Archaeology of Eastern Africa
- LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0170
- LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0170
Defined here as Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania (and, where appropriate, adjacent regions), eastern Africa has among the deepest archaeological records on the planet. Some of the oldest stone tools are found in Turkana, Kenya, and date to over 3.3 million years ago. Human physiology and technology then developed through a series of phases across the following millennia, with many global Stone Age milestones documented here first. However, the region is significant not just for its role in deep-time narratives of human evolution. Eastern Africa also has a rich Holocene record, documenting the development of diverse hunting, foraging, and food-producing economies and the subsequent emergence of iron production, specialized crafts, and intensive forms of pastoralism and irrigated farming. The last two thousand years have also seen the emergence of large polities and the contribution of these within global networks of trade, most notably in the Lake Victoria and Swahili coastal area. However, many communities resisted incorporation into broader political units, and these communities evidence unique forms of decentralized organization that caution against the common assumption that human societies tend toward centralized and hierarchical political forms. On the eve of colonialism, eastern Africa was a patchwork of integrated human social, cultural, and ecological diversity. The study of this diversity and its transformation in the colonial and postcolonial periods also forms a major subject of archaeological inquiry, as does the ethics of conducting archaeological research, engaging publics, and protecting heritage resources in the postcolonial world. The focus of this article is to direct readers to the key texts in eastern African archaeology by period, theme, and debate. It begins with a chronological structure, reviewing major periods (e.g., the Early Stone Age, Early Farmers, etc.), before focusing on more regionally specific traditions (e.g., the Swahili stone towns and the Great Lakes kingdoms) and major areas of research interest (metalworking, ethnoarchaeology), practice, and theoretical discussion (heritage, public archaeology). In many areas the existing literature tends to take an extraregional or Pan-African perspective (e.g., the spread of food production), and as such there are multiple intersections and links with other Oxford Bibliographies articles, especially Ann B. Stahl’s Archaeology and the Study of Africa, which provides a wider coverage of the key research topics and the practice and theory of conducting archaeological research in Africa. Where possible this article tackles topics with reference to eastern African material, but inevitably it also cites references from the broader region, where the data they present or the arguments they make are (or might be) relevant to eastern Africa.
No comprehensive general overview of eastern Africa’s archaeology exists; most standard texts tend to deal with sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. However, many broader texts contain sections or chapters with a distinctly eastern African flavor. Barham and Mitchell 2008 offers the most comprehensive and up-to-date overview of the African Stone Age and hunter-gatherers, including the contexts of human physical, technical, and social evolution in Africa and with reference to a wide range of eastern African material (see also Human Origins). Kusimba 2003 offers a less encyclopedic but original and comprehensive introduction to African foragers, with a distinctly eastern and southern African slant, and focuses on Holocene hunter-foragers’ interactions with food producers. Kusimba and Kusimba 2003 offers a broad overview of the last two thousand years of eastern African archaeology, with a focus on food, craft production, metalworking, and trade via specialist overview chapters. Connah 2001 provides an overview of Africa’s best-known “civilizations,” spanning the last two thousand years or so. Much discussion has focused on the question of whether these communities typify Africa’s past or re-create a misleading Westernized view of the past (see, for example, chapters in Stahl 2005, especially the introduction), but the chapters on the East African coast and the Great Lakes area (Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi) provide a good introduction to these regions. Although now out of date in terms of current research, Sutton 1990 is notable for being written for popular audiences while retaining a deep level of analysis and discussion melding archaeology with (oral) history in a nuanced fashion. Mitchell 2005, an original take on Africa’s connections with the broader world, contains chapters that provide an important window into eastern Africa’s global context during the last four thousand years. With even-broader focus, Phillipson 2005 provides a chronological and regional overview of the archaeology of sub-Saharan Africa from the Early Stone Age to the last millennium CE, with numerous sections specifically covering the eastern African region. While written in an accessible style, at times the volume lacks critical depth and seems increasingly out of touch with current research. Stahl 2005 covers similarly broad swathes of African archaeology yet does so via select specialist chapters, which reject full coverage in favor of a focus on key temporal and regional topics and debates.
Barham, Lawrence, and Peter Mitchell. The First Africans: African Archaeology from the Earliest Tool Makers to Most Recent Foragers. Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
A comprehensive overview of the African Stone Age and historical hunter-foragers. Detailed critical discussion and copious references to follow up original material.
Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Basic introduction to Africa’s best-known “civilizations.” Includes the archaeology of the Great Lakes kingdoms, centered on present-day Uganda and the Swahili coast. Suitable for general introduction but lacks detail and critical discussion.
Kusimba, Sibel Barut. African Foragers: Environment, Technology, Interactions. African Archaeology 4. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
Original overview of Africa’s hunter-foragers from the Early Stone Age to the 20th century. While not as comprehensive as Barham and Mitchell 2008, it offers an interesting focus on forager lifeways and worldviews. It also presents much previously unpublished or obscurely published work—especially on historical foragers.
Kusimba, Chapurukha M., and Sibel B. Kusimba, eds. East African Archaeology: Foragers, Potters, Smiths, and Traders. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2003.
A range of good papers exploring key aspects of the eastern African Iron Age—beginning to feel a little dated in terms of more-recent research.
Mitchell, Peter. African Connections: Archaeological Perspectives on Africa and the Wider World. African Archaeology 7. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2005.
Original take on Africa’s past that explores its connections with and impacts on the globe through time. The excellent chapter on the Swahili is especially relevant to eastern African archaeology.
Phillipson, David W. African Archaeology. 3d ed. Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
The first and still most wide-ranging overview of the entirety of Africa’s archaeological past. Multiple specific sections cover eastern Africa and provide a good introduction to the region’s archaeology. However, the narrative often lacks detail, and much good, more recent research has come out since the publication of the third edition.
Stahl, Ann Brower, ed. African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction. Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.
An informative introduction to African archaeology that offers position and summary papers on a range of key topics, regions, and periods without attempting to be fully comprehensive. The chapters effectively meld critical historical perspectives on past research traditions with new insights from current research to provide key insights into regions and periods. Kusimba and Kusimba’s specific chapter on eastern Africa is particularly good, but other chapters provide broader context.
Sutton, John E. G. A Thousand Years of East Africa. Nairobi, Kenya: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1990.
A popular account of three core research areas. The focus on just the last thousand years is unique, and Sutton effectively combines archaeology with oral-historical research. The volume offers good detail and insight but is accessible, being written for a popular audience. Unfortunately the data presented now looks dated, and the volume can be hard to find.
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