Geo-ethnoarchaeology of pastoral sites: The identification of livestock enclosures in abandoned Maasai settlements

Ruth Shahack-Gross, Fiona Marshall, Steve Weiner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

183 Scopus citations


The earliest food producers in Africa were mobile pastoralists who left limited archaeological traces. As a result archaeologists studying the spread of food production in the region have difficulty distinguishing early pastoralists from hunter-gatherers with whom they interacted. This geo-ethnoarchaeological study contributes to the resolution of the problem through identification of sediments distinctive of livestock enclosures, and thus of pastoral settlements. Sediments were sampled in and around currently occupied and recently abandoned Maasai livestock enclosures ranging in age between one and 40 years. Twenty to thirty years after site abandonment, there is no visible difference between enclosure and regional sediments. Micromorphological, mineralogical, and phytolith analyses, of enclosure sediments, however, allow differentiation of enclosure from regional sediments. Our results show that a unique undulating microlaminated structure is distinctive of enclosure sediments. Enclosure sediments, especially small stock, also contain a rare mineral, monohydrocalcite (CaCO3 . H2O). In addition, large amounts of opal (SiO2 . nH2O), in the form of phytoliths, are found in enclosure relative to regional sediments. These differences are likely to be preserved in the archaeological record, and this approach will allow better understanding of the spread of pastoralism in Africa and elsewhere.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)439-459
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2003
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Permission for the field study was given to R.S.-G. from the government of Kenya, in collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya. Airphotos and topographic maps were obtained from the Surveys of Kenya with the great help of Z. Otieno, the National Museums of Kenya. This study was supported by an NSF grant (Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, award no. 57508), a Wenner-Gren Foundation grant (Gr. 6663) and the Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science, Weizmann Institute, to R.S.-G., and an Israel Science Foundation grant to S.W.


  • East Africa
  • Ethnoarchaeology
  • Livestock enclosures
  • Micromorphology
  • Mineralogy
  • Pastoralism
  • Phytoliths


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