Pre-Colonial History of Kenya – Part 1

Eastern Africa was the cradle of mankind. The history of human beings started in that part of Earth we now call Kenya and Tanzania. The fossils of Olduvai Gorge, Koobi Fora and Olorgesailie have revolutionised informed thinking about the origins of mankind and it is fitting that we should spend a little while on the dramatic story of these finds.

It starts in 1911 when Professor Kattwinkel, a German entomologist, chasing a butterfly across the south-east Serengeti plains nearly fell to his death one hundred metres down an immense, rock-strewn gorge.

Having survived, and being a scientist, he noticed a remarkable number of fossils on the exposed rock face. The gorge was called Olduvai by the Masai and the fossils were found to illustrate more than 2 million years of human evolution.

The almost complete skeleton of a boy (Homo erectus) estimated to have lived 1.6 million years ago in northern Kenya.

In 1959 Mary and Louis Leakey from Kenya discovered the 400 fragments of a skull in the gorge which was at first named Zinjanthropus. The original definition of man as a tool-user has been abandoned. Some apes, birds and even other animals use tools but only man takes natural articles and shapes them to make tools and then uses them.

Before Zinjanthropus it had been assumed that only those persons whose skulls were clearly similar to those of modern men could make tools.

It was also assumed that such toolmakers were not more than 500,000 years old. But Zinjanthropus had huge back teeth (hence the nickname `Nutcracker Man’) and he was found in a stratum which held many stones cut on both sides to make a sharp edge.

In 1961 Zinjanthropus was dated to 1,750,000 years ago. The calendar for the Stone Age had been irrevocably changed and palaeontology has never been the same since.

Altogether three types of early hominids have been found at Olduvai. These were Australopithecus boisei (as Zinjanthropus became); Homo habilis, a small, lightly built creature, and Homo erectus, a hominid whose brain capacity was much larger than the other two.

Richard Leakey, Louis’ son, moved the dates even further back to 3,000,000 years ago when he and his team made some important animal and hominid fossil finds some fifteen years later at Koobi Fora on the eastern side of Lake Turkana.

Nothing much seems to have happened until, some 400,000 years ago, hand axes, large, pointed pieces of rock, clearly suitable for heavy work, appeared among the fossils. They were probably used to club animals, and perhaps other humans, to death.

At that time many of the animals were similar to the ones we know today, but very much larger. Sheep were as big as buffaloes and pigs as large as cows. Hand axes are more abundant in Kenya than anywhere else in the world.

Once the way of making them was found it seems to have spread fairly quickly from Africa to Asia and Europe. This hand axe culture began to give rise to civilizations with marked regional differences about 50,000 years ago.

These differences probably developed as a result of the interaction of man’s fast developing intelligence with the supplies of food, stone and other materials available in the different localities.

In East Africa by this time the huge and more bizarre animals were becoming extinct and were being replaced by the species we see today. The tools became smaller and more diverse. Small axes, probably set in wooden handles, and heads for spear-type weapons are found in plenty.

Bone implements are also frequent, some of which seem to have been worn smooth by working with leather. Skins and other perishable materials were being used.

Turkana Boy side view. It can be seen at the Nairobi National Museum. Image by Brian J. McMorrow

The people who introduced this culture probably lived in East Africa until five or so thousand years ago. About ten thousand years ago an analogous culture developed which is distinguished by an enormous variety of very small tools, some-times known as microliths, usually made from obsidian, a deep black smooth volcanic glass’ which can be fashioned to make a very sharp cutting-edge.

They have been used to make arrow-heads and set in wood to make a primitive type of sickle. Some of these have been found two hundred kilometers from the nearest known source of obsidian, suggesting the rudiments of elementary communications and trading.

These tools are the mark of the Later Stone Age. But there is simultaneously the first appearance of pottery and large stone bowls with pestles for grinding things.

These people decorated themselves with ostrich egg beads and shells. Red ochre for rubbing on the hair and skin has also been found.

In addition they had complex burial customs and their skulls were virtually identical with those of modern man.

Continue reading Pre-Colonial History of Kenya – Part 2

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Pre-Colonial History of Kenya – Part 2
Pre-Colonial History of Kenya – Part 3
Kenya History After Independence (1963)
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Mount Kenya Climbing Safaris
Luxury Safari in Kenya
Kenya & Tanzania Safaris
Geography of Kenya
Map of Kenya
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