Archaeological and Palaeoecological Investigations of Makangale Cave, Pemba Island, Zanzibar

There is still much to be learned from the archaeological record of Pemba Island (Zanzibar), including when the first humans arrived and what impacts they had on the island’s geomorphology, flora, and fauna. Recent excavations at MakangaleCave have uncovered a long sequence of archaeological and paleontological history that will provide new evidence towards understanding the dynamic interactions between past peoples and their environment.

Investigation of island prehistories has become increasingly relevant in this age of the Anthropocene, as past societies and ecosystems within small, relatively isolated regions can serve as a model for global social and environmental dynamics. The islands of East Africa’s Indian Ocean have largely been left out of these discussions, in part because there is still much to be understood about this region’s prehistory and paleoecology. Our recent excavations on Pemba Island (Zanzibar) present an opportunity to position the islands of East Africa as another key region for investigating long-term island socio-ecosystem dynamics.  

The Makangale cave site (Pango la Kijiji) in the northern region of Pemba Island, Zanzibar contains a long stratified record of over 5,000 years of archaeological and paleontological history. The cave site was first excavated by Felix Chami in 2009, and excavations were undertaken by the Sealinks team in 2012 as part of a large-scale effort to understand past maritime connections across the Indian Ocean. These previous excavations uncovered abundant faunal remains, including those of two now-extinct or extirpated species: a crocodile and a giant rat. The disappearance of the crocodile and giant rat provides a new opportunity to investigate the impact of human arrival on Pemba’s past landscapes and faunal communities. The presence of crocodile in this cave site is particularly intriguing, as Pemba is a prime candidate to be the fabled island of Menouthias, spoken about in the classical Greco-Roman text, the Periplus Maris Erythraei. The text describes Menouthias as an island with no wild animals except crocodiles, though it also says that these reptiles posed no danger to humans.

These exciting discoveries urged us to renew excavations in 2016 to better understand the site’s chronological, faunal, and palaeoecological records. The abundance of environmental data recovered from our recent excavations at Makangale Cave will allow us to investigate the relationship between past peoples and Pemba’s changing island landscapes using multiple lines of evidence and cutting-edge scientific techniques. Micromorphology, palaeobotany, and analysis of faunal remains using stable isotopes, aDNA, and ZooMS will provide new insight into the formation of Pemba Island’s ancient landscapes and the role past people have played in shaping the island’s ecology.

Related Publications

Boivin, N.L., Zeder, M.A., Fuller, D.Q., Crowther, A., Larson, G., Erlandson, J.M., Denham, T., and Petraglia, M.D. 2016. Ecological consequences of human niche construction: Examining long-term anthropogenic shaping of global species distributions. PNAS 113(23):6388-96.

Prendergast, M., Rouby, H., Punnwong, P., Marchant, R., Crowther, A., Kourampas, N., Shipton, C., Walsh, M., Lambeck, K., and Boivin, N.L. 2016. Continental island formation and the archaeology of defaunation on Zanzibar, Eastern Africa. PLoS ONE 11(2): e0149565.

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