Unearthing indigenous knowledge

Robyn d'Avignon

If savanna West Africa is a new corporate mining frontier in the 21st century, it's because it is also home to the world’s longest-standing indigenous gold mining economy.

The goldminers of the Kédougou region in Senegal. Image credit Carsten ten Brink via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

Interview by
Madina Thiam

In the past two decades, the acacia-studded savanna plains of West Africa have emerged as one of the world’s most lucrative gold mining frontiers. Today, gold mining corporations listed on the stock exchanges of Toronto, Sydney, and Johannesburg operate dozens of gargantuan open-pit mines and tailings ponds across modern Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and Niger. Beyond the gates of mining enclaves, these companies also hold thousands of acres of land under gold exploration permits, across which mobile geological teams search for future mining prospects. But if savanna West Africa is a new corporate mining frontier of the 21st century, this is possible because it is also home to the world’s longest-standing indigenous gold mining economy. West African men and women of diverse ethnic, linguistic, and religious affiliations have been mining for gold in these territories for well over a millennium. Gold mined from Mali and Senegal fueled the trans-Saharan caravan trade and the rise of medieval empires along the Senegal and Niger Rivers. Today, West Africans living in these territories must compete with corporations for the legal right to mine gold deposits that, in some cases, they and their ancestors have exploited for hundreds of years.

In her bold first book, A Ritual Geology: Gold and Subterranean Knowledge in Savanna West Africa (2022), Robyn d’Avignon argues that the region’s contemporary gold mining boom is built upon the gold discoveries, evolving ritual practices, and skills of African miners, known as orpailleurs in French-speaking West Africa. Centering orpailleurs as producers of subterranean knowledge, d’Avignon begins and ends the book with an intimate ethnography of gold mining in southeastern Senegal. She zooms outwards, in time and in geography, to incorporate developments in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Cote d’Ivoire from the medieval past to the postcolonial present. These states are undergirded by a single geological formation, one infused with gold seams and known as Birimian rocks. By using geological formations as an entry into regional history, d’Avignon invites us to consider new units of spatial analysis for writing the history of science, technology, and religion that transcend the borders of modern nation-states elsewhere on the globe.

At the end of 2023, A Ritual Geology became the first book on Africa to win the Pfizer Award of the History of Science Society, one of the oldest book prizes in the history of science. It was also co-winner of the Julian Stewart Award of the Anthropology and Environmental Society of the American Anthropological Association, and the winner of the President’s Book Award of the Social Science History Association. In this interview, d’Avignon, an Associate Professor of History at NYU, discusses key arguments from the book with historian Madina Thiam, including her hopes for how this text will shape histories of science in Africa. 



Arguably, the most celebrated episode in the history of gold in West Africa is Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca in the year 1324. Medieval sources report that when he journeyed through Cairo he injected so much gold into the local economy that the metal’s value plummeted in Egypt. Iberian cartographers would later represent Mansa Mussa proudly displaying a nugget of gold in his hand on a map depicting leaders of the known world. But as you explain, Mansa Mussa’s curated performance of his wealth in gold would have been undesirable to those who actually mined the metal! Gold miners in the savanna of West Africa regarded gold as a dangerous substance that they rarely used for ornamentation or in burials. Rather, gold miners valued gold for its exchange value. You argue that this reticence to keep gold close to home was one dimension of a “ritual geology” that was shared by gold producers across a massive geography. What is this ritual geology and how did it evolve over time?


A “ritual geology” is a term I developed to describe a set of practices, prohibitions, and cosmological engagements with the earth that are widely shared and cultivated across a regional geological formation. Ritual geologies are widespread globally, today and in the past. However, studies bound by region, colony, ethnic group, or nation-state have failed to capture the ways in which sacred engagements with minerals, water, and soil are often tied to transnational geological formations. 

In the book, I track the ritual geology elaborated by generations of orpailleurs along gold-bearing Birimian rocks. Evidence dating to the ninth century reveals that orpailleurs produced a ritual geology with several core features. For one, orpaillage was spatially expansive and based on the seasonal mobility of small groups of miners. Second, by the 18th century, Maninka was the lingua franca of goldfields located in present-day Senegal, Guinea, and Mali, and Maninka ritual authorities governed gold mining. Third, orpaillage was an incorporative institution adapted to cyclical drought. Goldfields welcomed strangers because gold was a famine resource shared by a wide range of people. If goldfields near home became depleted, you could migrate to a distant goldfield and expect to be welcomed. Fourth, subterranean property ownership was predicated on a sacrificial exchange relationship between gold miners and spirits, the guardians of this metal. These spirits included mobile spirit snakes and deities bound to specific tracts of land. Finally, orpaillage was framed in ideological opposition to Islam. While the earliest known gold traders in West Africa were Muslims, gold producers themselves resisted conversion to Islam well into the 20th century. Orpailleurs appear to have viewed gold as a substance tied to powerful, and often malevolent, occult forces. Gold miners parted with the metal for substances associated with ritual protection and beneficence, such as cloth, copper, and salt.

I did not set out to write a book about ritual or religion in West Africa. But as I conducted archival research and collected oral histories for this project, it became clear that I could not understand the political, and scientific history of orpaillage in isolation from the ritual ideologies innovated by the men and women who have prospected and mined gold in West Africa for over a millennium.   

West Africa’s ritual geology is neither monolithic nor static. It is similar to a language family with many varieties: some are mutually intelligible, others share only core vocabularies and grammatical forms. Languages shift over time from the innovations of their speakers, encounters with new languages, and ecological change. West Africa’s ritual geology has also evolved and adapted to different corridors in response to the rise and fall of medieval empires; the transatlantic slave trade; European colonialism; the emergence of novel ritual complexes; and ever-shifting techniques for mining gold. Despite these changes, core idioms of this ritual geology reemerge in the historical record of orpaillage, a West African mining tradition that is as much a part of the history of technology and science as its better-known counterpart: Euro-American industrial mining capitalism. As I detail in the book, orpaillage, and Euro-American mining capitalism are historically entangled extractive systems across which gold discoveries, expertise, equipment, and labor have long been pirated and exchanged. But orpaillage has also retained distinct material forms and sociocultural logics that deserve to be understood on their own terms and as part of global histories of mining, technology, and religion.


I was struck when you explained that “by the turn of the 20th century, the British financed extensive geological research in South Africa, Ghana, Rhodesia, colonies with capital-intensive gold and copper mines,” whereas the French did the opposite and “dismissed plans for industrialization out of fear they would ‘proletarianize’ African peasants.” Can you say more about how gold mining under French colonization in West Africa differed from how mining developed elsewhere on the continent under British colonization? What accounts for these differences? 


A confluence of economic, cultural, and geological factors account for why mining took off in Britain’s African empire while it did not in France’s African colonies. By the late 19th century—when European powers colonized most of the African continent—Britain was far more entrenched in transcontinental mining capitalism than France. The British had participated in large numbers in “gold rushes” in Australia, the United States, and Canada. Some prospectors made fortunes and started mining enterprises that would, in the decades to follow, move machines, expertise, and capital into British colonies in South and West Africa (today’s Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, and Ghana). 

British and French colonialism in West Africa epitomized colonial rule on the cheap—what Sara Berry famously called “hegemony on a shoestring.” But while the British invested in a minimum of roads and rails to facilitate private mining developments in their West African colonies, the French adopted anti-industrial policies in their African colonies. These divergent imperial policies translated into vastly different outcomes for indigenous African mining economies. In most cases, the British outlawed small-scale mining by Africans, reducing Africans to wage laborers on European-run mines. By contrast, the French encouraged gold mining by Africans, which they profited from through taxation. In fact, orpaillage was France’s largest mining industry until the eve of decolonization in the late 1950s. 

Imperial divergences are important for thinking about continuity and rupture for African families who have historically mined for gold across the continent. In former French colonies, Africans have retained far more control over the political and ritual institutions of gold mining than in former British realms. In the face of growing corporate encroachment on these goldfields today, history shapes expectations for—and political battles over—who should benefit from wealth derived from gold.


Today, African governments, as well as numerous media and policy circles, routinely criminalize orpailleurs, underscoring the dangers of their work and the environmental damage they cause. In January 2024 in Mali, when over 70 artisanal miners were killed in the collapse of a gold mine, they were blamed for having ignored safety requirements. At the same time, miners working for a subsidiary of Endeavour Mining at the Tabakoto mine (20% state-owned and 80% corporate-owned), had to go on strike over unpaid wages and poor equipment. Your book shows that the discourses that blame artisanal miners have a history. How did French African colonies, and the postcolonial states of Mali, Guinee, and Senegal, define, discuss, cooperate with, or criminalize orpailleurs?


One burden of this book was to tell the legal history of artisanal mining—a category of technological practice that, I argue, emerges from colonial-era mining laws. By framing indigenous African mining economies as primitive, inefficient, customary, and static, colonial states justified denying Africans stable rights to minerals. Even in French West Africa, where the colonial state did not criminalize African mining outright, they severely restricted the rights of African miners. This gave the state the flexibility to issue mining concessions to European firms when it was profitable to do so. The history of artisanal mining is thus inseparable from the broader legal apparatus used by colonial states to restrict, deny, and discredit some African uses of the environment, while the colonial state (and private industries working in the colonies) skilled themselves on African environmental expertise. 

Postcolonial states in West Africa took an even harsher legal approach to orpaillage by outlawing it. Orpailleurs—who were mobile cosmopolitans who transversed international borders—threatened the goal of African socialist states to build nationalized mining industries. Orpaillage also challenged the rise of multinational corporate mining in West Africa in the late 1990s, driven by rising gold prices, the dismantling of socialism, and the adoption of pro-market mining codes in much of Africa. Mining corporations framed artisanal mining as ecologically destructive, wasteful, and anathema to modern economies. Some of this language was new, but the idioms were both colonial and racist. 

Of course, artisanal mining is ecologically destructive. In fact, this has been the overwhelming focus of most scholarship, journalism, and development work in the sector. But industrial mining is also ecologically destructive. And reducing the complex and long history of indigenous mining in Africa to its environmental impact is to overlook its place in the region’s economic, religious, and political life. It is also to reduce artisanal miners to environmental subjects, a trope that has been central to anti-Black environmental racism dating back to the era of the transatlantic slave trade. My goal is not to deny the importance of ecological questions in the study of mining in Africa or elsewhere. Rather, I aimed to understand deep regional idioms and exchanges with the natural world on their own terms.


Lastly, your book centers a specific region in Senegal: Kédougou. We learn that this region, whose residents have accused the Senegalese state of chronic neglect, is a storied land where much has happened. It served as a refuge for marooning communities in the era of Atlantic slavery; it was where Senegal’s first president Léopold Sédar Senghor imprisoned former allies who pursued more radical socialist agendas; and it also later became the seat of Senegalese-Soviet cooperation during the Cold War. Can you tell us about Kédougou?


Kédougou eludes easy categorizations. Today, Kédougou shares many characteristics with mining frontiers around the globe: increased migration, violence, and disease transmission coupled with ecological upheaval and new investment opportunities for those well placed to exploit them. But long before Kédougou was a site of corporate mining investment, it occupied a unique place within colonial and postcolonial Senegal. The region’s broken topography and rocky cliffs made it a “natural” refuge for people on the run—including those fleeing Atlantic-era enslavement. When the borders of French West Africa were demarcated, Kédougou became a borderland far removed from European strongholds, as well as the road and rail infrastructure, feeble as it was, of France’s African empire. The result was that, for myriad reasons across the span of centuries, a host of ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities have made their home in Kédougou. Though it is remote and sparsely populated, Kédougou’s population is as diverse as any port city or as Senegal’s cosmopolitan capital of Dakar. 

Grounding this book within the histories of interethnic settlement that characterize Kédougou also allowed me to work against the tendency of scholars of Senegal to narrate the country’s history through the lens of the nation or a single ethnic “group,” such as the Wolof, Pular or Serer. But most Senegalese do not experience everyday life or understand their plural histories through the lens of bounded ethnic groups. A Ritual Geology was my attempt to think through important chapters in Senegal’s economic, political, and religious history through the prism of Kedougou’s multiethnic and multilingual worlds. 

In the writing of this book, I also tried to capture my deep love for Kédougou, a place I have lived and worked in intermittently over the course of almost 20 years. I am honored to bring stories from this region—long overlooked by the region’s historians and misunderstood by the states that have encompassed it—into conversation with global histories of science, technology, and the environment.

Further Reading

All that glitters

One corporation’s tax tussle with Tanzania holds many lessons for African countries that continue to struggle with the inequitable share of proceeds from their extractive sectors.