Kilwa Basin Paleolithic Project

East Africa presents ideal conditions for examining the role of coastal habitats in hominin survival across different evolutionary scenarios due to its rich fossil record and geographic setting- bordered by a continuous coastline of the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, the region’s vast coastal zone along the Indian Ocean had seen little Stone-Age focused research in the past, hindering adequate assessment of its role as a hominin habitat. Prior paleoanthropological fieldworks in East Africa have remained focused on the hinterlands, mainly around the Great Rift Valley. Launched in 2016, the Kilwa Basin Paleolithic Project is a collaborative undertaking between Amanuel Beyin and Kokeli Ryano (U of Dodoma, Tanzania) aimed at locating Stone Age sites and investigating the associated human adaptations.

The Kilwa basin lies in SE Tanzania, along the western periphery of the Indian Ocean (Fig. 1). The landscape encompasses a marine bay and coastal strands featuring mangrove swamps, lagoons, inlets, and deltaic spits. Such landscape features would have made the area appealing for prehistoric human adaptation. Five localities, namely MnaraekaMapimbiNguruni, Masakasa
and Mpara were briefly visited during a three-week field season in July 2016. Of the surveyed localities, Mnaraeka 01 (MN01) is the most artifact-rich one and will be spotlighted on this page. 

The site has yielded a lithic assemblage characterized by recurrent centripetal Levallois and blade core technologies (Fig. 2), both of which are the hallmark of the African Middle Stone Age (MSA) dated c. 300 - 50 ka in the continent. Faunal remains were not encountered- most likely decomposed due to the acidic nature of the soil in the coastal territories which hinders organic preservation. Albeit lacking an absolute age reference, the archaeological finds so far recovered from the Kilwa basin demonstrate that the East African coast hosted human settlements affiliated with the MSA technocomplex, a cultural period associated with the emergence of Homo sapiens, increased cultural innovations, and exploitation of diverse habitats within and beyond Africa.   

The presence in the Kilwa basin of technological strategies that have been well documented at inland Pleistocene sites signifies that the coastal territories may have been regularly exploited by hominins as part of the broader tropical eastern African habitats. Pleistocene hominins specifically adapted to the Kilwa basin would have moved northward and southward by exploiting similar coastal and near-coastal landscapes. Moreover, episodic movement of people between the coast and the hinterlands is conceivable when resources became deteriorated in either habitat.  While our finds show that hominins inhabited the Kilwa basin, future research will have to establish the temporal and cultural contexts of prehistoric hominin occupation of the East African coastal zone.  

The identification of MSA-affiliated Stone Age sites in the Kilwa basin is an important step towards placing the East African coast in the spotlight of human evolutionary research.