Diet, economy, and culinary practices at the height of precolonial Swahili urbanism

Eréndira M. Quintana Morales*, Oliver E. Craig, Mary E. Prendergast, Sarah Walshaw, Christina Cartaciano, Ogeto Mwebi, Esther Nguta, Veronicah Onduso, Jeffrey Fleisher, Stephanie Wynne-Jones

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Swahili cuisine is known across Africa and globally as a highly distinctive product of a cosmopolitan, coastal, urban society. Here we present a comprehensive study of precolonial Swahili diet and culinary practices at the coastal town of Songo Mnara, positioning archaeological and ethnographic understandings of cuisine in a long-term coastal tradition. We explore contemporary food cultures and then present the first direct evidence for precolonial cuisine by combining ceramic lipid residue analysis with archaeobotanical, zooarchaeological, and faunal and human stable isotopic data. Integrating these datasets produces a detailed picture of diet at the site of Songo Mnara during the peak of precolonial Swahili urbanism. Lipid residue analysis demonstrates how plant and animal products were consumed and valued in ways not discernible from plant and animal remains alone. We also note special treatment for particular foodstuffs, including an association of fish consumption with high-status spaces and vessels, and preferential management of cattle for milk. A more complex picture of urban life emerges, recognizing influences of taste, class, and culture. Our findings demonstrate the potential of multi-layered anthropological studies for exploring cuisine and urban life in coastal contexts across the globe.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101406
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Anthropological Archaeology
Early online date11 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2022

Bibliographical note

© 2022 The Authors


  • Archaeobotany
  • Cuisine
  • Eastern Africa
  • Lipid residue analysis
  • Stable isotope analysis
  • Zooarchaeology

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