Bananas and the Archaeology of Buganda. (Special Section)

By Reid, Andrew | Antiquity, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Bananas and the Archaeology of Buganda. (Special Section)


Reid, Andrew, Antiquity


The Buganda state, which flourished on the northern shores of Lake Victoria from the 17th to the 19th centuries AD, is widely regarded as one of the most significant socio-political developments of the African continent, most notably having featured prominently in Frazer's The Golden Bough. In bananas, Buganda had a unique subsistence base, and its later history suggests an unusual urban trend of large capitals occupied over short periods of time. Given these prominent characteristics it is incredible, therefore, that there has been no concerted archaeological research programme in Buganda.

Unlike neighbouring complex societies, where economic foundations lay in the combination of cattle-keeping and grain agriculture (Reid 1996; Robertshaw 1999), the economy of Buganda was based on banana plantations and the manipulation of control over the land on which these plantations were situated. Plant genetics indicate quite clearly that the bananas themselves must have originated in southeast Asia, but the huge amount of variation in the bananas of Buganda demonstrates the unique history of cultivation and specialization that took place in the Great Lakes, and further indicates that this development must have occurred over a considerable length of time, a conclusion supported by comparative linguistics (Schoenbrun 1998). Phytolith analysis has now established that bananas were present in Cameroon by around 500 BC (Mbida et al. 2000), demonstrating their likely history across the rest of the continent. The development of a banana-cultivating culture in Buganda facilitated the comparatively low-input and high-yield plantation agriculture of recent times. The reliance on banana plantations and the control of access to land tied people to the owners of the land, freed labour for construction of buildings, roads and other public works and saw Buganda become the leading military power in Great Lakes Africa by the 19th century. It is likely that significant, long-term, archaeologically observable processes led to the emergence of the Buganda state. These processes would have included increasing mastery of the rainforests, transformations of the environment caused by long-term settlement, increasing size of settlements and polities, greater reliance on bananas as the mainstay of the diet and related transformations in the nature and organization of production and households. It is, therefore, extremely important to define the long-term origins of the Buganda state and the contribution of the banana-based economy to this development.

A preliminary season of research was undertaken in August 2000, under the auspices of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, in order to begin to address these issues. A major problem confronting the project was the lack of prior work in the region, either informing directly on the cultural sequence or revealing the nature of habitation and deposition on human habitation sites in this humid, tropical forest/swamp environment. In order to gain a broad understanding of the archaeological potential of the general Buganda area, four locations were chosen in which survey activity was based: Kangulimira, Ngogwe, Nakaseke and Masulita (FIGURE 1). In less than four weeks, some 170 find spots were recorded. This survey recovered Urewe pottery (c. 500 BC--AD 1000) in all areas, indicating the widespread distribution of the earliest farming societies and confirming that the ultimate emergence of the state was a long-term process.

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