Introduction for Educators

Climate change is affecting us all. In Africa, the people least responsible for cooking our planet are among those suffering the most. The livelihoods of small-scale farmers, herding families, and many others are increasingly threatened by climate shifts, including higher temperatures and unpredictable rains. Strategies for preventing worst-case climate change scenarios will require global coordination to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a massive scale, as well as more localized, ecologically, and culturally appropriate approaches to food production and land management (see Höhn et al., this volume).

Africa’s past may seem an unlikely source of inspiration for dealing with climate change in an increasingly complicated, interconnected world. Yet, both the archaeological record and Indigenous knowledge systems are infused with a range of alternative coping strategies that provide multiple advantages for planning future responses. Indigenous peoples have selectively curated and maintained ecological knowledge through generations of storytelling, passing down repertoires of coping strategies that have survived the test of time. In areas where much of this knowledge has been lost, the archaeological record attests to a much wider variety of strategies in the past than we see today. Archaeology—our focus here—captures an incredibly long time span, permitting us a unique glimpse at past successes and failures spanning diverse cultural, economic, and environmental conditions.

Unfortunately, these alternative narratives remain scattered across academic journals, largely inaccessible to policymakers and the general public, who take a much shorter view of history, if they consider it at all. Here, we flip the narrative by centering these coping strategies as possibilities for dealing with climate change today. How would climate change responses be different if African Indigenous knowledges were valued more highly? How might our approaches shift if we adopted long-term goals rather than short-term fixes?

In this piece, we prompt students to imagine radically different worlds to decenter what many have been taught—that technological improvements and knowledge originating in the Global North will solve the predicaments of climate change. In her 2009 TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” well-known Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described how her view of fiction was limited to the kinds of stories most commonly found in trade paperbacks: those written by White people in the Global North. Those stories were full of apples, snow, and other commonplace items in more temperate climates that were unfamiliar to a little girl growing up in tropical Nigeria. As a consequence, she did not see herself in those stories and thought that being an author was out of reach for girls like her (Adichie 2009).

We, it must be acknowledged, are two White archaeologists based in the Global North. We do not possess Adichie’s positionality, expertise, or writing ability, and we stress that African stories are best told by African storytellers. We see some value, however, in asking students from around the world to consider “what if?” What if African knowledges were valued at, or above, Global North-driven responses to climate change? What if long-term sustainability was valued more than short-term monetary gains? We explore what these different realities could look like through two stories drawn from our archaeological and ethnographic research in Ghana and Kenya. We hope that these stories prompt students to write their own narratives and to ask their own series of “what ifs” in the service of inspiring alternative responses to climate change.

We are far from being the first to write archaeologically grounded fiction, nor are we the first to stretch our speculative imaginations about African futures. We are inspired, of course, by the creativity of Afrofuturism, that literary and artistic genre created by—and for—the African diaspora to imagine alternative Black possibilities. We admire novelists like Octavia Butler, whose science fiction from the 1970s through the early 2000s is still finding new fans today. And, who among us has not cheered for the Black Panther? New creatives are also expanding this genre to ground it very intentionally in African experience(s). Nnedi Okorafor (2019; see also 2017), a Nigerian-American writer, coined the term “Africanfuturism,” which, in her words, is concerned with visions of the future, is interested in technology, leaves the earth, skews optimistic, is centered on and predominantly written by people of African descent (black people) and it is rooted first and foremost in Africa. It’s less concerned with “what could have been” and more concerned with “what is and can/will be.” It acknowledges, grapples with, and carries “what has been.”

We see this literary form as particularly fertile ground for thinking about climate change and African knowledges. It grants a creative license to think about what could be possible in the future and what role the continent could play if priorities and geopolitics were different.

Archaeology has been underused as a foundation and fodder for this kind of writing and has played a minor role in designing responses to climate change. We are thrilled to see buildings inspired by African monumental architecture. The great mosques of Mali, for example, appear in Wakanda along with fashions and tales of kings and queens, and warriors drawn from the African historical record. Yet, the less spectacular archaeological finds that do not make it onto the Discovery Channel—bits and pieces of pottery, metals, seeds, and animal bones—provide records of how everyday people pioneered and perfected resilient agricultural practices, herding systems, and more over thousands of generations. Though seemingly mundane, these archaeological finds have profound implications for understanding how humans have coped, are coping, and could cope with climate change in the future.

Thus, storytelling has a dual purpose here and in the classroom: to make African archaeology more visible to students and use the past to imagine alternative futures. Below, we attempt to put these goals into action through two short stories inspired by actual archaeological finds and ethnographic engagements with local communities. Rather than recreating a specific time or place in the past, our stories convey strategies for dealing with climate change and uncertainty as they might unfold in the future tense.

The first story takes place in 2065 CE (Common Era) and contains several historical themes and contexts that students can easily envision, speaking to a potential future they could see in their own lifetimes and challenging them to think about how they could do things differently. The second story is set in the very distant future, in the year 5025 CE, and prompts students to think of what life may look like in a very unfamiliar time and what kinds of strategies may help (and have helped) humankind persist that long.

These stories are intended to aid teenage (13–18 years old) students in creatively reimagining the future. Students could build on our stories, continuing to write the adventures of Abena or Akaina. Or they could compose songs or draw their own graphic novels, inspired in their own ways by what we have learned from the African archaeological record. Students should feel especially emboldened to draw on the literary and artistic traditions they find familiar, writing their own futures for themselves and a world that too often has written them out.

To guide their readings and any discussion or activity afterward, we would ask students to contemplate these questions:

  • How might our futures look differently if addressing climate change was the world’s primary goal right now?

  • What lessons should be drawn from African societies and their long histories of successfully coping with climate change?

  • What kinds of future worlds do you want to see?

After each story, we provide information for teachers in the form of a summary of the archaeological and ethnographic evidence that inspired our stories and links to additional accessibly written resources on each case study. Educators can use these synopses, with or without our stories, to meet curricular needs.

Story 1: Abena and Sustainable African Solutions in 2065 CE

Abena awoke to a cool breeze laced with the scent of the season’s first rains. She inhaled deeply, hoping the sweet, life-giving air would convince her to get ready for work. It was still dark, but she eased out of bed, wrapped in a bright wax print cloth that had belonged to her grandmother. It was soft with age, creased by years of laundering.

The cloth reminded Abena of her grandmother’s stories, her ancestors, their struggles, and the lessons they gifted her.

The rain’s arrival was no surprise. Abena had noticed how certain trees changed, sure signs that the rains were coming. “The trees are as good as any other meteorological instrument,” she remembered her grandfather saying. He always liked to point out this leaf and that fruit could tell her what was coming. In these moments, the future felt less scary and more knowable.

Long ago, Abena and her ancestors learned to read the signs of the trees, the animals, and the plants around them. They had heard what happened to the People Across the Sea, who did not bother to pay attention.

The stories came from long before Abena was born, but her grandparents had carefully told and retold them so their descendants would be prepared.

Grandmother told of how the People Across the Sea grew greedy. They choked the air and waterways with all manner of foul substances, overheating the planet in the name of the newest iPhone, 4D TV, and other things that, looking back, seemed frivolous when lives were at stake.

She told Abena of how the Harmattan—dry winds from the Sahara—grew harsher and longer as a result. The growing season kept getting shorter. Swarms of locusts devoured what little had grown. Times were desperate.

Her ancestors were faced with a choice: pack and leave their homes behind in search of a better way or figure out how to make do with what they had.

It was the year 1982 CE. Abena’s grandmother, Afiriye, was only nine at the time. She nervously clutched her cloth in bed that night and listened to her parents talking quietly outside.

“Rains are better to the south of us,” her father said. “We could stay with my brother for a while to see if it might work for us.”

“But Kofi, he doesn’t have space or food for all of us,” her mother replied.

“What if we didn’t take everyone?” said her father. “I know it’s not ideal, but we might not have a choice.”

“Family is all we have,” replied her mother. “We’ll stay here together. We’ll figure something out.”

And they did. Instead of leaving behind the elders who might be too frail to travel, they asked them questions. They heard about the wars of the mid-nineteenth century, the locust plagues of the 1930s, the horrible droughts of the late 1960s, and the political challenges of the early 1980s. Each time, their people turned to the elders and relied on passed-down repertoires of practical knowledge about how to survive.

They learned how to capture the locusts and enjoy their sweet meat. How to find edible leaves in the bush, even new ones, tasting them one person at a time to test their safety. They planted foods like cassava and yams that grew underground, where no locusts could destroy them. And they managed.

After some years, the People Across the Sea came again. But this time, they were there to learn.

~~~

Abena fixed herself breakfast on her solar-powered stove. Sun crept through the sunroof, warming her earthen-walled home.

She pedaled her bicycle to work, thankful for the freshly graveled road, which spared her clothes from becoming muddy. Good, she thought, one less thing to wash. There are better uses for clean water.

She parked her bike in a sea of others in front of the diminutive facade of the Sustainable African Solutions building—or “sass” (a jocular adaptation of the institute’s acronym, SAS), as Abena and her colleagues sometimes joked, recalling the Time Before, when African ecological knowledge was disparaged as primitive.

The earthen-walled headquarters was massive, bringing together experts from all over the continent. It was modeled after Timbuktu, an ancient center of learning in the area formerly known as Mali. Underneath the SAS logo was their motto: “Eat Where You Live.”

Abena entered the building and went to her work group, the Forest-Savanna Transition unit. At SAS, people worked in units determined by ecological zone rather than international boundaries. After all, those boundaries were not that helpful when it came to climate change since it is not exactly something that can be fenced in.

Today was a big day. Abena and her group were presenting their ideas to the whole organization. Abena wondered why she was so nervous. Her workmates were usually open-minded and generous with their feedback.

Maybe it was because she was pushing for more investment in “mini-livestock”: cultivating insects as renewable protein sources. She was worried that the People Across the Sea would push back; they had always had weird nonsensical taboos against eating bugs. If only they had the courage to taste the sweet meat of locusts, they would be hooked.

But she was also worried about the Arid Grasslands folks, especially those from eastern Africa who work on encouraging mobile pastoralism as an economic strategy. Would they see her insect push as competition to their focus on promoting large livestock protein sources?

She knew her fears were probably unfounded. SAS was all about collaboration. But anxiety is not always logical.

Her worries made her think of her negative experiences as a schoolgirl two decades earlier when the world was slowly letting go of the habits of the past and was even more delayed in accepting the future.

Most of her teachers had been trained in the Time Before. Their textbooks were hangovers from the colonial past. All the examples were of White girls and boys who ate apples and played in the snow, things that she had never experienced as a West African. She grew up eating fresh mangoes, ripe from the trees, and dancing in glee under the coolness of the first rains.

Her school rooms were mostly bare, except for the tattered world maps with outdated country boundaries drawn by colonial powers.

At age 16, she gave a presentation to her social sciences class about re-populating the savanna with large mammals that had gone extinct—animals like elephants and hippos that were central to maintaining local ecosystems.

Her teacher, Mr. Mensah, was unimpressed.

“Child, why do you talk of things no one cares about?” he chided.

“Sir? Why would we not want to restore some of what was lost?” she asked.

“Abena, you need to look to the future, not the past!” he refrained.

He gave her a failing mark. He crushed her confidence.

But time was the ultimate judge.

~~~

In Abena’s time, the new world order looked to the past for inspiration. They chose what made sense for the future. Why not? What better test for ideas than to see how they played out before?

Abena’s people had a long history of survival. They had lived in Banda, in what used to be called Ghana, for over a millennium. Knowledge of these achievements was passed on in stories like those her grandparents told her as a child.

They told of violence in the time of their grandparents’ grandparents when their families were forced to make difficult choices about whether to leave or stay. Of those who were lost as villagers fled to the safety of caves high in the hills. Of the importance of staying together, whenever possible. Passing down this story from the 1800s was what helped them weather twenty-first-century droughts. A story was never just a story; it was full of practical knowledge that helped them persist.

Even the cloth she slept with, creased with years of love, referenced the big changes of her grandmother’s grandmother’s time. Wax prints were a quick way of producing brightly colored and intricately patterned clothes that were popular for much of the twentieth century. But they were made a world away, in Europe and then China. Before colonialism, her ancestors had always loved intricately designed textiles and had exclusively made their own cloth. The grandmothers’ grandmothers spun locally grown cotton into thread. The grandfathers’ grandfathers dyed the strands with a dark, rich blue from local indigo plants, wove the threads into all manner of patterns, and then stitched them together to make large pieces. Clothes were highly valued, worn for special occasions that marked life transitions like marriage, and ultimately passed down from one generation to the next, just like hers.

Remnants of their choices and activities also lay in the ground for centuries, even millennia. Archaeologists found remains of towns, buildings, and local industries—cloth, metal, pots, ivory, gold, and more—that were in great demand near and far. The ingenuity of her ancestors and their neighbors was so alluring that the People Across the Sea came in search of their great riches starting in the 1400s.

This economic diversity helped them weather the worst drought on record for a millennium that lasted an astonishing 250 years (c.1400–1650 CE). When demand for one product dried up, they had other things to trade.

But most importantly of all, they had pearl millet and sorghum, two native grains that weathered even the worst droughts.

In the Time Before, most People Across the Sea had never tasted sorghum’s sweetness or enjoyed the nutty aroma of pearl millet. Now, they are the world’s most important food crops, thanks to their nutritiousness and ability to grow in arid zones.

If not for the tenacity of her ancestors, knowledge about crops like this would have been lost forever. As the world got warmer and drier, what would they have eaten instead?

Remembering the trials, tribulations, and remarkable persistence of her ancestors helped. Abena took a deep breath and jumped on the video call she had been dreading.

The future was now.

Story 1: What We Know: a Guide for Teachers

Inspiration for Abena’s story draws from oral histories, ethnography, and archaeology derived from decades of research in Banda, west-central Ghana. To learn more about this project, visit the virtual exhibit, “Banda Through Time,” curated by the project director Prof. Ann Stahl.

People have lived in Banda for thousands of years, but we know the most about the last millennium. Archaeological evidence shows that people were producing and trading pottery, metals, beads, and ivory both regionally and over long distances since at least 1250 CE. Trading partners changed over time, from those in drier, northern parts of West Africa during the trans-Saharan trade (1250 CE onwards) to European and Asante traders in the south (from ca. 1600 CE onwards). We know this based on the presence of materials—like copper—that are not present locally. Advanced archaeological science techniques also allow us to “fingerprint” where beads, pottery, and other goods were made.

To see how people coped with environmental change, we compared our archaeological evidence against paleoenvironmental data from Lake Bosumtwi, the only natural lake in what is today known as Ghana, where deep deposits record environmental changes over thousands of years. These records show a megadrought that lasted from ca. 1400–1650 CE, the most severe in a millennium. By looking at burned seeds and animal bones from archaeological sites, we can see that people adapted to dry conditions by growing indigenous, drought-tolerant grains like pearl millet and sorghum, and consumed a wide variety of meats. The diversity of their diets, as well as economic activities, helped people weather extreme drought.

Our knowledge about the last few centuries is more textured, thanks to the oral histories and practices passed down over generations. These records tell us about many things that inspired the story above, including the importance of local cloth (Fig. 1); how people were forced to flee to nearby caves (Fig. 2) during periods of violence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; how they managed locust plagues in the early to mid-twentieth century, and much more. Archaeological evidence complements these stories by providing more detail on everyday life, such as how people built strong houses of earth and how their foodways changed.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Locally made cloth (A), associated tools curated by elder women in Banda, Ghana, including paddles for deseeding and separating raw cotton (B), spindle whorls for spinning thread (C), and baskets where women keep their supplies (D). The women are wearing a colorful wax print cloth that is manufactured elsewhere. Photo by Amanda Logan

Fig. 2
figure 2

Banda cave, high in the mountains, where people fled to safety in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Photo by Amanda Logan

Resources on Banda

Banda Through Time. University of Victoria Special Collections and University Archives, https://exhibits.library.uvic.ca/spotlight/iaff. Accessed Dec. 15, 2022.

Bird, W. (2016). An archaeological mystery in Ghana: Why didn’t past droughts spell famine? National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/07/20/486670144/an-archaeological-mystery-in-ghana-why-didn-t-past-droughts-spell-famine.

Logan, A. (2020). Africa’s food security begins by undoing the wrongs of history. Africa Report, 14 October. OpEd. https://www.theafricareport.com/45878/africas-food-security-begins-by-undoing-the-wrongs-of-history/.

Logan, A. (2020). The Scarcity Slot: Excavating histories of food security in Ghana. University of California Press. Open Access: https://doi.org/10.1525/luminos.98.

Stahl, A. (2001). Making history in Banda: Anthropological visions of Africa’s past. Cambridge University Press.

Resources on the Archaeology of Ghana

Anquandah, J., Kankpeyeng, B. & Apoh, W. (2014). Current perspectives in the archaeology of Ghana. Sub-Saharan Publishers, Accra. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvk3gn0j.

Begho: A Market Town in 16th Century West Africa. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1xPaT4jETY. Accessed April 10, 2023.

Christiansborg Archaeological Heritage Project. https://christiansborgarchaeologicalheritageproject.org. Accessed April 10, 2023.

Ghana Museums and Monuments Board. https://gmmb.gov.gh. Accessed April 10, 2023.

Story 2: Akaina and the COW in 5025 CE

Fifth millennium CE, near what used to be called Lake Turkana, in a region previously known as northwestern Kenya. Three thousand years in the future.

The small girl, Akaina, sings to her pots, and the pots sing back. She smiles and walks from her home toward her goats, who have found relief from the sun by the sausage trees. It is hot.

She knows where the wild gourds grow and where she is bound to find her friends, the carmine bee-eaters, swooping toward buzzing flowers to find their supper. These flowers grow in circular patches, hotspots crowded with life, that dot the landscape. They seem like gifts just for her from the past, from the cows once penned at night who kept quiet but knew full well the worth of their poop.

Relics dot the surrounding plains. The cranes, towering steel behemoths that once bobbed their heads for oil, are nearly buried now. She has heard the legends of the Middle Time from her grandparents. From their strongholds in the south, the Kine foretold suffering and decided to help—stopping the oil birds before they drank the world dry, committing to upholding peace, providing medicine for their animals, and discovering vaccines for new viruses. An uncountable number of people, with hoofed animals alongside, have passed through the Basin in times since. A hundred languages have been heard here. Some families have stayed for generations; some migrated onwards. Everyone, even the dimmest of sheep, remembers the amazonite-green waters of the lake.

Herding has been a resilient way of life in eastern Africa for seven thousand years, the elders tell Akaina. Look how the sheep, the cattle, the donkeys, and the goats have all survived. You have probably never seen the strange, long-legged ones with the hills on their backs, but they kept us alive when water was scarce before the rivers, small lakes, and native grasses returned all around us. Remember that mobility allowed herders like us and those who came before to cope with each crisis during even the worst seasons of Middle Time—moving the animals to far-away places with rain and lush pasture and moving whole houses when the rains are only found even farther away. Moving our herds and our homes still prevents overgrazing, and we still rely on old bonds and agreements between us to manage these plains to the best of all.

~~~

Akaina remembers perching in a tree watching the archaeologists, all older women from her community, scan the ground by the hills with a heavy gold medallion. The MarionR81 catches faint mumbles from the depths and translates those mysterious foreign words back to them in their own language. Archaeology, as a profession, has endured. Its methods have improved, although the archaeologists still enjoy getting their hands dirty, troweling, brushing, and sifting through bits of the past.

A voice, muffled, calls out to them: “Won’t anyone listen? I lie here below, with a giant boulder crushing my head. I am an old man, surrounded by people who love me but have grown tired of hearing the same stories for seven thousand years.”

The women have heard this voice before.

“Tell us!” they say. Tell us, again, about the First Meeting!”

The old man obliges. “In my day, we walked day and night through the rain and the heat and the pouring rain. That’s a very important part of the story. We walked with our herds. They were hungry, and we had heard legends about a great lake with great fields of grass just beyond. Follow the river, and we’d find our way.”

Akaina, in the tree, knows which lake he means. The elders spoke of generations going by and the lake shrinking, and then growing again, and then shrinking. It was now nearly full to the brim of the Basin.

The old man continues: “We arrived, and the fishers greeted us with words we could not understand. We had little to offer them besides bony goats. They gave us giant fish and sweet honey; they could see we had suffered. We promised to work together. Our connections were strong and sustained us. We thanked our goddess Kind Donkey for guiding us to this peaceful place. We sacrificed our most beautiful pots for her to carry with pride. Why have the youth now forgotten her? Could someone please bring me some soup?”

The archaeologists know. They have seen those connections in the sharp pieces of black stone people shaped into knives, traded across the vastness of the Basin and beyond in Early Time. By Middle Time, different objects came from afar and kept people in touch: The archaeologists often find clunky hand-sized devices, with wires and screens, covered in dust. What have most people used these devices for, Akaina wondered. Maybe to tell each other about where the grass grows, the best prices for cattle, next week’s wedding, perhaps how they fish when the rains fail. Some things, she imagines, barely change.

~~~

Akaina studies for her exams. The planetary alliance of herders, the Drove, has high standards for admission into their training program for envoys. Her courses have weighty titles like Uncertainty Management, Non-Equilibrial Dynamics, and Resilience Theory. They are filled with the jargon of long-ago scientists, whose tattered manuscripts in strange scripts were rescued and re-embraced after the dark times. Those scientists—ecologists, ethnographers, and archaeologists—documented the deep knowledge about responding to dynamic and changing environments that herding peoples bring to their work. Akaina studies hard and knows more than she thinks. Since she was a small child, the archaeologists from her community have told her tales of how herding families have survived in this place for millennia. Flexibility has been key, they say. Here is how people adjusted where they moved when the rains changed and when the lake filled its lungs or exhaled. Here is what they ate, they would explain. Here is what they want you to know.

As an envoy for the Drove, Akaina would share the good news. The Collective of Wizards, the COW, has developed machines that integrate archaeological data, Bovifuture climate monitoring, and wisdom offered by elders. The COW can accurately foretell the rains, which to Akaina still seems like magic. Livestock will die, often many, but herders can once again stock their herds accordingly in anticipation. Some will cultivate ancient crops like finger millet on the banks of the rivers and lakes, and some will cultivate sorghum for feasts. Some enterprising young people will engineer new crops, good for the planet and people alike. The tragic disruptions of Middle Time are long past since the world woke up and listened to people like hers.

Akaina has three days before her exams. She is confident but nervous and hopeful. She has just one more thing to do to prepare. She looks at her shelf and whispers a few quiet words to her pots. They whisper back. She chooses her most treasured bowl and walks out her door toward the hills.

Story 2: What We Know: a Guide for Teachers

The history of pastoralism in Africa goes back over 7000 years when hunter-gatherers living in the green grasslands of what is now the Sahara Desert adopted cattle, sheep, and goats brought to Africa with herders from southwestern Asia. As climate change caused the region to dry out, many people migrated—some farther afield in western Africa, some to the Nile Valley, and some toward the Rift Valley in eastern Africa. Herding has since played an enormously important role in Africa’s history. Herding communities in the dry Sahel zone south of the Sahara domesticated pearl millet and sorghum, and others played a role in the founding of ancient Egyptian societies. Cattle were central to the wealth of kingdoms at Great Zimbabwe in southern Africa, and across Africa today, livestock are culturally, economically, and politically central to the lives of millions of herding families.

In eastern Africa, the first herders arrived in the Turkana Basin over 5000 years ago, marking the beginning of a period known as the “Pastoral Neolithic.” One of the most extraordinary types of archaeological sites from this period are “pillar sites,” which are megalithic communal cemeteries found near the ancient shores of Lake Turkana (Fig. 3). We know of at least six such sites, known as ng’amoratung’a in the language of Turkana herders (Fig. 4), who live on the western side of the Turkana Basin today. Only a few pillar sites have seen major archaeological excavations. One site that has been explored is the Lothagam North Pillar Site, where at least 580 people were buried along with intricate “Nderit” pottery (Fig. 5), obsidian tools, and beads made from ostrich eggshells and colorful stones.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Landscape in the Turkana Basin today, with the Lothagam West Pillar Site visible in the foreground. Photo by Katherine Grillo

Fig. 4
figure 4

Camels belonging to Turkana herders, having a swim in Lake Turkana, 2008. Photo by Katherine Grillo

Fig. 5
figure 5

Decorated “Nderit” bowl, found by archaeologists at the Lothagam North Pillar Site. Photo by Katherine Grillo

Climate change must have caused severe disruptions during this period, but we know people came together without conflict at the pillar sites. Otherwise, we still know relatively little about the daily lives of early herding families in the Turkana Basin. They ate a diverse diet, including milk and meat from livestock and fish from the lake. We are still working to understand how mobile they were—did they live and graze their animals near the lake, or did they move regularly across the entire Basin? Another mystery remains about what ultimately happened to the people who built the pillar sites. Some people may have stayed in the Turkana Basin, and some may have moved farther south. We will need to do more archaeological research to find out.

Ancient DNA evidence recovered by archaeologists from burials elsewhere in eastern Africa shows that multiple waves of people migrated to this region, meeting hunter-gatherer communities already living there. By three thousand years ago, some pastoralist groups had moved into the Rift Valley of southern Kenya, where archaeologists and ecologists have found nutrient-rich “hotspots” dating back to this period. Hotspots are the remains of old livestock enclosures, which, due to ancient dung deposits, are especially rich in biodiversity. In other words, herders have positively impacted savanna landscapes for thousands of years (see also Höhn et al., this volume). Scholars are also beginning to recognize that herding has a key role to play in coping with climate change today. Although rain-fed agriculture might become impossible in many places, herding could remain a resilient way of life if support is available for communities to maintain their mobile settlement and grazing patterns. Herders are great at being flexible and managing uncertainty, and their lessons should resonate with us all.

Learn More

Kenya’s rich cultural heritage

National Museums of Kenya. The Shujaa Stories: Illustrated short stories about heroic figures from pre-colonial Kenya. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/shujaa-stories-21-superheroes-of-kenya/_QIChfN4VozrLg. Accessed April 10, 2023. (Be sure to read the one about Nayece, the “Mother of all Turkanas”).

Welcome to the National Museums of Kenya.

https://museums.or.ke/. Accessed April 10, 2023.

Mirzeler, Mustafa Kemal (2014). Remembering Nayeche and the gray bull Engiro: African storytellers of the Karamoja Plateau and the Plains of Turkana. University of Toronto Press.

Information about pastoralism

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). https://ilri.org/. Accessed April 10, 2023.

The PASTRES (Pastoralism, Uncertainty, and Resilience) research program provides numerous resources for the public about pastoralism, including a free online course: https://pastres.org/

Derbyshire, Sam (2022). Embracing uncertainty: Why Kenyan herders can teach us about living in a volatile world. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/embracing-uncertainty-what-kenyan-herders-can-teach-us-about-living-in-a-volatile-world-174075. Accessed April 10, 2023.

More about eastern African archaeology

Kaplan, Sarah (2018). This ancient burial ground tells a story of unity in a time of climate chaos. Washington Post.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2018/08/21/this-ancient-burial-ground-tells-story-unity-time-climate-chaos/. Accessed April 10, 2023.

Marshall, F. (2018). Behind the paper: Ancient herders enriched and restructured African grasslands. Nature Ecology and Evolution.

https://ecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/38272-ancient-herders-enriched-and-restructured-african-grasslands. Accessed April 10, 2023.

Sawchuk, E. A., Hildebrand, E. A., Hill, A. C., Contreras, D. A., Edung, J. E., Janzen, A., et al. (2022). The Jarigole mortuary tradition reconsidered. Antiquity, 96(390), 1460-1477. Open Access: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.141.