The Chewa in Malawian Prehistory


Lake Malawi

by Kathryn M. de Luna

Archaeology and Oral Tradition in Malawi: Origins and Early History of the Chewa
Yusuf M. Juwayeyi,
Suffolk: James Currey, 2020. 264 pp

With training in history and archaeology, Yusuf M. Juwayeyi deftly brings together oral traditions and his own extensive excavations at Mankhamba to write a history of Iron Age Chewa communities in what is now Malawi. This is the first interdisciplinary study of this important society (and its Iron Age polities) in several decades and certainly the first to draw on such an extensive interdisciplinary archive. Striking a balance between synthesis and reporting of the details of the excavations at Mankhamba, the volume is written in an accessible way. Indeed, as Juwayeyi points out with compelling anecdotes from his own experience, the dearth of accessible synthetic scholarship on Malawian prehistory has shaped history education in the country. In this way, the book makes a contribution relevant to both specialist audiences and to Malawian citizens.

The volume is organized into a preface and fourteen chapters. The preface is well worth a read by those interested in the history of education in Africa or in the history of archaeology and heritage management on the continent. Juwayeyi participated in many of the developments in education and heritage management of which he writes, and the preface marks the first of many occasions in which he teaches us as much about the history of institutions supporting work on Malawian prehistory as we learn about those deeper pasts.

The first four chapters offer background to the discussion of Juwayeyi’s archaeological research. The first chapter surveys the region, introducing topography, modern history, and the state of historical scholarship on Chewa communities. The second chapter addresses the “Bantu origins” of the Chewa. It should be noted that Juwayeyi follows an older body of scholarship asserting a binary East Bantu/West Bantu model of linguistic differentiation and expansion. This older model has been overturned in the last five years or so (though it was challenged much earlier), but specialists have been slow to introduce nonspecialists to the implications of a revised Bantu classification.[1] Juwayeyi is not to be faulted for relying on the older model. Indeed, that older model is central to one of the most prominent classifications of southern Africa’s material culture, so, unfortunately, its influence will likely linger in the region.[2] Chapters 3 and 4 summarize previous efforts to reconstruct the history of Chewa origins, migrations, and polities from oral traditions.

Chapter 5 shifts the book’s focus to archaeology. This chapter provides a succinct summary of archaeological methods. The treatment of archaeology stands in contrast to the treatment of oral traditions; the methods used to analyze oral traditions are addressed in only a few short pages and might have been expanded. Chapter 6 continues the overview of archaeology, summarizing previous research and introducing readers to the ceramic sequence of the region’s Iron Age. Chapters 7 through 10 report the findings of Juwayeyi’s exacavations at Mankhamba, a large site a few kilometers from the southwestern tip of Lake Malawi. Juwayeyi sought to identify the location of this site because oral traditions suggested that it was the seat of the Maravi state. The site was first occupied by “pre-Maravi” populations sometime between the twelfth and fourteen century. By the first half of the fifteenth century, Juwayeyi claims, the site was occupied by the residents who would found the Maravi state. Juwayeyi’s findings are carefully described in chapters organized around artifact classes like ceramics, lithics, beads, metal objects, and faunal remains. We learn less about the contexts from which these materials were excavated: hearths, houses, workshops, and so on. Many of the finds from Juwayeyi’s excavations are quite surprising. For example, he recovered an imported silver object, several Chinese ceramics, and a rather astounding quantity of ivory. The ivory materials reveal important details about production: tusks marked at intervals for cutting into bangles, bangles at various stages of production, and hundreds of flakes. This production met local needs, though some ivory was likely exported into the Indian Ocean networks that sustained the wealth displayed in Mankhamba’s later phases.

Chapters 11 through 13 draw on the preceding descriptions of the excavation and findings to relate the history of Mankhamba in the context of the wider region. These are the chapters that will most interest students and scholars of central and southern Africa’s early modern era. Juwayeyi’s research upends a number of specialist debates about, for example, the region’s settlement history. Among Juwayeyi’s most important contributions is the argument that the Maravi state predated the expansion of Indian Ocean trade into the region. Historians drawing on Portuguese sources had overemphasized the role of trade in the origins of the polity. Juwayeyi suggests instead that archaeological evidence of the wealth and size of Mankhamba in the fifteenth century attests to an earlier centralizing process. Juwayeyi suggests that this process was likely grounded in the Kalonga’s ability to distribute land to relatives and loyal retainers responsible for the collection and remittance of tribute from Mankhamba’s hinterland. To assess Juwayeyi’s argument, future research will need to focus on those smaller (tributary?) sites on Mankhamba’s periphery. Through Juwayeyi’s excavations, we have new insight also into the power and influence of Maravi, particularly during its height in the seventeenth century; in chapters 12 and 13, Juwayeyi goes to great pains to connect his synthesis to the observations of Portuguese traders that have long occupied historians. Chapter 14 summarizes the findings of the volume simply and clearly.

The volume has much to recommend it. The structure of the chapters includes accessible summaries for nonspecialists. The volume is richly illustrated with some fifty-five black-and-white photographs, maps, figures, and tables. The prose is accessible to an undergraduate audience, though the narrow focus on Chewa and Maravi to the exclusion of a wider perspective on the region means that course adoption outside of Malawi will take significant grounding in regional history. Yet the problem that inspired Juwayeyi—the need for updated scholarship on Malawian prehistory—is handily addressed in this synthesis of new and old research.


[1]. Rebecca Grollemund, Simon Branford, Koen Bostoen, Andrew Meade, Chris Venditti, and Mark Pagel, “Bantu Expansion Shows That Habitat Alters the Route and Pace of Human Dispersals,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, no. 43 (2015): 13296-301. See also Koen Bostoen, Bernard Clist, Charles Doumenge, Rebecca Grollemund, Joseph Koni Muluwa, Jean Maley, and Jean-Marie Hombert, “Middle to Late Holocene Paleoclimatic Change and the Early Bantu Expansion in the Rain Forest of Western Central Africa,” Current Anthropology 56, no. 3 (2015): 354-84.

[2]. Thomas N. Huffman, Handbook to the Iron Age: The Archaeology of Pre-Colonial Farming Societies in Southern Africa (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2007).

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