Principle investigator

Dr Philippa Ryan 

Department of Conservation and Scientific Research  


Professor Katherine Homewood, Department of Anthropology, UCL

This is a 33 month project that began in November 2013 and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council [AH/K006193/1]

Project Report 

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Sustainability and subsistence systems in a changing Sudan

Traditional Nubian agricultural practices are rapidly changing due to infrastructure development, including dam and road building, as well as technological and environmental changes.

Our project explores how comparisons of past and present crop choices can inform on risk management within agricultural strategies of small-scale riparian Nile village settlements. Today and in the past, islands have been important locations of settlement as there are fewer areas of wide floodplain suited to traditional agriculture (in comparison with Egypt). Research will focus upon case studies of agricultural practices from ancient and present-day Nile island settlements.

We are interviewing Nubian farmers to investigate the characteristics of customary agriculture and in what ways these have been changing: finding out about crops grown, their purpose and relative importance, categories of land-use and agricultural methods. Fieldwork is focusing upon the car- and electricity-free island of Ernetta (620km north of Khartoum), nearby riverbank farms, and also some farms further away in the Dongola Reach for comparison.

The archaeological site of Amara West, near Ernetta, will provide an in-depth archaeological case study for exploring how subsistence systems in an ancient town were impacted by aridity in the late 2nd millennium – early 1st millennium BC. Amara West was originally located on an island, but a river channel north of the site dried up during the settlement occupation. Archaeological plant remains (charred seeds, and phytoliths) are being studied to investigate any temporal changes in plant diet at Amara West, and whether any changes can be connected to the environmental changes identified in local and regional geological studies.

Animals grazing by the river near Amara West

A farm in the desert near Amara West

The information from present-day farmers and Amara West will be placed within a broad temporal overview of what is known about crop choices within the region; including from archaeobotanical, ethnographic and twentieth century agricultural studies. Crop diversification is one way of managing agricultural risk given that using a number of cereals and pulses with different growing tolerances (such as to heat or water stress) helps to buffer against crop failure. This study aims to create a long-term perspective of adaptive solutions and how these are relevant to the future, and aims to record and promote local knowledge of sustainable natural resource exploitation.

Removing crop weeds from wheat, Ernetta

Wheat fields, Ernetta

The view from the end of Ernetta island