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Out of Africa, an Exciting Find

Chap Kusimba is a firm believer in climbing down from the ivory tower for the challenges and excitement of discoveries in the field. He isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, literally.

Kusimba joins the College of Arts and Sciences after 19 years as curator of African archaeology and ethnology at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and as professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois–Chicago to become chair of the Department of Anthropology. A former research scientist at the National Museums of Kenya, where his mentor was famed anthropologist Richard Leakey, Kusimba directs an active archaeological and ethnological research program in Kenya and Madagascar, as well as collaborative research programs in Nigeria, India, the Czech Republic, and China. 

Unearthing the Secret to Making, Keeping Money

As an archaeologist, Kusimba seeks to understand Africa’s ancient and contemporary role in global history by studying the complexities of trade and its effects on urbanism, migration, and integration. 

“I’m convinced it is merchants who break down traditional barriers, because they are the ones who risk going to foreign countries, risk being killed, learn ways of making profit by engaging with people where they are a distinct minority,” says Kusimba. 

“If you ask merchants, they say making money is in our blood. But I think the secret of making money, and keeping it, is the ability to make friends with people. So those communities that have been successful in making friends survive and flourish." 

That, for Kusimba, is the attraction of studying trading communities, whose artifacts can yield an understanding of everything from migration to the establishment of diaspora communities. 

His interdisciplinary projects include a study of ancient and modern DNA among East African coastal people, a study of slavery and its effects in East Africa, a land-use and agriculture study in Madagascar, an analysis of Chinese trade ceramics to discover maritime trade networks in China and the Western Indian Ocean, and a study of ceramics to explore ethnogeography and ethnoarchaeology in Nigeria. 

The Discovery That Grabbed Headlines

In Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, an area the size of Massachusetts, he has conducted surveys that have resulted in the recovery of 250 sites, where artifacts have revealed a rich history of regional trade going back 2,000 years.  

Recently, excavations in Kenya yielded perhaps the most significant find of his career. On Manda, an island off Kenya’s northern coast, Kusimba and his fellow scientists made a discovery that grabbed headlines around the world: a 600-year-old Chinese coin.  

The coin was minted between 1403 and 1423, during the Ming Dynasty, says Kusimba. “This was the time of a Chinese emperor called Yongle. This emperor is the one who was credited with having begun building the Forbidden City in Beijing, and he sent the first Chinese expedition to explore the Western Indian Ocean, which the Chinese used to call Xiyang, or the western ocean.” 

The copper and silver coin, which bears the name of the emperor, has a square hole in the center that allows it to be worn on a belt. The emperor wanted China to trade in the region. To explore that possibility, he sent Admiral Zheng He, whom Kusimba calls “the Christopher Columbus of China.” The admiral’s mission occurred against a backdrop of a declining Roman Empire. But China never exploited the trade opening. Soon after Admiral Zheng’s mission, Chinese rulers would ban such foreign expeditions. 

From Africa to the Arctic

As for his own journey from Kenya to earn his doctorate at Bryn Mawr, Kusimba admits his path was out of the ordinary.  

“Well, it’s unusual to think about going to a women’s college, but believe it or not, I wanted to come to the U.S. to become an Arctic anthropologist,” Kusimba recalls.  

"I wanted to study the Inuit, or the Eskimo. A young man coming from Kenya to study the Eskimo—this was very unusual, but that’s what I wanted, and Bryn Mawr had one of the best [Arctic anthropology] programs in the country.” 

Kusimba had learned from a Bryn Mawr student at a summer field school in Kenya that her school had a strong program in Arctic anthropology. “That piqued my interest and I said I have to apply.” 

But his interest in the Inuit goes back further still. In fifth grade, as part of a film series on world cultures that students in Kenya viewed, Kusimba saw Nanook of the North, the classic documentary on the Inuit. “That stuck to my brain. Even as a kid, I thought there was absolutely no chance that I’ll ever go to the Arctic.”  

But it happened. He spent a summer doing research in the Arctic before Bryn Mawr unexpectedly announced it was phasing out its graduate program in anthropology. With key faculty leaving because of the change, Kusimba was left looking for a plan B to complete research for his degree. And so he returned to East Africa. 

Field School in Kenya

He still maintains a close relationship with the National Museums of Kenya, where he worked as a research scientist before coming to the United States to study.  

And now American University students will benefit from that relationship. Kusimba plans to establish a field school in Kenya—with the help of colleagues at the National Museums and from Uppsala University in Sweden—that AU anthropology students will be able to experience six weeks a year. 

“Anthropology at AU, because of its focus on public anthropology, makes it particularly relevant to the current understanding of human diversity,” Kusimba says. “I think they’re doing it just the right way.”