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The inception of agriculture in eastern Africa is a major topic of discussion among Africanist archaeologists, although very sparse evidence exists. Questions range from whether domestication was a local invention or whether it was introduced from the Near East, Asia, or elsewhere outside of Africa. These questions have remained unanswered because wild progenitors and models of the spread of African domesticates are yet to be established using undisputable data. The paucity of direct data has therefore necessitated the use of objects of material culture such as pottery, beads, burial cairns, architectural structures, and so on as indicators of pastoralism and cereal farming. In addition to the origins of African domesticates, research in eastern Africa has concerned itself with questions of farming technologies from later archaeological and historical times to the present. The remains of elaborate farming systems with extensive irrigation networks have drawn considerable attention. Though not unchanged, some of these farming systems remain in contemporary use in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

Article

The Rift Valley is a stage on which the history of Eastern Africa has unfolded over the last 10,000 years. It served as a corridor for the southward migration from the Upper Nile and the Ethiopian highlands of Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic speakers and cultures, with their domestic animals, which over time defined and restructured the social and cultural fabric of East Africa. Genetic evidence suggests that, contrary to other regions in Africa where geography overrides language, the clustering of East African populations primarily reflects linguistic affiliation. Eastern Sudanic Nilotic speakers are dedicated livestock keepers whose identification with cattle over thousands of years is manifested in elaborate symbolism, networks created by cattle exchange, and the practice of sacrifice. The geographical attributes of rich grasslands in a semi-arid environment, close proximity of lowland and highland grazing, and a bimodal rainfall regime, made the Rift Valley an ideal setting for increasingly specialized pastoralism. However, specialized animal husbandry characteristic of East Africa was possible only within a wider socioeconomic configuration that included hunters and bee-keeping foragers and cultivators occupying escarpments and highland areas. Some pastoral groups, like Maasai, Turkana, Borana, and Somali, spread widely across grazing areas, creating more culturally homogeneous regions, while others settled near one another in geographically variegated regions, as in the Omo Valley, the Lake Baringo basin, or the Tanzanian western highlands, creating social knots that signal historical interlaying and long-term mutual coexistence. At the advent of the colonial period, Oromo and Maasai speakers successfully exploited the ecological potential of the Rift environment by combining the art of raising animals with social systems built out of principles of clanship, age and generation organizations, and territorial sections. Faced with displacement by colonial settlers and then privatization of rangelands, some Maasai pastoralists sold lands that they had been allocated, leading to landlessness amid rangeland bounty. Pastoral futures involve a combination of education, religious conversion, and diversified rangeland livelihoods, which combine animal production with cultivation, business, wage labor, or conservation enterprises. Pastoralists provide urban markets with meat, but, with human population increasing, per capita livestock holdings have diminished, leading to rural poverty, as small towns absorbing young people departing pastoralism have become critical. The Great East African Rift Valley has had a 10,000-year history of developing pastoralism as one of the world’s great forms of food production, which spread throughout Eastern Africa. The dynamics of pastoral mobility and dedication to livestock have been challenged by modernity, which has undermined pastoral territoriality and culture while providing opportunities that pastoralists now seek as citizens of their nations and the world.

Article

The East African coast is an interface between the continental world of Africa and the maritime world of the Indian Ocean, and the monsoons provided a convenient wind system to link them. It was inhabited by a littoral society that was best placed to play a leading role in economic, social, and cultural interaction, including intermarriage, between the two worlds. Its written history goes back at least to the beginning of the Contemporary Era, and it can be termed Swahili from the beginning of the second millennium when this branch of the Bantu languages spread down the coast to give it linguistic unity. Its speakers were organized in towns and villages from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique, which developed into city-states when there were major upturns in international trade and were integrated in the wider Indian Ocean world. The citizens spoke an “elegant” language that was further embellished through its interactions with Arabic and other Indian Ocean languages and literature. Islam spread with that trade, and mosques became a prominent part of the archaeological remains along the Swahili coast. In the process, the Swahili became thoroughly cosmopolitan. Any attempt to disentangle the different strands, “oriental” or “African”—which are two sides of the dense cultural fabric of the littoral people—is bound to be futile. They are two sides of the Swahili coin. This civilization was partially disrupted by the entry of the Portuguese in the 16th century when they tried to divert the spice trade to their channel around the Cape of Good Hope, but it revived during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Article

The East African Groundnut Scheme (EAGS) in Tanganyika stands among the most dramatic examples of failure of British late colonial developmentalism and imperialism. Frantically planned and launched in Tanganyika in 1946, the EAGS was the most colossal attempt in the history of colonialism to apply modern technology and mechanization to farming in Africa. Aiming to cover over 3.5 million acres of land—an area the size of the state of Connecticut in the United States, or of Yorkshire in the United Kingdom—the EAGS envisaged the annual production of six hundred thousand tons of peanuts by its fifth year of operation, and eight hundred thousand tons annually once at full capacity. A new port, new railway lines, and new roads were built as part of it. Such large-scale production of groundnuts, and of the vegetable oil that could be derived from them, had two strategic goals. First, it aimed to address the increasing shortage of oil rations affecting British households post-World War II (WWII). Second, through the export of surplus groundnuts and/or oil, and a scheduled annual saving of £10 million to the British government’s bill for food imports, the EAGS was meant to play a key role in repaying the $3.5 billion debt that the United Kingdom accrued to the United States after the war. However, in stark contrast with its grandiose goals, when the EAGS was abandoned, in 1952, it had imported more groundnuts as seed than what it actually harvested, and £36 million of British taxpayer money had been spent for the undertaking. A series of shortcomings, all rooted in the inadequacy of the planning of the EAGS and the lack of a pilot phase, brought about the demise of the scheme following its dramatic failure to meet its goals.

Article

Tropical Africa has been in communication with the global economy since at least the last centuries bce through either land travel across the Sahara to the Mediterranean or navigation along the Indian Ocean coast. Despite recent archaeological research, not too much is known about this earliest trade. Only after Islam was firmly established in North Africa and the Indian Ocean do we have evidence of significant trade (slaves, gold, and ivory) and cultural exchange across these frontiers. Entrepôt cities now flourished in both the West and Central Sudan and the Swahili coast, where either camel caravans or large dhow vessels received export goods from indigenous Muslim merchants. During the 15th century European navigators opened up the Atlantic coast of Africa as well as a direct water route to the Indian Ocean. For the next 500 years Europeans dominated Africa’s global connections, initially seeking gold, then slaves for New World plantations, and later large quantities of less costly commodities such as vegetable oils, cocoa, coffee, and cotton. Initially Africa’s trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean commerce continued to operate under the control of Muslim rulers and merchants and even grew in volume, although declining in global significance. By the early 20th century European powers had established colonial regimes in almost all of tropical Africa, providing new infrastructures of political administration and mechanized transport (mainly railroads) that overcame the geographical barriers impeding commerce between the coasts and the continent’s interiors. However, limited capital and the spatial orientation of colonial transport undermined the dynamism of such advances. In the last stages of colonialism (c. 1945–1960) and the first decades of political independence, greater investments were made in both infrastructure and industrialization but with poor results leading, from the 1980s, to the global imposition of “structural adjustment” policies upon African states. During the early 21st century African economies experienced “miraculous” growth linked to a major new relationship with China.

Article

East Africa’s urban past is broken down into five historical periods. The first (c. 900–1500 ce) saw the emergence of an urban Swahili culture on the East African coast that flourished thanks to its role as economic and cultural arbiter between the African interior and the Indian Ocean world. Between 1500 and 1800, as in other parts of the world, the intrusion of Europeans (and other outsiders) appears to have had a detrimental impact on “classical” Swahili civilization, although several important urban centers continued to flourish. Inland there is negligible evidence of urbanization before 1800. From around this time, however, important settlements did arise in the interior, thanks largely to the region’s growing integration in an international economy that emerged in the course of the 19th century—with various coastal (Swahili) cities prospering once again through their intermediary role. The situation was transformed with the onset of European colonial rule (c. 1890–1960), which prompted historically unprecedented rates of urban growth and witnessed the emergence of what would become a number of important world cities. Toward the end of the colonial period, from the 1940s, East Africa’s urban centers experienced another upward jolt in their rates of growth; however, the full repercussions of this demographic revolution, which resulted in a substantial (and growing) proportion of the population claiming urban residence for the first time, did not become fully apparent until after independence; with rapid urbanization proving one of the most important features of postcolonial East Africa.