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Glass Beads of 7th to 17th-Century CE Sub-Saharan Africa  

Marilee Wood

The value of glass beads to archaeologists has increased dramatically in the 21st century thanks to the development and improvements of methods to analyze the chemical composition of the glass used to make them. In addition, the amount of data accumulated from glass analysis has grown to the point that it is often possible to trace the probable origins of various glasses based on elements and trace elements present in the sands or quartz pebbles and sometimes the fluxes used to make the glass. But glassmaking and beadmaking are usually two separate professions, and raw and recycled glass were frequently traded even continents away. Thus, knowledge of bead manufacturing techniques and where they were practiced is needed to help determine where the beads might have been made and how they were traded. Beads found in archaeological assemblages in sub-Saharan Africa between the 7th and 17th centuries ce were made of several glasses from different regions, including the Near East, the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, South Asia, Central Asia, and China. Sometimes, beads of the same glass type are found right across the continent (particularly in the early period, 7th–10th centuries); but usually, bead assemblages in West Africa are different from those on the eastern side of the continent, and the East Coast and southern Africa are seldom in sync. Southern Africa usually received beads from only one source in any given period, beginning in the 7th century with glass beads from Mesopotamia, then India, followed by beads made from Central Asian glass but an unknown region of production, and finally a return to India. Beads found on the eastern seaboard, from Kenya to Madagascar, came from diverse sources: beginning in the 7th century with beads from South Asia (probably Sri Lanka) and others from Mesopotamia (like those in the south). These were followed by beads from India along with a few from Egypt or the eastern Mediterranean. In the early 15th century, a scattering of beads from China appeared, possibly brought as gifts by the fleet of the Chinese admiral Zheng He. Then a century later, more Chinese beads are found, but they were probably brought by early European traders. West Africa began, like the other regions, with beads of glass from Mesopotamia, which were followed by similar beads, but they were made of glass produced in the Levant or Egypt. After the 11th century, the region received very small numbers of beads from India and ones made of glass from Central Asia, but the most interesting were beads made of glass that was produced in Ile Ife, Nigeria—the only known primary glass production center in sub-Saharan Africa.


Early States and Complex Societies in Eastern and Southern Africa  

Chapurukha M. Kusimba

How and in what ways did socially complex societies emerge on the East African coast and southern Africa? Scholarship has shown that elite investment in interregional trade and in extractive technologies, monopolization of wealth-creating resources, and warfare may have played a key role in the emergence of early states. To what extent was elite and non-elite engagement in local, regional, and transcontinental economic networks crucial to development of social complexity in eastern and southern Africa? Extensive research on the eastern coast of Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) and southern Africa (Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa) has yielded adequate data to enable a discussion on the trajectories of the evolution of social complexity and the state. So far, three crucial factors: (a) trade, (b) investment in extractive technologies, and (c) elite monopolization of wealth-creating resources coalesced to propel the region toward greater interaction and complexity. Major transformations in the form and increase of household size, clear differences in wealth and status, and settlement hierarchies occurred toward the end of the first millennium ad. Regional scholarship posits that elite control of internal and external trade infrastructure, restricted access to arable land and accumulation of surplus, manipulation of religious ideology, and exploitation of ecological crises were among the major factors that contributed to the rise of the state. Could these factors have also favored investment and use of organized violence as a means to gain access to and monopolize access to information and wealth-creating resources? Scholarship in the 21st century favors the notion that opportunistic use of ideological and ritual power enabled a small elite initially composed of elders, ritual specialists, and technical specialists to control the regional political economy and information flows. The timing of these transformations was continent-wide and date to the last three centuries of the first millennium ad. By all measures, the evidence points to wealth accumulation through trade, tribute, and investment in agrarianism, pastoralism, and mining.