Thursday, 4 September 2008

A fresh view of history in East Africa


Neolithic stone tools from Machaga Cave, Zanzibar and right, one of the island’s attractions. Photo/FILE


Posted Saturday, August 30 2008 at 16:09

WHO MIGHT HAVE GUESSED THAT broken bits of pottery, beads and bones dug up or found in caves and other sites around East Africa could change the way world history is currently viewed?

Yet today, a whole new generation of East African archaeologists are recovering artifactual remains that are radically reshaping the whole story of the Western Indian Ocean littoral.

Far from being an insignificant backwater, there is near-incontrovertible evidence that the area connected as it had been to Pharaonic Egypt, to ports around the Indian Ocean and beyond, had been pivotal to world trade.

This emerging new picture has been long in search of an author familiar enough with old documents as well as new discoveries of the past several decades to weave them into a text of lasting value.

Last month in Zanzibar, itself a centre of trans-oceanic trade going back to 3000 BC, I picked up The Unity of African Ancient History by acclaimed Tanzanian archaeologist Felix Chami at the Beit el Ajaib (House of Wonders) shop. True to its name, in between dusty displays of famous dhows and doors in miniature and battered Arab coffee pots, a wondrous treasure was to be discovered.

Who is Felix Chami and why is his new book so timely and significant? Dr Chami is perhaps Tanzania’s most prolific archaeologist, educator and theoretical innovator. While many different academics have written on aspects of East Africa in Classical Antiquity, his was an original approach to the subject at hand, written for the scholar and layperson alike.

The result is a persuasive work of synthesis that is part site-work, part contemporary academic history and part imaginative re-creation.

Chami constructs a large picture of continent-wide unity from which the book’s title is drawn.

A fresh explanation to East Africa’s coastal multi-ethnic mix revolves around a series of internal migrations over centuries to the area, relegating to the proverbial dustbin the old canard of consecutive invaders bringing sophisticated urban society to the backward people of the Western Indian Ocean.

It makes sense and is best thinking on the subject in years for understanding East Africa’s changing social landscape over the period 3000 BC to AD 500.

Referring to conventional wisdom on Ancient Egypt as the colonial paradigm so prevalent over the past 130 years, he summarises the archaeological record to date, also citing ancient and modern historians.

HERODOTUS, WRITING IN THE 5TH Century BC, already knew what it would take another 2,500 years to discover: that Egyptian Pharaonic civilisation, a constellation of unparalleled architecture, gorgeous statuary and complex cosmology remarkable for its time and for all time, had been the work of Africans.

Yet during the 19th century, Victorian academics under the spell of pseudo-science thought Africans incapable of producing institutions of such complexity and beauty.

Why? Social Darwinists particularly saw human evolution as linear — a direct line from, say, slithering lizards to the British aristocracy. Segued into ideas of white supremacy, these outlandish presuppositions with their destructive implications became convenient subtexts for imperial expansion and colonial racism.

PERHAPS MORE INSIDIOUS, the glorious civilisations of Egypt and Classical Greece had been built by Europe’s white ancestors. It was not until the l980s that Martin Bernal, a Briton working out of Cornell University, New York, produced a profoundly anti-establishment treatise subversively entitled “Black Athena.” He suggested that Ancient Egyptians were neither European nor white but rather Afro-Asiatic, a multiethnic integration of Africans and Semites that Chami interprets as simply another way of saying Africans of many hues.

Chami’s ambitious work is not just an easy armchair narrative of historical synthesis but the product of years of experience in the field and hence a valuable archaeological archive as well.
Cave sites on the islands of Mafia and Zanzibar have yielded remains of domesticated animals that have been dated to between 2800 and 800 BC.

At another cave site in Zanzibar, chicken and cattle bones have been recovered that have all been dated to between 3300 BC and O BC. As chickens were first domesticated in Mesopotamia (Modern Iraq), their spread, involving human agency, had reached East Africa in ancient times, probably as early as 3000 BC, the same time African cereals had crossed to Asia.

Also related to the 3rd millennium BC, the date marking the earliest occupation of Zanzibar, is a pendant of gum copal, derived from a tree grown in East Africa that was found in a grave in Mesopotamia, suggesting that contact between the two areas began from this period if not earlier.

About 40 kilometres into the interior in the Rufiji Delta region, pottery of Roman or Indian origin has been found — suggesting that East African trade links with Ancient Rome was not restricted to the Indian Ocean islands and littoral but had extended deep into the interior.

Potsherds from Mafia island identified as having originated in the Nile Valley and dated to 800-400 BC support early dates for trade between the Nile Valley and the East African coast.

A CARNELIAN BEAD FOUND IN a Zanzibar cave was thought to have come either from India or Egypt, while a glass bead found in the same cave is thought to have originated in India, the carbon-14 dating for this bead being 135 to 45 BC.

Also discovered at Mafia Island were more beads and pottery from India attesting to a brisk trade between the two areas as well as two glass beads of Mediterranean origin dated from 300 BC to AD 400.

Chami’s exhaustive work, though a gem, is unfortunately unpolished. A crack editor should have been called in to keep the texture and contours of this complex, invaluable narrative in harmony, on track and lucid.

The author’s anarchistic English, his meandering sentences and tedious repetition of ideas and phrases, the result perhaps of returning again and again to the manuscript after long lapses in time, leave the reader gasping for air.

Manuscripts produced everywhere demand serious attention by skilled professionals. In this part of the world, dilettantism in publishing scholarly work is a general problem that surely must be resolved before the area can become truly competitive in the industry.

It bears repeating that no scholarly work or for that matter journal and newspaper articles as well as works of fiction should be allowed to go to press without the expertise of experienced editors. Book jackets are also crying out for talented graphic designers to make them attractive.

Without the input of these too often unacknowledged professionals, Chami’s endeavour falls just a bit short of being the crowning achievement of a life’s work that it aspires to be, at those giddy heights of universal scholarly excellence on East Africa in antiquity waiting to be scaled once more.

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