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Malawi Ancient Lifeways and Peoples Project

 The Zambezian Biome (ZB) is an open-canopy woodland ecosystem stretching across southern central Africa, separating the eastern and southern African savannas. These woodland ecosystems have seen far less research than more iconic African savannas, but played a crucial role in the emergence of modern human populations and biogeography, acting as both a crossroads and barrier for human and large herbivore migration at different points in time. In recent history, humans have shaped the ZB by intervening in the climatic and biotic factors that govern the succession of vegetation; however, recent work in northern Malawi have paired archaeology and paleoclimatic records to show anthropogenic changes beginning as early as 85 ka. This long timeframe has strong implications for understanding resilience and management/conservation of resources in the ZB today.

It is important to now build detail about when and how past hunter-gatherers lived, how their environments changed, their relationships with one another, and their ultimate disappearance. The project also has as a long-term goal the improvement of curation resources and research experience and expertise of people within Malawi. Read about what I have learned about working within communities here.


Starting in 2016, The Malawi Ancient Lifeways and Peoples Project (MALAPP) conducts ongoing research with a current focus on the Mzimba District of northern Malawi. This area, and Hora Mountain in particular, is home to rich archives of ancient human behavior and paleoenvironments extending back into the last Ice Age cycle. Research here has led to discovery of some of the oldest ancient human DNA in Africa, which has provided incredible insight into ancient hunter-gatherer population structure across eastern Africa.

Hora Mountain in the Mzimba District of Malawi is now home to the Ngoni and Tumbuka peoples, but before that it was a center for social and economic activity for hunter-gatherers over tens of thousands of years.

Outreach and Media

Yale News – African interior trade for European goods

Yale News – oldest ancient DNA in Africa

WIRED – investing in research in Africa

The Scientist – ancient DNA in Africa

The Conversation: co-written with Elizabeth Sawchuk and Mary Prendergast

Emory News – Ancient DNA in Africa

Emory Magazine – Archaeology in Malawi


Academic Outputs

(2022) Dussubieux, L., Welling, M., Kaliba, P., and Thompson, J.C.* “European trade in Malawi: The glass bead evidence”. African Archaeological Review. *Senior author.

(2022) Lipson, M.*, Sawchuk, E.A.*, Thompson, J.C.@, Oppenheimer, J., Tryon, C.A., Ranhorn, K.L., de Luna, K.M., Sirak, K.A., Olalde, I., Ambrose, S.H., Arthur, J.W., Arthur, K.J.W., Ayodo, G., Bertacchi, A., Cerezo-Román, J.I., Culleton, B.J., Curtis, M.C., Davis, J., Gidna, A.O., Hanson, A., Kaliba, P., Katongo, M., Kwekason, A., Laird, M.F., Lewis, J., Mabulla, A., Mapemba, F., Morris, A., Mudenda, G., Mwafulirwa, R., Mwangomba, D., Ndiema, E., Ogola, C., Schilt, F., Willoughby, P., Wright, D.K., Zipkin, A., Pinhasi, R., Kennett, D.J., Kyalo Manthi, F., Rohland, N., Patterson, N., Reich, D. @, and Prendergast, M.E. @. “Ancient DNA and deep population structure in sub-Saharan African foragers”. Nature 603:290–296. *co-first author; @co-corresponding author

(2021) Miller, J.M*, Keller, H., Heckel, C., Kaliba, P.M., and Thompson, J.C.* “Approaches to land Snail shell bead manufacture in the early Holocene of Malawi”. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. 13:37.

(2017) Skoglund, P., Thompson, J., Prendergast, M.E., Mittnick, A., Sirak, K., Hajdinjak, M., Salie, Rohland, N., Mallick, S., Peltzer, A., Heinze, A., Olalde, I., Ferry, M., Harney, E., Michel, M., Stewardson, K., Cerezo-Román, J., Chiumia, C., Crowther, A., Gomani-Chindebvu, E., Gidna, A.O., Grillo, K.M., Helenius, T., Hellenthal, G., Helm, R., Horton, M., López, S., Mabulla, A.Z.P., Parkington, J., Shipton, C., Thomas, M.G., Tibesasa, R., Welling, M., Hayes, V., Kennett, D., Ramesar, R., Meyer, M., Pääbo, S., Patterson, N., Morris, A.G., Boivin, N., Pinhasi, R., Krause, J., and Reich, D. “Reconstructing Prehistoric African Population Structure”. Cell 171(1): 59-71.

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