Archaeologists retrieve and study the remains of
cultures to understand their rise, development and
decline. We can trace human lineages and our
relatives millions of years into the past. For vast
portions of human history, peoples lived variations
of hunting and gathering ways of life. Then, in
various places in the world, humans learned to
cultivate plants and practice animal husbandry, and
the agricultural revolution was born. Agriculture
developed independently in diverse areas of the
globe: Mesopotamia and the Levant by 11,000
Before Present, China along the Yangtze and
Yellow Rivers about 9,000 B.P., the Indus Valley and
New Guinea about 7,000 B.P., and in the Americas
in central Mexico and northern South America and
areas of the Amazon probably before 7,000 B.P.
V. Gordon Childe was one of the first scholars to
define the characteristics of the rise of civilization.
With agriculture came the ability for farmers to
produce more than what was necessary to feed just
those in the immediate family. Food surpluses
allowed for greater population densities and the
rise of urbanism. In cities, people freed from the
daily search for food could specialize their labor
and diversify production. Long-range trade was
possible. Public urban architecture became
characteristic of cities, including centers of political
activity such as palaces or religious activities like
temples. Societies developed class structures, and
occupational specialization might include political,
religious and military leaders and a great variety of
traders and artisans. Management of inventories,
trade, diplomacy, religion and astronomy led to the
invention of writing systems and mathematics.
My experience in investigating the rise of a complex
culture came in eastern Africa. The Swahili are a
people that today inhabit the littoral of eastern
Africa from about Mogadishu in Somalia to
northern Mozambique, a distance of about 3,000
kilometres, and offshore islands, such as Pemba
and Zanzibar. The Swahili are an Islamic society,
speaking an African Bantu language. From their
strategic position along the coast, the Swahili were
intermediaries between peoples of the African
interior and those in the circum-Indian Ocean
realm from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf areas to
the reaches of the Far East.
How did such a civilization arise, perched as it
is between two worlds? How did Iron Age or pastoral
Neolithic African peoples become seafarers
and how did traders from the Islamic world come
to inhabit the coast of eastern Africa? What forces
and processes created the Swahili, and when?
The ruins of Pate, with contemporary village in background.
The site of Pate in the Lamu Archipelago of
the north Kenya coast offered the possibility of
answering some of these questions. Pate today is
a large site of about 70 acres with two contemporary
villages within the ruin field of the older remains.
The site is located adjacent to a harbor on the
south side of Pate Island. Within the old town
wall are the ruins of mosques, opulent houses, and
tombs. Pate is not mentioned in the early Arabic
sources, but after the arrival of the Portuguese in
1498, Pate played a robust role in the history of
Pate is one of the few coastal communities that
has its own indigenous history, the Pate Chronicle,
which exists in several versions that have been difficult
to reconcile. The Pate Chronicle begins the
history of Pate at A.H. 600/A.D. 1204, a date that
was hitherto not confirmed by archaeology.
Neville Chittick of the British Institute in Eastern
Africa conducted the first systematic field research
at Pate in 1966. He surveyed and mapped the site,
and sank seven test trenches. The first four
excavations investigated the town wall in northwest
Pate. The other three were on the west, east and
south sides of the site. The excavations produced
some evidence of fourteenth century occupation,
but most of the finds were fifteenth century and
later. There was, therefore, a disjunction between
the archaeological and historical evidence regarding
the time of the earliest days of Pate.
Later, the National Museums of Kenya conducted
archaeological investigations at Pate. We had
recently rediscovered the tombstone of Sultan
Muhammad, Fumomadi, of Pate, and retranslated it.
We found that the date of his death on the monument
was exactly that given in the Pate Chronicle.
We also believed that Pate might be considerably
older than previously shown.
As part of our work at Pate, we carefully selected
the locations for two further test excavations.
Unlike the earlier work at the site, where test trenches
were located generally close to the peripheries of
the site, we wanted to place ours in central locations
with deep stratigraphy. We excavated Test Pit 1 to
a depth of 4.2 metres in a house in east-central Pate.
The excavation revealed a complex stratigraphy
of successive structures and associated construction
and destruction debris. Ceramics from the basal
levels of the excavation indicate a late thirteenth
or fourteenth century date, but two sherds from the
lowermost levels suggested possible earlier
occupation elsewhere at Pate.
Msikiti wa Nuru (Mosque of Light) with large house in
background, site of Test Pit 1.
Test Pit 2 was in west-central Pate about 275
metres from TP 1, adjacent to the south wall of
the Bwana Bakari Mosque. From the surface to
almost 2.5 metres deep, the deposits reflected the
building, use and deterioration of the mosque,
probably between the seventeenth and nineteenth
centuries. When we broke through the lowest
compacted surface associated with construction
of the mosque, the nature of the deposit changed
abruptly. We encountered few features and no
walls or floors in the lowest three metres of deposit.
These lower strata yielded a sequence of almost
five hundred years of the early history of Pate.
When we broke through the lowermost layer
associated with the building of the mosque in
perhaps the seventeenth century, we were immediately
transported to deposits of the mid-twelfth
to the mid-thirteenth centuries. Thereafter, as
we progressed downwards, we found a classic
ceramic sequence of Islamic sgraffiato, Chinese
celadons, tin-glazed wares, Far Eastern stonewares
and Sasanian-Islamic ceramics, along with a full
sequence of local wares, to basal beach deposits
dating from the late-eighth or early ninth centuries.
In this single stroke, Pate joined Shanga, Manda
and Kilwa among the earliest Swahili sites.
Bwana Bakari Mosque, site of Test Pit 2, at lower left.
The people of Pate have subsequently rebuilt and use
Test Pit 1. Jimbi Katana, left, Tom Wilson, right, and
Athman Lali Omar, all of the National Museums of Kenya.
Katana studied conservation at Rome, and Athman read
archaeology at the University of London, Yale
University and University of Florida.
Test Pit 2, 5.2 metres (17 feet) deep. The dark deposits at
a depth of 2.25 metres and lower revealed a sequence of
strata from the mid-thirteenth to the late eighth centuries.
What, then, of the rise of Swahili civilization?
How do trade items from the Far East and the
Islamic world come to be in the earliest deposits at
sites along the coast of eastern Africa? We know
from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a
mid-first century document written in Greek,
probably in Alexandria, that traders and seafarers
were visiting named coastal sites south of the Horn
of Africa at that time. We also know that Bantu-
speaking Iron Age peoples inhabited areas of Kenya
and Tanzania in the first half of the first millennium,
and that their pottery bears features resembling
some of the earliest local ceramics of the Swahili
sites. Other work has emphasized resemblances
to pastoral Neolithic ceramics from central Kenya
and the Rift Valley.
Whether the earliest inhabitants of Pate came from
farming or pastoralist roots, they obtained their
main animal protein from fish and turtles and were
thus adept at exploiting marine resources of the
Indian Ocean. Cattle, goats and chickens only
arrived about A.D. 1000, and camels a few
centuries later. We did not recover direct evidence
of grain agriculture, such as sorghum or millet, or
tree crops such as bananas or coconuts, but these
were certainly important later in the Swahili diet.
From early times, the people participated in industrial
activities such as iron smelting, bead grinding and
burning coral to make lime. From almost the
beginning they were engaged in long distance
trade, and perhaps exported ivory, worked iron,
cowries and tortoise shell. Other potential exports
were skins, mangrove poles and hard woods,
agricultural produce, cloth and goods such as coir,
ambergris, gum-copal, beeswax, rhino horn and
other products. From these modest and diversified
beginnings, Pate grew into one of the largest
Swahili sites on the coast of eastern Africa and
participated in the development of an urbane,
complex culture that persists to this day.
Thomas H. Wilson is the Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History and the Chair of the Arizona Humanities Council