, Volume 4, Issue 1, pp 24–49 | Cite as

Swahili Cosmopolitanism in Africa and the Indian Ocean World, A.D. 600–1500

  • Adria LaVioletteEmail author


Coastal peoples who lived along the Eastern African seaboard in the first millennium A.D. onwards began converting to Islam in the mid-eighth century. Clearly rooted in and linked throughout to an indigenous regional Iron Age tradition, they created a marked difference between themselves and their regional neighbors through their active engagement with Islam and the expanding Indian Ocean world system. In this paper I explore three ways in which interrelated cultural norms—an aesthetic featuring imported ceramics, foods, and other items, Islamic practice, and a favoring of urban living—created and maintained this difference over many centuries. These qualities of their identity helped anchor those who became Swahili peoples as participants in the Indian Ocean system. Such characteristics also can be seen to have contributed to Swahili attractiveness as a place for ongoing small-scale settlement of Indian Ocean peoples on the African coast, and eventually, as a target for nineteenth-century Arab colonizers from the Persian Gulf. This paper examines the archaeology of these aspects of Swahili culture from its early centuries through ca. A.D. 1500.


Swahili East Africa Indian Ocean Cosmopolitanism Islam Urbanism 


Les habitants côtiers qui vivaient en Afrique de l’Est depuis le premier millénaire A.D. ont commencés à ce convertir à l’Islam au milieu du huitième siècle. Clairement enracinés et liés à une tradition autochtone régionale de l’Âge du fer, ils se sont différenciés significativement de leur voisins régionaux à travers leur engagement actif avec l’Islam et l’expansion du système mondiale de l’océan Indien. Dans cet article, j’explore trois façons par lesquels les normes non esthétiques et inter-reliées comprenant des céramiques importés, des aliments et d’autres éléments, ainsi que la pratique de l’Islam et l’incitation au mode de vie urbain, ont créés et maintenues ces différences durant plusieurs siècles. Ces caractéristiques de leur identité ont permis d’instaurer comme des participants du system de l’océan Indien, ceux qui sont devenu les Swahilis. Ces caractéristiques peuvent aussi être interprétées comme ayant contribuées à l’attrait swahili comme endroit pour l’installation de petites agglomérations par des gens de l’océan Indien sur la côte africaine et, éventuellement, comme cible pour les colonisateurs arabes au 19ième siècle en provenance du Golfe Persique. Cet article examine l’archéologie de ces aspects de la culture swahili depuis les siècles anciens jusqu’à 1500 A.D.


Los pueblos costeros que vivieron en la costa oriental de África desde el primer milenio A.D. empezaron a convertirse al Islam a mediados del siglo VIII. Con claras raíces y lazos con una tradición indígena regional de la Edad del Hierro, crearon una marcada diferencia entre ellos y sus vecinos regionales a través de su participación activa en el Islam y en el sistema mundial del Océano Índico en expansión. En este artículo exploro tres normas culturales interconectadas, una estética basada en cerámica importada, alimentos y otros artículos, la práctica islámica y la predilección por la vida urbana crearon y mantuvieron esas diferencias a lo largo de varios siglos. Estas características de su identidad ayudaron a anclar a quienes se volvieron Swahili como participantes en el Océano Índico. Se puede decir que estas características también contribuyeron al atractivo Swahili como un lugar para pequeños asentamientos de pueblos del Océano Índico en la costa africana y, eventualmente, como blanco de los colonizadores árabes del Golfo Pérsico en el siglo XIX. Este artículo examina la arqueología de estos aspectos de la cultura Swahili desde los siglos más tempranos hasta aproximadamente A.D. 1500.



I would like to express my gratitude to Charles Cobb and Diana Loren for inviting me to contribute the original version of this paper to their Society for American Archaeology session in 2006, and for their continued support as this paper was developed for Archaeologies. Appreciation also goes to the two anonymous reviewers who provided helpful commentary. I thank Jeff Fleisher for his input on the present version, particularly with regard to the ceramic data. I am indebted to the National Science Foundation, which generously funded the research at Chwaka and Tumbe from 2002–2006 (#BCS0138319). And finally I thank Jeff Hantman for his support in producing the conference and present versions of this paper and for multiple insights along the way.

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Copyright information

© World Archaeological Congress 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA

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