[The wisdom traditions of many lands speak of ancient civilizations stretching back into the past beyond the scope of currently accepted archaeological time-scales. In addition, it seems that ancient peoples travelled more widely than has been suspected until recently as is described as a possibility by Robert Dick-Read’s original research on the ancient seafaring people’s of our northern neighbours from Indonesia. – Editor]


There is a tendency to underestimate the prowess of ancient voyagers, with the result that important historical events sometimes lie hidden simply because we have not believed them possible. Indonesian activity in Africa over a thousand years ago is a striking case in point.

  The problem stems from the fact that Southeast Asian historians have rarely looked beyond their boundaries, while Africanists have confined themselves rigidly to their continent, thus leading to serious historical distortions in both regions.

 Misconceptions might well have remained thus but for one anomaly … the island of Madagascar, whose Austronesian language-base is more similar to that of Easter Island 14,000 miles to the east than to that of African languages a mere 200 miles to the west.  Madagascar’s Indonesian connections leave no doubt that Southeast Asians once crossed the Indian Ocean and came to Africa.

In the centuries before Islam, and the subsequent Muslim settlement of the East African coast – and before Bantu-speaking people migrated in large numbers from their homelands in Western Africa, the indigenous people of Eastern Africa were mainly San hunter-gatherers, relatives of Southern Africa’s Bushmen of today who lived a simple, primitive, life.   But on the coast, for many years living alongside the San, were also people who became known as the ‘Zanj’ whose precise origins have remained enigmatic.  Careful observation, however, leaves little doubt that the Zanj must have been a polyglot mix of autochthonous Africans, and Indonesians whose mariners enabled them to occupy Africa’s offshore islands, as well as maintaining contact with their homelands in Southeast Asia.

Although, apart from a few later Arab records, there is no documentary evidence to help us – and though, as we shall see, there must have been contacts centuries earlier – the most prolific period of contacts between Southeast Asia and Africa probably came after the middle of the first millennium AD when the powerful Mahayana Buddhist state of Srivijaya (Sumatra and Java), with its well organised fleets of Bugis, Bajau, and Makassar sailors, began to extend its overseas interests.   This was doubtless spurred on by the discovery of gold and other minerals in the African hinterland.

Though Madagascar may have been known to the Zanj for many years, it was only in about the sixth or seventh century AD that there was a major migration from the African mainland to ‘The Great Isle’, as it was known.   As today’s Malagasy demonstrates, these early migrants must have spoken an Austronesian language substantially mixed, by then, with a Bantu vocabulary.

Both Indonesia and Madagascar left indelible legacies in East Africa. The convergence of Malagasy and African cultures, for instance, are to be found in Zimbabwe’s famous ancient stone ruins: also the thousands of miles of terraced mountainsides in the east of the country around Nyanga.   Indonesian culture was noticeable in such fields as music – for example the pan-pipes; and xylophones played from southern Africa to Uganda and beyond; and the designs of outrigger canoes which still share some Bugis, Bajau and Makassar nomenclature.  Contacts with Southeast Asia continued until about the 13th century when pressure from migrating Bantu tribes, and the ever-increasing strength of Muslim city-states on the coast, shut off the life-lines across the Indian Ocean; and eventually contacts between Madagascar and the mainland.


Round about 1,000 BCE, when sailors from Southeast Asia were discovering virtually every spec of land in the Pacific Ocean, it seems probable that they also began to explore west into the Indian Ocean.  Borneo-style blowguns in southern India, and outrigger boat designs in India and Srilanka, suggest that Indonesians might have crossed the Bay of Bengal even before today’s Dravidian people migrated into southern India.


Furthermore it is also probable they might have reached Africa, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed up the west African coast, exploring many of the great rivers as early as the 5th C. BCE.   Fossilized seeds of bananas (plants that came to Africa from Southeast Asia along with yams and other edible crops) have been found in the Cameroons and dated to about 450 BCE; and equally ancient sculptures found buried at Nok on Nigeria’s Jos plateau depict elephantiasis, a disease thought to have originated in the coastal swamps of Southeast Asia.



By coincidence (or is it?) the Nok sculptures were found close to the village of Taruga, famous for some of the earliest (c.450 BCE) iron smelting sites in sub-Saharan Africa.    Experts will doubtless continue arguing about the origins of iron-smelting in Africa; but because many of the early sites in western Africa have been found near the coast and major rivers, a strong argument can be made that this technology was brought not from the Nile or across the Sahara from the North, but by mariners from the Far East.


As for artworks in bronze, of the 65 Arab chroniclers who wrote about sub-Saharan West Africa between the 9th and 17th centuries, none came within 1000 miles of Igbo Ukwu, near the Niger delta, where the most significant (9th c.) Nigerian bronze castings have been found.   It is virtually inconceivable that the mining and supreme cire perdue technology displayed in some of the incredible works found at Igbo Ukwu were developed locally.   So from where did the technology come?    Was it overland from the North?  … or across the oceans from the Far East?


It should not be overlooked that Igbo Ukwu’s dates are contemporaneous with those of the great Buddhist monument of Borobudur in Java, where the magnificent outrigger ships of the Buddhist merchant and craftsman Maitrakanyaka are depicted on the temple walls.  As the lower Niger River would have been far more accessible from the sea than over deserts and forests from the north, the possibility that large Indonesian outriggers rounded the tip of southern Africa must be given serious consideration.


The technology displayed at Igbo Ukwu was the same as that used later at Ife (Yorubaland) and Benin.  Though the hand of African artists in Nigeria’s cire perdue works cannot be questioned, the subject matter of many is of considerable interest. Compare, for instance, statuettes of some Yoruba grandees which bear a striking resemblance to many small Buddhist figurines that have been found in Southeast Asia.   Perhaps of greater significance are the number of important features that crop up in Nigerian art and ceremony that mirror the eight ‘auspicious’ Buddhist symbols – the Umbrella; the Conch shell; the Dharma wheel; the Knot of Eternity; the Treasure Vase: the Lotus flower and bud; and the pairs – always pairs – of fishes.


The last link with Buddhism may be the hugely important Yoruba ‘religion’ – the divination system known as ‘IFA’, wrongly thought to have been introduced by Arabs, but more likely to trace its origins to the I-Ching based system used by the Mahayana Buddhists of India and Southeast Asia, (and closely similar to the system of divination used as far away as the Caroline Islands in the Pacific).   As the Mahayana Buddhist state of Srivijaya was dedicated to spreading its religion far and wide it would indeed be strange if no part of it reached the shores of Africa.


If you are interested to follow these ideas further, please read: The Phantom Voyagers – Evidence of Indonesian Settlement in Africa in Ancient Times available from the author at: robert.dread@ntlworld.com 


Editor’s note: A different view of the origins of civilisation in West Africa has been expressed by Nigerian members, Igwe Amakulo and E.A. Awa. This view gives the evidence that West African arts and religion developed locally without the influence of foreign cultures. This detailed analysis is available by writing to the editor.