Please tell us about yourself
Akshay Sarathi completed his undergraduate history degree at Grand Valley State University. He is now a doctoral candidate in the Anthropology program of the University of Wisconsin (Madison). “I am a zooarchaeologist. I work with animal remains to understand how humans interacted with their environment. My research is currently based on the island of Zanzibar, where I lead an excavation project at the sites of Kuumbi Cave, and Pango la Pangejuu. The cave has been occupied by hunter-gatherers for the last 17000 years according to the latest research. I return to Africa every year to work on the cave.” Akshay was recently awarded a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship which will facilitate his return to Tanzania to research the maritime culture of the Swahili people, and how it evolved from 4000 BCE to the 1100s CE. Sarathi will also explore how maritime abilities might have been impacted by urbanization, climate change and animal domestication.
What brought you to Madison?
The university, with its amazing program in archaeology. The Anthropology Department at UW-Madison is pretty amazing. There are many scholars who are interested in subjects related to my own, and they have been really helpful. My advisor and I share methodological interests, so it’s a perfect fit!
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
After my first year in grad school, my research interests crystallized and I began to identify myself as an Africanist. As I knew that UW-Madison had a good African Studies program, I found out about it online and began attending the Africa at Noon series. This was in 2013, and I haven’t looked back since.
What inspired your studies of Africa?
I really wanted to study the maritime cultures of East Africa. This region has long been a critical player in the Indian Ocean world, but it has not received the scholarly attention that it deserves. Therefore, I thought I could make a productive contribution to African as well as Indian Ocean studies if I studied the Swahili Coast.
Briefly tell us about your work, as it relates to Africa:
I am a zooarchaeologist, which means that I study the remains of animals at archaeological sites to understand how humans interacted with them, exploited them, lived with them, etc. I am currently excavating a cave on the island of Zanzibar. This cave was occupied by hunter-gatherers for thousands of years, and they have left the remains of countless meals in the cave. I identify these remains to try and understand how maritime adaptations developed on the Swahili coast.
Tell us about the organization you’ve created:
In 2014, I began the Seafaring in East Africa (SEA) Project, to study the origins and development of seafaring in the region. I hope that this project one day blossoms into a multidisciplinary venture that brings together experts from around the world to study the region. The primary aim of this organization is to encourage collaboration not only between scholars, but also between scholars and local communities in Africa.
What advice would you give students who are interested in studying Africa?
Try to abandon your preconceived notions of what Africa is and who Africans are. You’re likely to meet people in Africa to whom you would seem very privileged. Keep in mind that privilege and attempt to relate to people on their terms rather than yours. This will get you far in African studies.
What would you like to do after graduate school?
I would most like to teach and research at a top university. This is assuming I find a job at one, though!
Where would you most like to travel?
I really want to visit every country in Africa. There is just so much cultural diversity on the continent, and I would like to experience all of it.