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Nabataeans in Africa

Juani Island

For many years Ptolemy's elephant transporting and training stations were lost to history. A recent discovery on tiny Juani Island, off the Tanzanian coast has changed all of this and now East African history is being rethought.

Felix Chami, professor of archaeology at the University of Dar es Salaam has uncovered a site on Juani Island (see map below), which he believes will substantially increase the evidence that East Africa was part of a wider Indian Ocean community. Previous to Dr. Chami's discoveries of this and other sites on the Tanzanian coast, most scholars had never considered East Africa as part of the ancient world. The professor, however, was alerted to the existence of a cave on the Island by two local men. These men informed Peter Byrne, owner of a small lodge on Mafia Island and supporter of efforts to discover the intriguing history of these small islands - which are now entirely dependent on fishing. Unlike many of the other islands, Juani has fresh water and soil suitable for agriculture.

The two local men, who discovered the cave hacked a path through the deep jungle growth with panga knives and eventually found a collapsed coral cave around 20 meters in diameter. Scattered throughout the seven to 10-meter-high overhanging cave were shards of pottery, human bones and three skulls. Dr. Chami examined the site and described the large habitable area of soft loose soil at being at least 50 square meters. "There could be three meters of layers here to establish a cultural chronology," he says. "This is a marvel. I believe this was a major Iron Age site. I can assure you this will change the archaeology of East Africa." Felix Chami has now returned to the site with his team and has started a full excavation. In the past five years Dr. Chami has overturned the belief that Swahili civilization was simply the result of Indian Ocean trade networks by discovering sites along the coast that connect East Africa with Greek civilization.

Bones in the Juani Island Cave

The island is very lush

Dr.. Felix Chami

Originally it was thought that the coastal Swahili settlements were founded by Islamic traders, but these discoveries demonstrate that people from the Mediteraninan were in East Africa interacting with the local people long before the Islamic era. While Dr. Chami believes that the coastal communities may have been trading animal goods, such as ivory as well as iron, it is our opinion that Juani Island and the other sites that Dr.. Chami have discovered were part of the network that Ptolemy II established to import elephants into his army. (See Elephants and the Nabataeans.)


We know from the Greek geographer Ptolemy (87-150 AD) that these elephant stations developed into trading stations. He described the settlements in East Africa as "metropolis" and also referred to "cave dwellers". Ptolemy even specified a latitude eight degrees south on a large river -the location of the Rufiji river. Using this information, Dr.. Chami explored the hills above the river and found the remains of settlements with ancient trading goods and evidence of agriculture. Dr. Chami's excavations uncovered cultural artifacts which have been carbon dated to several centuries BC. They included Greco-Roman pottery, Syrian glass vessels, Sassanian pottery from Persia and glass beads. But Felix Chami believes the new site on Juani Island may well be the most significant yet.

Recent Update:

Dr. Chami recently wrote to us with the following information:

A number of artifacts and material have been collected from another nearby cave (not the one reported above). A report on the analyses of these artifacts and other materials appears in a preliminary report published in Azania 2000 pp.208-219.

It is his belief that the island received from Egypt, and probably the Red Sea the following trade items:

  • marl clay vessels
  • Indian pottery of the Early Iron Age
  • glass eye beads probably from Alexandria, Petra or Greece
  • other beads probably from India.
  • Dr. Chami also reported that they now know that these people had domesticated dogs and chicken. Archaeologists had previously thought that the domesticated animals had reached Sub-Saharan Africa in the end of the first millennium AD.

    The analyses were conducted in Uppsala, Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam, Johannesburg, and carbon fourteen analysis in Pretoria. The dates are of around 800-1200 BC, but some of the materials collected dates all the way to the BC/AD changeover. Other involved scholars in the analyses include Prof. Paul Sinclair (Uppsala) and Dr. Sunil Gupta (India) and Prof. Nordstrom (Uppsala).

    Dr. Chami's report appears in the Journal des Africanistes (2002, 72/2). This report discusses aspects of the links between the Red Sea and East Africa.

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