Fishing and Fish Consumption in the Swahili Communities of East Africa, 700–1400 CE

Eréndira M. Quintana Morales1 and Mark Horton2

1. Archéozoologie, archéobotanique, Département Ecologie et Gestion de la Biodiversité, Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, Paris. Email:
2. Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol:

Cite this as: Quintana Morales, E. M. and Horton, M. (2014). Fishing and Fish Consumption in the Swahili Communities of East Africa, 700-1400 CE. 'Human Exploitation of Aquatic Landscapes' special issue (ed. Ricardo Fernandes and John Meadows), Internet Archaeology.


Fishing off the Swahili coast

Historical and archaeological records of consumption practices indicate that people living along the Swahili coast relied largely on fish for subsistence; however, little research has been done to explore how aquatic subsistence strategies varied among different settlements in the region, both spatially and chronologically. Such questions are particularly interesting, as the communities were largely urban, and relied on fish for the bulk of their protein consumption.

We compared evidence of subsistence strategies and exploited fish habitats in two Swahili regions that represent different maritime landscapes. Because particular fish species generally inhabit different sections of the marine environment, the composition of these species at each site can be used to estimate the variable exploitation of these habitats. Overall, the analysed samples showed a heavy exploitation of fish found around coral reefs, but with varying proportions of other exploited habitats, such as estuary, mangrove, sandy/muddy, and outer reef zones. The general pattern indicates that samples from offshore islands have higher representations of fish from coral/rocky habitats while samples from near-shore islands show a lower reliance on coral species. Over time there is an increase at certain sites in the exploitation of oceanic and pelagic fish that coincides with the more frequent consumption of domesticated bovids. We discuss the historical and environmental implications of these variable patterns of aquatic subsistence strategies along the East African coastline, and propose that there is a close link between their ability to exploit these marine resources, their success as urban settlements, and the development of feasting rituals.

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