Freda Nkirote M'Mbogori
The inception of agriculture in eastern Africa is a major topic of discussion among Africanist archaeologists, although very sparse evidence exists. Questions range from whether domestication was a local invention or whether it was introduced from the Near East, Asia, or elsewhere outside of Africa. These questions have remained unanswered because wild progenitors and models of spread of African domesticates are yet to be established using undisputable data. The paucity of direct data, therefore, has necessitated the use of objects of material culture such as pottery, beads, burial cairns, architectural structures, etc., as indicators of pastoral and cereal farming communities in antiquity. In addition to the origins of African domesticates, research in eastern Africa has concerned itself with questions of farming technologies from later archaeological and historical times to the present. The remains of elaborate farming systems with extensive irrigation networks have drawn considerable attention. Though not unchanged, some of these farming systems remain in contemporary use in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.
The East African coast is an interface between the continental world of Africa and the maritime world of the Indian Ocean, and the monsoons provide a convenient wind system to link them. It was inhabited by a littoral society that was best placed to play a leading role in economic, social, and cultural interaction, including intermarriage, between the two worlds. Its history goes back at least to the beginning of the Contemporary Era, and it can be termed Swahili from the beginning of the second millennium, when this branch of the Bantu languages spread down the coast to give it linguistic unity. Its speakers were organized in a series of city-states from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique, and when there was a major upturn in international trade between the Islamic empires of the Middle East and China from the 8th century, they were integrated into the wider Indian Ocean world. Islam spread with that trade, and mosques became a prominent part of the archaeological remains along the Swahili coast. The citizens spoke an elegant language that was further embellished through its interactions with Arabic and other Indian Ocean languages and literature. In the process, the Swahili became thoroughly cosmopolitan, belying the futile debate of whether they are “oriental” or “African,” which are two sides of their coin. This civilization was partially disrupted in the 16th century by the entry of the Portuguese, who tried to divert the spice trade to their channel around the Cape of Good Hope, but it revived during the 18th and 19th centuries.
East Africa’s urban past is broken down into five historical periods. The first (c. 900–1500