25 metres (82 feet) of rope needed to reach the floor of the cave, but the site named Iroungou is still a treasure trove for scientists.
Almost 30 skeletons have been discovered on three levels, with more than 500 metallic artefacts made mostly of iron and ranging from knives, axes and spear tips to bracelets and collars. Researchers also found 39 pierced teeth from hyenas and panthers.
The oral record of indigenous clans and families handed down in villages “doesn’t let us go back further than one or two centuries,” said Louis Perrois, a French anthropologist who has studied oral tradition in much of Gabon since the 1960s. When researchers questioned the elders in villages around the Iroungou cave, nobody was aware of the existence of the site. The villagers said they had no idea who the men and women buried there could be.
Apart from a collective burial site unearthed at Benin City in southern Nigeria in the 1960s, Iroungou is the only cave grave to be found in Africa. Like the Iroungou skeletons, the bones in Benin City have been dated to the 14th century, an epoch which witnessed the fall of many African civilisations, according to several historians.
Some researchers wonder whether Africa was struck by the Great Plague, over the same decades as it ravaged Europe and Asia. Maybe the Iroungou bones hold an answer. “In Benin City, the ADN was not saved, but in Iroungou the bones are in very good shape,” de Saulieu says.