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George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.

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Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Ancient Azanians mind-mapping diagram

Part Six
Southward Expansion of the Cushites
— 26 —
Ancient Azanians

The coast of Kenya and of adjacent Somalia and Tanganyika, from Kisimayu in the north to Kilwa in the south and including the off-lying islands of Pemba and Zanzibar, was known to Mediterranean antiquity as Azania. This region has been a major center of mercantile activity for well over 2,000 years. The predominant population today consists of the people known as Swahili (see Chapter 39), a mixture of Bantu Negroes with Islamic Arabs. Neither element in this amalgam, however, arrived in the area until shortly before A.D. 1000. Prior to that time most of the coast and hinterland of East Africa was occupied only by hunting and gathering tribes of Bushmanoid race and Stillbay cultures. Such simple people could scarcely have embarked on a career of foreign trade, nor could they have produced goods of sufficient value and in sufficient quantity to have attracted merchant mariner from distant lands to their shores. The problem then is to discover who these ancient Azanians were, with whom they traded, on what their mercantile activity was based, and what influence it exerted on the culture history of Africa.
Ancient Egyptian chronicles report trading expeditions as early as the XI and XII dynasties beyond the Red Sea to the land of Punt, most reasonably identified as the coast of modern French Somaliland, but it was probably the Sabaeans of southern Arabia who first made the long passage around the Eastern Horn and reached the Azanian coast. This may have occurred as early as the first half of the first millennium B.C., and cannot have occurred very much later, since Roman and Ptolemaic coins of the third century B.C. have been excavated at Bui Kavo. Greek geographers of the second century B.C. speak of the great wealth of the abaeans derived from their trade with India, and we mav assume also with East Africa. This is the first actual historical mention of the Sabaean Lane, as the great trade route from Azania to India via southern Arabia has been termed, although it had doubtless been established several centuries earlier. Not until about A.D. 47, however, did Europeans, in the person of a certain Hippalus, learn that this route could be sailed readily in both directions by utilization of the alternating monsoon winds; thus the Romans gained access to the Indian trade previously monopolized by others.
About A.D. 60 an anonymous Greek merchant mariner made a voyage around the Eastern Horn and down the African coast at least as far as Dar es Salaam and perhaps even farther. What is more, he described the coast and ports of Azania in a famous book entitled Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. This work, which in modern English would be entitled “Sailing Directions for the Indian Ocean,” has doubtless survived because of its utility to seamen for many centmies thereafter. The author explicitly records the existence of a flourishing trade not only with southern Arabia but also with India, and he tell us of resident Yemenite merchants who were married to local women and understood the native language. In addition to a list of Azanian imports and exports, he gives fragments of information about the inhabitants. They had plank boats and dugout canoes with which they fished, caught sea turtles, and indulged their “piratical habits.” They lacked any complex form of political organization, but each town had its own independent chief. Of their physical characteristic he reports only that they were “very great in stature.”
Although all commentators assume that the Azanians were Negroes, it is significant that the author remarks only on their stature. He seems, therefore, to assume that they were Caucasians, for, to a Greek of his days, Negroes would have been strange beings whose characteristics would certainly have been noted. In this assumption, of course, he was right, since, as noted above, the archeological evidence demonstrates indisputably the complete absence of Negroes in this part of Africa for centuries to come. The Cushitic peoples, however, are noted for their tall stature. The inhabitants can therefore have been no other than Megalithic Cushites who had descended the few miles from the Kenya highlands to the coast and there turned to maritime pursuits. This is attested by the numerous megalithic remains, including stone phalli, which still dot the Azanian coast.
The Yemenite Arabs dominated the trade with Azania until about A.D. 575, except for portions of the fourth and sixth centuries when the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum conquered Yemen and assumed control of the rich commerce with India. From 575 to 879 the Persians played the chief role in the trade with the East, which they extended to China. During this period Chinese merchants participated for the first time in the African trade, as evidenced by the discovery, at Mogadisho and Kilwa, of Chinese coins dating from the eighth century on. From 879 until the establishment of the Portuguese on Zanzibar in 1503 the trade with Azania was again dominated by the Arabs, who in this period were Moslems, as they had been since the seventh century, but this is the story for another chapter.
The great bulk of the East African trade seems always to have been with India via the Sabaean Lane rather than with Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of the Red Sea. Not only were distances appreciably shorter in the former instance, but the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean were far more favorable for sailing vessels. The author of the Periplus reports that in his day the principal exports from Azania were ivory, rhinoceros horn, tortoise shell, and coconut oil, which were exchanged for metal implement and glads. Not long after A.D. 500 the sources begin to add gold and slaves as major export and iron and beads as imports. Records from the Far East attest the importation of Negro slaves into Java and China a early as the ninth century.
One major effect of the zanian commerce with southern Arabia and India upon the culture history of Africa appears to have been the introduction of ironworking to East Africa. Athough the writer has made no effort to cover this subject in his ethnographic survey, he is impressed by the close correlation in time between the appearance of iron among the imports to Azania and the estimates of archeologists as to the first appearance of this metal in the interior. Iron Age sites in highland Kenya typically reveal other evidences of trade with the coast, e.g., beads, cowrie shells, and pipe bowls for the smoking of hashish. The analysis of iron technology in Negro Africa in the light of its apparent dual introduction via Azania and from Meroitic Nubia suggests itself a an interesting historical problem.
By far the most significant impact of ancient Azania upon world history, without question, was that wrought by the interchange of cultivated plants with India by war of the Sabaean Lane. Merchant vessels traveling with the monsoons in either direction loaded up at the port of origin with supplies there available and disposed of any surpluses at their destination, with the result that the coasts of Azania and western India early came to share the same roster of food plants. Although present evidence indicates that this probably happened around the middle of the first millennium B.C., further archeological work in Africa and historical research in India might conceivably press the date of the exchange still further back in time. The cultivated plants of Indian origin which reached East Africa by way of the Sabaean Lane, most of which vere also carried to North Africa at about the same time, may be designated as the Indian complex. Its constituent elements are enumerated below.


Leaf and Stalk Vegetables

Vine and Ground Fruits

Tree Fruits

Condiments and Indulgents

None of the above plants has achieved any particular importance in Africa. The contrary is true, however, of the cultigens that traveled in the opposite direction, of which the following are the most important:

Castor Cow pea Gourd Sesame
Cotton Eleusine Pearl millet Sorghum

The seventeen major crop of India, whose distribution Janaki Ammal (1956) has mapped for that subcontinent, include five of African origin, namely, castor, cotton, pearl millet, sesame, and sorghum. All five, significantly, reveal similar distributions in western India, in the very region to which the monsoon winds would carry vessels coming from East Africa, whereas all twelve non-African crops are concentrated in quite different areas. We cannot escape the conclusion that western India owes its agricultural civilization very largely to importations from Negro Africa.
The crops of the Indian complex by no means exhaust the list of cultivated plants which reached Azania via the Sabaean Lane. A considerable number, including several of very great importance, had their origin farther to the east, in Southeast Asia or Indonesia. We shall designate these collectively as the Malaysian complex, whose component elements are listed below.

Cereal Grains

Tubers and Root Crops

Tree Fruits and Nuts

Condiments and Indulgents

The introduction of Malaysian plants into East frica raises the question of whether they might not have been brought by some Indone ian people. Evidence of several independent kinds—linguistic, ethnographic, and historical—yields an affirmative answer to this question.
The inhabitants of Madagascar, as has long been known, speak a language of the Malayo-Polynesian stock, and this indicates that they must have come from Indonesia, where cognate tongues are spoken. Most authorities agree, moreover, that they did not sail directly across the Indian Ocean but followed a coastwise course by way of India, southern Arabia, and East Africa. They usually date the arrival of the ancestors of the Malagasy somewhere between the second and the fourth centuries and derive them from either Sumatra or Java, where great Hinduistic civilizations were then coming into being. Attempts to relate their departure to conditions in these islands at the time have proved vain, however, for conclusive evidence has recently been adduced indicating that they came from neither island but rather from Borneo, which Hinduistic civilization had not reached. The disproof of these assumptions paves the way for advancing the probable date of the departure from Indonesia by several centuries.
The new evidence is linguistic in nature. Dahl (1951) has shown ground for assuming an especially close relationship between Malagasy and the Maanyan language of south central Borneo, and Dyen (1953) has corroborated this conclusion by the application of recent lexicostatistical method. These indicate that Malagasy has been separated from Maanyan for about 1,900 years, whereas from 3,000 to 3,800 years must be allowed for its separation from other Indonesian languages: such as Malay, Toba Barak, and even the adjacent gaju Dayak, and almost as much time for the separation of any of these three from Maanyan. If accurate, these calculations indicate the early fir t century as the approximate time of the departure from Indonesia—even earlier, of course, if the emigrants maintained close contacts with their homeland.
Scholars have sought for ethnographical evidences, other than cultivated plants, indicating that Malaysian peoples reached the cast coast of continental Africa, and have discovered a fair number. These include the flat-bar zither, which occurs only in Indonesia, Madagascar, and East Africa and nowhere in India, Arabia, Egypt, or other parts of Africa; a coconut grater of specifically Malayo-Polynesian design; a special type of eel pot; a peculiar method of catching sea turtles which utilizes the sucking propensities of lampreys; and perhaps even the predilection for fishing itself, which is notoriously anathema to most Cushites beyond the bounds of Azania. Especially convincing, perhaps, is the occurrence in coastal East Africa of two types of boats, both of which experts ascribe to borrowing from an Indonesian source. One of them is the mtepe, a vessel of Malaysian design constructed of planks lashed together with cordage of sen nit (coconut) fibers, decorated with round oculi on the bow and near the stern, and propelled by rectangular mat sails. The second is the dau, a dugout canoe with double outriggers connected with the boom by indirect attachments, which is demonstrably of Indonesian origin and which occur in Africa only in Zanzibar, the Bajun Islands, the Mozambique coast, the Comoro Islands, and Madagascar.
In view of the striking coincidence in dates between the linguistic estimate for the separation of Malagasy and the visit of the author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, let us reexamine this historical document for possible evidences of Indonesian influences on coastal East Africa in the middle of the first century. We find two such: (1) specific mention of the coconut, a Malaysian plant, and of trade in coconut oil, and (2) references to two types of watercraft, namely, “sewed boats” and “canoes hollowed from single logs.” These strongly suggest, respectively, the mtepe, with its planks “sewed” with sennit fibers, and the dau, which is hollowed from a single log. In the latter case, to be sure, the Periplus does not mention outriggers, but these are later specifically attested by Ibn al-Mujawir.
We thus have abundant grounds for assuming that the Maanyan or some closely kindred Malayan people were already frequenting the Azanian coast in the first century. Definite historical reports of Indonesians in East Africa become increasingly numerous and explicit until the twelfth century , after which they cease entirely. One of these, by the Arab geographer Edrisi, states: “The people of the isles of Zabag [Indonesia] come to the country of the Zenjs [the inhabitants of Azania] in large and in small ships. They trade with them and export the Zenj merchandise, for thev understand each other's language.” This suggests actual colonies of Malayo-Polynesian speakers in the port towns of Azania, as would indeed be expected under the prevailing conditions of steady and lucrative trade. Presumably, too, they intermarried with the local population, as had the earlier Yemenite Arab trader according to the Periplus. Since by this time the Bantu had become a significant element in the population, the result would be a hybrid race—part Malay, part Caucasian, and part Negro—like the contemporary Malagasy.
The ancient Azanians, stimulated by the trade with the East, must have explored their hinterland for exportable products in high demand. It is tempting to assume that in this way they discovered the rich gold resources of Southern Rhodesia [now the Republic of Zimbabwe] and the adjacent Transvaal and established settlements there to exploit them, such as Zimbabwe with its famed megalithic ruins and Mapungubwe with its wealth of gold artifacts. Such an assumption would have seemed fantastic a few years ago, when scholars ascribed these sites and the activities they reveal to late Bantu tribes under Arab direction. Recently, however, independent samples of carbon from Zimbabwe have, upon analysis, yielded unexpectedly early dates, around the beginning of the seventh century. These force a complete reconsideration of the problem.
The period now indicated considerably antedates that of Arab expansion on the adjacent coast and falls at the very beginning of the Bantu penetration into East Africa. Analysis of skeletal remains reveals Bantu physical types at Zimbabwe in Rhodesia but o nly Bushmanoid types (Fauche, M937) at Mapungubwe in the Transvaal. Since the latter site contains evidence of sorghum, cow peas, and watermelons, it cannot be ascribed to the preagricultural Bushmen or to the not yet present Bantu but only to some other people who cultivated Sudanic crops. Could these have been the Cushites of Azania?
The stone platforms, terraces, monoliths, and enormous structures of dry-stone masonry at Zimbabwe suggest a specific connection with the Megalithic Cushites, an interpretation bolstered by the wealth of stone phallic representations reminiscent of those on the Azanian coast and in southern Ethiopia. The presence of beads of apparent Indian and Malay origin in the earliest deposits and of Chinese porcelains at a later period from the eleventh century on—indicates that the exploiters of the local gold deposits were deeply involved in the trade with the East. Gold working in the Zimbabwe region continued, of course, under Arab and other auspices until the Portuguese period, or long after the Azanians disappear from histotry. Mining experts have estimated the total yield of the prehistoric workings of the region at anywhere from 15 to 75 million pounds sterling, which would account in considerable measure for the fabulous wealth of medieval Indian rulers. Though the riddle of Zimbabwe cannot yet be considered solved, it now appears more reasonable than formerly to ascribe a prominent role in its development to the Cushites of Azania.

Selected Bibliography