Reports from Around East Africa

On behalf of the Editor, the following reports were voluntarily solicited from their authors by Lorna Abungu, of the National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi (

The evolution of modern human behaviour in East Africa

Stanley Ambrose, (University of Illinois, USA)

Mwanzia Kyule (University of Nairobi, Kenya and University of Illinois, USA)

Genetic evidence suggests an African origin for modern human anatomy, and archaeological evidence suggests a sub-Saharan African origin for modern human behaviour. Testing the latter hypothesis requires a reliable, precise and accurate chronology for the first appearance of innovations considered hallmarks of the origin of modern human behaviour, including ground bone tools, arts, ornamentation, sophisticated stone tool technologies and resource patterns, and systematic trade over long distances.

These innovations are conventionally associated with the transition from the middle to the later Stone Age. This transition may be earlier than the middle to the upper Palaeolithic transition of N. Africa and W. Eurasia, but this is difficult to prove because most chronometric techniques that can be used in this time range (40,000-100,000 years ago) are highly unreliable, particularly radiocarbon dating.

Advances in techniques of radiogenic argon dating (40 Ar/39 Ar) by single-crystal laser-fusion dating of volcanic tephra make it possible to obtain accurate and precise dates on eruptions as young as 2000 years old. The central and the southern Rift Valley regions of Kenya have many middle and early Later Stone Age sites with stratified volcanics. The primary sources of traded obsidian are in the central Rift and the southern and the southern Rift sites often have excellent bone preservation. Several archaeological sites with multiple, stratified volcanic horizons have now been sampled in both areas of the Rift. In the southern Rift, test excavations have been conducted at four sites that have MSA and/or early LSA horizons. Each site has two to four volcanic layers stratified within the archaeological deposits. Argon dating will be performed by Dr. Alan Deino at the Berkeley Geochronology Centre in the USA. Amino acids racemization of ostrich eggshell provides an additional means of dating archaeological sites. Dr. Grifford Miller of the University of Colorado, Boulder, has dated the of an 8-metre thick Early LSA to MSA sequence to 32,000 BP. The shell also produced a radiocarbon date of 29,975 BP. The MSA /LSA transition occurs approximately 7 metres below this date, and one metre below a volcanic ash. The late MSA and transitional horizons have high frequencies of traded obsidian. The results of chronometric dating on the tephra associated with the transitional industries at two of these sites should make it possible to test the hypothesis of an East African origin for modern human behaviour.


We thank the Office of the President of Kenya for research clearance, the LSB Leakey Foundation, the University of Illinois Graduate College and Research Board, and the National Museums of Kenya, for financial and/or logistical support for this research.

New archaeological finds from the coast of Tanzania

Felix A. Chami (University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)

The last five years have seen several archaeological campaigns on the coast and offshore islands of Tanzania. The campaigns were geared at shedding light on the people reported by the Graeco-Roman documents to have settled on this coast of East Africa then known as Azania. The research work concentrated around the area south of Dar es Salaam to the Rufiji Delta, and the off-shore islands of the Zanzibar and Mafia archipelago.

Many settlement sites of early iron-using people dated to between the 1st century BC and 5th century AD have been found and excavated. The excavation work has found remains of goods traded from the Middle East and the Mediterranean world. The Roman beads, made at Rhoses, from Rufiji are dated to between the last century BC to the 3rd century AD. Furthermore, it was found that Late Stone Age people had already settled in the areas where sites of early iron-using people are found. These people had used microlithic tools including the backed geometric ones. This suggests that it is these people of the Late Stone Age who were first involved in transoceanic trade and then adopted iron technology. The same Late Stone Age people had already sailed through the deep Indian Ocean channel to settle on the islands of Mafia and Zanzibar.

The last five years of research have established the existence of a large population concentration around the Rufiji Delta in the period of early iron-using in the first five centuries AD. Many archaeologically-rich sites spreading for several kilometres on the northern hills of the Rufiji Delta suggest that the areas had a large centre administering the population. This could be Rhapta mentioned in the Periplus and Ptolemy’s Geography. Such large population would also have required stable food resources. Indications are now emerging that this civilization could have adopted irrigation agriculture.

Some reports and synthesis of the five year research can now be read in the following publications:

Chami, F. 1998 A Review of Swahili Archaeology. African Archaeological Review 15(3):199-221.

Chami, F. 1999 Graeco-Roman Trade Link and the Bantu Migration Theory. Anthropos 94(1-3):205-215.

Chami, F. 1999 Roman Beads from the Rufiji Delta, Tanzania. First Incontrovertible Archaeological Link with Periplus. Current Anthropology 40(2):237-241.

Chami, F. 1999 The Early Iron Age on Mafia and its Relationship with the Mainland. Azania 34.

Chami F. and B. Mapunda 1998 The 1996 Archaeological Reconnaissance North of the Rufiji Delta. Nyame Akuma 49:62-78.

Chami ÁG1nnd P. Msemwa 1997 A New Look at Culture and Trade on the Azanian Coast. Current Anthropology 38:673-677.

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Environmental research on the Lower Tana (Kenya)

B`Û¥#z class=”MsoNormal” style=”text-align:justify”>Washington Ndiiri (Kenyatta University, Kenya)

During the month of June 1998, research into the present and past eb÷t!Q`mental changes was undertaken within and /round the Tana Delta. No excavations were carried out, but the oral interviews resulted in useful information that will be important to environmental planners.

Environmental change over time as m ‚| is well expressed in the changing levels of the Indian Ocean, the River Tana and the surroy Ìo vegetation. Evi*ence of submergence and emergence is important when considering the effect,@¢‚`e ocean on land. While in some cases land once under the sea is today under settlemeâ¦6•3ad the reverse is also evident.

T”(ËiÁ( Tana River, the main lifeline of the people in the nearby town of Kipini, can also be a source %ÒÿµÞd;ble. The oscillations in the environment as occasioned by climatic factors create changes #ÚÿµÄn marine environment; the consequence being that the people must adjust their practices. Thi’ºíŽÚ( adjustment is obvious in the change in settlement patterns from time to time. The fishin3—ŽÀž}stry, not to mention agriculture, form the basis of the economy of the people in Kipini, anLÊkôeges in the environment have adversely affected the output from such economic pursuits. n

Environmental conservation – in the form of strict observation of modern farming practices, the conservation of breeding grounds for fish, mangrove swamps – and relocation of settlements may be an answer to the present degraded environmental matrix. However, research results should be gathered with greater d+pth so as to shed more light on the present and past environmental matrices.

Rethinking the past in Madagascar

Jean-Aimé Rakotoarisoa

(Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie, Madagascar)

For the past ten years, archaeological research in Madagascar has been impacted by new developments in information technology. Alongside the traditional methods being used in Madagascar, we have also used these new technologies to further our work on archaeological site inventories. Faced with the vast amount of results obtained, it was necessary to acquire a more productive method of analysis. With ease, our team familiarised itself with Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

The recent results are indeed not definitive, but the trend would be the need to clarify certain resulting ideas on the chronology and definition of the cultural phases. Particular attention should be paid to the stages of the placement of socio-political apparatus, and the apparent legitimacy of dominant groups according to the period under consideration. This approach is of prime importance if we are looking for a truly harmonious development of the entire country. Each Malagasy should feel a sense of solidarity, since in the past, their ancestors contributed to the birth of a country and a nation. Unfortunately, current documentation tends to prove otherwise and continues to attribute key roles/achievements to a minority group of “rulers”.

Consequently, the reflections on Madagascar’s past would always be through a series of affirmations on the beneficial acts and regulations of the ancient sovereigns. At the beginning of the century, various compilations of these praises – in which the obvious political beginnings were hidden under the form of so-called scientific documents – were given legitimacy because they were printed. In the future, we will devote an important part of our activities to try to revitalise and clarify as much as possible the roles played by each social group in Madagascar, at least during the past one thousand years.