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CEAS Humanities Series "Ancient trade networks between China and Africa"

Thursday, November 21, 2019 - 4:30pm

Chapurukha M. Kusimba, Professor, American University 

Penn Museum, Classroom L1 (3260 South St)

Complex and intricate human networks have crisscrossed the Indian Ocean and surrounding lands, and linked Africa to East Asia. The first expansion of humans – Homo erectus- began 2.4 – 1.8 million ago. The second expansion, this time of Homo sapiens sapiens, reached China between 85,000 and 80,000 BP. The expansion of speakers of Austronesian languages, returned to Africa, reaching Madagascar in the early centuries of the present era. The diffusion of domesticated plants, like bananas, from New Guinea to South Asia and Africa and dated to the mid-fourth millennium in Uganda and mid-first millennium BCE in southern Cameroon, provide additional evidence of interactions between Africa and Asia. Africa and Asia have long been in regular contact, through land and seas.

His paper will explore different facets of these Africa-Asia connections using glimpses gleaned from our ongoing archaeological research on the Island of Manda in Kenya, where we have unearthed excellent archaeological remains of the existence of trade between Africa and China. As to whether this interaction was direct, the jury is still out. Archaeologists presently accept the notion that the period between 700 and 1500 CE was the Era of Asian dominance.  This was a time when the economic, social, and political order was vested in Buddhist and Islamist states, kingdoms, and empires. Interactions were dominated by regions that were connected by the Silk Road commercial complex.

Eastern and Southeastern Africa, which for millennia had pursued its own peculiar ways of making a living, was ‘recruited’ into this global network and became a regular partner. Its highly desirable resources included ambergris, aromatic products, iron bloom, gold, ivory, leopard skins, and rhinoceros’ horns among others.  Our paper address eastern Africa’s participation in these transformational global networks using archaeological data. We specifically focus on two sets of data from the Manda site: Chinese porcelain and Identities of the participants in this trade, through a discussion on the human remains recovered at Manda.