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Trade and society on the south-east African coast in the later first millennium AD: the case of Chibuene.



The dynamics behind the onset of and increased reliance on long-distance trade and its links with the development of regional socio-political complexity in southern Africa have been widely debated (Beach 1980, 1998; Denbow 1984; Sinclair 1987, 1995; Hall 1990; Pwiti 1991, 2005; Huffman 2000, 2009, 2010; Kim & Kusimba 2008). In the northern part of the east African coast the onset of transoceanic trade has been dated to at least the early first millennium (Smith & Wright 1988; Horton 1996; Juma 1996a; Chami 1998; Spear 2000; Chami et al. 2003; Sinclair 2007). In the southern African interior evidence of such trade appears from the mid eighth century onwards in the form of glass beads (Wood 2000, 2012).

The site of Chibuene, situated on the southern Mozambique coastal littoral 7km south of the modern town of Vilanculos, is well situated for examining the southern African interior's initial involvement with transoceanic trade (Figure 1). This site has produced glass beads associated with late first-millennium dates and is believed to be the port of entry for those found in the interior up to the mid tenth century (Sinclair 1982, 1987; Morals 1988; Sinclair et al. 1993; Huffman 2000, 2009; Wood 2000, 2012).


This paper will investigate Chibuene's role in connecting centres in southern Africa to the Indian Ocean coast and the part played by its handling of imports in the emergence of early socio-political state formation in southern and eastern Africa.

The Chibuene site and landscape

Chibuene lies where land meets sea (Figure 2). The beach is well sheltered, situated in Vilanculos Bay and protected from the rough sea by the Bazaruto archipelago. The bay is traversed by deeper channels, one running just outside the central part of the archaeological site, but it is difficult to navigate these waters due to the many sand barriers. In the time period we are discussing here sea-levels may have been higher and the bay more accessible than today (Ramsey & Cooper 2002).


Vilanculos Bay is renowned for the richness of its marine resources. Historically it is known to have been a location for shellfish and pearl extraction (Duarte Barbosa in Theal 1964: 1.93). At present the vegetation in the Chibuene area is characterised by open savannah with predominantly young trees/shrubs of Julbernardia globiflora and other species associated with this vegetation type. Near to the sea, the vegetation is better described as coastal thicket. Before c. AD 1600 a savannah-forest mosaic was present here. The loss of forests in the area is probably linked to the severe droughts occurring in the summer rainfall region between AD 1400 and 1800 (Ekblom 2008).

A 3m-thick shell midden represents the more conspicuous part of the Chibuene archaeological site as it is located on a rocky outcrop and rises more than 4.5m above the beach. This part is now being eroded by the sea and cultural layers can be seen in the cutting. The amount of material found on the beach suggests that occupation originally extended eastward but is now lost due to erosion. A number of burials have been found in the vicinity of the shell midden and the erosional cutting (Sinclair 1982, 1987). High find-densities occur over an area c. 500m west of the beach, encompassing an area of c. 10ha (Sinclair & Ekblom 2004). An additional satellite settlement is situated 1.5km inland on the north-eastern side of Lake Nhaucati (Figure 3).

Investigated by excavation since 1977, the region was surveyed by surface collection and test-pitting in 1995 and then the subject of an excavation campaign near Chibuene beach (Figures 3 & 4). Our account of the excavations carried out from 1995 to 2001 (Ekblom 2004; Sinclair & Ekblom 2004) will focus on the evidence for trade and regional connections in the early occupation phase, AD 600-1000. The Chibuene site had two occupational phases (Table 1). The early occupation phase is dated from c. AD 600 to 1300-1400, with radiocarbon dates clustering between AD 700 and 1000. Radiocarbon dates associated with the late occupation phase span from c. 1300-1400 to 1650-1700 (Sinclair & Ekblom 2004).


Significant artefacts

Local ceramics

Ceramics of the early occupation phase are characterised by jars with bands of parallel horizontal lines on the necks (Table 2). Bands of lines often occur with short oblique lines of shell stamping or punctates on the shoulder and/or with grooved rims (Figure 5). Other types include bowls decorated with appliques on the rim, jars with variations of criss-cross patterns, hatched panels, crossing bands of parallel lines and parallel zig-zags. The assemblage has been associated with the Gokomere/Ziwa tradition in the interior AD 600-900 (Sinclair 1982, 1987), an association which must be reassessed in light of the new chronology presented by Huffman (2007). The Chibuene ceramics also bear strong similarities with the TIW tradition found on the Indian Ocean coast and interior to the north (Figure 6) (Chami 1994, 1998; Horton 1996), though there are also local differences (Fleisher & Wynne-Jones 2011).


A small number of sherds bear affinities with early first-millennium Kwale-Matola/Silver Leaves pottery (AD 200-500) (Chami 1994, 1998; Huffman 2007), including bowls with flutes on the rim and jars with flutes on the neck (Figure 7). However, the range of traits present at many Matola/Silver Leaves sites, such as blocks of perpendicular lines and space motifs (Cruz da Silva 1976; Morals 1988; Huffman 2007), are missing in the Chibuene material; radiocarbon dates also do not suggest an early first-millennium occcupation.

Ceramics in the late occupation phase are completely dominated by shell-stamped motifs (Table 2). Bowls are more common with shell-stamping occurring as multiple parallel or oblique bands. A large number of spindle whorls are also found in the late occupation phase (Sinclair & Ekblom 2004).

Imported ceramics

The most distinctive exotic glazed ceramics include two white glazed bowls with blue decorations and everted rims, reported by Sinclair (1982). White buffed ware with very thin walls has been identified by H.T. Wright (pers. comm.) as eggshell ware dating to the seventh century AD. A few pieces of green-glazed ware have also been found. Most of the glazed ware was recovered from layers associated with the early occupation phase. In addition, a few pieces of sgraffiato, all with geometrical designs, were recovered. Sgraffiato ware was produced widely in the Middle East from AD 800-900 onwards (Chittick 1974). Sherds of very thick red ware with channelled or other motifs have been identified as Sirafi water jars (Chittick, Kirkman, Horton, Wright pers comm.).


A total of 2851 glass beads were recovered in the 1995 to 2001 excavations predominantly from the early occupation phase. Of these 1042 have been catalogued and the vast majority (885 beads) belong to the Zhizo series as defined by Wood (2000, 2012; Robertshaw et al. 2010). They are mostly chopped drawn tubes with untreated ends (Figure 8). Over 80 per cent are tubular in shape and range in diameter from 2.3-11mm, most falling between 2.5 and 4.5mm. Lengths vary greatly: from 0.7-25mm. Blue is the most frequent colour, making up 59 per cent of the assemblage. Yellow follows at 34 per cent and blue-green and green are rare. Zhizo beads are made from a plant-ash glass with low levels of alumina that suggest a Near Eastern origin (Robertshaw et al. 2010), but they are manufactured using a South Asian technology (Wood 2012) so their place of manufacture is uncertain.

Wood et al. (in press) have also identified a new glass bead series that is distinct morphologically and chemically, it has been named the Chibuene series. These beads are drawn, and mostly tubular in shape with ends that have been rounded through reheating. Colours are subdued being grey or very pale hues of blue to green. The glass is smooth and translucent with a satiny sheen. This series may be earlier than the Zhizo series and, apart from Chibuene, has only been identified at Nqoma, in western Botswana (Wood 2012). A Near Eastern origin for the glass is suspected.

The only other glass beads found at Chibuene belong to the Khami Indo-Pacific series (Wood 2012). These are drawn beads that have been reheated to round the ends. They come in a range of colours, including brownish-red, yellow, orange, green, blue, blue-green, black, and white. They are found in the southern African interior between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries and were made in India. A few beads of other materials were unearthed as well including copper, quartz, carnelian, bone, shell, and pearl.


Glass vessel fragments were found in many areas mainly in early occupation levels. Sinclair (1982) recorded 136 from the 1977-1980 excavations and Wood (2012) reports 457 fragments from later excavations (Figure 8). Most are too small to permit identification, but a few have previously been identified as eleventh-century Islamic glass (Sinclair 1982). In addition over 30 blobs of melted glass, 7 chunks of glass cullet and 10 wasters (debris left from working glass or making beads) were identified (Wood 2012).


Metal and signs of metal production

As noted by Sinclair (1982) finds of iron are rather sparse at Chibuene. The most common finds are amorphous sheets of iron, associated with the late occupation. From early occupation phase layers a few identifiable iron objects were located including a spearhead and a small blade, possibly a knife. The lack of iron at Chibuene is corroborated by oral traditions collected by Sinclair in 1987. A few copper objects were also found including fragments of a bracelet, beads and a probable weight. Evidence of metal production is rare and only very small amounts of slag were retrieved. A few crucible fragments have been identified but they are restricted to the late occupation phase (Sinclair 1987).



Chibuene in the context of interregional exchange and long-distance trade

The concentration of glass beads in the early occupation phase supports the suggestion that Chibuene was the main port of entry for trade goods to the interior between AD 700 and 1000. After this, occupation continued but Chibuene was no longer a significant port. Finds of imports from later periods are restricted to glazed ware and occasional glass beads.

We will now examine the role of Chibuene in the late first millennium in its capacity as a node of connection between two distinctly different socio-political regions. By the ninth century centres along the east coast with evidence of long-distance trade, such as Shanga, Pate, Manda, Unguja Ukuu and Kilwa, were developing from previous farming and fishing villages (Horton 1996; Kusimba 1999; Sinclair & Hakansson 2000; Spear 2000). No remains of structures, apart from postholes, have been found from the earliest occupation at Shanga, which dates from AD 760. By c. AD 800, however, evidence of an organised settlement structure, interpreted as reflecting a clan based social structure, a perimeter wall and a possible mosque are found in Shanga (Horton 1996: 394-99). At Unguja Ukuu, which is estimated to have had a considerable population, there is no clear evidence of structures but craft specialisation appears to have already been significant during the early occupation phase (Juma 1996b: 149).


Meanwhile, the dawn of the tenth century in the southern African interior saw the development of centres in the Shashi-Limpopo Basin. A sizable early settlement, Schroda (c. AD 900-1020), is believed to have been a precursor to state development in the region (Figure 1). Huffman (2009) infers a system of ranked kinship for both Schroda and the early phase of occupation at K2, a nearby site dating from c. AD 1020-1220. The class distinction that is clearly visible from AD 1220 in the occupation of Mapungubwe is suggested to have become manifest, beginning in c. AD 1150, with the displacement of cattle from the central kraal at K2 (Huffman 2009).

Zhizo series glass beads, which occur over much of the southern African interior between the eighth and mid tenth centuries, offer a potential source for understanding the geographical trajectories of Chibuene's trading connections. A large number of Zhizo beads have been found at Schroda and it is very likely that Chibuene was their port of entry (Hanisch 1980; Huffman 2000, 2009; Wood 2000, 2012). Ivory was probably the main item of export from the interior of southern Africa at this time. Al-Mas'udi who visited the east African coast in AD 916 reported that ivory, leopard skins and gold were being exported from the Sofala region, i.e. the coast south of present-day Tanzania (Freeman-Grenville 1962). Evidence of ivory working was found at Schroda (Hanisch 1981, 2002) and K2 (Meyer 1998; Plug 2000).

Where the Zhizo beads were manufactured is uncertain, but the glass used to make them seems to have come from the Near East, east of the Euphrates (Robertshaw et al. 2010: 1903). Arabic documents of the time note that Sohar in Oman and Siraf in the Persian Gulf were the main powers trading with the southern African coast. The relative lack of Zhizo beads at east coast sites suggests that much of this early trade bypassed most northern trading venues (Wood 2012). The absence of Zhizo beads on the northern coast lends some support to earlier suggestions that the southern east African coast represented a trading circuit that was separate from that further north (Shephard 1982), however the directions of this trade cannot be established until the provenance of the Zhizo beads is firmly established.

The relationship between trade objects and social complexity

There are two main hypotheses concerning the relationship between long-distance trade and ranked society in southern Africa. One position is that long-distance trade was a result of stronger socio-political hierarchies, rooted in the combination of agriculture, cattle, marriage and interregional alliances (Beach 1980, 1998; Denbow 1984; Pwiti 1991, 1996, 2005; Duarte 1995: 27-35; Manyanga 2006: 114). The other, building on Friedman and Rowlands' (1977) prestige goods model, is that trade objects are thought to have provided a foundation for storing and controlling wealth by a social elite, which was not possible solely on the basis of control over agricultural production or cattle (Hall 1990; Huffman 2000, 2009; Mitchell 2002: 306). Calabrese (2000) introduced a discussion on the role of prestige goods in the social negotiation, but the prestige goods model remains the most influential explanation when it comes to emergent state formation in southern Africa. Lately, the possible role of warfare and coercion also has been raised (Kim & Kusimba 2008; but see critique in Huffman 2010).

In East Africa there has been more emphasis on the discursive character of power and authority (LaViolette & Fleisher 2005; Fleisher & Wynne-Jones 2010), thus shifting the focus from power as necessarily materially constituted (through wealth and control over prestige goods) to practices of power as confirmed in reciprocal public relations (cf. Smith 2003: 26), a line that will be followed here. The exclusionary and hierarchical social organisation assumed by the prestige goods model is challenged by socially complex political systems where social organisation is heterarchical (cf. Crumley 1987, 1995, 2009; Wynne-Jones & Kohring 2009) and where power structures are corporate, i.e. where the distribution of power is determined, legitimated and controlled in a communal sphere (cf. Blanton et al. 1996; Feinman 2012). The idea of a corporate political organisation has been taken up by Robertshaw (2003) and Kusimba (1999:180) for eastern Africa, and has been suggested to be more applicable to the African context where leaders have strong ceremonial and ritual roles and where wealth is usually converted into alliances or social networks (McIntosh, S. 1999; McIntosh, R. 2005; Fleisher & Wynne-Jones 2010). Traded goods, on this understanding, are not sources/objects of power but material representations of reciprocal relationships in which power is negotiated. The meaning and importance of the glass beads in Chibuene are thus likely to have shifted over time and within and between social groups, which means that the link between glass beads and power relations must be explored elsewhere in the archaeological data.

In an intrasite comparison Wood (2012) shows that glass beads were part of the social and symbolic fabric of society before the asssumed transition to a socially ranked society at K2 and Mapungubwe. This can be seen in the observation that commoners at Schroda had access to glass beads in considerable quantities and the beads were incorporated in both commoner and elite burials and rituals before and after the assumed transition. If an elite attempted to monopolise access to these trade objects they were thereby also manipulating social relationships; as suggested by Wood (2012) it was the broad incorporation of glass beads in society that may have facilitated the later elite control that is seen with the later emergence of Mapungubwe. By this time, however, Chibuene was no longer the port of entry for glass beads. Though in later times a social elite in Mapungubwe may have used control over trade goods to dominate social relationships, we argue that in the early Zhizo phase, social relationships were reciprocal and communal--as suggested by the wide distribution of glass beads in the region. The power relations of Chibuene were, however, probably quite different from that of Shroda.

The role of the entry ports

Sinclair (1995) has earlier suggested that the trading centres on the east African coast should be seen as linked together in urban clusters where different locations had specialisations in production and trade (see also Sinclair & Hakansson 2000 and McIntosh 2005 for a similar discussion). In this case it may be more suitable to think of Chibuene as a nodal point in a network (cf. Sindbaek 2007), in that it was not centrally controlled, but yet had exclusive access to long-distance networks where individual traders played a critical role. The 1995-2001 investigations identify Chibuene as the port of entry for trade goods found in the interior regions of southern Africa from AD 750 until c. AD 1000. Glazed ware suggests connections with the trading centres further north along the Indian Ocean. However, the large amounts of glass and Zhizo glass beads in Chibuene and the absence of these glass beads further north also shows that Chibuene was an independent player in this network. Chibuene can thus be described as a nodal point connecting individual traders from at least three networks: the southern African interior, the northern coastal trade network and the transoceanic trade network. Chibuene itself may have attracted traders precisely because it was a free zone, independent of the northern coast while at the same time an access point between the southern interior and the northern coast.

Received: 12 September 2011; Accepted: 20 November 2011; Revised: 16 March 2012


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Paul Sinclair, Anneli Ekblom & Marilee Wood *

* African and Comparative Archaeology, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, Box 626, 751 26 Uppsala, Sweden (Email:;;
Table 1. [sup.14]C dates from Chibuene. References: 1) Sinclair
1987; 2) Sinclair & Ekblom 2004; 3) Ekblom 2004. Dates were
calibrated using Sediment Oxcal (Bronk Ramsey 2009) and the Southern
Hemisphere calibration curve (McCormack et al. 2004).

Occupation Cal AD
phase Uncal date 95.4% OxCal

late <250
late <250
late 305 [+ or -] 65 1444(89.9%)1678, 1765(4.2%)1800,
late 665 [+ or -] 80 1218 (95.4%)1422
late? 890 [+ or -] 50 1027(94.8%)1226, 1234(0.6%)1238
early 1005 [+ or -] 70 890(95.0%)1186, 1200(0.4%)1206
early 1105 [+ or -] 70 7150.8%)744, 768(93.3%)1040,
early 1225 [+ or -] 70 664(87.5%)901, 916(7.9%)966
early 1235 [+ or -] 50 668(95.4%) 892
early 1155 [+ or -] 85 684(95.4%)1020
early 1180 [+ or -] 50 694(8.6%)748, 765(86.8%)976
early 1270 [+ or -] 80 638(91.2%)900, 918(4.2%)965
early 1410 [+ or -] 75 436(5.0%)490, 510(0.5%)517,
early 1400 [+ or -] 85 430(94.7%)780, 792(0.7%)804
early 1080 [+ or -] 80 726 (0.7%)738, 771(86.5%)1059,

phase Lab no. Ref.

late St-8491 1
late St-8492 1
late Ua-16266 2
late St-8493 1
late? Ua-16269 2
early Ua-16268 2
early Ua-16271 2
early Ua-12267 2
early Ua-16270 2
early St-8496 1
early R-1325 1
early St-8494 1
early Ua-16272 2
early St-8495 1
early St-8495 3

Table 2. Commonly represented decoration elements from the main
part of the Chibuene site, early occupation phase (based on the
material excavated 1995-1999, from Ekblom 2004).

Category Shape Applique Fluted line Line inc

jar rim-neck-shoulder
jar rim-shoulder
jar rim-shoulder
jar rim-neck 1 2 11 13
jar Neck 5 18 99
jar neck-shoulder 3 18
jar shoulder 2 11
bowl/jar body 2 5 6
bowl rim-body 8 3 6 12
bowl/jar rim 1 1 3
Totals sum = 16470 12 11 48 159

 Line inc,
 parallel, multiple, Broad Line BLI & line
Category irregular Incision (BLI) of punctates

jar 2 40 1
jar 4 165 1
jar 1 12 2
jar 1 11 1
bowl/jar 42 3
bowl 1 7
bowl/jar 21
Totals 9 298 8

 Imp single
 BLI & and of line/oblique Band of Band of
Category impression line punctuates grooves

jar 1
jar 1
jar 9
jar 7
jar 4 1
jar 3 6 1
bowl/jar 2
Totals 14 17 1 3

 Shell Triangular
Category Crosshatching stamped incision Zig-zag Other

jar 8 6 1 2
jar 16 13 4 2
jar 9 4 2 1
jar 5 6 1 9
bowl/jar 33 4
bowl 3 20 1 2
bowl/jar 5 6
Totals 46 88 2 7 20

Category Undecorated

jar 3
jar 16
jar 8
jar 3
jar 6
bowl/jar 15641
bowl 25
bowl/jar 25
Totals 15727
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Title Annotation:Research
Author:Sinclair, Paul; Ekblom, Anneli; Wood, Marilee
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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