Middle Holocene Environmental Change at Mtwapa Creek, Kenya: Distinguishing Human Activity from Regional Ecological Processes

  • Ryan M. SzymanskiEmail author


Very little is known about human occupation of the East African Coast prior to the Swahili period. Only a handful of pre-Swahili archaeological sites from this region have been investigated in any detail. The Holocene archaeology of the coastal region requires research attention if the role of indigenous African populations in later ethnic mosaics is to be understood. Pollen, fungal spores, and charcoal remains from a sediment core derived from Mtwapa Creek are presented with the goal of better understanding mid-to-late Holocene (c. 7500–4000 cal yr BP) occupations of the coast. Evidence for increased local burning, herbivore activity, and overall landscape disturbance possibly derived from cultivation activities characterizes the period between c. 6200–4000 cal yr BP. Intensive exploitation of riverine habitats was practiced in the neighboring hinterland during this period, and it is proposed that similar adaptations may have been at play in coastal drainages at Mtwapa Creek and elsewhere contemporaneously. A variety of investigative methods are proposed that may yield additional information on human activities during this time period.


Anthropogenic impact Coastal ecosystems Fungi Intertidal core Holocene Paleoecology Palynology Swahili 


  1. Adamowicz L (1990) Newly discovered Stone Age cultures in Nampula province, Northern Mozambique. In: Sinclair P, Pwiti G (eds) Urban origins in eastern Africa: project proposals and workshop summaries. Paper No. 6. Stockholm, Sweden. The Swedish Central Board of National Antiquities, pp 137–197Google Scholar
  2. Ambrose SH (1984) The introduction of pastoral adaptations to the highlands of East Africa. In: Clark D, Brandt SA (eds) From hunters to farmers: the causes and consequences of food production in Africa. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  3. Ambrose SH (1998) Chronology of the Later Stone Age and food production in East Africa. J Arch Sci 25(4):377–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Ambrose SH, DeNiro MJ (1989) Climate and habitat reconstruction using stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios of collagen in prehistoric herbivore teeth from Kenya. Quat Res:407–422CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Ambrose SH, Sikes NE (1991) Soil carbon isotope evidence for Holocene habitat change in the Kenya Rift Valley. Science 253:1402–1405CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Baker AG, Bhagwat SA, Willis KJ (2013) Do dung fungal spores make a good proxy for past distribution of large herbivores? Quat Sci Rev 62:21–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bell A (1983) Dung fungi, an illustrated guide to the coprophilous fungi in New Zealand. Victoria University Press, WellingtonGoogle Scholar
  8. Bergner AGN, Trauth MH, Bookhagen B (2003) Paleoprecipitation estimates for the Lake Naivasha basin (Kenya) during the last 175 k.y. using a lake-balance model. Global Planet Change 36:117–136CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bonnefille R, Riollet G (1980) Pollens des Savanes d’Afrique Orientale. Centre National de la Recherche Sientifique, Paris, FranceGoogle Scholar
  10. Boxem HW, de Meester T, Smaling EMA (eds) (1987) Soils of the Kilifi area. Reconnaissance soil survey report No. R11, Kenya Soil Survey, Nairobi and Department of Soil Science and Geology, Agricultural University of Wageningen, Pudoc, Wageningen, The NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  11. Caratini C, Guinet P (1974) Pollen et Spores d’Afrique Tropicale. Association des Palynologues de Langue Francaise. Ministere de l’Education Nationale, Talence, FranceGoogle Scholar
  12. Chala A, Taye W, Ayalew A et al (2014) Multimycotoxin analysis of sorghum (Sorghum bicolor L. Moench) and finger millet (Eleusine coracana L. Garten) from Ethiopia. Food Control 45:29–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chami FA (1998) A review of Swahili archaeology. Afr Archaeol Rev 15:199–218CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Chami FA, Kessy E (1995) Archaeological work at Kisiju, Tanzania. Nyame Akuma 43:38–45Google Scholar
  15. Clark JS (1988) Particle motion and the theory of stratigraphic charcoal analysis: source area, transport, deposition and sampling. Quat Research 30:67–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Cohen AS, Palacios-Fest MR, Msaky ES (2005) Paleolimnological investigations of anthropogenic environmental change in Lake Tanganyika: IX. summary of paleorecords of environmental change and catchment deforestation at Lake Tanganyika and impacts on the Lake Tanganyika ecosystem. J Paleolimnol 34(1):125–145CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Coltorti M, Mussi M (1984) Late stone age hunter-gatherers of the Juba Valley. Nyame Akuma 28:32–33Google Scholar
  18. Crowther A (2012) Agriculture, subsistence and trade in coastal eastern Africa: archaeobotanical evidence from Kenya, Zanzibar and Tanzania. Paper presented at the 21st Biennial conference of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada: 20–23 June 2012Google Scholar
  19. Davis OK (1987) Spores of the dung fungus Sporormiella: increased abundance in historic sediments and before Pleistocene megafaunal extinction. Quat Research 28:290–294CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Davis OK, Shafer DS (2006) Sporormiella fungal spores, a palynological means of detecting herbivore density. Palaeogeogr Palaeocl 237:40–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Ehret C (1998) An African classical age. University of Virginia Press, CharlottesvilleGoogle Scholar
  22. Ellis MB (1971) Demaiaceous Hyphomycetes. Kew Publishers, Surrey, Commonwealth Mycological InstituteGoogle Scholar
  23. Erdtman G (1960) The Acetolysis method: A revised description. Sven Bot Tidskr 54:561–564Google Scholar
  24. Gastaldo RA (2012) Taphonomic controls on the distribution of palynomorphs in tidally influenced coastal deltaic settings. Palaios 27:798–810CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gelorini V, Verbeken A, van Geel BJ et al (2011) Modern non-pollen palynomorphs from East African lake sediments. Rev Palaeobot Palyno 164:143–173CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gelorini V, Ssemmanda I, Verschuren D (2012a) Validation of non-pollen palynomorphs as paleoenvironmental indicators in tropical Africa: contrasting~200-year paleolimnological records of climate change and human impact. Rev Palaeobot Palyno 186:90–101CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gelorini V, Verbeken A, Lens L et al (2012b) Effects of land use on the fungal spore richness in small crater-lake basins of western Uganda. Fungal Divers 55:125–142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Grimm E (1991) Tilia 1.7. Illinois State Museum, Research and Collection Center, SpringfieldGoogle Scholar
  29. Helm R (2000) Conflicting histories: the archaeology of the iron-working, farming communities in the central and southern coast region of Kenya. Dissertation, University of BristolGoogle Scholar
  30. Helm R, Crowther A, Shipton C et al (2012) Exploring agriculture, interaction and trade on the eastern African littoral: preliminary results from Kenya. Azania 47:39–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Jarzen DM, Elsik WC (1986) Fungal palynomorphs recovered from recent river deposits, Luangwa Valley, Zambia. Palynology 10:35–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Karlen W, Fastook JL, Holmgren K et al (1999) Glacier fluctuations on Mount Kenya since~6000 cal. years BP: implications for Holocene climatic change in Africa. Ambio 28:409–418Google Scholar
  33. Kessy ET (1997) Archaeological sites survey from Kisiju to Dar-es-Salaam. Nyame Akuma 48:57–69Google Scholar
  34. Kiage LM, Liu K (2006) Late Quaternary paleoenvironmental changes in East Africa: a review of multiproxy evidence from palynology, lake sediments, and associated records. Progr Phys Geog 30:633–658CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kusimba CM (1999) The rise and fall of Swahili States. Altamira Press, Walnut CreekGoogle Scholar
  36. Kusimba SB (2003) African foragers: environment, technology, interactions. Altamira Press, Walnut CreekGoogle Scholar
  37. Kusimba CM, Kusimba SB, Wright DK (2005) The development and collapse of precolonial ethnic mosaics in Tsavo, Kenya. J Afr Arch 3:345–365Google Scholar
  38. Leakey MD (1966) Excavation of burial mounds in Ngorongoro Crater. Tanzania Notes and Records 66:23–135Google Scholar
  39. Lejju BJ, Taylor D, Robertshaw P (2005) Late-Holocene environmental variability at Munsa archaeological site, Uganda: a multicore, multiproxy approach. Holocene 15(7):1044–1061CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Mercuri AM, Trevisan Grandi G, Accorsi CA (1999) Plant exploitation during the early and middle Holocene in the Tadrart Acacus (Central Sahara, Libya): pollen evidence of changes. In: Guarino A (ed) Proceedings of the second science and technology for the safeguard of cultural heritage in the Mediterranean Basin. Elsevier, Paris, pp 1081–1085Google Scholar
  41. Mercuri AM, Trevisan Grandi G (2001) Palynological analyses of the Late Pleistocene, Early Holocene and Middle Holocene layers. In: Garcea EAA (ed) Uan Tabu in the settlement history of the Libyan Sahara. Arid Zone Archaeology, Monographs 2. All’Insegna del Giglio, Firenze, pp 161–188Google Scholar
  42. Mercuri AM (2008) Plant exploitation and ethnopalynological evidence from the Wadi Teshuinat area (Tadrart Acacus, Libyan Sahara). J Archaeol Sci 35:1619–1642CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Michieka DO, van der Pouw BJA, Vleeshouwer JJ (1978) Soils of the Kwale-Mombasa-Lungalunga area. Reconnaissance Soil Survey Report No. R3, vol I: Main Report, Draft Edicion, Kenya Soil Survey, NairobiGoogle Scholar
  44. Morais J (1988) The early farming communities of southern Mozambique. Maputo, Eduardo Mondulane University and Stockholm, The Swedish Central Board of National Antiquities, Studies in African Archaeology, 3Google Scholar
  45. Morris A, Monge J, Kusimba C et al (2015) Decoding the Swahili: ancient DNA studies on the Kenyan Coast. Paper presented at the 80th meeting of the society for American archaeology, 15–19 April, San Francisco, CAGoogle Scholar
  46. Msaky ES, Livingstone D, Davis OK (2005) Paleolimnological investigations of anthropogenic environmental change in Lake Tanganyika: V. Palynological Evidence for Deforestation and Increased Erosion. J Paleolimnol 34(1):73–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Nelson CM (1993) Evidence for early trade between the coast and interior of East Africa. Paper presented at WAC Mombassa intercongress conference volumeGoogle Scholar
  48. Nicholson SE (1996) A review of climate dynamics and climate variability in Eastern Africa. In: Johnson AI (ed) Limnology, climatology and paleoclimatology of the East African Lakes. CRC Press, Boca Raton, pp 25–56Google Scholar
  49. Nirenberg HL, O’Donnell K (1998) New Fusarium species and combinations within the Gibberella fujikuroi species complex. Mycologia 90:434–452CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Omi G (1982) Mtongwe 1980: an interim report of the East and Northeast African prehistory research project 1980. Nagoya University, NagoyaGoogle Scholar
  51. Omi G (1984) Mtongwe 1982: an interim report of the East and Northeast African prehistory research project 1982. Nagoya University, NagoyaGoogle Scholar
  52. Omi G (1986) Mtongwe 1984: an interim report of the East and Northeast African prehistory research project 1984. Nagoya University, NagoyaGoogle Scholar
  53. Omi G (1988) Mtongwe and Mgonga 1986: an interim report of the East and Northeast African prehistory research project 1986. Nagoya University, NagoyaGoogle Scholar
  54. Omi G (1991) An interim report of the East and Northeast African prehistory research project, 1988/1989. Nagoya University, NagoyaGoogle Scholar
  55. Onyike NBN, Nelson PE (1992) Fusarium species associated with Sorghum grain from Nigeria, Lesotho and Zimbabwe. Mycologia 90:452–458CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Oosterum AP (1988) The geomorphology of Southeast Kenya. Dissertation. Agricultural University, WageningenGoogle Scholar
  57. Palacios-Fest MR, Cohen AS, Lezzar K (2005a) Paleolimnological investigations of anthropogenic environmental change in Lake Tanganyika: III. Physical Statigraphy and Charcoal Analysis. J Paleolimnol 34(1):31–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Palacios-Fest MR, Alin SR, Cohen AS (2005b) Paleolimnological investigations of anthropogenic environmental change in Lake Tanganyika: IV. Lacustrine Paleoecology. J Paleolimnol 34(1):51–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Parker NE, Williams JW (2011) Influences of climate, cattle density, and lake morphology on Sporormiella abundances in modern lake sediments in the US Great Plains. Holocene 22:475–483CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Patterson WA III, Edwards KJ, MacGuire DJ (1987) Microscopic charcoal as a fossil indicator of fire. Quat Sci Rev 6:3–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Penugonda S, Girisham S, Reddy SM (2011) Elaboration of mycotoxins by seed-borne fungi of finger millet (Eleusine coracana L.). Int J Biotechnol 2:198–200Google Scholar
  62. Pitkanen A, Huttunen P (1999) A 1300 year forest-fire history at a site in eastern Finland based on charcoal and pollen records in laminated lake sediment. Holocene 9:311–320CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Punwong P, Marchant R, Selby K (2013a) Holocene mangrove dynamics and environmental change in the Rufiji Delta, Tanzania. Veg Hist Archaeobot 22:381–396CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Punwong P, Marchant R, Selby K (2013b) Holocene mangrove dynamics in Makoba Bay, Zanzibar. Palaeogeogr Palaeocl 379–380:54–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Raper D, Bush M (2009) A test of Sporormiella representation as a predictor of megaherbivore presence and abundance. Quat Res 71:490–496CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Richardson JL (1972) Paleolimnological records from Rift lakes in central Kenya. Palaeoecol Afr 6:131–136Google Scholar
  67. Rucina SM, Muiruri VM, Kinyanjui RN et al (2009) Late Quaternary vegetation and fire dynamics on Mount Kenya. Palaeogeogr Palaeocl 283:1–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Schmidt MR, Bothman G (2005) Indications of bee pollination in sorghum and its implications in transgenic biosafety. Int Sorghum Millets Newsl 46:72–75Google Scholar
  69. Schoenbrun DL (1993) We are what we eat: ancient agriculture between the Great Lakes. J Afr Hist 34:1–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Shipton C, Roberts P, Archer W et al (2018) 78,000-year-old record of Middle and Later stone age innovation in an East African tropical forest. Nat Commun 9(1832):1–8Google Scholar
  71. Soper RC (1966) Archaeological evidence from the coastal hinterland of Kenya and north-east Tanzania. Unpublished paper, Fort Jesus, MombasaGoogle Scholar
  72. Stuiver M, Reimer PJ, Reimer RW (2017) CALIB 7.1 [WWW program]. Accessed 23 Jan 2017
  73. Taylor M, Ravilious C, Green EP (2003) Mangroves of East Africa. UNEP WCMC, Banson, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  74. Thompson AO (1956) Geology of the Malindi Area. Report No. 36, Geological Survey of Kenya, Government printer, NairobiGoogle Scholar
  75. Thompson LG, Mosley-Thompson E, Davis ME et al (2002) Kilimanjaro ice core records: evidence of Holocene climate change in tropical Africa. Science 298:589–593CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  76. van Geel BJ, Buurman O, Brinkkemper J (2003) Environmental Reconstruction of a Romap Period settlement site in Uitgeest (The Netherlands), with special reference to coprophilous fungi. J Arch Sci 30:873–883CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. van Geel B, Gelorini V, Lyaruu A et al (2011) Diversity and ecology of tropical African fungal spores from a 25,000-year palaeoenvironmental record in southeastern Kenya. Rev Palaeobot Palyno 164:174–190CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. van Zinderen Bakker EM (ed) (1966) Palaeoecology of Africa and of the surrounding islands and Antarctica. Balkema, RotterdamGoogle Scholar
  79. Waddington JCB (1969) A stratigraphic record of the pollen influx to a lake in the Big Woods of Minnesota. Geol S America S 123:263–283Google Scholar
  80. Walker MJC, Berkelhammer M, Bjorck S et al (2012) Formal subdivision of the Holocene series/epoch: a discussion paper by a working group of INTIMATE (Integration of ice-core, marine and terrestrial records) and the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (International Commission on Stratigraphy). J Quat Sci 27:649–659CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Williams LAJ (1962) Geology of the Hadu-Fundi Isa area North of Malindi. Report No. 52, Geological Survey of Kenya, Government printer, NairobiGoogle Scholar
  82. Wilshaw A (2012) An investigation into the LSA of the Nakuru-Naivasha Basin and surrounding, Central Rift Valley, Kenya: technological classifications and population considerations. Dissertation, St. John’s College, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  83. Woodroffe SA, Long AJ, Punwong PA et al (2015) Radiocarbon dating of mangrove sediments to constrain Holocene relative sea-level change on Zanzibar in the southwest Indian Ocean. Holocene 25:820–831CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Wooller MJ, Swain DL, Ficken KJ et al (2003) Late Quaternary vegetation changes around Lake Rutundu, Mount Kenya, East Africa: evidence from grass cuticles, pollen and stable carbon isotopes. J of Quat Sci 18(1):3–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Wright DK (2005) New perspectives on early regional interaction networks of East African trade: a view from Tsavo National Park. Kenya. Afr Arch Rev 22(3):111–140CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Wright DK (2007) Tethered mobility and riparian resource exploitation among Neolithic hunters and herders in the Galana River basin, Kenyan coastal lowlands. Environ Arch 12:25–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Wright DK, Forman SL, Kusimba CM et al (2007) Stratigraphic and geochronological context of human habitation along the Galana River. Kenya. Geoarchaeol 22(7):709–728CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyWashington State UniversityPullmanUSA

Personalised recommendations