AARD Session: East Africa’s engagement with the Indian Ocean world

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AARD Session: East Africa’s engagement with the Indian Ocean world

Members of the Sealinks Project are organising a session at the African Archaeology Research Day Conference, which will take place at the Sainsbury Institute for Art at the University of East Anglia, 1-2 November, 2013.  The session, organised by Dr. Alison Crowther and Dr. Nicole Boivin, will be chaired by Professor Mark Horton.

Session: East Africa’s engagement with the Indian Ocean world: New projects and perspectives

Alison Crowther & Nicole Boivin

 East Africa has a long history of interaction with the Indian Ocean world, evidenced through a variety of disciplinary datasets.  The earliest phases of the region’s Indian Ocean contact and interaction have nonetheless remained rather elusive and contentious.  Recent archaeological projects, particularly involving the methods of the archaeological sciences, are providing important insights into these early phases.  This session will explore new approaches to and insights into East Africa’s involvement in the larger Indian Ocean world.


 An ecological and ethnobotanical investigation of into the role of Indian Ocean crops in Borada Gamo societies (Ethiopia)

Michele Wollstonecroft, Kathryn Arthur, Dorian Q Fuller 

Indian Ocean Metal Age exchanges of more than a dozen crops (i.e. seed crops from Africa to India and east Asia, e.g. sorghum (Sorghum bicolour), pearl millet (Pennistum glaucum), finger millet (Eleusine coracana) hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus) and cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), and from Southeast Asia to Africa of the “tropical vegecrops trio”: banana/plantain (Musa x paradisiaca L.), great yam (Dioscorea alata L.) and taro (Colocasia esculenta (L.) Schott) begs the question about why these “exotic” edible species were so readily accepted by geographically distant, and ethnoecologically and culturally dissimilar human societies. The fact that each of these crops requires specific planting, harvesting and postharvest treatments raises further questions about the probable impact of the new crops on people’s daily and seasonal routines as well as possible changes in labour organisation, planting, harvesting and processing technology, land-use practices, seasonal scheduling and ethnoecological relationships between people and their environments. Most likely, different processes of diffusion affected the ways that each of the crops were dispersed and accepted. It has been argued that societies accept new foods only if they already have the technology and techniques with which to process them. If that is indeed the case, the acceptance (or not) of the tropical crops trio in Africa must have been influenced by pre-existing food traditions, such that people were prepared to invest in and consume the new food because they already grew and consumed something similar.  On the other hand, people may have been more flexible in their adoptions than has been speculated, and adopted new plants along with new technologies and harvesting and processing practise. To investigate whether or not we can identify present-day cultural clues about differences in the roles of indigenous and adopted crops in African societies, and possible differences in the ways that indigenous and adopted crops are perceived, we carried out ethnobotanical research with enset-eating Gamo farmers in the Borada highlands of southwestern Ethiopia. In this paper we discuss the similarities and differences in Gamo uses of two East Asian tropical vegecrops, banana and taro, compared with their uses of the taxonomically-related indigenous vegecrops enset (Ensete ventricosum (Welw.) Cheesman) and kolso (Arisaema schimperianum Schott). Our results suggest that the Gamo have a significantly narrower range of food and other uses for the East Asian vegecrops, banana and taro, compared with those of the indigenous species

Island foragers, farmers, traders and slaves: recent Sealinks fieldwork on Zanzibar, Pemba and Mafia

Alison Crowther, Mark Horton, Ceri Shipton, Nicole Boivin and the Sealinks team

 East Africa’s offshore islands are key localities for understanding the region’s pre-Swahili maritime activities and Indian Ocean trade connections. Evidence from a range of sites suggests occupation of some islands by stone-tool using groups from as early as the late-Pleistocene, followed by pottery-using, iron-working communities in the first centuries AD. These finds point to the early development of seafaring capabilities by the region’s foraging and farming communities, while the presence of foreign goods at several sites, some possibly dating from the first millennium BC, offer tantalising links to early Indian Ocean trade. Many of these sites remain poorly dated, however, and there are still major archaeological gaps, particularly in the subsistence records, that prevent proper understanding of these formative maritime developments. Here we present a brief overview of findings from recent excavations at several caves and open air sites on Pemba, Zanzibar and Mafia, and consider the implications for understanding early coastal adaptations and Indian Ocean connections along the Swahili coast.

 Comores in the Indian Ocean: Archaeobotanical perspectives

 Mark Horton, Leilani Lucas, Henry Wright, Alison Crowther, Dorian Fuller, Nicole Boivin

The Comores islands have seen limited archaeological work in the past few decades, and limited application of archaeological sciences methods.  In 2013, the Sealinks Project collaborated with the CNDRS to initiate re-investigation of the site of Sima on the island of Ndzuwani (Anjouan).  Small-scale excavation was undertaken with the primary aim of recovering archaeobotanical samples through flotation.  These samples have been analysed and provide insights into the arrival of agriculture on Ndzuwani, and during the earliest (Dembeni) phase of occupation in the Comores more generally.  Together with imported ceramics, the plant record from Sima offers insights into the Comores broader Indian Ocean connections, which appear to begin from the earliest phase of settlement.

Early Malagasy agricultural communities and the wider Indian Ocean world – recent Sealinks excavations in Madagascar

Solomon Pomerantz, Alison Crowther, Henry Wright, Chantal Radimilahy, Nicole Boivin and the Sealinks Team

The early settlement history of Madagascar by agriculturalists remains poorly understood. Despite overwhelming anthropological, genetic, and linguistic evidence for multiple 1st millennium AD colonisation by Austronesian seafarers, archaeological evidence for such arrivals remains sparse. Building on previous Sealinks work in East Africa, using high-resolution excavation and intensive archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological sampling, we will explore the introduction and development of agriculture in Madagascar, and the role of these early Malagasy communities in Indian Ocean trade and exchange. Here we discuss recent excavations on the coasts of Northern Madagascar, at Vohémar and Mahilaka, and from Ankadivory in the Central Highlands.