African settlers and modern mobility: Rice research project to capture unrecorded history

One of the great demographic transformations in human history will become the focus of a new research project from a Rice University anthropologist, whose work will capture how early settlers survived in south central Africa and offer important lessons about modern mobility.

Jeff Fleisher (right) supervises students at the Rice University Archaeological Field School in Africa. (Submitted photo.)

Jeff Fleisher (right) supervises students at the Rice University Archaeological Field School in Africa. (Submitted photo.)

“The Demographics of Pre-History: South Central Africa Through Archaeology and Linguistics”is one of three anthropology/archaeology projects awarded funding this year through the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Collaborative Research Grants program. The three-year project will be led by Jeffrey Fleisher and his colleagues from Georgetown University and Virginia Commonwealth University, and will focus on life and mobility in south central Africa – in particular, the country of Zambia – from 500 to 1500 A.D.

Fleisher said one of the goals of this project is to bring together the disciplines of archaeology and historical linguistics to capture the history and human stories from this time period before textual sources existed. In particular, the researchers will try to understand the cognitive, social and political lives of people as they settled in new regions, with a focus on telling stories about the communities and how they were connected to near and far-flung regions.

“This period is known as one of great demographic transformation, with groups of people migrating into new areas and speaking new languages for the region,” Fleisher said. “Rather than looking at this period from the largest, continental scale, our goal is to capture very human experiences of how people on the ground in Zambia understood, managed and transformed their lives in the midst of this major expansion.

Students working at the Rice University Archaeological Field School in Africa. (Submitted photo.)

Students working at the Rice University Archaeological Field School in Africa. (Submitted photo.)

“This type of history is often characterized as individuals moving from one place to another place to settle,” he said. “However, even after this expansion took place, people continued to be mobile, whether they were rotating fields, transporting crops, moving from flood plains to the highlands or trading goods locally or with distant partners.”

Fleisher and his colleagues will also work with Rice researchers Xiaodong Gao and Caroline Masiello from the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences who will examine soil samples to reconstruct ancient landscapes and document changes over the past 1,000 years.

Understanding the history of this time period is relevant today as modern nations try to reckon with communities that are mobile in different ways, such as pastoralist communities like the Maasai of eastern Africa or the Ila who live in the study region in Zambia and practice forms of mobility as they farm, fish and move cattle seasonally, Fleisher said.

“In present day, people are still very mobile in complicated ways,” he said. “Understanding this background to modern mobility is an important contribution of this research.”

Rice students will gain firsthand learning experience in Zambia during the project as part of the Rice University Archaeological Field School, which has been taking students to Africa since 2005. Every other summer, six students will have the opportunity to work with an international team of scholars from the U.S., Italy and South Africa and local collaborators from the Livingstone Museum and University of Zambia. Students will learn through participation in archaeological excavations and surveys as well as ethnographic and linguistic research. They will also analyze artifacts and other data from the ongoing work in Zambia. Fleisher said a goal of this experience is to contribute to local museum exhibits.

“In previous years, Rice students have described the field school as a transformative opportunity,” Fleisher said. “They live in a rural setting with no electricity or running water. Students are hosted by a wonderful and generous local community of people who are farmers, hunters and cattle keepers. Students are able to experience a radically different place and it offers a great chance for cultural enrichment, an opportunity to learn not just about archaeology but also the different ways people live in the world. Seeing all of the differences is eye-opening.”

For more information on Fleisher’s work, visit

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.