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Environmental aspects of settlement site decisions among pastoral Maasai

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Maasai settlements in Amboseli are distributed in a pattern which reflects various physical and biological characteristics of the landscape. The settlements avoid hillslope gradients exceeding 0.08, and the lower sections of long hillsides, which receive large amounts of runoff. Long, relatively high hillslopes are difficult for exhausted cattle to climb at the end of the dry season, and even the welldrained sites at the upper ends of these slopes are not commonly used. Deep, poorly drained, and light-colored soils are avoided because they affect the comfort of humans, and especially the milk production of cattle. The settlements are located away from dense tree and bush vegetation because of the danger of predators, but during occupation of the site important changes in the vegetation are wrought by the use of trees for settlement construction and firewood. The reasons for the pattern were elucidated by making a set of systematic measurements of settlement distributions and various environmental factors. The conclusions of this analysis were then checked and extended through conversations with Maasai elders. These latter exhibited a sophisticated knowledge of environmental characteristics and processes which is reflected in their choice of settlement sites. Such knowledge has commonly been overlooked by other writers on the subject of pastoralism.

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Western, D., Dunne, T. Environmental aspects of settlement site decisions among pastoral Maasai. Hum Ecol 7, 75–98 (1979).

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