Pre-Colonial History of Kenya – Part 2

The Olorgesailie prehistoric site lies in the Rift Valley, in Kajiado District in Masailand about 64 km (40 miles) on a tarmac road south-west of Nairobi. It is situated on the shores of what was once a freshwater lake basin and certainly attracted stone age men as a camping site.

The accumulated layers of sand, silt and diatomite have preserved in a remarkable way stone tools and bone food waste in deposits some 70 metres deep. The lake sediments and stone artefacts at Olorgesailie were recorded by J.W. Gregory when he walked from Naivasha to Magadi in 1919 but were first properly researched by Mary and Louis Leakey between 1943 and 1948.

A council of Masai elders donated the site to the nation and in 1948 it was gazetted as a National Park. It is widely recognized as one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world, not just for the recovery of stone tools but also for investigating the activities of early man.

The evidence shows that for a period of between 100,000 and 200,000 years men were continually living on, or visiting, the floor of the lake basin. This was happening some time between 100,000 to 500,000 years ago. The artefacts have not only been found scattered over an area of 60 square kilometres but also concentrated in dense patches in which there are also numerous broken-up pieces of the bones of prehistoric animals.

These patches represent the remains of the camping and living places of prehistoric man. Some of the sites contain over a ton of stone which had to be carried a mile or more from the hills to the plain by the lake shore. These stone age men usually camped on the sandy floors of seasonal riverbeds rather than by the lake shore, which may have been mosquito-ridden.

The evidence shows the camps belonged to bands of from 2 to 3 adults up to as many as twenty to thirty with their children. The camps were not permanent but some seem to have been revisited frequently.

It is also clear that these people were not cultivators or cattle herders. They hunted and also probably scavenged. The bones range from birds to elephants and hippopotamuses. Some animals now extinct are represented, especially giant zebra, giant hogs and a robust baboon.

In one place there are the broken-up bones of over 40 adult and 10 young robust baboons, apparently killed after a successful co-operative hunt. The evidence of Olorgesailie (and the even older site at Olduvai) is of behavior patterns that differ markedly from anything seen in the monkeys and apes that are man’s closest living relatives.

Hominid behavior from the earliest stage seems to have involved the existence of a home base as a social and economic focus; food sharing; tool-making; and hunting.

The study of prehistoric man has become one of the most exciting and revealing pursuits of our time. Kenya is a leader in this field and has a wealth of sites in addition to Olorgesailie whose investigation can-not fail to increase mankind’s knowledge and understanding of his own development.

Further south in Africa they developed brilliantly the art of rock painting but unfortunately there are few examples of this in Kenya or Tanzania. It is today held that these Later Stone Age people lived in villages, kept domestic animals, harvested wild grain and perhaps even began to cultivate crops.

The best known Kenyan sites are at Gamble’s Cave and at Hyrax Hill just outside Nakuru. One burial at Nakuru seems to indicate a ritual in which slaves or wives were slaughtered when a leading personality died.

A different form of burial occurs at the Njoro River Cave not far away. The bodies, smeared with ochre and tied in a hunched up position, were buried in a shallow grave with a stone bowl, beads and ornaments. A large fire was then lit, reducing the bodies to charcoal.

This culture, however, gave way about two thousand years ago with the coming of iron. The people and their lives were transformed. The next stages of the remarkable story of mankind in East Africa remain speculative but research continues and with the use of ever more sophisticated scientific aids, especially in the areas of blood grouping patterns, language characteristics and social organization, the mists of time are slowly being lifted.

The main feature of this lengthy period was movement. Some people migrated out of the cradle of mankind while others stayed behind and then some of those who had gone out came back and then the whole process would be repeated.

Those who went out of Africa altogether were slowly changed by new climates and different environments to become Arabs, Europeans, Indians, Chinese, Indonesians and so on.

Back in East Africa itself some ten thousand years ago there seem to have been four different groups who had evolved within the area. These included the hunters and food gatherers of the plains, and the forest dwellers.

Their peace was rudely disturbed around 6000 BC by the first waves of Hamites from the north, whose weapons and military organization were so greatly superior that they rapidly submerged totally the groups they found.

Out of this interaction of peoples with their migrations, invasions and counter-invasions over many thousands of years, have come the modern in-habitants of East Africa. Very few indeed of the descendants of the original inhabitants are now left but the land is full of flourishing groups of Hamites, Bantu and Nilotes.

As we come nearer to our own time the story remains one of invasions, this time not so much by land as by sea, which is why so much of the hard history of these years is found at the coast.

Around 500 BC the huge outrigger Indonesian boats dominated the vast sweeps of the Indian Ocean. Their most important impact in Africa, in terms of people, language and culture was on Madagascar. But a few came to East Africa and they left us the coconut, the banana, some words, some music and improvements in our boats.

Built by the Portuguese between AD 1593 and AD 1598, Fort Jesus over-looks the entrance to Mombasa’s Old Harbour. A hundred years later on 15 March, 1696 it was besieged by the Arabs. Briefly relieved in September, 1698 by troops from Goa, the garrison (reduced to eleven men and two women) finally succumbed at the end of 1698.

They were followed by the Arabs who probably first came to the coast about 500 AD. They were settlers and even today they remain in sizeable numbers. There are some 40,000 still living on the Kenya coast. Their legacy is in some elements of the Swahili culture and the Kiswahili language which has become the lingua franca of over 200 million people in East and Central Africa.

Then came the Persians (carried on dhows to and fro by the monsoon winds, an annual return journey still carried out even today), the Chinese and the Malaysians all of whom were traders around the Indian Ocean.

Continue reading Pre-Colonial History of Kenya – Part 3

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