Anthropology | White Paper

Anthropology of the Serengeti

Written by  John C. Cannon 11/26/2015
The history of humans around the Serengeti began, quite literally, ages ago. The Great Rift Valley is the source of some of the oldest known skeletons of our ancestors. The discovery of “Turkana Boy” in 1984 highlights the fact that the plains of East Africa play a prominent role in our species’ history (2,6,10,11).

Named for Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, Turkana Boy, at about 1.5 million years old, continues to provide insights into Homo erectus, the earliest hominid species with “human” characteristics. Researchers have found older fossils around Mount Olorgesailie in Kenya, east of the Serengeti, with some hominid bones dating to 3 million years ago. Excavations have revealed a treasure trove of tools that give us clues to our ancient ancestors’ culture and their evolution (2,3,5).

The hominids in this area, including Homo erectus but perhaps another dozen extinct species, were part of the “hand axe culture.” Homo erectus used chipping and flaking techniques to produce more refined tools from stone and bone, and around 350,000 years ago they harnessed fire for the first time.

They also developed more sophisticated hunting strategies, using teams to bring down wildlife drawn to a nearby lake. Bones from now-extinct hippos, zebras, elephants and giraffes have been found in this area, and there’s evidence that some of these wildlife species were hunted successfully by our ancestors (3,5). Then, about 200,000 years ago, the earliest examples of what we would call humans today appeared here in the Great Rift Valley, the “cradle of humanity” (6).

Flash forward to a few hundred years ago, the 1600-1700s, and one of East Africa’s best-known ethnic groups was finding its way into southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, probably from the Nile River Valley. Today, several other tribes also inhabit the area, including the Samburu, the Kikuyu and the Kamba in Kenya and the Chagga, the Meru, and the Sukuma in Tanzania (7,12). But no other tribe is as synonymous with the Great Plains of East Africa as the Maasai. The irony is that their semi-nomadic lifestyle has probably changed the most as the region’s – and their own – fame has grown.

Maasai life ties in closely with their herds, especially cattle, as well as sheep and goats. They customarily depend on their animals’ meat, milk and blood for sustenance, and their livestock has long been a form of currency, used to trade for other supplies and settle disputes. Wealth is traditionally measured by the number of cattle (and children) a man has (1,7,8).

Numbering about 1 million (though that’s just an estimate), the Maasai comprise 16 “sections” or sub-groups. Within each section, families share the land on which their stock graze. They speak Maa (or Ol Maa), a language that they share with the Samburu people. Schoolchildren also learn Swahili and English. Maa itself has more than a dozen local dialects (12). Decisions in this society are traditionally made by older men, and they practice polygamy and polyandry – that is, both men and women can take more than one spouse in certain circumstances (7,8).

Daily life holds specific roles for Maasai men, women and children. Boys watch the herds, while men are charged with security. They watch for enemies and maintain the thorny acacia fence designed to keep predators from the herds and flocks of the 10-20 families that make up the small village, or enkang. Women bear the bulk of the household duties – milking the cows, fetching water, cooking and collecting firewood. They’re also responsible for building the family’s hut, usually of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung, and urine (8).

But the last five decades has led to upheaval in the traditional ways of the Maasai. First at the prodding of the British colonial power and later by the governments of Kenya and Tanzania, private land ownership has become a driving upshot of development.

Without the ability to move their animals freely to areas with grass and water, many Maasai have had to give up the nomadic aspects of their lifestyle. Instead, they’ve turned to farming individual plots as part of “Group Ranch” initiatives. These days, Maasai territory is dotted with more single-family enkangs than ever before (4,8). They’ve shifted a way from their dependence on meat and milk toward maize, rice, potatoes and cabbage – what the Maasai call “goat leaves.” The Maasai believe cultivation is a “crime against nature” because it ruins the earth for grazing.

At the same time, the push to develop wildlife tourism has made parts of the area off limits to people and their herds. The resulting dependence on cash markets has stratified society, allowing some to become rich while many wallow in poverty (8). It has allowed huge numbers of game lodges and the tourism economy to flourish in the Maasai’s home range. And while some Maasai have profited of the influx of tourists, providing cultural visits and selling beads and clothing, some worry about the “sale of their culture” (8).

Some scientists and NGOs believe that this type of development strategy, in which the marginalization of the pastoral lifestyle results in formerly nomadic people settling down in one place, in fact tinkers with a system that’s been working for hundreds of years. The Maasai have inhabited these wildlife-rich lands for hundreds of years in relative harmony with both the great herds of herbivores – zebra, wildebeest, and elephants, to name a few – and predators such as lions, leopards and hyenas. And as we’ve seen, human existence in one form or another goes back millions of years in this region (9,12).

According to UNESCO, “[S]ub-division is a process that contradicts wildlife conservation. As sub-division proceeds, the movement of wildlife is inevitably impeded, and human-wildlife conflict increases.” Constantly moving is also one way to deal with the effects of climate change: If the area you’re in doesn’t have enough water or grass, as a nomad you can go somewhere else. That’s not the case if you’re tied to a farm (4,9).

That conflict can lead to spikes in the killing of wildlife for income (poaching) or retribution for the loss of livestock. And disease spreads between species, particularly when cattle come into contact with elephants, zebras and buffalo, according to recent research (14).


Citation list

1. “The Great Rift Valley.” OurAfrica.org
2. “ Rift Valley.” National Geographic Education.
3. “ The African Great Rift Valley - Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 2010.
4. “ The African Great Rift Valley - The Maasai Mara.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 2010.
5. “ Kenya Rift Valley Paleoanthropology with the Smithsonian.” Michael J. Manyak, 2012.
6. “ Human Prehistory.” Purdue University.
7 . “ Maasai Facts.” Africa Facts.
8. “ Maasai People, Kenya.” Maasai Association
9. “ Survival of the Fittest.” Oxfam, 2008.
10. “ Turkana Boy sparks row over Homo erectus height.” Science News, 2014.
11. The Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program.
12. “ Traditional Music and Cultures of Kenya.” 2000-2003.
13. “ Wildlife and the Maasai.” Culturalsurvival.org.
14. “ Human-wildlife conflict, interspecies disease, and justice in a wildlife-rich region of Kenya.” 
       Valerie A.W. Benka, 2012.