Early Global Connections: East Africa between Asia, and Mediterranean Europe
Ancient East African communities organized themselves along ethnic lines but were linked to each other and to communities outside of their region through numerous networks of interactions at various scales. On this site, we explore these spheres of interaction and try to understand the rise and sustenance of cosmopolitan urban polities on the East African coast.
Tightly knit to the story of urbanism is the story of trade and trade connections. Relatively recent systematic, problem-oriented research on the Swahili coast and its hinterland has enabled us to understand the ecological, cultural, and economic milieu in which complex chiefdoms and urban polities arose in Eastern and Southern Africa in response to global long-distance exchange in the Indian Ocean. Here are some snapshots about East Africa’s connections with regions to its east and west:
East Africa’s Connections with Asia
Many of the crops that are now staple foods in much of sub Saharan Africa were first experimented with and domesticated in Asia. Some of the African domesticates including sorghum, millet, and coffee are widely consumed by contemporary Asians as staples.
Ancient connections between Africa and Asia, including China, are exhibited in the numerous archaeological remains that have been recovered at many sites across the continent. Artifacts including Indo-Pacific beads, glass, Middle Eastern glazed pottery and jewelry, and Chinese stoneware and porcelain, among others, have been recovered at nearly all medium-to-large settlements along the Eastern and Southern African sub-continent from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) to the present. This non-African materiality bears witness to the global connections, contributions, and complexity of Africa’s past and systematically dismantles the long-held narrative that Africa was isolated from Eurasia and, with the exception of north Africa, contributed precious little to global civilization.
East Africa’s connections with Eurasia and the Middle East
Archaeologists and historians have documented evidence of biological, cultural, linguistic, commercial, and technical communication between East Africa and the Middle East beginning from the early first millennium CE. The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, a third century mariner’s guide presumably written in Alexandria, mentions that iron lances, hatchets, daggers, and awls made at Muza, east of Aden constituted trade items destined for African markets.
Trade items from the East African coast made for foreign markets in India, the Middle East, and China included marine products- such as tortoise shells and ambergris; animal products- like ivory, rhinoceros horns and cat skins; and vegetable products- like mangrove poles, wood, and timber. Turtle shells and ambergris were in high demand in India and China. Ivory, rhinoceros horns, and leopard skins were exported to India, China, and the Persian Gulf. Timber for building and aromatic products were needed in the Persian Gulf until relatively recently. Demand for African timber in the Gulf was high enough to be reported by Ibn Hawqal c.960 CE who wrote that houses in Siraf were built of wood from the country of the Zinjs.
Textiles, including silk and cotton were spun in Mogadishu, Pate, Zanzibar, Kilwa, Mahilaka, and other major towns and their products widely traded in Eastern Africa reaching as far as Egypt. Upon their visit to Pate Island (Kenyan Coast), the Portuguese were impressed by the high quality silk manufactured there. Mining and the working of iron was an important industrial activity at Malindi and other Swahili towns.
The superior quality of iron products made in East Africa was impressive enough to be added to the list of African exports to India by Indian merchants who regularly visited the coast with the aid of annual monsoon winds. Al Masudi who visited East Africa in 912 CE left one of the most cogent descriptions of the iron industry on the coast in his The Meadows of Gold and the Mines of Gems.
All of the above findings contradict the long-held misconceptions about pre-industrial Africans and their connections with the rest of the world during the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, increasingly after the ninth century, East African towns were important centers of production and venues where trans-continental exchange of goods and natural resources took place.
Chapurukha Kusimba, American University, Director
Jeffrey Fleisher, Rice University
Adria LaViolette, University of Virginia
Jonathan Waltz, Rollins College
Interview with Chapurukha Kusimba:
3D Reconstruction of Songo Mnara site:
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Documentary on Early Swahili Culture
Archaeology Journal Article on Early Swahili Towns