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Archaeology in Eastern Africa: An Overview of Current Chronological Issues

Paul J. J. Sinclair
The Journal of African History
Vol. 32, No. 2 (1991), pp. 179-219
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/182615
Page Count: 41
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Archaeology in Eastern Africa: An Overview of Current Chronological Issues
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Abstract

Even at this still early stage in the development of the chronostratigraphic framework in eastern Africa a number of important advances have been reported. As more attention is paid to the different responses of food producers to the variety of resources provided by the range of available environments then, and only then, will we be in a position to understand the diachronic processes which result in settlement aggregation and urban development. In the Lake Nyanza region at the hub of the Sudanic and Guinea-Congolian regional vegetation centres, early dates for iron working are not yet convincing enough to demonstrate independent invention of iron working, but the region is almost certainly the most important diffusion source of the technique to the eastern and southern sectors of the sub-continent. Currently available data from the Maasai-Somali region show clearly the early adoption of food production techniques and a capacity to absorb iron technology without necessarily abandoning pastoral production. This did not, however, mean a lack of development based on agriculture as the towns of the Somali coast with their advanced craft production clearly show. However, it is interesting that the urban development seems closely linked to the juxtaposition of the valuable agricultural resources provided by the Shabelle river running close to the coast and the marine resources of the littoral. The Zanzibar-Inhambane floral mosaic provides a context for the spread southwards of the early farming communities and for the development of the coastal towns. Particularly important here appears to have been the combination of surface and arboreal forms of agriculture with the exploitation of marine resources. Links eastwards with the specialized floral communities of the Comoro archipelago and Madagascar were also fully established. The highlands of Madagascar experienced the expansion from the eleventh century a.d. onwards of a settlement system increasingly focused upon hydraulic agriculture which culminated in the powerful Merina kingdom and ultimately the present day capital of Antananarivo. On the continent relatively little penetration into the Zambezian miombo woodland communities was achieved by the coastal urban dwellers. In the woodlands of the vast highlands of the interior different developmental trajectories of settlement systems occurred. Here food production cannot be shown to have become established earlier than the late first millennium b.c. But by the mid first millennium a.d. significant settlement hierarchies based on mixed cropping and cattle keeping were established on the Zimbabwe plateau and the margins of the Kalahari. These together with the incorporation of the opportunities presented by inter-regional exchange and the exotic trade goods penetrating from the coast ultimately gave rise to the powerful state formations of the Mapungubwe and Zimbabwe traditions. Together these developments show a remarkable degree of regional articulation and it remains true that an adequate understanding of the processes giving rise to urbanism in any part of eastern Africa cannot be understood in isolation.

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