Abstract: Trade and Civilization in Medieval East Africa

Trade played an important role in the development of cultures throughout ancient times. Trade linked diverse peoples and communities in a network on interactions that had a huge impact in advancement of the daily life. Archaeologists and historians have documented evidence of biological, cultural, linguistic, commercial, and technical communication between cultures that are traceable far beyond the Holocene. Today, most of the world is integrated in a global economic system, in which as Adam Smith (1776) stated, the markets set most of the prices and determine the flow of trade and division of labor, but governments play a role closer to the one envisioned by John Maynard Keynes, intervening to try and regulate the business cycle and reduce income inequality. Ongoing research on the East African coast has irreversibly revised early models that proposed migration as the primary catalyst for regional cultural transformations. It now appears that adoption of agriculture, market-based exchange, and urban centered state structures were the main catalyst for building communal and personal wealth. A steady transformation of the villages and hamlets into small towns, cities, and ultimately to city-states that hosted large and diverse citizenry is evident over much of Eastern and Southern Africa. For trade to prosper, relational and sociopolitical stability was crucial. Could bonds, pacts, treaties, and alliances (including opportunistic intermarriages) that bound the cities to their hinterlands and merchants across the sea serve as the kernel upon which global connections, contributions, and complexity arose? Lecture will illustrate using my ongoing research at medieval East African ports cities how the role of the individual merchant, the role of the state and the technical conditions for land and sea transport converge to create civilizations.

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