Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences

, Volume 9, Issue 8, pp 1767–1788 | Cite as

Experimental and archaeological investigations of backed microlith function among Mid-to-Late Holocene herders in southwestern Kenya

  • Steven T. GoldsteinEmail author
  • Christopher M. Shaffer
Original Paper


This study takes an experimental and comparative approach in order to evaluate the circumstances driving the deployment of microlithic tool technologies by food-producing mobile herders during the Mid-to-Late Holocene in southern Kenya. The predominately obsidian microliths used by contemporaneous, but culturally distinct, herding communities were replicated and used as arrow tips in archery experiments and within composite knives used in animal processing. This allowed for patterns of damage associated with production, different forms of projectile use, and butchery to be identified on microlithic specimens and evaluated against each other to assess the criteria for diagnostic macrofracture and wear patterns reflective of each activity. Experimentally generated criteria were used to identify the most likely functions for microlithic tools in three archaeological assemblages belonging to early Kenyan pastoralists. The analyses showed that while the same microlithic form is shared by culturally distinct groups across a wide time range, these tools were being used to vary different functions that do not clearly correlate with subsistence economy, culturally affiliation, or time period. Environmental variability and instability throughout the Late Holocene likely contributed to the persistence of highly adaptable microlithic toolkits. These data contribute to ongoing dialogues on the emergence and evolution of microlithic toolkits.


Kenya Composite projectiles Impact fracture Experimental Pastoral Neolithic Microliths 



We would like to thank Scott Johnson, Diana Fridberg, and Michael Storozum for their assistance in organizing and conducting the experimental components of this research, and Dr. Purity Kiura, Dr. Emmanuel Ndiema, and the staff of the National Museums of Kenya for the permissions to sample these collections and for their vital assistance in conducting this research (conducted under Kenyan NACOSTI permit #14-43161875). We would also like to thank K. Odner, D. Gifford-Gonzalez, G. Isaac, C. Nelson, P. Robertshaw, and F. Marshall, who conducted and reported on the archaeological excavations sampled in this study. Thanks to John Willman, Justin Pargeter, and the comments by anonymous reviewers, which greatly improved the quality of this text. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation (Grant BCS-1439123) and Washington University in St. Louis.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyWashington University in St. LouisSt. LouisUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyGrand Valley State UniversityAllendaleUSA

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