PAUSE and think a little bit about solving some mystery of the distant past.
Conjecture the remains of sorghum your great, great grandmother ate being put on your plate today or tomorrow in your living room. Incredible! Yet a young Tanzanian woman pioneer in archaeobotany would do that with ease.
Indeed she can! Archaeobotany is a multidisciplinary field that study ancient human interaction with the plant world.
Sinyati Robinson Mark stunned local and international admirers when she presented scientifically in Las Palmas, de Grand Canaria, Spain the remains of crops that were used by the indigenous communities in Mtang'ata and Pangani bays in Tanga Region in the 16th- 19th centuries AD.
By then, she was a graduate student at the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies of the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM).
Sinyati presented her research topic titled: “Crop Economies during Early Colonial Encounters in the Northeast Coast of Tanzania: Continuity and Change” at the 9th International Workshop for African Archaeobotany that was held in Las Palmas, de Grand Canaria in June, 2018.
She did not only win international approval and acclaim, but was also awarded ‘Professor Ahmed G. Fahmy Memorial Speaker Award.’ She made Tanzanians who were present and her mentor, Professor Sarah Walshaw, to walk tall, more so the team of her fellow Archaeobotanists from the globe.
Sinyati did her archaeobotanical study in Mtang’ata and Pangani bays in Tanga Region. Mtang'ata area, Sinyati says, directly or indirectly encountered with Portuguese and Arab colonialists. According to available literatures and travelers’ accounts, Mtang'ata was visited by Vasco Dagama in 15th century.
The reports tell us that Dagama was given oranges and later told his hosts that the oranges were sweeter than those in his home country, Portugal. Sinyati has been trained in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, College of Humanities, University of Dar es Salaam from 2013 to 2018.
She is now the Tutorial Assistant at the same department. When she was asked to explain the term ‘Archaeobotany’ in ordinary language, the scientist said it is a sub-discipline in Archaeology that deals with the study of plant remains cultivated or used by people in past centuries.
But, why should someone bother to study such things of the past? Why should a country have archaeobotanists or archaeologists for that matter? “We must know where we are coming from in order to know where we are and where we are heading to,” she says.
Sinyati explains that many studies have looked at the impacts of colonialism on trade, culture and other aspects of life, but not on the aspect of crop production and consumption at large. “When Portuguese and Arabs came during that time, they found inhabitants producing and consuming varieties of crops. People had reason to grow the kind of crops they grew.”
Another important question was whether or not foreign encounter affected in any way local’s way of farming, where she says that was one of the questions she was looking for an answer in her study in Mtang'ata and Pangani Bay.
In those areas, she explained, archaeological excavation was made and soil samples were collected and processed. The archaeobotanical samples she collected were macro-botanically identified at the archaeobotany laboratory at UDSM.
The lab findings revealed remains of rice, millet, sorghum, maize, coconut, cotton, legumes, cloves and fruits and nuts. New archaeological evidence from the study, she asserts, “suggests the continuity of pre-colonial crop economies throughout 16th to 19th centuries.
The communities continued growing and using the traditional crops because of their important role in their diet and their ability to withstand harsh climatic conditions like drought” she says.
She explains that there are slight changes, including the adoption of new crops of both African origin (finger millet, probably from the interior) and foreign crops like maize that might have been brought from the Americas and clove that arrived with the Arabs from Zanzibar.
However, even with the changing economic policies that were triggered by the coming of the foreigners and the introduction of these new crops, the indigenous did not abandon their crops, but rather the crops broadened their economy, thus avoiding over-dependence on any single crop.
This, according to the scientist, tells us that we can today learn how our fore fathers reacted to the changing environmental, social, political and economic situations.
They cultivated crops that were very nutritious and tolerant to harsh conditions even before colonialism, modifying them and engage in crop exchange and avoid malnutrition problem we witness in parts of our country today.
Scholarly works show that Pangani area was famous in sesame "simsim" cultivation which was exported to India. Sesame cultivation in that area is evident in Sinyati’s study. Now perhaps the pertinent question is, why is Pangani not the hub of sesame cultivation in Tanga Region to the extent of exporting the crop today?
Sinyati says Tanzania is known for her archaeological heritage in the world, and that this heritage will mean more to this nation if archaeologists will be empowered and supported to do the necessary research and the results get publicity.
As a young woman scientist, she is not happy with negative perceptions about women in African societies. “The assertion that women should play their role as wives and mothers only is not right,” she notes. She calls upon few in scientific and research fields to motivate others.
For her, determination, dedication, commitment, readiness and self-discipline is very crucial in attaining success. Sinyati’s family has been very supportive and encouraging in her endeavors. They initially didn’t understand what their daughter was up to; but they became interested when she slowly explained to them what she is doing.