When an ethnic Fulani herder, Mallam Y’au, began digging a ditch in the village of Dufuna by the edge of the Komadugu Gana River in northeastern Nigeria in 1987, his purpose was to find water to refresh his herd. But instead of water, he struck a hard wooden object as he began to dig deep. Roused by curiosity, he dug further and found it was no random object, with signs that some effort had gone into making it.

Subsequently, he told people about his find, word of it went around and experts were called in who suggested that it required the specialist attention of archaeologists. The site was eventually excavated in 1994 by a team of German and Nigerian archaeologists. The object embedded there in the soil was a canoe that turned out to be about 8,000 years old. It predates the iron age and is rated one of the three-oldest such vessels in the world.

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The boat was found lying in a depth of 4.5 meters. It measured 8.5 meters in length, about 0.5 meters in width, built with a 5 centimeters thick wood. When carbon-dated, it was found to be about 8,000 years old. Only a boat found in the Netherlands in 1957, dated about 8,265 years was found to be older. Another found in France in 1992 had dated about the same age as the Dufuna canoe.

However, where those found in Europe are smaller, more crude objects, the Dufuna canoe is bigger and more exquisitely finished, indicating a boat-building tradition that most probably went back several hundred years. The canoe is currently located in the museum in Damaturu, the capital of Yobe state, where it was found.

The first thing the Dufuna canoe discovery did was to rewrite the history of boat-making and water navigation, which at that point in time only took account of the findings made in Europe. The better technical skills applied in Dufuna indicate a longstanding tradition, whereby the canoe discovered is most likely not the first or the only one made, as the skills and tools evolved over many generations.

The presence of the canoe hints at an era when the Lake Chad was very much larger than the shrinking lake of today, when such vessels were needed to hunt aquatic animals that no longer inhabit the area due to a changed environment.


Canoe excavation

The existence of such a boat also indicates there was a need for movement to distant places taking along both people and goods. All of these suggest that the precursors to the civilisations that later emerged in the area, that of Kanem Bornu and the rule of the Sefawas go way back in time.

In all, the Dufuna discovery is a pointer that there’s likely more where it came from. While this find may have been a chance discovery, there’s need to embark on a systematic study of the region in order to unravel more answers to the questions posed by Dufuna.