Trade and Society on the South-East African Coast in the Later First Millennium AD: The Case of Chibuene

By Sinclair, Paul; Ekblom, Anneli et al. | Antiquity, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Trade and Society on the South-East African Coast in the Later First Millennium AD: The Case of Chibuene


Sinclair, Paul, Ekblom, Anneli, Wood, Marilee, Antiquity


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Introduction

The dynamics behind the onset of and increased reliance on long-distance trade and its links with the development of regional socio-political complexity in southern Africa have been widely debated (Beach 1980, 1998; Denbow 1984; Sinclair 1987, 1995; Hall 1990; Pwiti 1991, 2005; Huffman 2000, 2009, 2010; Kim & Kusimba 2008). In the northern part of the east African coast the onset of transoceanic trade has been dated to at least the early first millennium (Smith & Wright 1988; Horton 1996; Juma 1996a; Chami 1998; Spear 2000; Chami et al. 2003; Sinclair 2007). In the southern African interior evidence of such trade appears from the mid eighth century onwards in the form of glass beads (Wood 2000, 2012).

The site of Chibuene, situated on the southern Mozambique coastal littoral 7km south of the modern town of Vilanculos, is well situated for examining the southern African interior's initial involvement with transoceanic trade (Figure 1). This site has produced glass beads associated with late first-millennium dates and is believed to be the port of entry for those found in the interior up to the mid tenth century (Sinclair 1982, 1987; Morals 1988; Sinclair et al. 1993; Huffman 2000, 2009; Wood 2000, 2012).

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This paper will investigate Chibuene's role in connecting centres in southern Africa to the Indian Ocean coast and the part played by its handling of imports in the emergence of early socio-political state formation in southern and eastern Africa.

The Chibuene site and landscape

Chibuene lies where land meets sea (Figure 2). The beach is well sheltered, situated in Vilanculos Bay and protected from the rough sea by the Bazaruto archipelago. The bay is traversed by deeper channels, one running just outside the central part of the archaeological site, but it is difficult to navigate these waters due to the many sand barriers. In the time period we are discussing here sea-levels may have been higher and the bay more accessible than today (Ramsey & Cooper 2002).

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Vilanculos Bay is renowned for the richness of its marine resources. Historically it is known to have been a location for shellfish and pearl extraction (Duarte Barbosa in Theal 1964: 1.93). At present the vegetation in the Chibuene area is characterised by open savannah with predominantly young trees/shrubs of Julbernardia globiflora and other species associated with this vegetation type. Near to the sea, the vegetation is better described as coastal thicket. Before c. AD 1600 a savannah-forest mosaic was present here. The loss of forests in the area is probably linked to the severe droughts occurring in the summer rainfall region between AD 1400 and 1800 (Ekblom 2008).

A 3m-thick shell midden represents the more conspicuous part of the Chibuene archaeological site as it is located on a rocky outcrop and rises more than 4.5m above the beach. This part is now being eroded by the sea and cultural layers can be seen in the cutting. The amount of material found on the beach suggests that occupation originally extended eastward but is now lost due to erosion. A number of burials have been found in the vicinity of the shell midden and the erosional cutting (Sinclair 1982, 1987). High find-densities occur over an area c. 500m west of the beach, encompassing an area of c. 10ha (Sinclair & Ekblom 2004). An additional satellite settlement is situated 1.5km inland on the north-eastern side of Lake Nhaucati (Figure 3).

Investigated by excavation since 1977, the region was surveyed by surface collection and test-pitting in 1995 and then the subject of an excavation campaign near Chibuene beach (Figures 3 & 4). Our account of the excavations carried out from 1995 to 2001 (Ekblom 2004; Sinclair & Ekblom 2004) will focus on the evidence for trade and regional connections in the early occupation phase, AD 600-1000. …

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