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Chapurukha Kusimba's picture
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The big question of Dr. Chap Kusimba's research agenda is: why do people trade? How and what ways have trade, traders, and trading communities influenced social transformations?    For over two decades Dr. Kusimba has conducted research in Illinois, Kenya, Madagascar, India, and the Czech Republic in an effort to address these questions.  Dr. Kusimba's specific topical research interests include: The archaeology of urbanism in Eastern Africa; The archaeology of trading systems ion the Indian Ocean; The nature and impact of predatory commerce on geovernance; Decoding the biological geneaologies of the Swahili of East Africa; and the African Diaspora in Asia and the Americas.


I am an anthropological archaeologist who has conducted research in prehistoric and historic archaeology in East Africa.  I am  a Curator of African Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at Field Museum and Professor of at University of Illinois in Chicago, and have worked in the field with undergraduates and graduates for more than fifteen years.  I have a solid record of publications in East African archaeology, anthropology, and history and I have a special interest in working with undergraduates and graduates both in the field and in the classroom. 

Working with support from the National Science Foundation  (Archaeology and Geography) and the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Programs, I have since 1993 been investigating the origins of urbanism and the role of trade, technology, ethnic interactions, plant and animal domestication, and urban life on the Swahili coast in Kenya.  Ethnographic and archaeological research I have conducted together with colleagues, graduate and undergraduate students have documented early sites of fishers and hunter-gatherers in the area from 1732 BCE and the formation of settled communities based on farming and fishing about 1500 years after that.  The data drawn from this research has enabled me to document trade patterns linking the Swahili coast to the Western and South Asia for more than 3 millennia.  Ethnographic interviews with blacksmiths, potters, sailors, poets, sages and traders have enabled me to understand traditions of ethnic interactions among the diverse communities of the Swahili coast.  While in the field I have also supervised REU students pursuing diverse projects for senior theses on diverse project from the role of migration in shaping the modern Swahili community to the impact of cell phone use on East African. 

The Swahili Coast is among the optimum locations for studying the long-term processes of urbanization and the development of leadership and governance in Africa.  Yet until the late 1980s, little was known about the role that indigenous peoples played in the development of urban coastal polities.  Most histories had reconstructed a Persian and Arab society of conquerors and colonists who settled in East Africa for its trade opportunities.  Late 19th- and early 20thcentury scholarship interpreted the ruined cities of the Swahili are representations of early Asiatic colonization of East Africa.  The primary reasons for acquiring trading colonies were to control long-distance exchange between Africa and Asia. 

My first research on the Swahili Coast culminated in my book The Rise and Fall of Swahili States (AltaMira, 1999), which was submitted by the publisher to the Society for American Archaeology as for an outstanding academic book.  Although the book did not win the award it remains one of the principle books used in courses on the origins of the States in Africa. 

Swahili studies remain sharply divided between those who favor external influences on one hand, and those favor internal dynamics for the rise of urbanism.  I combined these perspectives and brought together data from multiple sources.  The first was an analysis of oral traditions and ethnographic research I conducted for three years among the Swahili and their neighbors the Mijikenda.  These data documented changes in perception about Swahili identities and enabled me to identify and describe some of the earliest interaction spheres amongst the regions diverse coastal communities.  My work showed how ethnic identities might have been formed during the pre-contact period.   The second was archaeological surveys and excavation four key sites including Mbaraki Pillar, Galu, Mtwapa, Kizingitini.  In addition, I carried out extensive surveys on both urban and rural Swahili settlements.

 The rich data recovered from these sites bore evidence of changes in land use patterns, interaction with communities from the African interior and from abroad in the Middle East and South Asia for around 3000 years ago.  At Mtwapa, I mapped the town in its entirety revealing the different residential quarters, including different quarters that were possibly delineated by ethnic and/or class affiliations.  The assemblages of artifacts was drawn from Western Asia, South Asian, South East Asia, and East Asian trade objects demonstrated the rich relationships that East Africa has had with Asia.

From 1998-2003, I examined the historic relationship between the urban coast and the rural hinterland.  My goal was to investigate the role of trade and interaction in shaping diverse subsistence economies and ethnic identities in East Africans during the past 3000 years.  My work was centered in the Tsavo National Park where diverse peoples used different but complementary subsistence strategies to create dynamic communities.  Social interactions among these culturally and economically diverse peoples are the enduring theme of this research.   Our research uncovered diverse settlements of hunter-gatherers and food producers. Our surveys located and mapped close to 200 sites of various sizes.  We conducted six excavations at select sites and produced radiocarbon dates that go back 10,000 years.  Our work here not only demonstrated dynamic interactions between rural Tsavo people but also extended that relationship further back in time to the Late Stone Age.

Shaped by my experience on the Swahili coast and Tsavo region, my current research interests are in the relationship between ecology, economy and ethnic identity in East Africa.  I have come to realize that the history of ethnic identity is a part of social interactions on a regional scale, an idea I call “mosaics.”  In East Africa’s diverse ecology, small-scale communities adapt to local ecological circumstances and create relationships of exchange and interaction with other communities.  In these mosaics, identity is associated with spheres of knowledge and expertise, as different families, clans, or ethnicities develop a role in the regional system as hunters, seers, religious specialists, and the like.  These spheres of knowledge are often associated with resource –specific or sacred areas on the landscape.  Ethnicity emerges out of the negotiation of these resources.  For example, Kenyan hunters retained their way of life by becoming experts in hunting ivory for international trade.  The pastoral Oromo retained his knowledge of water management and was responsible for digging and maintained the wells and plumbing in Swahili cities.  The Swahili master the art and skill of sailing, fishing, trading, and building in stone.  All these spheres of knowledge combined to create an enduring civilization.

Thus my archaeological work on the Swahili coast and the hinterland combined with interviews with local sages, potters, and religious experts on the history of ethnicity in the region have informed us on the history of ethnic boundaries, interactions like trade, warfare and intermarriage, the location of sacred sites, methods and meanings of pottery manufacture and use, traditions of making a living in different habitats and environments, traditions of knowledge including ironworking, crafts, divination, and ritual, and the impact of European colonialism.

My goal is to connect narratives of memory, place, and identity to regional patterns of material culture.  For example, one aspect of this project attempts to understand why the Swahili and other coastal communities abruptly abandoned their beautiful town and cities around the 17th century? Why did the Taita and other peoples in much of East Africa built large fortified villages from 1700 to 1900 ACE in favor of small family homesteads that preceded them?  What is the nature of relationship between the Swahili and their trading partners in Western and South Asia?  What was the impact of Islam in shaping the East Africa political and cultural landscape then and now? To answer these questions, I continue to collect oral histories from local sages and ethnohistorians and also contacting archaeological investigation at key sites.  I have also begun a long-term project, for which I have a pending proposal with the NSF and NEH to contact an archaeogenetic study of ancient and contemporary Swahili biological genealogies.

I am committed to a combination of fieldwork and classroom teaching as the ideal means of anthropological training.  I am engaged an anthropological practice that honors both the voices of local peoples and rigorous scientific methodology.  Using both, I have successfully shown that the Swahili landscape cannot be adequately understood by relying on the more widely practiced methodologies.