Sun 17 Oct 2010
The BBC professes to be shocked (yes, shocked!) by the find of archaeological evidence suggesting Chinese contact in East Africa in the early 1400s. In a previous life I was an archaeologist (still sort of am, actually), and I worked in Africa . . . and it has long been well-known that there was Chinese contact, and certainly extensive global trade, that brought Chinese goods to Africa well before European exploration and colonization began.
Given that, one wonders what the Chinese are doing here, and why people profess to be so interested and excited about it. This strikes me as a pretty routine dig that is fleshing out some details of what we already knew, not a really big deal. However, archaeology is rife with examples of using the past to justify issues in the present, the best example being the case of Great Zimbabwe and the Rhodesian (Rhodesia is modern Zimbabwe) government – the Rhodesians more or less refused to acknowledge that a native African population could have constructed the buildings at these sites, as this construction severely stressed the idea of black inferiority. Here, it seems to me that there is an interesting effort to emphasize a shared Chinese-African past just as the Chinese are extending their interests into Africa.
The past is rarely innocent. Same goes for archaeology.