Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The Historical Sources of the Mali Empire Reconsidered

When did the Mali Empire disintegrate? What does the Sunjata heritage demonstrate about the political situation after 1600?

Jan Jansen

The proud cultural heritage of Sunjata

It is common knowledge that the famous medieval Mali Empire was founded, probably in the 13th century, by Sunjata and slowly disintegrated after 1600. The Empire is still remembered along the river Niger (present-day Republics of Mali and Guinea) by a rich variety of oral histories, the most well-known being the narrative cycle of the Sunjata Epic. This intangible heritage is a great source of pride and cultural inspiration for several ethnic groups who inhabit this area.

Ethnic and national identities

In this research project Jan Jansen aims at at the heart of debates on how people imagine ethnic and national identities. His research focuses on two propositions:

  1. It argues that the Empire did not disintegrate after 1600
  2. It demonstrates that much of the intangible heritage related to Sunjata refers to the political situation after 1600 (and not to the Middle Ages)

Historiography of precolonial West Africa

By combining years of intensive fieldwork among storytellers with great fascination for their knowledge, much attention for the landscape, a structural reading of the oral sources, this research (step by step) achieves a major intervention in the historiography of precolonial West Africa.

Related research

Gold mining has been a major source of revenue of the area under study, since the Middle Ages. Within the Institute Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University the research has been closely linked to Sabine Luning’s projects on gold mining, with a special interest in artisanal mining and CSR-programs that focus on heritage preservation.

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