Archaeology: South America's lost African kingdom: David Keys reports on the search for remains of a state established in 16th-century Brazil by runaway Angolan slaves

BRAZILIAN, American and British archaeologists are searching in a remote corner of South America for the remains of a long-forgotten African kingdom.

It is hoped that excavations in north-east Brazil will shed light on the history, economy and religion of an extraordinary black state established in around 1590 by runaway African slaves.

With a population of some 20,000 and an area of around 3,000 square miles, it succeeded in remaining independent for just over 100 years. Now archaeologists - including a team from University College, London - are excavating the long-deserted site of the kingdom's capital, Quilombo dos Palmares. The dig is becoming a major focus for the political and cultural aspirations of Brazil's 75 million black and mixed-race citizens.

So far the site has produced quantities of locally made and imported pottery, and this summer the archaeologists succeeded in locating the remains of a section of the ditch and palisade which once ran for a full three miles around the capital.

Defence was essential because virtually every year from 1640 to 1694 the Dutch and then the Portuguese attacked the tiny black state.

The excavations should reveal much about life in the beleaguered kingdom. History only records the names of two of Palmares' rulers - King Ganga Zumba and King Zumbi - and only the briefest detail of the Dutch and Portuguese attacks on it.

The kingdom's founders were Angolan slaves who had escaped from sugar plantations in what is now the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. They were first brought from Angola to Brazil in the 1550s, when they were used alongside local Amerindian slaves. The importation of Angolan slaves then increased substantially in the 1570s so that in the last decades of the 16th century some 4,000 Africans were being imported per year.

Then in around 1590 it seems that there was some sort of slave revolt in Pernambuco, and substantial numbers succeeded in escaping and forming the Kingdom of Angola Janga (little Angola) known to the Portguese and Dutch as the Kingdom of Palmares.

Ten major settlements, including two towns, were established by the escapees. After a century of freedom, however, the little kingdom was finally extinguished by the Portuguese in 1695, and its leaders - and last king - were executed.

Today Quilombo dos Palmares (literally, in an Angolan Bantu language, the 'warrior town' of Palmares) is fast becoming a politically potent symbol of black consciousness within Brazil - the country with the world's second largest black population after Nigeria. Around half of Brazil's 150 million people are black or mixed-race, yet they only account for 12 of the country's 503 members of parliament and only two of its 26 state governors.

So important is Quilombo becoming that there is now an annual commemoration at the site attended by leaders of the black cultural movement and by politically alert white governors and government ministers. The Brazilian government has even helped establish an organisation - called the Palmares Foundation - to promote black consciousness.

Behind the excavations of the Palmarian capital (near the modern town of Uniao dos Palmares) is a black history lecturer at the University of Alagoas, Dr Zezito de Araujo, who has been using the long-vanished kingdom as a way of developing black identity and exploding the myth of Brazilian racial equality.

The Quilombo dos Palmares dig - directed by Dr Pedro Funari of the University of Campinas (near Sao Paulo) and Dr Charles Orser of Illinois State University, USA - is being carried out by Brazilian, American and British archaeologists. The project will form a key part of a wider co-operation programme on the archaeology and history of slavery being planned between University College London and Campinas University.

Future British participation will include attempts to track down the descendants of the Palmarians. For of the kingdom's 20,000 inhabitants, only 1,000 were killed or captured. Somewhere in north-east Brazil the heirs to South America's lost African kingdom lie waiting to be discovered.

(Photograph omitted)