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Nabataeans in Africa

New archaeological finds from the coast of Tanzania

Felix A. Chami

University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania


The last five years have seen several archaeological campaigns on the coast and offshore islands of Tanzania. The campaigns were geared at shedding light on the people reported by the Graeco-Roman documents to have settled on this coast of East Africa then known as Azania. The research work concentrated around the area south of Dar es Salaam to the Rufiji Delta, and the off-shore islands of the Zanzibar and Mafia archipelago.

Many settlement sites of early iron-using people dated to between the 1st century BC and 5th century AD have been found and excavated. The excavation work has found remains of goods traded from the Middle East and the Mediterranean world. The Roman beads, made at Rhoses, from Rufiji are dated to between the last century BC to the 3rd century AD. Furthermore, it was found that Late Stone Age people had already settled in the areas where sites of early iron-using people are found. These people had used microlithic tools including the backed geometric ones. This suggests that it is these people of the Late Stone Age who were first involved in transoceanic trade and then adopted iron technology. The same Late Stone Age people had already sailed through the deep Indian Ocean channel to settle on the islands of Mafia and Zanzibar.

The last five years of research have established the existence of a large population concentration around the Rufiji Delta in the period of early iron-using in the first five centuries AD. Many archaeologically-rich sites spreading for several kilometres on the northern hills of the Rufiji Delta suggest that the areas had a large centre administering the population. This could be Rhapta mentioned in the Periplus and Ptolemy’s Geography. Such large population would also have required stable food resources. Indications are now emerging that this civilization could have adopted irrigation agriculture.

Some reports and synthesis of the five year research can now be read in the following publications:

Chami, F. 1998 A Review of Swahili Archaeology. African Archaeological Review 15(3):199-221.

Chami, F. 1999 Graeco-Roman Trade Link and the Bantu Migration Theory. Anthropos 94(1-3):205-215.

Chami, F. 1999 Roman Beads from the Rufiji Delta, Tanzania. First Incontrovertible Archaeological Link with Periplus. Current Anthropology 40(2):237-241.

Chami, F. 1999 The Early Iron Age on Mafia and its Relationship with the Mainland. Azania 34.

Chami F. and B. Mapunda 1998 The 1996 Archaeological Reconnaissance North of the Rufiji Delta. Nyame Akuma 49:62-78.

Chami F. and P. Msemwa 1997 A New Look at Culture and Trade on the Azanian Coast. Current Anthropology 38:673-677.


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