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Anthropology Research - Africa

One of the central theoretical issues in the later prehistory of East African is the origins of precolonial urbanism and urban societies around 600 CE.  The East African coast played a crucial role in the Indian Ocean trade that linked East Africa, the Near East, and South Asia. The wealth accumulated by African merchants, who exchanged African products for foreign trade goods, formed the basis of complex urban polities on the coast beginning in the early 1st millennium CE.  These polities later had diverse and well-defined social hierarchies that incorporated social and religious elites, commoners, foreigners, and enslaved persons.  The elite managed and financed a complex and extensive interregional trade network. They also patronized specialized craft specialists, including ironworkers, coral miners, mangrove cutters, and sailors. They often monopolized ownership of the most productive land, which they then leased out to commoners, newcomers, and enslaved persons. They may also have financed specialized hunters in the hinterland to provide the bulk of the export trade goods from East Africa, including ivory, skins, rock crystal, slaves, and rhinoceros horns.

The East African coast is among the optimum places for studying the long-term processes of urbanization and the development of complex society in Africa.  Yet until the late 1980s, little was known about the role that indigenous peoples played in the development of complex coastal polities. Most histories had reconstructed a Persian and Arab society of conquerors and colonists who settled in East Africa for its trade opportunities. Late 19th- and early 20th-century scholars proposed that ruins found on the coast presented the material evidence for the early Asiatic colonization of East Africa. The primary reasons for acquiring trading colonies were to control long-distance exchange between Africa and Asia.

With the above concerns in mind, and seeking to practice a postcolonial archaeology that critically examined the viability of such constructs, Dr. Kusimba has carried out archaeological, ethnohistorical, and historical research on the Kenyan coast since 1986.  Although his research is centered at the ancient port city of Mtwapa his overall goal is to delineate the archaeology of the coastal region and especially the role of trade, technology in shaping urban cultures that emerged in the region.

Related quote

You cannot find a peril so great and the hope of reward will not be greater...Go forth, then, and make your voyage straight away (Infante Enriques, 1394-1666)


  • On Technology Transfer: Invention and Innovation

Dr. Kusimba’s initial interest in coastal East Africa was to study the role of technology in the development of urbanism. His Masters and Doctoral research involved the field and laboratory research of iron production and its influence and impact on the evolution of urbanism.  His excavations at a number of sites have yielded a wide array of artifacts, including utilitarian pottery, tuyeres, crucibles, large volumes of smithing and furnace slag, and a relative small number of ceramic artifacts.  Subsequent laboratory analyses of iron artifacts show that more than 25% of the artifacts made and used on the Swahili coast were crucible steel.  The origins of crucible steel are not known with certainty, but the technology may have been developed in the Indian subcontinent in the late 1st millennium BCE

The crucible steel process was adapted in Southwest Asia in the 7th century CE and in Toledo, Spain, a little later. Early second millennium scholars, including Al Biruni in the 11th century and Al Tarsusi in the 12th century discuss the widespread use of the crucible steel process in the Islamic world, which included the East African coast.  The Swahili coast is known to have exported iron in quantity to India, as stated by Al Masudi and Al Idrisi.  Dr. Kusimba is convinced that the availability of fuel, ore, and skill made iron relatively inexpensive for African ironworkers to make, use, and take advantage of fuel shortage in Arabia and India to corner the market. 


  • Urbanism on the East African Coast

Five decades of archaeological study documents the long-term processes of urbanization and origins of complex society in Eastern and Southeastern Africa. Archaeologists and historians have accumulated enormous data on the development of urbanism in the region.  These studies have shown that early cities emerged along the East African coast (EAC) from Somalia to Mozambique around CE 500, results that show the effectiveness of a postcolonial archeology that has methodically deconstructed the much favored colonial theory that urbanism came with foreigners in the 2nd millennium CE. The residents of the EAC included farmers, fishers, traders, scribes, rulers, and enslaved persons. Wealth from Indian Ocean trade was the main catalyst for the rapid development of urbanization on the EAC. Equally important in its emergence was the commercial and cultural dialog maintained between the East African coast and hinterland African peoples (Mutoro 1998; Pearson 1998). The residents of these cities and states were initially drawn from different language groups, but in time, one language, Kiswahili, became the dominant language. Introduced to the EAC around CE 800, Islam gradually expanded to become the primary religion and means of elite cultural expression by the time of European contact in CE 1500.

Economic and social interaction among diverse groups who made their living from hunting, herding, farming, and iron working laid the foundation from which international trade exchange systems interlocked.  By the end of the 1st millennium CE, the EAC had become a regular partner in the millennia old long-distance exchanges that reached as far as the Arabian Peninsula, India, Sri Lanka, and China, postcolonial interpretations that incorporate African agency and the seriously diminish a colonial archeology that privileged the idea that foreigner traders were the primary agents of change. By the 13th century, there had emerged an African urban elite that financed, managed, and controlled local, regional, and interregional trade and communications along the East African seaboard. Innovations in ironworking aided agricultural intensification and specialization in hunting, fishing, and herding. These changes improved the quality of life and precipitated population growth and economic prosperity. In the late 15th century, however, the EAC became embroiled in a long- standing conflict between Christendom and Islam, represented by the Portuguese and Omani Arab mercantile interests, and a rivalry for control of Indian Ocean commerce that led to the economic crippling of East Africa.

Large urban sites on the EAC were often located at the mouths of rivers or near estuaries, inlets, and offshore islands. However, within the hinterlands of these large urban areas are smaller rural village communities that were linked to the large settlements. Beyond the hinterlands, these cities were connected to wider eastern, central, and southeastern African forager populations, agrarian and pastoral communities as well as chiefdoms and states through a complex network of interaction spheres.

Dr. Kusimba’s contribution to the urbanism debate involved the survey and excavation of Mtwapa, a modest port city built around the 10th century CE. Located 15 km north of Mombasa, Mtwapa was one of the major ports and distribution centers linking the hinterland and the coast from CE 1000–1750

The city was abandoned after 1750 following the effects of the Little Ice Age and the decline in international maritime trade. Our research, carried out between 1986 and 1997, has established Mtwapa as an important site in Swahili history. Full coverage survey of the site revealed that the town’s original size was 9 ha. Only 3.6 ha of the site remain. Mtwapa was one of the few large coastal towns that were directly linked to the mainland. The town was located on a creek or river, by the same name that was navigable for about 20 km inland. This location enabled the residents to trade directly with other peoples of the coast. The river was deep enough to allow both large and small vessels to sail upstream and trade directly with hinterland peoples. Compared to island towns like Mombasa, Lamu, Pemba, and Zanzibar among others, Mtwapa’s location allowed direct trade between foreign merchants and hinterland peoples. Hinterland peoples were also likely to exercise some power in the affairs of the town since they could circumvent other towns’ rules which tended to restrict access to foreign traders and merchants to only the towns elites. In this sense, Mtwapa’s location minimized local elite middleman’s role and made it a place where trader friendly rules were likely to develop. Minimal monopoly over access to foreign and hinterland traders provided opportunities for those with the entrepreneurial spirit, making this one of the most ethnically diverse town on the EAC with an historical profile that contributes much to a postcolonial archaeology that deconstructs the essentialized notions that foreign traders and elites dominated trade relations.

Ruined cities, like Mtwapa, Gede, Takwa, and Kilwa, bear witness to one of the finest hours of African precolonial history. This was a period in which Africans interacting with each other and with others from across the Indian Ocean exchanged ideas, traded items, and occasionally intermarried to create one of the most truly cosmopolitan communities in the world. This was a time in which many historians and archaeologists have claimed that Africa had very little contact with the outside world and that whatever contact there was one normally represented as unequal, the north providing the ideas and inventions with Africa always receiving but giving nothing in the way of ideas—only raw materials and the brute force of its enslaved labor. Postcolonial archaeologies, however, create a different angle of view—one that opens new understandings of African roles and agency.

The Mtwapa houses were designed as private residence in which intimacy increased as you move from the courtyard to the inner room. A typical Swahili house will have had a courtyard, three narrow rooms, and two toilets. One entered the house from a street into the courtyard. Most of the activities, including cooking and washing of dishes and clothing were carried out in the courtyard. A visitor to house in Mtwapa at 1450 CE could have been met by his/host at the courtyard. Depending on the nature of relationship, the visitor was likely to be waited on in the courtyard or outer room and entertained there. Trusted visitors who had been friends with the family for a longer time would have been entertained in the inner rooms. The inner room was by far the most private and intimate place in the Swahili house. This would have been used by the women in the household. The outer rooms were reserved for men. In this sense, Mtwapa subscribed to a wider pan Islamic practice of privacy, commonly referred to as the intimacy gradient (Donley-Reid 1984)). What is the relevance of the intimacy gradient for understanding this culture? It means that breaking into and becoming part of the inner circle was very difficult for outsiders. Yet, surprisingly, anthropologists have found it very convenient to propose that Swahili society was founded by foreigners and that they did so merely by marrying the daughters of the ruling clans without the use of force. Our work continues to show that ideas like these are based on impaired understandings of cultural dynamics and will have no place in a 21st-century postcolonial African archaeology and anthropology.

  • Establishing Biological Genealogies of the Swahili Peoples

Dr. Kusimba’s research has involved the full-coverage survey and mapping and excavation of residential, workshop, and mortuary locales the site. The enormous volume of artifacts recovered are enabling researcher to gain insight into the kinds of objects that were produced, consumed, and traded. Excavations at the town’s main cemetery have led to the recovery of nearly one hundred human remains.  The results from ancient DNA extracted from these remains will enable D. Kusimba and his colleagues to tackle the long-controversial question of the identity of ancient urban residents of the coast.

For decades the identity of the early Swahili residents has, without any biological anthropological evidence, been declared to have been non-African—an attribution and central feature of the historical narrative widely accepted to be true.  Dr. Kusimba is convinced that these skeletons provide the “smoking gun” for the question, who were the founders of Swahili cities?


In the Mtwapa specimens, Dr. Janet Monge has observed some unique characteristics. The cranial remains of adults reveal that there is both a minimal development of the canine fossa and marked reduction on the excavation of the maxillary notch.  These features are concomitant with the strong expression of mid-facial prognathism.  In the dentition, both biological-based and cultural patterns reveal similarities between the Mtwapa specimens and those of sub-Saharan Africans. Lahr (1996) had noted the dental metric characteristic of minimum reduction in both the mesial/distal (M/D) and buccal/lingual (B/L) dimension of the third molar (M3) in comparison to the first molar (M1) in sub-Saharan Africans. This characteristic also distinguishes Middle Eastern from African populations and are present in most of the samples analyzed.  

Research on this project is ongoing but the preliminary evidence is providing the clearest indication of the indigenous affinities of the inhabitants of Mtwapa. 

  • Coastal and Hinterland Connections and Interactions

What was the relationship between the coastal cities like Mtwapa and their more rural hinterland? To address this question, long submerged under the colonial focus on the coast vis-à-vis foreign lands and skewed representations of the Nyika as a hostile, unpopulated zone, Dr. Kusimba has carried out a full-coverage survey in the immediate hinterland of Mtwapa along Mtwapa Creek and found fifteen villages that were contemporary to Mtwapa. Dr. Kusimba’s ted excavated three sites, all of which yielded a stylistically distinct material culture showing the villagers’ independence from nearby Mtwapa port town. Other associated material culture including beads, iron artifacts, and fauna suggest close networks of interaction between Mtwapa’s residents and their counterparts in the immediate hinterland

Both urban and rural hinterlands played crucial roles in exchange networks with cities.  They functioned as producers of trade items, for example, iron, salt, gold, and ivory as well as collection centers for other items from further inland, such as skins, cola nut, and enslaved persons. Relationships between the coastal cities and their hinterland were primarily a relationship of equals, with the city providing finished manufactured goods in exchange for hinterland products, inducing the hinterland to enter into the regional economy voluntarily. To get the maximum profit from trade proceeds, the city sought to produce as many goods as possible, through techniques which hinterland peoples could not duplicate.  For example, Swahili craft specialists produced textiles, cowry shells, sugar, brass wire, iron tools, and shell beads, specifically for hinterland markets. Unequal and coercive relationships between cities and their hinterlands reported elsewhere in Africa are absent on the coast.

Comparisons between coastal and inland pottery traditions here and in the Tana Delta have confirmed the cultural connections across the hinterland of the coast. 

  • Beyond Self-Contained Urbanscapes: Prvileging Africa Peoples

One of the ironies of East African history is that explanations about urbanism—mostly founded on foreign trading and traders—completely ignored economic and cultural interchange with interior communities. Dr. Kusimba’s research, along with that of other colleagues, such as Henry Mutoro in the Kaya settlements, George Abungu at Wenje on the Tana River, Bertram Mapunda in Western Tanzania, Jon Walz in Usambara, Tanzania, and Innocent Pikirayi in the Zimbabwe, shows that the rise of urbanism must account for the most economically crucially important trading partner—the East African interior.

To address an historical portrait born out of colonial preoccupations over external influence, Dr. Kuismba initiated fieldwork in the Tsavo region 150 km east of the Kenyan Coast in 1997. Tsavo was an ethnically and economically diverse area well into the early 20th century. The historic peoples of the Tsavo mosaic include the Waata, understood historically to be peripatetic foragers; the Wataita agriculturalists of the terraced uplands of the Taita Hills; the Wakamba agropastoralists; and the Oromo pastoralists.

According to oral traditions of local groups, the original inhabitants of Tsavo were hunter-gatherer dwarves, called Wambisha, who lived in caves and rockshelters, forged iron tools, and hunted elephants with poisoned arrows.  When the ancestors of the Wataita arrived, they forged relationships of trade with the Wambisha. Over the years, many other groups moved into the region. Some stayed on but other moved elsewhere. All have left an indelible influence of the Tsavo ecosystem, which archaeology is beginning to unveil. Currently, Tsavo is claimed as homeland by Waata, Oromo, Wataita, and Wakamba.  The Tsavo people have maintained strong ties with each other and with their neighbors on the coast. These networks of interaction are visible archaeologically by the traded objects we have recovered through excavations and by ethnographic research showing interdependence during peaceful as well as during times of crisis.

The Oromo came from Ethiopia to present-day Kenya by the 15th century CE. Swahili and Mijikenda ethnohistories relate Oromo supremacy on the coast and hinterland as far south as Pangani in Tanzania.  By the 19th century, the southern boundary of the extensive Oromo settlement system was the Athi-Sabaki-Galana. The Oromo, like other African groups, suffered from the ravages of the 18th and 19th centuries that included slave raiding, severe droughts, and diseases like rinderpest, trypanosomiasis, and malignant catarrhal fever—devastating their herds and reducing African population by almost 50%.   Charles Hobley (1929:177) suggested that “as they moved south down the Tana Valley they encountered diseases to which their cattle were non-tolerant, and eventually came into the malarious coast lands and became themselves decimated. … Their strength gradually ebbed, and they could not compete with the prolific Bantu races already occupying the area they had penetrated.”

The agropastoralist Wataita arrived from many different places, although four major groups settled on the slopes of the Sagalla, Taita, and Kasigau Hills; their identities remained distinct until the 20th century. Wataita oral traditions are dominated by narratives of how they dealt with numerous crises in their new homeland. Tragic stories of droughts, famine, disease, slavery, alliance building, social conflicts, betrayal, and cannibalism are told repeatedly by informants . Like other Tsavo groups, the Wataita claim to have participated in the coastal-hinterland trade as suppliers of ivory and skins to traders visiting the markets from the coast. They maintained inland markets in their areas by ensuring that they were accessible and secure. These inland markets, for example in Rukanga and Bungule, were located along permanent perennial streams and could have supplied fresh water, vegetables, fruits, and other services to long-distance caravan traders. They also could have served as collection centers for inland traders. In the later times, the Taita, like their neighbors, became victims of trade with the coast. Many were captured by Arab and Swahili traders and taken into slavery during the late 18th and 19th centuries. Their oral traditions about this period as well as their relationships with other groups form an important corpus of information about the history of the Nyika landscape. I found that systematic inquiry into these local histories reveals many heretofore unknown features of inter-group cooperation and how local peoples coped with the depredations of slave traders—truly the uncovering of subaltern histories.

Waata foragers, referred to pejoratively by their neighbors as Walyankuru (those who eat pig), spoke a dialect of the Oromo language. Waswahili, Mijikenda, and Waaita informants interviewed over the years have credited the ancestors of the Waata with possibly being the original inhabitants of Tsavo and the coast. Waata were adept in the use of bows and poisoned arrows for hunting. They have a reputation in East Africa for being great hunters and inventors of a poison so potent that it kills its victim by causing cardiac arrest, as opposed to destroying the nervous system. Its advantage was to limit the time hunters spend tracking their prey. When used in traps, for example, in killing a nesting ostrich, the meat is palatable even long after the prey dies from the poison. Waata hunters became professional poison makers and were greatly feared and respected. Thus, Waata poison at one time was one of the area’s most desirable trade items.

Negotiated social relations also played an important role in regional interaction. For example, the Waata would enter into a fictive kinship with the Taita in which each would sign an oath in a blood ritual witnessed by a shaman. The oath enabled the participants to become brothers or sisters and for their children to inherit those relationships. It would allow the groups to exploit resources in their neighbors’ country while enjoying the protection of the whole community. In this sense, blood brotherhoods enabled the exchange of ideas and knowledge, eased tensions arising from competition for resources, and provided access to technical and sacred knowledge (Herlehy 1984). Wataita elders interviewed in 2001 and 2002 admitted freely that without the compliance and permission of the Waata, they never would have learned the secret knowledge of elephant hunting that enabled them to benefit from lucrative ivory trade with coastal Mijikenda and Swahili traders.

Historically, Tsavo groups pursued different economic strategies in different regions of the ecological mosaic. They maintained their distinctive identities in spite of a high degree of trade and movement of people across community boundaries. Wataita and Oromo pastoralist groups were organized into patrilineal corporate groups; although these societies lacked ranking, significant authority was held by elder males who sought to accumulate cattle and land, and control their distribution. Consequently, intergroup conflict over wealth-building resources, such as cattle, coexisted with alliances for exchange of goods, information, and ritual power. Some forms of technical and practical knowledge, such as hunting techniques, poison making, and animal tracking were so prized that blood brotherhoods and secret societies controlled the spread of this sacred information—critical oral information for a better understanding of how alliance-building and information exchange occurred.

Archaeological investigations reveal long-term earlier interaction between interior social groups and coastal traders. Based on his surveys and excavations south of the Galana River in Tsavo East, Thorbahn (1979:272–273) proposed that coast-Tsavo contact from 1200 CE involved Tsavo hunters, who downed elephants for the ivory trade in exchange for coastal shells and glass beads. His hypothesis that Tsavo’s precolonial hunter-gatherers and sedentary horticulturists exchanged local hunting products for coastal goods is consistent with Wataita oral traditions (Isaak Mwachoga of Bungule and Murunde Mabishi of Jora, July 2002).

The results of Dr. Kusimba’s research in Tsavo, consisting of three seasons of survey and excavations, affirm some of Thorbahn’s (1979) findings. First, rockshelter habitations containing coastal shell, beads, and wild fauna indicate that as hunter-gatherers became more involved in coastal trade they also became more specialized in elephant hunting. Second, trade concentrated on animal products that were vulnerable to overexploitation. In East Africa, elephant herds declined, because the major export item from East Africa to India after 1500 CE was ivory.

Between 1507 and 1857, there was a rapid increase in ivory and slave exports from East Africa. Thorbahn’s research and our archival research suggest that the average size elephant tusk decreased through time, again indicating increasing elephant exploitation.  Elephant overhunting may also have led to tsetse fly infestation. In Tsavo, elephants are a keystone species. Their foraging controls the distribution of tsetse-infested bushland and maintains tracts of grassland that support a diversity of graze and game animals. As elephants were overhunted, habitats suitable for hunter-gatherers and food-producers alike would be replaced by tsetse fly–infested scrub. Tsetse flies carry trypanosomiasis, a disease fatal to cattle and people.  Tsetse-infested areas can only sustain small numbers of cattle.

  • Engaging Africa and its People

  • Engaging Ethnohitory and Ethnography in the Writing of African Archaeology

Dr. Kusimba’s is a firm believer in the importance of ethnography and oral traditions in research and writing of African history, given that such accounts are key to building alternative histories of local groups.  Aware that such subaltern histories hold many possibilities for enriching historical representations, he has carried out interviews with more than 200 elders, including sages, poets, chiefs, blacksmiths, midwives, elders, and potters, among others. The interviews with elders show the complexity and fluidity of ethnic identities. To manage crises and the inevitable conflicts that arose from competition over resources, Tsavo’s communities created a web of friendship, intermarriage, alliances, and blood brotherhoods and sisterhoods. These findings have implications for the interpretation of archaeological data such as social and symbolic use of spaces, local and regional exchange networks, and crisis management—a host of insights that are outside of the historical texts that draw a dominant focus in postcolonial studies.

 Dr. Kusimba’s complementary applications of ethnographic research and archaeological excavations have guided him in best in his attempts to understand and reconstruct coast-hinterland interactions. For example, he is convinced that the elusive evidence of the collapse of precolonial trade would have been difficult to master without engaging the local histories.  He writes, “our informants’ memories of famine, warfare, and cattle raiding enabled us to correctly interpret transformations in technological and subsistence in post-17th-century Tsavo as resulting from intensified slave raiding”. For example, discussing the uses of caves and fortified rockshelters, Gibson Mwanjala (July 4, 2002, Mwakwasinyi) stated that in times of war, the elders, women and children, and livestock were secured in caves. In certain caves like, Mbanga ya Mafumo, cave of the spears, and Mbanga ya Ngoma, cave of the drums, are captured Maasai spears, bows, and arrows. These caves are well hidden, difficult to see, and protected by black magic. Some of the caves were large enough to have served multiple functions (Gibson Mwanjala, July 4, 2002, Mwakwasinyi). Simeon Mwanjala (July 4, 2002, Mwakwasinyi) was certain that some of the caves made better homes and were thus served as homes. Rockshelters with large overhangs were fortified and made into beautiful homes.

Wealthy people also built fortified houses in this rockshelters for their kept livestock up on the hills. Indeed, some informants recognize the multifunctional nature of the Kasigau cave and rockshelters (S. Mwanjala July 2, 2002, Mwakwasinyi). Ezeram Mdamu (July 3, 2002, Rukanga) pointed out the multifunctional nature and functions of the caves by enumerating their many functions. In his view, “Cave Mkagenyi was used to keep goats. Others were for shelter, some were for skulls, and some were used for hiding” (Ezeram Mdamu (July 3, 2002, Rukanga). A number of caves served as places to leave the sick and dying. For example, members of the family who were dying from highly infectious diseases such as cholera or leprosy would be taken to special caves and left there until they died. We were not shown any such cave in Kasigau but we visited two such caves in Mwatate Division. Caves also served an important purpose as hiding places of stolen livestock and/or kidnapped children and women from the neighboring Usambara people. In summing up, Mshiri, a schoolteacher at Rukanga primary school who is an accomplished ethnohistorian, stated, “Caves were used as permanent residences. They could accommodate many people. Many of the ancestral shrines were smaller and more secretive” (Mshiri July 2, 2002, Rukanga). Only with these testimonies was Dr. Kusimba able to explain settlement shifts from the well-watered valleys and fertile flood plans to the infertile but secure hilltops, caves, and fortification of rockshelters. Thus, the subaltern histories provide a key hook for the practice of a postcolonial archaeology that give life to this otherwise “deprived” landscape.  Thus “engaging local voices has enabled me to explain settlement shifts from the well-watered valleys and fertile flood plans to the infertile but secure hilltops, caves, and fortification of rockshelters. Oral traditions—documented to ensure local identities with specific accounts—enable us to explain why there was a dramatic shift in diet of the Tsavo peoples during that people from a preference for medium sized game non-migratory game including dik dik, birds, like hornbill, frogs, and even possible cannibalism witnessed in the archaeological record at Kisio Rockshelter”.

Oral testimonies, then, provide key historical insights into a region of East Africa that has for too long been represented in the colonial metanarratives as void of settlement and interactions with the broader world. These subaltern voices, erased from historical literature because of colonial prejudices about the region, have remained submerged vis-à-vis the outside world but are still vital in the social world of communities in eastern Kenya today. Thus, a postcolonial archaeology—by listening to and recognizing subaltern voices—provides a potent antidote to historical misrepresentations while also showing how reformation of practice contributes to local community welfare.

  • The Archaeology of Slavery

On the Swahili coast, the nature of relationships between the cities and their hinterlands prior to CE 1500 were more inclusive, accommodating, and less coercive than the period between CE 1500 and 1900, which was characterized by warfare and the slave trade, combining to undercut the trading networks that had developed earlier (Kusimba 2004). After the collapse of the city-states in the 15th century following the conquest by the Portuguese mariners, the coast was colonized by the Portuguese and the Omani Arabs. Ivory and slave trade became the backbone for supporting the vast Portuguese dominion. Between 1770 and 1896, more than 833,000 people were exported from the East Africa (Martin and Ryan 1977). During the 19th century, about 313, 000 enslaved East Africans were exported to Arabia, Iran, and India (Austen 1989). Slavery cruelly transformed the lives of those taken into bondage as well as those left behind. The strong residues of this period, despite abolition in 1871, persist into modern times, to the point that today’s scholars in Kenya would rather not acknowledge material evidence of slavery.

By the 18th century, many towns and cities were abandoned due to international competition and conquest . The post-16th-century Eurafrasian encounter changed the course of history for Africa and Asia. There is little archaeological evidence in East Africa of new economic and infrastructural developments following the Portuguese arrival. In fact, the only major large-scale construction projects were the various fortresses built by the Portuguese and Arabs. Thus post-16th-century East Africa was characterized by steady decline. Along the coast, towns and cities declined, with silting in many ports from under use and low maintenance. Trading networks established over the previous centuries declined. Towns and cities ceased to be attractive, houses were steadily abandoned, and some were cordoned off for lack of tenants. Poorly maintained wells dried up. People abandoned city life for other areas, only to be disappointed. Both rural and urban economies were equally affected because of the interdependence developed over several millennia.

Urban and rural decline characterized by abandonment and relocation in East Africa speaks to the chaos caused by disruptions following European entry into the Indian Ocean commerce. Evidence for this disruption is drawn from many sources, chief among them the narratives of African peoples. I have suggested that African folklore, especially stories told to children, experienced a major shift from tales about happy-go-lucky animals that often outwitted people to those of cannibals, gnomes, trolls, and so forth. These stories instilled fear among the children and taught compliance; children learned to mistrust people from the other side of the hill—they ate children. This narrative shift speaks of declining security, which I link to the development of large-scale slave trade. What may have began as occasional disappearances because of low-level kidnapping developed into large-scale warfare that turned friends into foe (Kusimba 2006).

Dr. Kusimba’s  research at Kasigau, one of the four Taita Hills in southeastern Kenya (80 km, or a three-and-a-half-day march, from the coast) illustrates the significant changes induced by slaving. Before the 18th and 19th centuries CE, the people of Kasigau, including the Akamba, Oromo, Taita, and Waata, were active participants in trade networks with the coast. They supplied ivory, iron bloom, animal skins, cow hides, dried meat, rock crystal, and cereals, the bulk of trading items without which the elite of the coast would not have accumulated the wealth to maintain their ostentatious lifestyles and international outlook. In return, the Kasigau groups acquired cloth, beads, and other exotica. Caravans destined for the deeper interior often stopped to replenish their food and water stocks before heading on to Taveta and beyond. On the homeward voyage, Kasigau Hill signaled that home was not far away.

Kusimba’s archaeological surveys and excavations coupled with oral traditions at Mount Kasigau show strong evidence linking regional decline and collapse with the waxing of the slave and ivory trade. We have found dry stone architectural remains, fortified rockshelters, cave dwellings, sacred and ritual sites, market centers, cairns and graves along traditional caravan trade routes between the East African coast and interior. These provide material evidence for understanding the impact of slave trade on African societies and the responses taken by these societies to protect themselves from the scourge of slave trade. Full-coverage surveys and excavations of ten sites at Kasigau Hill show rapid abandonment of settlements in the plains and reoccupation of rockshelters, which were then heavily fortified. Smaller rockshelters surrounding Kasigau Hill were fortified and used as look-out areas. A decline in quality of life is indicated by: (1) a decline in the size of cultivable land per family; (2) a shift in mortuary practices—where a local tradition of disinterring the skulls of dead ancestors develops—Jefferson Maloti of Sungululu village, Wundanyi, indicates that this mortuary pattern was developed as a means to lay claims to land that was becoming increasingly scarce; (3) the penning of animals in caves and rockshlters for long periods without cleaning the pens; and (4) food insecurity indicated by reliance on sub-size, nonmigratory fauna such as rock hyraxes, dik dik, and seasonal mollusks including frogs and birds.

In 1998, Dr. Kusimba and his collaegues excavated a Waata rockshelter called Kisio in Tsavo West National Park. Ethnographic accounts and oral narratives from the Taita, Akamba, and Oromo have portrayed the Waata as East Africa’s finest hunters and trackers, who invented a poison so potent that it killed an adult elephant in fifteen minutes. This advantage reduced hunters’ tracking time and made Waata poison one of the most desirable trade items among East Africans. He said “I had expected to recover an assemblage that would support such ethnographic claims”. Kisio excavations revealed two occupational periods with dramatically different assemblages. Ina deposit dating to 1,000 years ago, we found quartz, obsidian, and chert stone tools, pottery, and a very diverse combination of extant mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians representing twenty-one families. The fauna was characteristic of a hunter-gatherer population. We also recovered beads which showed contact with coastal traders.

The second Waata deposit, dating to 1750 CE, told a surprisingly different story. The finds included animal bones, stone tools, pottery, iron arrowheads, and shell and glass beads indicative of trade contacts with local and coastal traders. Faunal data revealed that the residents of Kisio subsisted largely on small nonmigratory mammals and birds, especially hornbill, hyrax, duiker, snail and bullfrog. These data conflicted with ethnographic data which portrayed the Waata as highly respected elephants hunters and makers of the coveted poison. Why had Kisio rockshelter residents turned to hyrax, frog, and snails at a time when they were highly respected partners in the ivory trade, providing the much needed poison for elephant hunting? Kisio is not the only site that displays changing patterns. Elsewhere agriculturists had abandoning their well-watered hill slope homesteads for the rocky and inaccessible mountaintops. Pastoralists left the flood plains and luxurious tsetse fly–free grazing lands and disappeared altogether from the lower Tsavo landscape.

Three excavated rockshelters provide clues as to what was occurring during the 18th and 19th centuries. These rockshelters are only a sample of fortified rockshelters and caves that surround Kasigau Hill. Fortification of rockshelters and caves appears to have coincided with declining trade with the coast and abandonment of the village settlements in the plains. Radiocarbon dates place the construction of their dry stone wall architecture in the late 17th and early 18th centuries CE. Excavations revealed comparatively few archaeological artifacts.

First, all fortified rockshelters date to the last 300 years, that is, they were constructed after the Portuguese conquest of the East African coast and the institutionalization of large-scale slavery and slave trade by Europeans and Arabs in Africa. The building of dry wall enclosures in rockshelters signaled a departure from traditional practice of erecting wooden frame enclosures or using open rockshelters as temporary camps. Second, all the enclosures have partitioned areas: one section for livestock—containing large amounts of dung on often uneven ground, and the other for people—with few or no dung piles, and cultural materials such as a wooden bed, hearth, pottery, gourds, and calabashes. Third, all three sites had an entrance and an exit. The exit was not always easily detectable from outside and appears to have been designed to allow occupants to leave the enclosure undetected. And fourth, dry stone walls were built by an elaborate system that involved a fairly deep foundation dug to the natural rock, a strong wooden frame firmly held together by twine from local tree barks, and termite clay to strengthen the wall, giving it an impregnable character. Efficiency, safety, security, labor mobilization, and cooperation seem to have been priorities in the design and execution of these enclosures.

How may we interpret the dependence of Waata hunters on lowly frogs and snails, and the construction, use, and abandonment of Kasigau fortified rockshelters? Oral traditions from local ethnic groups describe the 18th and 19th centuries as periods when waves of migration, interregional trade, economic interdependence, warfare, and raiding for cattle and slaves occurred among various peoples whose descendants now claim Tsavo as their homeland.

 These histories are further bolstered by our reanalysis of ivory imports data made by the late Peter Thorbahn that show that periods of peak African ivory exports in India correspond to the abandonment of low-lying settlements to rock shelter residence in Tsavo (Oka,Kusimba, and Thorbahn In press). Moreover, periods of fortified site abandonment correspond to a decline in ivory trade to India (Oka, Kusimba, and Thorbahn In press; Thorbahn 1979). Taken collectively, these different forms of evidence reveal a society under siege for more than 400 years.

Oral traditions from fifteen elders living in the villages of Jora, Bungule, Makwasini, and Rukanga around Kasigau Hill are particularly poignant reminders of how the slave trade impacted the area. The market of Rukanga until the 19th century was a major regional market. People from the surrounding region came to trade twice weekly. The elders claimed that:

 Arab traders would come to Kasigau to trade and pretend they wanted elephant tusks and rhino horns. The Arab traders would ask for porters to help carry it, at least part of the way, to the coast. They would carry ivory to a certain distance, where they would be ambushed by more Arabs. They would be shackled together in a chain gang and marched to the coast. This happened to all the Kasigau communities. For a long time the community thought that their people had been ambushed on their homeward journey, victim of the Maasai, so they did not take any action against the Arabs. They do not know what happened to these people. (Julius Mwasaule Kinona, June 26, 2002, Jora village)5

Such oral narratives clearly reveal a complex history before and during the slave trade that has left a legacy of bitterness and resentment in modern Kenyan society. Unlike the Atlantic slave trade, that of the Indian Ocean has received comparatively little archaeological treatment. Yet, much of the evidence of slavery’s impact on East African societies survives in both material remains and oral narratives, showing that a postcolonial archaeology that incorporates local histories is an important way to understanding contemporary attitudes in eastern Kenya about inter-ethnic relations. 

  • Reflections on Slavery, Archaeology, and Local Narratives

Eighteenth- and 19th-century East Africa was punctuated by the ivory and slave trade, which caused widespread insecurity, fear, famine, and diseases that precipitated the collapse of farming and pastoral systems in East Africa. Interethnic warfare and cattle raiding disrupted long-held alliances and destroyed blood brotherhoods, while the high demand for ivory led to elephant overhunting. As more elephants were killed, they left a vacuum that they had maintained as key stone species. The once open savannah grasslands reverted to woodland scrub and forests, which were soon colonized by the tsetse fly, a carrier of the vector that causes sleeping sickness among people and trypanosomiasis for cattle and wildlife—a set of conditions that contributed to colonial representation of the region as an inhospitable zone devoid of human occupation..

Taita informants repeatedly told us tragic stories of droughts, famine, disease, alliance building, betrayal, social conflicts, cannibalism, and slavery. The slave trade minimized interethnic ties and trust among the most trusted neighbors. Gone were the days when one could leave a family in the custody of a neighbor without risking their sale into slavery. Narrating how the Kasigau and Akamba became ndugu wa chale, Steven Mjomba (July 3, 2002, Rukanga) revealed that the Kasigau forced the Akamba to have ndugu wa chale to ensure that their children and women placed in the custody of the latter, during hard times, would not be harmed or sold into slavery.

As lowlands became more inhospitable as a result of epidemic diseases and cattle and slave raiders, Tsavo peoples retreated into the hills and other tsetse fly–free habitats. The archaeological evidence is consistent with the oral accounts: The rockshelter sites exhibited little evidence for active trade, save for a few beads, suggesting little participation in economic interactions compared to earlier periods. This lack of a material connections to trade coupled with the evidence for defensive sites suggests a shift in the nature of relationships between Kasigau and the coast. Afraid of regular raids from better-armed and numerically superior enemies, the Kasigau people responded by moving up the hillsides and on hilltop and abandoned cattle herding in favor of goat herding.

Although many of the old alliances were breaking down, it is clear from the structural design and internal use of space in the enclosures that people cooperated to ward off the threat posed by an enemy determined to cause their extinction. As Kasigau Hill is ringed with rockshelters and caves, the majority of which are fortified with dry stone architecture, it is reasonable to conclude that these rockshelters were built for the purpose of housing guards or sentries who defended and warned people living on the hill tops of impending danger. Even if raiders made their way up, they would have had to fight their way down past “snipers” armed with deadly Waata poisoned arrows. In peaceful times, these shelters served as cattle and goat pens, a function they continued to perform long after the abolition of slave trade and establishment of British colonial rule.

Although Dr. Kusimba’s research in Tsavo reveals the horrors of slavery, it also points out ingenious ways in which people of the region resisted enslavement and continued to forge communities across ethnic boundaries. There are numerous fortified settlements in East Africa built during the 17th and 19th centuries that likely were responses to insecurities that prevailed in the region, representing a huge body of archaeological evidence not yet investigated. The complementary application of historical sources and oral traditions enable archaeologists to use local historical memories and associate them with archaeological findings. Known runaway slave settlements along the coast of East Africa and fortified settlements in the interior should form rich sources for an archaeology of slavery that complements the United States, South America, and the Caribbean, but from a distinctly African perspective—leading to a more direct understanding of the impact of slavery on relationships and life ways of the past and how it shaped the cultural and political landscape that is Africa today. 

  • Postcolonial Archaeological Praxis in Africa

Dr. Kusimba’s research which honors both the voices of local peoples and rigorous scientific methodology, is successfully showing that the Tsavo landscape cannot be adequately understood using more widely practiced methodologies.  For example, the equation of hunter-gatherers/foragers with stone tools and iron and pottery artifacts with agriculturists does not hold up to close scrutiny. Our excavations in Tsavo consistently show stone tool using well into the 20th century alongside iron tools. The simultaneous use of stone tools and iron artifacts as well as guns go hand in hand in post-16th-century Tsavo and suggests that certain tasks such as cleaning of hides and grinding of cereals were more efficiently performed by stone tools, whereas hunting of elephants and other large game required poisoned arrowheads and butchering elephants might have required both stone and iron tools. When these artifacts are recovered at archaeological sites, their interpretation is easier once we have a clear understanding of how society then and now worked—a perspective shaped and enhanced by oral traditions.

Dr. Kusimba’s however, is very much aware that his privileged position as a research also has its shortfalls.  As he says, ”Studying cultures that make up the ethnic mosaic of one’s own historical experience may present advantages of engaging both the emic and etic perspectives. The chief advantage I have is language. My ability to speak several African languages, my empathy with the history of the people, and my interest in oral traditions have made me a better anthropological archaeologist than I would have been had I relied primarily on one methodology. Another advantage I have is the resources available to me by my employment in one of the world’s finest natural history museums, The Field Museum, Chicago. My colleagues direct research in many areas of the world and are guided by one simple principle: understanding the world and its people and what it means to be human. This intellectual and financial support has made archaeology in Africa a much easier task than it would have been had I been working from Kenya.  


Senegambian Megaliths, Peoples, and Landscape: An Archaeological perspective

Contact Augustin F.C. Holl



Megaliths and Landscape in the Petit Bao-Bolon drainage, Senegal

The project aims to understand the genesis and development of the megalithic traditions of the Senegambia which spans 3000 years, from 1500 BC to AD 1500. The Senegambian megalithic zone is located in Central Senegambia, both in Senegal and the Gambia ( Figure 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Senegal and the Gambia, at the westernmost tip of West Africa. Sine-Ngayene and Wanar in Senegal, Kerbatch and Wassu in the Gambia are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Figure 2: Simplified archaeological map of Senegal and the Gambia: The megaliths zone is in orange.

Thousands of megalithic monuments distributed over an area measuring 150 kms north-south, from the river Gambia in the south and the river Saloum in the north, and 300 kms west-east, from the longitude of Kaolack in the west to the east of Tambacounda. These monuments are found in cemeteries of different size and shapes, preferentially located along water courses (figure 3)

Figure 3: General distribution of megalithic sites in the Senegambia (Source: Gallay et al: 1982): Sine-Ngayene and Wanar in Senegal, Kerbatch and Wassu in the Gambia are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The intriguing megalithic monuments from the Senegambia were visited from the end of the 19th century. Excavations were carried out in the first half of the 20th century by a number of avocational archaeologists. More rigorous field methodologies were implemented during the second part of the 20th century by G. Thilmans, Cyr Descamps, Alain Gallay, and more recently by Luc Laporte and his team.  Megalithic monuments and burial practices have been shown to vary in time and space, in a time frame known to range from 200 BC to AD 1500. The monuments are partitioned into monoliths circles, stone circles, stone tumuli, and earthen tumuli. Their frequency and patterns of distribution vary from site to site. Burial pratices are at the core of the research debate. Primary inhumations, simple and multiple, were assumed to have been the standard practice all over the megalithic zone as indicated by the evidence from Tiekene-Boussoura monoliths-circles in the central part of the megaliths zone where they were dated to 200 – 170 BC,  Mbolop Tobe earthen tumulus, Sare-Dioulde stone tumulus,  Sine-Ngayene monoliths-circles. The concentration of up to 56 individuals skeletal remains in the burial monuments from Sine-Ngayene and Sare-Dioulde was supposed to document unusual mass-graves pointing to the practice of human sacrifices (Thilmans et al 1980,  Gallay 2006, Gallay et al 1982, Laporte et al 2007-09). These challenging data were all obtained from interesting sites. The new research project launched in 2001 is regional in scope. It was designed to look at the interface between megalithic cemeteries location strategies and landscape in a manageable and well delineated study area: the Petit-Bao Bolon drainage in west-central Senegal.


The Sine Ngayene Archaeological Project

The spatial distribution of settlements, including the highly visible megalithic cemeteries, was part of the long-term construction of cultural landscape, with its economic, material, and symbolic implications. The study area, the Petit Bao-Bolong drainage was entirely surveyed, with all the recorded sites photographed and mapped (figure 4). Three megalithic cemeteries - Sine Ngayene, Ngayene II, and Santhiou Ngayene [Large, medium, and small]-, an habitation site, a quarry, and a iron-smelting were sampled, totally or partially excavated. The excavation of the small cemetery of Santhiou Ngayene is still on-going.  Its completion will end the field data gathering phase of the research project.

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Figure 4: General distribution of megalithic cemeteries and habitation sites along the Petit-Bao Bolon drainage in West Central Senegal.

   The project examines the nature, pace of development, and changes of the megalithic builders settlements, the build-up of the cultural landscape, mortuary practices, as well as demographic, nutritional and genetic profiles of the represented population. How and when did this settlement complex emerge? What were their mutual relationships? Did these different elements emerged from differential use and mapping of the land by the same local community? Alternatively, were they part of distinct steps in the use of the territory by different groups that happened to be located accidentally close to each other? Or still, could they have been paired as: (a) Habitation site – iron-smelting workshop; (b) Habitation site – Cemetery; or (c) Iron-smelting workshop – Cemetery? These are some of the questions addressed in this on-going research.

   The intensive survey of the Petit Bao Bolong drainage has shown the regional settlement pattern to have consisted of small dispersed but close homesteads and hamlets. No evidence for large village sites has been found. These small-scale peasant societies who build impressive megalithic features to bury their deceased, can be expected to have devised a range of socio-cultural mechanisms to cope with access to critical resources, in this case prime agricultural land, the river for water and aquatic resources, and high grade iron ore for iron producers. Iron was used for the manufacture of agricultural tools as well as hunters/warriors gear. Cemeteries with monumental burial features were a key element of the Megaliths builders cultural landscape. They may have signaled the control and “ownership” of a spot or a stretch of land. The excavation of a larger sample of settlements , the detailed investigation of special purpose sites like iron-smelting workshops and quarries, and a fine grained analysis of mortuary practices will open a new vista on the complex working of Senegambian Megaliths builders’ communit(y)ies. A bio-archaeological study of the collected human remains will provide access to past peoples “lives”.

 The research is still at its beginning but there are some interesting preliminary results. The large 50 hectares megalithic cemetery of Sine-Ngayene, the best preserved site of the whole megaliths zone, is made of 52 monoliths-circles and 115 earthen tumuli (figure 5). The latter are for most completely eroded and leveled by centuries of agricultural work. Four new monuments were excavated in addition to the three monoliths-circles previously excavated by Thilmans et al (1980)


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Figure 5: Satellite view of the fenced megalithic cemetery of Sine-Ngayene: the double-monolith-circle is visible at the center of the site


Figure 6: View of the center and northwest of the site.

Laterite monoliths were obtained from quarries like this one, located at 1 km northeast of the cemetery of Sine Ngayene (figure 7). The number of broken and abandoned monoliths point not only to the technical knowledge and skill required but also the permanent risks of failures due to the presence of un-seeing micro-cracks in the basement rock formation.

Figure 7: Partial view of the Sine-Ngayene quarry

The central double-monolith-circle was in use from AD 700 to 1400, and went through four successive cycles starting with a large secondary burial with at least 25 individuals based on skull counts (AD 700 – 800), followed in cycle II by the preferential burial of a few selected limb bones (AD 800 – 900), then the burial of jaw bones signaled by an upside-down clay vessel in cycle III (AD 900 -1100), and finally, the construction of the smaller circle and the use of the monuments for offerings and rituals in cycle IV (AD 1100 – 1400) (figure 8).


Figure 8: Excavation in progress in monument #27, the central double monolith-circle from Sine-Ngayene.

The use of this monument for rituals purposes is supported by the presence of the nearby “ceremonial space” dated to the same period (figure 9)


Figure 9: Partial view of the “ceremonial space” under excavation in the south flank of monument #27, the central double monolith-circle from Sine-Ngayene.


Figure 10: View of the southeastern axis from the central double-monolith-circle

Two earthen tumuli, both located in the central part of the cemetery were also excavated. One, tumulus SN-03-1 contained the remains of a 25 – 30 years old male, dubbed “the mighty warrior” buried with a “sword” probably in a leather scabbard across the chest, seven 30-45 cm long iron spears – the wooden part was not preserved -, an alloyed copper fine torque, and iron-handle of a stick (fig. 11). This remarkable burial is dated to the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, ie. 850 – 990 BC.


Figure 11: View of the burial from Tumulus SN-03-01 dated to 850 – 990 BC.

The second tumulus in the southwest flank of the cemetery had very poorly preserved human remains but an impressive array of jewelry in alloyed copper, essentially arms and ankle rings (figure 12). This burial is dated to the early part of the second half of the 1st millennium AD, ie. 650 – 750 AD.

Figure 12: View of the burial from tumulus SN-03-02 at Sine-Ngayene, dated to AD 650 – 750.

The excavation of the 1.5 ha megalithic cemetery which contains some forty burial monuments has revealed an impressive diversity in the mortuary practices of the megaliths builders. At the present state of research, this site complex which includes an habitation site, and iron-smelting site, and a quarry located at approximately 1 km in the northeast, was in use from 1200 -1350 BC to 1500 AD.  Monoliths-circles and stone circles from this site were almost exclusively used for secondary burial of a few to several tens of individuals (figure 13 and 14)

Figure 13: View of the stone-circles from Ngayene II at the beginning of the 2005 field-season


Figure 14: Excavation in progress in stone-circle #8 from the cemetery of Ngayene II

  The project  has a strong  bio-archaeological component, designed as  a systematic study of a population - in the statistical sense - in order to reveal its demographic profile - (Age, life-expectancy, Sex, stature) - its state of health and nutritional profile - (morbidity, infectious decease, nutritional stress, trauma) - and possibly migrations through isotope analyzes. Well conducted isotope analyses will help tracing the origins of people and address the vexing issue of migrations in the past and DNA analyses will help addressing the issue of “who” is buried with “who” in the same monument.


Selected references

Gallay A., 2006, « Le mégalithisme sénégambien : une approche logiciste », in C. Descamps et A. Camara, (éds.), Senegalia : études sur le patrimoine ouest africain, Paris, Sepia, pp. 205-223.

Gallay A., Pignat G., Curdy P., 1982, « Mbolop Tobé (Santhiou Kohel, Sénégal) : Contribution a la connaissance du mégalithisme sénégambien, Archives suisses dAnthropologie générale46, 2, pp. 217-259.

Holl A.F.C., Bocoum H., 2006, « Variabilité des pratiques funéraires dans le mégalithisme sénégambien : le cas de Sine Ngayène,in C. Descamps et A. Camara (éds) Senegalia : études sur le patrimoine ouest africain, Paris, Sepia,  pp. 224-234.

Holl A.F.C., Bocoum H., Dueppen S., Gallager D., 2007, “Switching Mortuary Codes and Ritual Programs: The Double-Monolith-Circle from Sine-Ngayene, Senegal,” Journal of African Archaeology 5, 1, pp. 127-148.

Laporte, L., H. Bocoum, R. Bernard, F. Bertin, V. Dartois, A. Delvoye, M. Diop, A. Kane, L. Quesnel, 2007-2009, Le Site megalithique de Wanar (Senegal). Afrique: Archeologie et Arts 5: 99-108.

Ozanne P., 1965, “The Anglo-Gambian Stone Circles Expedition,” Research Review 1, pp. 32-36.

Thilmans G., Descamps C., Khayat B., 1980, Protohistoire du Sénégal.  I. Les sites mégalithiques, Dakar, IFAN.