Early Kenyan Herders Relied on Consistency and Connections in Unpredictable Conditions

New research shows that a uniform technical strategy and a regional network for supplying raw materials formed the bases of Elementeitan resilience

December 10, 2020

Roughly 4000 years ago, Kenya’s earliest pastoralists were facing enormous challenges to their way of life. In addition to the new livestock diseases and hunter-gatherer populations they would encounter, ice cores from Mt. Kilimanjaro show that rainfall in eastern Africa was becoming increasingly erratic, making suitable grazing lands difficult to find.

View overlooking the Elmenteitan obsidian sources on top of the Mt. Eburru volcanic complex

Despite the many worsening challenges, southern Kenya eventually came to host some of the largest and most politically complex pastoralist societies in eastern Africa, including the Maasai. Today, pastoralism remains one of the most important lifeways for people in Africa’s arid environments, with herding societies suppling around 90% of all meat and 50% of all milk consumed in eastern Africa and directly supporting roughly 20 million people. But as modern climate change increases aridity across Africa, strategies for managing climatic unpredictability are likely to again become vital. To understand the strategies that enabled early herders to adapt and thrive, a new study published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology analyzes stone tools from 12 early herder sites in Kenya, ranging from 3,200 to 1,500 years ago.

By analyzing the stone tools across all the studied sites, with particular focus on the debris from the tool-making process, archaeologist Steven Goldstein of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History was able to reconstruct the ways in which the inhabitants organized their lithic economy. His analysis showed that, rather than a series of specialized toolkits for particular conditions, the people responsible for the “Elmenteitan” traditions developed a uniform technological strategy centered on long obsidian blades with high cross-sections. These obsidian blades, a signature of the Elmenteitan culture, could then be made into a variety of tools more tailored to the technician’s needs. The blades, as well as the strategies used to produce them, were nearly identical across all sites and showed no evidence of change throughout time.

Examples of Elmenteitan obsidian blades from the Mt. Eburru Obsidian Quarry, Kenya

Despite access to a variety of raw materials, including cherts, chalcedonies, basalts, lavas, and quartz, the Elmenteitan pastoralists overwhelmingly preferred a high-quality, green-hued obsidian sourced from a quarry on the upper slopes of the volcanic Mount Eburru in the Central Rift Valley. But suppling far-flung family groups with enough raw obsidian to support its near exclusive use would have required long-distance transportation and the establishment of supply networks.

“Recent herders have relied on vast social alliances and livestock-partnerships to disperse risk and recover from catastrophic droughts or epidemics. The pattern for the Elmenteitan may show herders developing an early form of those relationships, building the foundations for pastoralism’s long-term success in eastern Africa,” says Goldstein.

Engagement in a broad regional network and development of a standard but flexible technical strategy, taken together, form the basis of the risk reduction mechanisms that ensured the long-term persistence of mobile herders. 

The results of the present study provide new insights into how herding spread into eastern Africa, where it continues to support millions of people in regions where agriculture is not possible. Moving forward, one major question for researchers is how pastoralist strategies changed during the Iron Age, when new technologies would have made the distribution and production of stone tools obsolete.  

“It’s not clear if this transition caused the collapse and reformation of social and economic relationships, if major migrations had a role in reshaping land-use strategies or if people simply adapted and incorporated new technologies, but it is clear that ancient African pastoralists did not fall victim to harsh climate,” Goldstein concludes. “As climate change forces new challenges on modern herders, understanding the strategies that enabled this lifeway to persist across millennia is becoming ever more vital.”

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