(2015-06-26) A group of researchers from the Complutense University of Madrid will undertake research into Swahili trade in the Quirimbas Island, off the coast of Cabo Delgado province in the north, during the first millennium.
Marisa Ruiz-Galvez, Spanish researcher and team leader who recently presented a lecture on African rock art in Maputo, told Lusa: “Our main aim is to investigate how Swahili trade in the region functioned, analyzing the cultural influences that indigenous peoples have been exposed to.”
In about the sixth century, well before the arrival of the Portuguese, the coastal regions of Mozambique, particularly to the north, were the scene of considerable Arab trade, beginning with the arrival of the first foreign navigators, mainly from Asia.
According to the researchers, the choice of Mozambique as locus for the search is due to the fact that the country is under-explored from an archaeological perspective, especially with regard to the Swahili trade in the north.
“It would be very interesting to realize how indigenous societies functioned, both on the coast and in the interior. Taking into account the fact that these specific aspects have never been studied in Mozambique, we think that it is a very fertile field of exploration,” added Jorge Torres, a researcher and cataloguer of African rock art for the London British Museum.
The first Arab traders to arrive in Mozambique brought cloth, glass beads, salt and metal objects, and in return the people of the region would give them gold, palm oil, rhino horns, animal skin and ivory. This first contact gave the indigenous peoples a legacy of cultural habits and religious beliefs from the Arab world.
“We want to see if contact between the indigenous population and the traders caused the locals to seek to protect their ethnic values or, on the contrary, resulted in their losing them,” explained Victor Fernández, a member of the university team who has worked as an archaeologist in Africa for over 20 years.
Preliminary research by local archaeologists indicates that there are important potential finds in the coastal areas of northern Mozambique which warrant further research. However, according to Torres, expectations would have to be well managed, given that the area has not been thoroughly investigated.
“First of all, if indeed there are such artefacts, we must establish which period they are from, because we are mainly interested in the first millennium and in the establishment of the trading process,” added Torres, pointing out that archaeologists never know specifically what they will find.
Initially, with the help of Mozambican archaeologists from the University Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, the team will reconnoitre sites to get an overall view before commencing detailed research in the coming months.
“Africa has enormous archaeological potential. However, more work such as this needs to be done as a way to properly exploit it,” enthused Victor Fernandez, pointing to the three-millennia-long Bantu expansion period, marked by a movement of African people across the Benue-Cross River in south-eastern Nigeria towards the southern part of Africa in a time frame, and the Monomotapa Empire, which lasted for c. 1430 to c. 1760, as important milestones for archaeological studies.
“Contrary to what is thought abroad, African societies are very complex have great cultural diversity, enriching the potential of archaeological study,” said Ruiz-Galvez, citing the Marave Empire, formed between 1200-1400 near the Zambezi river, and which declined due to, among other factors, the establishment of Portuguese commercial settlements in the Zambezi valley from the sixteenth century onwards.
The project, developed in cooperation with UEM and with the support of the Mozambican government, has a three-year term and will be funded by the Government of Madrid through the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness.
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