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European Trade in Malawi: The Glass Bead Evidence

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In most African contexts, glass beads are evidence of direct and indirect exchanges between communities and are often useful chronological markers. Their analysis contributes to a better understanding of the social relationships between ancient societies. Over the last decade, the archaeometric analysis of glass beads has gained ground in Sub-Saharan Africa, but large regions across southeastern Africa have remained underexplored. Glass beads excavated from the Hora 1, Hora 5, and Mazinga 1 sites in the Kasitu Valley of the Mzimba District of northern Malawi were analyzed using laser ablation—inductively coupled plasma—mass spectrometry (LA-ICP- MS). These are granitic rock shelter sites located 40 km from Lake Malawi. They have predominantly Early Holocene and Pleistocene deposits but with a scattering of more recent material at the top. Analysis revealed that most of the beads were from European manufacture with one exception—a bead that has a composition typical of South Asia and that circulated from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century AD. Although Europeans were not present in the region before the second part of the nineteenth century, the presence of European beads testifies to trade directly or indirectly involving Europeans, most likely in association with increased trade in ivory and enslaved persons. The presence of the bead from South Asia and two cowrie beads from a fourth nearby site (Kadawonda 1) that dates to the seventh century AD show that European trade was the most recent manifestation of connections between the hinterland and the coast.


Dans la plupart des contextes africains, les perles en verre sont la preuve d'échanges directs et indirects entre les communautés. Elles servent aussi de marqueurs chronologiques. Leur analyse contribue à une meilleure compréhension des relations sociales qui existaient dans le passé. Au cours de la dernière décennie, l'analyse archéométrique des perles en verre a gagné du terrain en Afrique subsaharienne, mais de vastes régions du sud-est de l'Afrique sont restées sous-explorées. Les perles en verre des sites de Hora 1, Hora 5 et Mazinga 1 situés dans la vallée de Kasitu, district de Mzimba, au nord du Malawi, ont été analysées par spectrométrie de masse à plasma induit couplée à l’ablation laser (LA-ICP-MS). Ces sites sont des abris sous roche granitiques, situés à 40 km du lac Malawi, avec des dépôts datant principalement de l'Holocène inférieur et du Pléistocène, mais avec du matériel plus récent dans les couches supérieures. L'analyse a révélé que la plupart des perles étaient de fabrication européenne à une exception près, une perle qui a une composition typique de l'Asie du Sud et qui a circulé du 15e au 17e siècle. Bien que les Européens ne soient pas présents dans la région avant la seconde moitié du 19e siècle, la présence de perles européennes témoigne d'un commerce impliquant directement ou indirectement des Européens, très probablement engagés dans le commerce d'ivoire et de personnes réduites en esclavage. La présence de la perle d'Asie du Sud, ainsi que de deux cauris d'un quatrième site voisin (Kadawonda 1) qui date du 7e siècle apr. J.-C., montrent que le commerce européen n'était que la manifestation la plus récente de connexions déjà existantes entre l'arrière-pays et la côte de l’océan Indien.

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We thank the Malawi Department of Museums and Monuments for their permission to excavate at the sites and analyze the beads. We are especially grateful for the efforts of Inkosi ya Makhosi M’mbelwa V, Inkosi Chindi, Inkosi Kampingo, Inkosana Nkosi, and the Mzimba Heritage Association in making us feel welcome in the area. We also thank our Department of Museums and Monuments representatives, the field and field lab crew, and student participants for their careful eyes and many hours spent sorting and cataloging finds. Particular thanks are owed to Fredrick Mapemba and Raphael Mwafulirwa for their work in the field lab. Jacob Davis was of invaluable support in keeping things running in the field. Carla Hadden at the Center for Applied Isotope Studies facilitated the dating of Kadawonda 1 materials. The equipment used at the Elemental Analysis Facility at the Field Museum was funded by NSF grant BCS 0320903 (2003) and NSF grant BCS 1531394 (2015).


Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, 0320903, Patrick Ryan Williams (PI), 1531394, Laure Dussubieux (PI)

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Dussubieux, L., Welling, M., Kaliba, P. et al. European Trade in Malawi: The Glass Bead Evidence. Afr Archaeol Rev 40, 377–396 (2023).

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