Animals and their uses in the Swahili world

Authored by: Eréndira M. Quintana Morales , Mary E. Prendergast

The Swahili World

Print publication date:  October  2017
Online publication date:  October  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138913462
eBook ISBN: 9781315691459
Adobe ISBN:


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Past populations inhabiting the Swahili coast – an area stretching from southern Somalia to Mozambique and including offshore islands, the Comoros and Madagascar – encountered a rich and diverse set of animals, many of which were incorporated into their social realm in various forms and can be traced in the archaeological record. Early research on the Swahili coast often neglected faunal remains, focusing instead on material culture, texts and trade locales. However, recent studies demonstrate the power of zooarchaeological data to address key issues in Swahili social organisation, daily practice and ritual life. These show that past coastal and island populations had diverse economic strategies including shellfish gathering, fishing, hunting and animal husbandry, with interactions between foragers and food producers being a common feature of coast and hinterland life. Animals entered the domestic and public spheres as part of daily meals and feasting events, but also as raw materials such as bone, shell and coral transformed into architectural and ornamental items. The exchange of animals and their products connected the Swahili world to mainland Africa and the Indian Ocean sphere, and thus zooarchaeology is key to addressing the questions of trade that dominated early Swahili research. In this chapter we describe the great biodiversity of the Swahili coast, hinterland and islands, we explore diachronic changes in animal uses from the Later Stone Age (LSA) through the medieval era, and we address key themes in Swahili world zooarchaeology.

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