With National Science Foundation support Drs. John Arthur, Kathryn Weedman and Matthew Curtis will conduct archaeological and ethnographic research to determine the factors which led to the development of a caste system among the Gamo peoples of Ethiopia. Following on prior work in the region, they will examine the development of a form of social organization which is characteristic of major areas of Africa and South Asia. Because of the remoteness of the area in which the Gamo live, many traditional features of social organization have been minimally impacted and it is possible both to examine a functioning caste system and trace its development over time. The Gamo organize themselves into endogamous caste strata - individuals marry only partners within their own caste - according to occupation and patrilineal descent, and each caste group is associated with different levels of prestige, purity/pollution, and power. Thus, the Gamo offer a unique setting to study the indicators of caste in a present-day African society and to examine theories for the origin of caste, as well as address larger issues relevant to both anthropology and archaeology, such as craft specialization, identity, and the development of complex societies.

The research team will excavate historic sites and combine archaeological evidence with knowledge of caste indicators from ethnoarchaeological studies. The data thus collected will allow the role of multiple potential factors such as conquest, internal development, environmental change and conflict to be evaluated as possible explanations for the origin and development of caste. The project will permit expansion of ethnoarchaeology, life history, and oral tradition research as well as the excavation of an archaeological settlement and cave site. The ethnoarchaeological research will combine studies of material culture and use of space and life histories to assess how transformations in status, economy, and religion have affected public, ritual, and household spaces, material culture, and caste identity. Excavations will provide comprehensive spatial and temporal contexts to identify households, ritual areas, and environmental indicators that may be associated with specific caste groups and their formation. In tandem with the archaeological work the investigators will conduct studies concentrating on diet, environment, and geomorphology to assess settlement changes, reconstruct past landscapes, document land clearance and deforestation, and investigate variation of caste diets. Combining ethnoarchaeological, historical, archaeological, and environmental research will provide a more complete understanding of the regional changes over time and allow evaluation of potential models for the development of the caste system in the region.

The project will include and provide training for both US and Ethiopian students and strengthen scientific ties between the two countries.

Project Report

Southern Ethiopia is a region of unique cultures and environments and as such occupies a region of strategic natural and human resources for Ethiopia and the world. This region, surrounded by Kenya, South Sudan, Somalia, and central Ethiopia, has 56 indigenous languages including the Borada-Gamo. Very little has been written concerning the region’s cultural histories and landscapes. Our NSF supported research has added significantly to the understanding of this vital region and has accomplished two major goals. Our first goal has been to reconstruct the historical development of the Borada-Gamo caste system through collecting oral histories, excavating archaeological sites, and reconstructing the environmental landscape. The Borada political system is a stratified caste system. The Borada-Gamo exhibit seven characteristics associated with the caste systems described in South Asia and other parts of Africa including Ethiopia. First, the Gamo have a rigid social structure that correlates the different social strata to traditional occupations. Second, the Gamo hierarchically grade people into three caste groups: citizen farmers and weavers (mala); potters and ironworkers (tsoma chinasha); and leather workers (tsoma degala). Third, farmers do not consider tsoma artisans full members of Gamo society and as such, they do not allow tsoma artisans to hold public office. Fourth, the farmers associate tsoma artisans with concepts of impurity/pollution and restrict their social interactions with tsoma artisans. Fifth, the tsoma artisans speak a ritual language or argot. Sixth, membership in a specific caste is ascribed by birth and there is no social mobility. Seventh, individuals do not marry outside their caste group. Until recently, artisan caste groups were denied access to change their social, economic, and political standing in society. The discrimination against them and their abject poverty is profound. To investigate the origin of the Borada-Gamo caste system, we excavated two open-air historic settlements and two cave sites. In 2011, we excavated the site of Ochollo Mulato, which is according to the elders, the original founding settlement of the Borada-Gamo. We are still in the process of analysis but we found a large assemblage of pottery as well as groundstones, lithics, and beads. In 2012, we excavated Garu Shongalay, which is has been identified as a hideworker household site based on the large amount of stone scrapers and production waste and domesticated animal bone. We also excavated two caves (Tuwatey and Mota) dating back to the Middle Holocene, with both caves having the potential to reveal dramatic subsistence and technological changes over the last 6000 years. When we complete our analysis, we plan to give presentations and write articles and books that reveal the origin of the caste system to determine how and why such a system evolved. In this effort, we also hope to build social awareness of the importance of lower caste crafts persons and their contributions to the local and larger Ethiopian society. Furthermore, our research provides information on the origins of indigenous food production in the region, establishes a historical environmental sequence for the region, and is providing an understanding of human-environmental interaction over the last several thousand years. Therefore, we have begun to produce some of the most detailed environmental and culture history knowledge of a southern Ethiopian culture. Through our first goal, we hope to understand the history and process of deforestation and local forms of food production in the effort to help local communities deal with current issues of drought and food production. Today, the region is heavily deforested and has experienced recent droughts. Our second goal was to continue to build rapport in the region through engaging the Borada community with other Ethiopian nationals, US, and European researchers. The project also provided opportunities for senior scholars from five nations to collaborate. We provided opportunities for several Ethiopian high-school students, seven US and Ethiopian undergraduate students, two American, two Ethiopian, one British, and one Kenyan graduate students, and one British post-doctoral student to collaborate with eleven senior scholars from the US, UK, Italy, France and Ethiopia. In addition, we integrated local people in all aspects of our research, not only as interviewees and excavation labor, but in locating places of historical significance, interpretation of the historical sites, and in determining the utility and relevance of the information to the community. It was important to us that the local community play an integral part in the reconstruction of their own history and we are writing a book, as requested by community elders, about Borada-Gamo local history. The book will be written for school children in the indigenous local language, the national language, and English.

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University of South Florida
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