African Archaeological Review

, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 399–426 | Cite as

Beyond the Coastalscapes: Preindustrial Social and Political Networks in East Africa

  • Chapurukha M. KusimbaEmail author
  • Sibel B. Kusimba
  • Laure Dussubieux
Original Article


The archaeological community worldwide now readily recognizes the role and significance of interregional interaction in the development and sustenance of urban societies (e.g., Marcus and Sabloff 2008; Sinclair et al. 2010; Trigger 2003). Over the past two decades, we have carried out a systematic, problem-oriented research program on the Kenyan coast and its hinterland in an effort to understand the ecological and cultural milieu that enabled towns and city-states to develop along the East African coast beginning in the late first millennium CE. Archaeological research complemented with historical sources of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shows that different scales of analysis can be used to understand the long-term history of the development of urbanism along this Swahili coast: local, regional, and trans-continental frames of reference each show that Swahili communities were part of numerous networks of interactions. An emerging picture of preindustrial urbanism shows that local, regional, and trans-continental interaction spheres tied coastal towns to the hinterland and to wider Indian Ocean commercial and social networks. Not all of the theorized links between the coastal towns and their local and regional trade and interaction partners will be visible archaeologically. We address the still poorly known elements of preindustrial regional networks of alliance and interaction spheres between urban and rural polities and argue that an integrative approach is necessary to understand the context of coastal urban society.


Urbanism Swahili Coast-hinterland Networks Tsavo Indian Ocean 


La communauté archéologique mondiale reconnaît maintenant le rôle et l’importance des interactions interrégionales dans le développement et le maintien des communautés urbaines (e.g., Marcus and Sabloff 2008; Sinclair et al. 2010; Trigger 2003). Durant deux décennies, nous avons développé un programme de recherches systématiques traitant de différents problèmes sur la côte et l’intérieur des terres kenyanes dans le but de comprendre les milieux écologiques et culturels qui ont permis les établissements humains, qu’ils s’agissent de villes ou de cités-états, le long de la côte est de l’Afrique à partir du milieu du premier millénaire de notre ère. Les recherches archéologiques ainsi que les sources historiques du dix-huitième et du dix-neuvième siècle montrent qu’une telle analyse visant à comprendre l’histoire à long terme du développement de l’urbanisme le long de la côte swahilie peut être menée à plusieurs niveaux: quel que soit le référentiel choisi, local, régional ou transcontinental, il est possible de voir que les communautés swahilies faisaient parties de réseaux d’interaction à diverses échelles. Le tableau que nous brossons ici révèle que les sphères d’interactions locales, régionales et transcontinentales lient les villes côtières à l’intérieur des terres et au réseau commercial et social de l’Océan indien. Tous les liens entre villes côtières et leurs partenaires commerciaux locaux et régionaux mis en avant dans cette théorie ne sont pas perceptible archéologiquement. Nous prenons en considération ces éléments encore peu connus de notre connaissance des alliances au sein des réseaux préindustriels et des sphères d’interaction entre les communautés rurales et urbaines et nous prétendons qu’une approche créative et intégrative est nécessaire à la compréhension du contexte des sociétés urbaines.



This research was supported by grants from the US National Science Foundation SBR 9024683 (1991–3), BCS 9615291(1996–8), BCS 0106664(2002–04), BCS 0352681 (2003–04), BCS 0648762 (2007–09, BCS-1030081 (2010–12), Wenner-Gren Foundation (1991), National Geographic Society (1996–7), National Museums of Kenya, and The Field Museum of Natural History. Research was carried out in collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya under Research permit NCST 5/002/E/543. Excavation and specimen Export permits were issued by the Minister of Sports and Cultural Heritage, Honorable William Ntimama. We wish to thank Dr. Idle O. Farah, Dr. Purity Kiura, and Mr. Mohamed Mchulla for their support and commitment to this project over the years.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Chapurukha M. Kusimba
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sibel B. Kusimba
    • 2
  • Laure Dussubieux
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyThe Field Museum of Natural HistoryChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyNorthern Illinois UniversityDekalbUSA

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