African Archaeological Review

, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 43–73 | Cite as

The Elmenteitan Obsidian Quarry (GsJj50): New Perspectives on Obsidian Access and Exchange During the Pastoral Neolithic in Southern Kenya

  • Steven T. GoldsteinEmail author
  • John M. Munyiri
Original Article


Early pastoralists in southern Kenya exploited obsidian sources to supply large regional exchange networks that persisted from c. 3200 to 1400 years ago. Obsidian exchange networks have been a source for speculation on the social and political nature of early pastoralism in eastern Africa. Herders who produced a discrete set of material culture called “Elmenteitan” mainly relied on a particular obsidian quarry site on the upper slopes of Ol Doinyo Opuru (Mt. Eburru), in the Central Rift Valley. These implications of the Elmenteitan pattern for herder social organization have not been systematically investigated. This paper reports on recent surveys and initial excavations at the Elmenteitan Obsidian Quarry (GsJj50) on Mt. Eburru as the central node of a prehistoric herder exchange network. Research revealed a series of stratified extraction and workshopping loci concentrated across a roughly 200-m2 extent. Spatial, faunal, ceramic, and lithic datasets support communal resource access by small groups, rather than centralized control. This research has implications for interpreting the role of centralized quarries and resource nodes in the formation of mobile herder exchange and alliance. Networks were an important risk-reduction strategy in unpredictable environments and helped facilitate the spread of African pastoralism.


Kenya Pastoral Neolithic Lithics Quarry Exchange Elmenteitan Obsidian 


Les premiers pasteurs du sud du Kenya ont exploité des sources d’obsidienne pour raccorder de grands réseaux d’échange régionaux qui ont persisté jusqu’en c. 3200–1400 AD. Les réseaux d’échange d’obsidienne ont fait l’objet de spéculations sur la nature sociale et politique des prémisses du pastoralisme en Afrique de l’est. Des gardiens de troupeaux qui ont produit une collection discrète de culture matérielle appelée « Elmenteitan » ont compté sur un site de carrière en l’haute de la pente d’Ol Doinyo Opuru (mont Eburru), dans la vallée Centrale Rift. Les implications du modèle Elmenteitan pour l’organisation sociale des gardiens n’ont pas fait l’objet d’une étude systématique. Cet article s’appuie sur des études récentes et des fouilles inédites réalisées à la carrière d’Elmenteitan (GsJj50) sur le mont Eburru, considéré comme le noeud central d’un réseau préhistorique d’échanges. La recherche a montré une série d’extractions stratifiées, et des lieux de « workshopping » qui s’étendent sur 200 mètres carrés. Un ensemble de données spatiales, céramiques, lithiques et de faune, sous-tendent un concept d’accès qui relève de ressources communales, plutôt que d’un contrôle centralisé. Cette recherche a des conséquences sur l’interprétation du rôle des carrières centralisées et noeuds de ressources dans la formation d’échange et alliance des gardiens mobiles. Les réseaux ont constitué une stratégie importante de diminution des risques dans les milieux imprévisibles, et ont facilité la propagation du pastoralisme Africain.



This research was carried out in Kenya under research permit no. 14/4316/1875, serial no. A 2257, issued by the National Commission for Science, Technology, and Innovation (NACOSTI). We are thankful to the National Museums of Kenya, especially Emmanuel Ndiema and Angela Kabiru of the Archaeology division for facilitating this research. We owe considerable debt to the N’gan’ga and Mutonya families of Eburru Center and the entire community of Eburru for their hospitality through the course of fieldwork. Thanks also go to Chief Ben of Eburru, Deb and Greg Snell, and Stanley Ambrose, without all of whom this research would not have been possible. Finally, we are grateful to Fiona Marshall, Elizabeth Sawchuk, and the detailed comments and recommendations of the anonymous reviewers, whose input has greatly improved the quality of this manuscript. Any errors are solely the fault of the authors. Funding was provided by Washington University in St. Louis and the National Science Foundation (BCS-1439123).

Compliance with Ethical Standards:


This study was funded by the National Science Foundation (Grant BCS-1439123) and Washington University in St. Louis.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

10437_2016_9240_MOESM1_ESM.docx (38.3 mb)
Online Resource 1 Supplemental figures, tables, and text (DOCX 38.8 mb)
10437_2016_9240_MOESM2_ESM.docx (2.4 mb)
Online Resource 2 Culture resource management: mitigating future risk to GsJj50 (DOCX 2.40 mb)


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyWashington University in St. LouisSt. LouisUSA
  2. 2.Archaeology Division, Department of Earth ScienceNational Museums of KenyaNairobiKenya

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