www.dogon-lobi.ch is a travel journal. Photos presented were taken during some twenty trips spread over as many years. All these journeys were made on foot in the company of my friends Ana and Serou Dolo, sons of Diangouno Dolo, the late chief of Sangha. Today Ana is the owner of Hôtel Campement Gir-Yam in Sangha and Serou specializes in the building of wells and other water retention structures.

      Apart from some personal observations, the text that follows is based on the numerous ethnographic studies that have been conducted in Dogon country. It is an attempt to put a selection of photos in its cultural and historical context. Visitors' comments and suggestions are always welcome.

      Dogon country lies to the south of the river Niger not far from Mopti and Djenne. The region is composed of three zones : the plateau, the cliffs and the lower plains. The plateau rises like an immense fortress to a height of approximately 300 metres above surrounding plains. It is delimited by the Bandiagara escarpment, a cliff of more than 200 km long, which runs from southwest to northeast. The plains of the Seno-Gondo lie to the southeast.


view of the Seno-Gondo plain
plain direction Niger river


      Successive waves of migrants populated the area. Over the ages peoples from different horizons had to share, not without harm, a same territory. Today the originality of Dogon country resides in its ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity. A homogeneous Dogon society does not exist.

     Like so many other farming societies, the Dogon have no centralized power structure. Political and religious authority very much belong to the village elders. Each region has its own traditions. Variants in belief, myth and history abound.

     The face of the cliff is strewn with open caves. Overhanging rocks prevent the rain from entering. The predecessors of the Dogon sought protection from the elements in these natural shelters. They built cylindrical constructions made of earth which were used, among others, as granaries and graveyards. In the Sixties & Seventies, a team of Dutch archaeologists carried out excavations in the cliff area and brought to the world's attention the existence of two distinct cultures :

The Toloy culture :
A large open cave overlooking the Tule valley, near to Sangha, contains a series of ancient constructions. Carbon-14 testing techniques show that these buildings date back to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. The Tolo" left no other traces of their passing.

Tule cave : Toloy culture

Tule cave : Toloy culture

Tule cave : Toloy culture


    However, further archaeological investigations brought to light the richness of the Tellem culture. The Tellem reached the Bandiagara escarpment by the 11th century. Skeletal remains and a great many objects could be identified : clothing, household goods, glass jewellery, earthenware, wooden headrests, etc. Their houses were most probably built on the rocky slopes at the base of the cliff. The heavy seasonal rains erased any traces.

Tellem culture - Yougo Dogorou

Tellem culture - Yougo Dogorou

the cliff near Irelii


    The Dogon reached the cliffs by the 14th century and thus shared with the Tellem the same territory for some two hundred years. According to oral tradition, the Tellem moved south-eastwards and were supposedly absorbed by the Kurumba of today's Burkina Faso. However, anthropometric research held by the Dutch archaeologists in the Sangha region demonstrated that Tellem and Kurumba are dissimilar. These studies are not representative of the whole cliff population. Chasen away from their homeland, residual groups of people must have set off across the plains where, as an ethnic minority, they merged into a wider network of local populations and communities.


     Today, the people of the Seno-Gondo plain who wear the name "Ganame" say they descend from the Tellem. They live in Koro, Arbinde, Kayn and Yoro (Seno-Gondo's border zone with North Yatenga). Patronymic names often refer to mythico-historical events. According to Youssouf Tata Cissé (Malian ethnologist) "Ganame" is a deformation of "Ganama" which means "people from Ghana/Wagadu". Could it be that the arrival of the Tellem in the cliff area is somehow linked to the various waves of Soninke migrants who descended from the North after the collapse of the Ghana empire in the 11th century? The origin of the Tellem remains obscure but the many artefacts they left behind (textiles in particular) are material proof of a rich culture. It has not yet been possible to determine whether Tellem textiles were imported or locally woven. Till today archaeological remnants of weaving equipment have not been found. Whatever the case is, the wearing of clothing that is woven using highly refined techniques is typical for a society that has not only a rural but also, to some degree, a merchant economy.


      Hereunder a few examples of ancient constructions that have not been dated and whose builders remain unidentified. However, the work done by the Dutch in the Sixties & Seventies give us some indications : constructions made using the mud coiling technique are older than those built in sun-dried mud bricks. The latter belong to the Tellem.

saourakoum : mud bricks

mori : mud coils

panganin : stone and mud bricks


     The Dogon also mention the Nongo as a people who were contemporaries of the Tellem. They are credited as the sculptors of a particular statuary style. Unfortunately no findings were made within an archeological context. No matter how difficult it may be to separate myth from reality, the Dogon say that descendants of the Nongo live in the Seno-Gondo plain at Bay. According to Hélène Leloup the Nongo may be linked to the Samo of the Yatenga province in Burkina Faso. (" Statuaire Dogon - 1994 " - pages 141/142).


     Today archeological research in Dogon country is handled by the MAESAO (Mission Archéologique et Ethnoarchéologique Suisse en Afrique de l'Ouest). Many human settlements have been located and evidence of man inhabiting the plateau date back to 70'000 B.C. For a full description of the MAESAO's research, please consult : http://anthro.unige.ch/ounjougou/

rock art on the plateau : unidentified

rock art on the plateau : unidentified

rock art on the plateau : unidentified


see :

  • R.Bedaux "Tellem, reconnaissance archéologique d'une culture de l'ouest africain
    au moyen âge - Soc. Des Africanistes 1972 "
  • R.Bolland " Tellem Textiles - 1991 "
  • B.Gardi " Textiles du Mali - 2003 "
  • H.Leloup " Statuaire Dogon - 1994 " " Textiles du Mali - 2003 "
  • A. Schweeger-Hefel " Masken und Mythen - 1980 "
  • Bruno Martinelli " Trames d'appartenances et chaînes d'identité entre Dogons et Moose dans le Yatenga et la plaine du Sèno - Cahiers Sciences Humaines 1995"
  • J.Y. Marchal " Vestiges d'occupation ancienne au Yatenga - Une reconnaissance du pays Kibga - 1978 " http://horizon.documentation.ird.fr/exl-doc/pleins_textes/pleins_textes_7/autrepart/010012979.pdf