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Thinking oasis history from the present: date palm agrobiodiversity and Saharan insularities

Lecture Feb. 2021

Vincent Battesti

Lecture (in French) given for the research seminar “Saharan worlds: sources, spaces, societies (8th-19th century)”
IISMM, EHESS, Paris (France), lFebruary 12th 2021.
– Seminar website:
organized by Elise Voguet (CNRS, IRHT), Ingrid Houssaye Michienzi (CNRS, UMR 8167), Agnès Charpentier (CNRS, UMR8167) et Chloé Capel (Post-doc, UMR8167).
This research seminar is in connection with the program Rethinking Medieval Sahara (13th-16th centuries): known documents, unpublished readings (Emergence project of the city of Paris directed by Ingrid Houssaye-Michienzi).

 Thinking oasis history from the present: date palm agrobiodiversity and Saharan insularities
 Original title: Penser l’histoire oasienne à partir du présent: agrobiodiversité du dattier et insularités sahariennes


The point of this title is not that I can show you that you can read history by observing the present, but to say my vantage point: the contemporary of the oases of the Sahara and Arabia. I am not a historian, but an anthropologist.

The social anthropologist, a self-proclaimed spokesperson (who speaks without being asked) of the studied oasis community, will examine the daily processes of domestication that can be observed on his or her own scale, very human and of the daily social situations observed: the name of a cultivated plant and its variations, the care given to it, its integration into the family heritage, symbolism and stories, craftsmanship, etc. The evolutionary biologist, who works over the long, very long time of millennia, is interested in the history and the process of domestication of a plant, from the time of its domestication by humanity.

Concerning the history of oases, in fact, there is no consensus today - for lack of evidence, I would say - that historians or other disciplines can affirm the origin of oases, but the local populations of the oases themselves often have their own accounts on this history that the foundation narratives tell us: a population migrating from a known point came to settle there, or a holy man whose miraculous gesture brought water from the barren desert and allowed the palm grove and, from there, the oasis to be founded.

As one can understand, what is presented in this presentation is also the story of interdisciplinary collaborations, to grasp the history of palm and oases.

Putting on the glasses of historians, biologists and oasis people, it will be therefore a decoupled/coupled history of the date palm (restricted model) to that of oases or human/agricultural relations in the desert (broad model).

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Vincent Battesti , "Thinking oasis history from the present: date palm agrobiodiversity and Saharan insularities " (online), Anthropoasis |, page published 12 February 2021 (consulted 28 May 2024), available on: