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A Place Without History Volume 58 Number 5, September/October 2005
by Brenda Fowler

Chap Kusimba's research evokes a once-thriving landscape in the east African hinterland.


Archaeologist Chap Kusimba in the ruins of Mtwapa, a Swahili settlement on Kenya's coast (John Weinstein, The Field Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

One afternoon in January 2000, Chap Kusimba, an archaeologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, pulled into a little village at the base of forested Mount Kasigau, which rises more than 5,000 feet over the arid Tsavo plain in southeastern Kenya. He and a few students hopped out of their vehicle and crowded into a small "hotel," one of the many tiny hostels that show up now and then along the rural roads that thread through the region. When the owner asked why they had come, Kusimba, a native Kenyan, passed around some photos. They showed small shelters made of rocks, now mainly in ruins. Were there any structures like that around here?

Two young men nodded. They had been to a place like that when they were kids, they said, and agreed to take the archaeologists there.

The next morning, the group was bushwhacking its way up Mount Kasigau. It was very hot. The two young guides had already gotten lost once, but they seemed to be sure of what they had seen, so everyone pressed on. And then, there it was: Tucked under the overhang of a smooth gray cliff were the remains of a long, squat stone building, much of which had now collapsed to expose a wooden framework.

For a long time historians thought elaborate stone structures like this didn't exist in this part of the East African hinterland. Nineteenth-century European travelers described the scorching, scrubby bush region of Tsavo as hostile and practically uninhabited. The assumption was that it had always been that way--a place virtually without history. The supposedly barren interior stood in sharp contrast to the flourishing towns along the East African coast, which historians had long believed were founded by Arabs and Persians as early as A.D. 800. Known as the Swahili, these Muslim communities sprouted along the coastline of East Africa from southern Somalia to Mozambique, and their inhabitants prospered trading with their neighbors around the Indian Ocean.

But over the past few decades new evidence has emerged suggesting that Swahili culture, while certainly shaped by Arabic immigrants, emerged from and also developed according to indigenous African traditions. The new thinking led Kusimba to reconsider the assumption that the people in the Kenyan interior were somehow separate and disconnected from those along the coast, and excluded from its economy. What, indeed, was going on in the Swahili hinterland and what ties did it have to the coast? These were the questions that sent Kusimba and his wife, Sibel Barut Kusimba, a Northern Illinois University archaeologist, to Tsavo in 1997.

Over seven seasons of fieldwork, the Kusimbas ultimately documented 400 sites, everything from a few stone tools lying on the ground to big rock shelters and large-scale farming villages. The Kusimbas' project also included extended interviews with 18 elders from the local Wakasigau tribe.

When the Kusimbas asked about the rock shelter on Mount Kasigau, which carbon-dating showed was built about 300 years ago, they had a ready answer: farmers had probably used it to hide their livestock from Masai herders. But one man, an authoritative 82-year-old who had been the village circumciser until he became a born-again Christian, had a different explanation: people used the shelter to escape from Swahili slave raiders.

It was not an answer the Kusimbas expected, but for Chap it had the ring of truth. As a child he had heard stories of Swahili caravans stealing children.

Brenda Fowler Fowler is the author of Iceman: Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man found in an Alpine Glacier (University of Chicago, 2001).

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America