Under the supervision of Dr. Adria LaViolette, Jack Stoetzel will conduct an archaeological investigation to reconstruct the relationship between Swahili people and coastal ecosystems between A.D. 600 and 1600. Swahili identity emerged along the coast of tropical East Africa during the first- millennium A.D. and is predicated on a cosmopolitan worldview that includes an openness to engage with external material cultures and ideologies. Physical evidence of the cosmopolitan worldview characteristic of Swahili identity includes the adoption of rice agriculture, integration into the Indian Ocean commercial system, and conversion to Islam. This project treats archaeological plant remains as indicators of past ecological ecosystems. Two types of plant residues will be considered in this research: (a) microscopic phytolith remains which are to be used to reconstruct species composition of botanical communities through time; and (b) visible charcoal remains which will be analyzed to identify cultural use and preference of particular plant species recovered in a range of archaeological contexts.

Understanding of Swahili influence on environmental change along tropical coastlines that will result from this project will insert East Africa into the burgeoning discussion of coastal resource management. The research will provide insight into the relationship between a Muslim society and the ecosystems it occupied. The project will help explain contemporary ecological conditions and create the opportunity to model effects of current and future social activity throughout the region. This research therefore has the potential to inform future environmental legislation mandates throughout coastal East Africa.

Swahili archaeology has largely overlooked the potential that environmental archaeology can have in reconstructing past lifestyles across the region. When evoking environmental conditions, previous researchers situate Swahili within contemporary conditions or quote historic documents. By acknowledging that human actions influence environmental conditions, this research has the potential to situate Swahili actions within ecological contexts they experienced as well as track the effects such decisions had on plant communities through time. In order to achieve this result, the project combines theories from both household archaeology and environmental archaeology.

In order to achieve the goals of this research, a comparative collection must be created that represents microscopic phytolith and charcoal specimen available across the Swahili coast. The time and financial investment which this research program must undertake to create a comparative collection will be rewarded by the development of an online database that will feature digital photographs, descriptions, and names of unique shapes identified in both phytoliths and charcoal wood- grain. African scholars and those otherwise interested in the area will benefit from the database because the collection reduces start- up costs and time investment necessary to research archaeological plant remains throughout tropical East Africa.

Project Report

Principal Investigator: Dr. Adria LaViolette, Co-PI: John Stoetzel Through the fieldwork I conducted with this grant, I aimed to recover microscopic and macro-scale botanical residues at archaeological sites in three distinct regions on the Swahili coast of Tanzania. Swahili culture is predicated on a cosmopolitan worldview characterized by an openness to engage with or adopt exotic material cultures and ideologies. This cosmopolitan worldview is manifest through cultural transformations that punctuate Swahili society including the adoption of rice agriculture by 1200 A.D., integration into the Indian Ocean commercial system by the mid-first millennium A.D., and conversion to Islam starting at the beginning of the second millennium A.D. My research question involved the relationships between Swahili practices of daily life. The fieldwork also made possible the collection of contemporary plant specimens from environments surrounding the archaeological sites. These samples will allow the reconstruction of past plant communities and, in the process, the creation of an ecological understanding of motivations for and ramifications of Swahili social transformations between AD 600 and 1600. I carried out my research in areas where previous archaeological study provided a context in which my own contributions could have the greatest impact: the sites of Chwaka/Tumbe on the offshore island of Pemba, the nearshore island Songo Mnara, and the mainland region of Mikindani Bay. These regions represent different histories, environments, and levels of settlement scale from village to town. My field research consisted of excavating a series of 250 test-pits at each of the three areas Once each unit was complete, a 20g soil sample was collected at 10cm increments from the walls of the excavation. Eighty-three test-pits were excavated at Songo Mnara, yielding 364 soil samples. At Mikindani Bay the crew excavated 103 units, collecting 691 soil samples. Finally, 64 units were completed across northern Pemba Island and 507 soil samples collected. Plant microfossils are currently being extracted from select soil samples, which will be compared with microscopic remains gleaned from the 200 plant specimens I collected from the contemporary Swahili coast, and thus identified as to genus and species. Once the analysis complete, I will be able to document changing environments, and environmental practices in these three regions, information that will contribute a great deal to understanding the economic and cultural choices Swahili people made over one millennium on the East African coast.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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University of Virginia
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