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Cushitic and Nilotic Prehistory: New Archaeological Evidence from North-West Kenya

  • B. M. Lynch (a1) and L. H. Robbins (a2)

Recent archaeological research conducted west of Lake Turkana, Kenya has shed new light on the prehistory of eastern Cushitic and Nilotic speakers in East Africa. The Namoratunga cemetery and rock art sites, dated to about 300 B.C., are clearly related to the prehistory of Eastern Cushitic speakers. The newly defined Turkwell cultural tradition, dated to the first millennium a.d., is associated with eastern Nilotic prehistory. Lopoy, a large lakeside fishing and pastoralist settlement, is discussed in terms of eastern Nilotic prehistory. The archaeological data agrees with the independent findings of historical linguistics.

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1 Phillipson, D. W., ‘The spread of the Bantu language’, Scientific American, ccxxxvi, iv (1977), 106–14.

2 Murdock, G. P., Africa, Its Peoples and Their Culture History (New York, 1959).

3 For further discussion see Huntingford, G. W. B., ‘The Peopling of the Interior of East Africa by its Modern Inhabitants’, in History of East Africa, ed. Oliver, R. and Mathew, G. (Oxford, 1968), i, 5893.

4 Reasons for rejecting the Nilo-Hamitic linguistic classification are detailed in Greenberg, J. H., The Languages of Africa, chapters iiiiv (Bloomington, 1966). Also see Ehret, C., ‘Cushites and the Highland and Plains Nilotes’, in Zamani: A Survey of East African History, ed. Ogot, B. A. and Kieran, J. A. (Nairobi, 1968), 158–76.

5 Ehret, C., ‘Cushitic’ in The Non-Semitic Languages of Ethiopia, ed. Bender, M. L., Ethiopian Monograph series number 5 (East Lansing, 1976), 8596; idem, Southern Nilotic History (Evanston, 1971).

6 Loc. cit.

7 Research was funded by the National Science Foundation. We thank the government of Kenya for granting permission to do this research. We are grateful to R. E. F. Leakey, J. C. Onyango-Abuje, D. Phillipson and N. Chittick for facilitating our fieldwork. In addition we thank P. Uland and J. N. Ochieng for their drawings.

8 Ehret, , ‘Cushitic’.

9 Lynch, B. M., ‘Preliminary report on the 1975–76 excavations at Namoratunga’, Azania, xii (1977), 203–8; idem, ‘The Namoratunga cemetery and rock art sites of NW Kenya: a study of early pastoralist social organization’, Ph.D. dissertation (1978), Michigan State University.

10 Lynch, B. M. and Robbins, L. H., ‘Animal Brands and the Interpretation of Rock Art in East Africa’, Current Anthropology, xviii, iii (1977), 538–9.

11 Lynch, B. M. and Donahue, R., ‘A statistical analysis of two East African rock art sites’, Journal of Field Archaeology (in press).

12 For a description of East African burial cairns see Sutton, J. E. G., The Archaeology of the Western Highlands of Kenya, memoir number 3 of the British Institute in Eastern Africa (Nairobi, 1973). chapter iv.

13 Cole, S., The Prehistory of East Africa (revised edition) (New York, 1963).

14 Hallpike, C., The Konso of Ethiopia: A Study of the Values of a Cushitic People (Oxford, 1973).

15 In Jensen, E., Im Lande des Gada (Stuttgart, 1936). Hallpike, op. cit.

16 Gulliver, P. H., The Family Herds: A Study of two Pastoral Tribes in East Africa, the Jie and Turkana (London, 1955).

17 Merker, M., Die Masai (Berlin, 1910).

18 Jensen, op. cit. Huntingford, G. W. B., ‘The hagiolithic cultures of East AfricaEastern Anthropologist, iii, 119–36.

19 Lynch, B. M. and Robbins, L. H., ‘Namoratunga: the first archaeo-astronomical evidence in subsaharan AfricaScience, 200 (19 May 1978), 766–8.

20 Legesse, A., Gada: Three Approaches to the Study of African Society (New York, 1973).

21 This date is firmly supported by the archaeo-astronomical evidence mentioned above (see Lynch and Robbins, ‘Namoratunga’, for further details). The alignments agree for the year 300 b.c., but differences are evident when more recent dates are used in the comparison. For this reason, as well as the historical linguistic data bearing on eastern Cushitic prehistory another radiocarbon date from Namoratunga of 1200 ± 100 b.p. (UCLA 21240) is assumed to be in error.

22 Ehret, C., Ethiopians and East Africans: The Problem of Contacts, Nairobi Historical Studies 3 (Nairobi, 1974); idem, ‘Cushitic’ (1976).

23 Greenberg, , Languages.

24 The earlier archaeological history of the Nilotic speakers is not known; however, the Lake Turkana basin may have figured prominently as a general homeland for the ancestral Nilotes before they diversified. See Ehret, , Southern Nilotic History and Ochieng, W. R., An Outline History of the Rift Valley of Kenya (Nairobi, 1975), for discussion of this point. It should be noted that the early Holocene fishing peoples who occupied the Lothagam Hill area between 6,000 and 7,000 years ago show some physical similarities to modern Nilotes. This is discussed in Angel, J. L., Phenice, T. W., Robbins, L. H. and Lynch, B. M., Late Stone Age Fishermen of Lothagam, Kenya, Michigan State University, Museum Anthropological series (in press). In addition, the overall distribution pattern of early Holocene fishing communities known from wavy line pottery and bone spear or harpoon points corresponds remarkably well to the present distribution of the Nilo-Saharan language group as a whole. See discussion of this in Sutton, J. E. G., ‘The African Aqualithic’, Antiquity, li (1977), 2535. Furthermore, some of the earliest domesticated livestock known for eastern Africa has recently been recovered from the east Lake Turkana area (Barthelme, J., personal communication).

25 Jacobs, A. H., ‘Maasai Pastoralism in Historical Perspective’, in Pastoralism in Tropical Africa, ed. Monod, T. (International African Institute, London, 1975).

26 Ehret, , Southern Nilotic History. Ochieng, , Rift Valley, p. 28.

27 A complete inventory of sites is presented in Robbins, L. H., The Lopoy Site, Michigan State University Museum, Anthropological Series (in press). Similar pottery also is known from sites in the Lake Hannington area. See Farrand, W. R., Redding, R. W., Wolpoff, M. H. and Wright, H. T. III, An Archaeological Investigation of the Loboi Plain, Baringo District, Kenya, Technical Reports 4, Research Reports in Archaeology, Contribution 1 (Ann Arbor, 1976).

28 Robbins, L. H., ‘Archaeology in the Turkana District, Kenya’, Science, clxxvi (1972), 359–66.

29 Robbins, L. H., The Lopoy Site (in press).

30 See Lamphear, J. E., The Traditional History of the Jie of Uganda (London, 1976).

31 Ehret, , Southern Nilotic History.

32 Evans-Pritchard, E. E., The Nuer (London, 1940).

33 Another archaeological component is evident at a different part of the Lopoy site. This is a hunting and butchering camp associated with a distinctive kind of pottery that contrasts with the Turkwell tradition. See Robbins, L. H. and Lynch, B. M., ‘New evidence on the use of microliths from the Lake Turkana Basin, East Africa’, Current Anthropology, xix, iii, 619–20.

34 Ogot, B. A., History of the Southern Luo, 1 (Nairobi, 1967), 41–2.

35 Phillipson, , ‘Bantu language’; idem, The Later Prehistory of Eastern and Southern Africa, chapters 6–8 (London, 1977). Soper, R. C., ‘A general review of the Early Iron Age in the Southern half of Africa’, Azania, vi, 537.

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