The Transition to Farming in Eastern Africa: New Faunal and Dating Evidence from Wadh Lang'o and Usenge, Kenya

By Lane, Paul; Ashley, Ceri et al. | Antiquity, March 2007 | Go to article overview

The Transition to Farming in Eastern Africa: New Faunal and Dating Evidence from Wadh Lang'o and Usenge, Kenya


Lane, Paul, Ashley, Ceri, Seitsonen, Oula, Harvey, Paul, Mire, Sada, Odede, Frederick, Antiquity


Introduction

One of the most important developments in African archaeology and cognate disciplines over the last few decades has been the increasing sophistication of the types of model used to document and explain the so-called 'Bantu Expansion'. In the 1960s and 1970s, the spread of Bantu languages, early farming communities and the knowledge of iron working across vast areas of sub-Saharan Africa were generally regarded as having been coterminous, and to have occurred relatively rapidly as a consequence of population growth and migration (e.g. Oliver 1966; Hiemaux 1968; Posnansky 1968). In Eastern Africa, social and economic changes have been traditionally chronicled by means of a range of pottery types: Kansyore pottery marks the Later Stone Age (to 3000-2400 BP) while Nderit and Elmenteitan pottery labels pastoral communities of the fifth to second millennia BP (Table 1). Urewe pottery, named after the type of site where it was first documented (Leakey et al. 1948), has long been regarded as the main fossile directeur of the transition from Later Stone Age (LSA) mobile hunter-gatherer societies to Early Iron Age (EIA) sedentary farmers (Posnansky 1968; Phillipson 1977).

As more data (and [sup.14]C dates) have become available and a wider range of possible sources has been taken into consideration, it has become increasingly apparent that the processes of demographic, linguistic, economic and technological change were vastly more complex than initially presumed (e.g. Vansina 1995; Ehret 2001; Salas et al. 2002), and may well have operated independently of one another. This in turn has encouraged scholars to explore alternative models (e.g. Robertson & Bradley 2000; Karega-Munene 2002; Lane 2004) and to develop a more regional focus to their enquiries (e.g. MacLean 1994/5; Eggert 2005; Kusimba & Kusimba 2005). As the number of such regional studies has accumulated, knowledge of the distribution and dating of early farming and iron-working sites has certainly improved.

In Eastern Africa, however, with the notable exception of studies of iron-smelting technology and its associated symbolism (e.g. Schmidt 1997), the archaeological manifestations of other aspects of these societies remain poorly understood (Reid 1994/5). Current models concerning the emergence and spread of domestication across the region are also further constrained by the relative lack of plant remains and large faunal assemblages from securely dated contexts (Young & Thompson 1999; Marshall 2000), and a dearth of well-stratified sites spanning the transition from hunting-gathering-fishing to herding and farming (Sutton 1994/5: 267-8).

Here, we report on preliminary results from two recent excavation projects in Nyanza Province, Kenya which shed new light on some of these issues, focusing in particular on the ceramic, lithic and faunal evidence from the multi-component site at Wadh Lang'o, excavated by a team from the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) in collaboration with the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA), and subsequently by Ashley, and the lithic, fauna and ceramic data sets from the site of Usenge 3, excavated by Lane and Ashley as part of a broader BIEA investigation of the later Holocene landscape archaeology of northern Nyanza Province (see Figure 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Wadh Lang'o

The site of Wadh Lang'o (GrJd9) was first encountered in 1999, during an impact assessment of areas under threat from the construction of a dam and hydroelectricity plant on the Sondu River, South Nyanza. The discovery of extensive scatters of ceramic types including 'Later Stone Age' Kansyore, 'Pastoral Neolithic' Elmenteitan, and 'Early Iron Age' Urewe, as well as later materials, over an area of at least 0.6ha, and evidence of in situ preservation of deposits prompted further investigation by a joint NMK and BIEA team a few months later. During this phase eight test-pits, mostly 1 x lm, were excavated at various localities across the site so as to determine the depth of deposits and quality of preservation. …

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