Digital Library

Seafaring in East Africa. The SEA Project, Zanzibar

Akshay Sarati


In 2014, the SEA Project was established by Akshay Sarathi (then a graduate student at UW-Madison) to study the diversity of maritime traditions in East Africa. The primary base of operations of this project is on the island of Zanzibar. The SEA Project owns and operates a field station for archaeological and anthropological study in the village of Jambiani, which lies on the southeast coast of Zanzibar. The initial goal of the SEA Project and the research program established by Akshay Sarathi is to study and document how East Africans past and present engaged with the Indian Ocean World technologically, dietarily, and culturally. However, within a few weeks of its establishment, Sarathi realized that this initial goal was limited. For one, restricting the project’s focus to just “maritime” and “seafaring” activities artificially separated the ocean from other forms of aquatic engagement. Further, in light of the colonial historiography of East Africa, focusing on the maritime had the effect of deemphasizing the unique African character of the various maritime civilizations that have developed in East Africa over the course of the last five millennia.

The SEA Project is now devoted to understanding how uniquely African civilizations and cultures engaged with the broader cultural and climatic unity of the Indian Ocean World. This “engagement” is not limited merely to the technological and the physical. In other words, while technologies of seafaring and maritime material culture are important, the SEA Project also focuses on the alchemy of cultural interaction between the cultures of East Africa and the broader Indian Ocean World. Through archaeological excavations and ethnographic data collection, the SEA Project studies how the Indian Ocean World is manifest at the local level, and how individual communities add to the vast oceanic cultural milieu of which they are a part.

Thus far, the SEA Project has focused on understanding how the exploitation and consumption of meat by different communities is conditioned both by indigenous responses to local conditions AND by learned behaviors from across the Indian Ocean World and Africa. In other words, its study of maritime civilizations is devoted not just to how humans interact with the sea, but how broader suites of practice are conditioned by cultural influences from across the ocean.

The SEA Project has, with the aid of federal grants, excavated the sites of Ras Shungi, Unguja Ukuu, Kizimkazi Dimbani, and Kuumbi Cave while collecting extremely detailed ethnographic data concerning marine faunal exploitation at Jambiani.