With National Science Foundation support, Drs. Chapurukha Kusimba, Ryan Raaum, and Sloan Williams will conduct two field seasons of archaeological, ethnohistoric, and archaeogenetics research on the Kenyan coast. The archaeological excavations will be centered at the site of Mtwapa, a prominent Swahili port town dating from ca. 1732 BCE to 1750 AD. Ethnographic research will be carried out amongst Swahili ethnohistorians, elders and other indigenous interlocutors about their origins to identify possible source populations. Archaeogenetic data from human remains excavated from Mtwapa will be compared with African, Middle Eastern and Asian genetic databases. Finally, physical and chemical analysis of ceramic, iron, and trade artifacts, and faunal and botanical remains will be conducted to reconstruct subsistence and technology and to identify relationships both with other regions of East Africa and throughout the Indian Ocean. These new technologies when combined with careful excavations and detailed ethnographic information will allow Drs. Kusimba, Raaum, and Williams to address the following hypotheses: 1) that early Swahili populations, while primarily of African origin, were much more diverse composition than commonly supposed; 2) that some non-African migration to the coast did occur prior to the 19th century 3) that Swahili stone towns were ethnically diverse.

Dr. Kusimba's long-term research agenda has focused on understanding the origin and biological composition of the towns and city-states that developed on the East African coast in the late first millennium CE. Archaeological investigations in Kenya and Tanzania have demonstrated that the artifactual traditions in the early city-states show a clear evolutionary development from earlier villages. Thus preindustrial urbanism in East Africa and elsewhere owes its rise, sustenance, and demise to wider regional and interregional interaction spheres. In the case of East Africa, this development was furthered by relationships with the African hinterland and connections to the wider Indian Ocean trading system.

This collaborative research is addressing key questions, which have important implications for understanding human population relationships both within and beyond Africa. The researchers hope this project will demonstrate the long suspected but still as yet proven shared biological genealogy of East African peoples and their Indian Ocean neighbors. In East Africa, this study may have positive implications for national unity, often fractured by ethnicity and 'tribalism'. The rich historic, anthropological, linguistic evidence coupled with ancient and contemporary genetic data to be collected in this project will contribute new knowledge and open new avenues in interdisciplinary research between archaeologists and geneticists. Additionally the project will train two graduate students, one American Colin LeJeune, and the other Kenyan, Ibrahim Busolo, for their PhD in Swahili archaeology and genetics. It will also enable the recruitment and training undergraduate students in field and laboratory research from Lehman College and the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Project Report

Our interdisciplinary project examined the role of migration (both regional and foreign) in the development of the large Swahili towns and city-states on the East African coast in the late first millennium CE. The Swahili civilization, which once spanned the entire length of the East African coast, is one of the few indigenous precolonial urban states to develop in Sub Saharan Africa. The Swahili influence extended far beyond its borders through a complex caravan trading system that penetrated deep into the African interior and through networks with trading partners throughout the Indian Ocean. Colonial-era scholarship attributed the development of these Swahili city-states to trade and intermarriage with Arab and Persian traders. Postcolonial archaeologists and historians have shown that the evidence does not support colonial scenarios of simple migration and suggest that Bantu-speaking populations (Swahili is a Bantu language) led the development of Swahili urbanism. We conducted archaeological, archaeogenetics and contemporary genetic research on the Kenyan coast. Our archaeological excavations centered on the site of Mtwapa, once a prominent Swahili town handling the export/import trade between the Northern East African interior and the Indian Ocean. We excavated five large tombs containing the remains of more than 70 individuals from a cemetery near its main mosque. We undertook careful analyses of the skeletons, artifacts, faunal and botanical remains. We collected genetic data from the skeletons of the people who were buried at Mtwapa and from contemporary Swahili study participants living in numerous town along the Kenyan coast. These new technologies when combined with careful excavations and detailed ethnographic information enabled us to consider the following hypotheses: 1) that early Swahili populations were primarily of African origin; 2) that some non-African migration to the coast did occur prior to the 19th century and 3) that Swahili stone towns were ethnically diverse. My ancient DNA studies at Mtwapa revealed high frequencies of African mitochondrial DNA haplotypes that support the modern historians and archaeologists who argue for an indigenous development of Swahili urbanism. I tentatively identified several nonAfrican haplotypes that suggest the presence of migrants from other parts of the Pan-Indian Ocean area as well. In general, the Mtwapa sample was extremely genetically diverse, which indicates that Mtwapa, and other Swahili urban towns like it, were indeed cosmopolitan centers. My genetic research at Mtwapa supports modern scholars’ conclusions that Swahili civilization origins were African and not the result of Arab colonization, but also demonstrates the great genetic diversity present on the East African coast and highlights Swahili connections to and their importance in the wider pan-Indian Ocean world. This is the first collaborative project to bring together archaeologists, geneticists, osteologists, paleopathologists and other specialists to study the development of urbanism in East Africa. As part of the project, I trained both graduate and undergraduate students who belonged to underrepresented groups in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields in molecular genetics methods and helped prepare them for careers in science. My colleagues and I also trained both Kenyan and American undergraduate students in archaeological and osteological methods. Our project’s interdisciplinary nature emphasizes the value of combining multiple lines of evidence in research and helps correct outdated Colonialist assumptions about the role African societies played in the origins of urbanism. We hope that our research will foster a greater awareness of shared genealogy in an area often fractured by ethnicity and "tribalism" and encourage a broader appreciation of East Africa’s important contributions to world history.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John Yellen
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University of Illinois at Chicago
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