National Science Foundation funds will support investigations of early herding and monumental architecture near Lake Turkana in NW Kenya. Prehistoric transitions from hunting/gathering to food production (farming and/or herding), and related changes in social organization, were crucial steps in the development of the diverse array of economies and social structures in the world today. NW Kenya is an intriguing location to investigate these transformations for two reasons. First, unlike most regions of the world where farming was key to early food production, in NW Kenya herding was practiced for at least 1000 years before farming. Second, several monumental "pillar sites" with megaliths, elevated platforms, and stone circles, were built 4000 years ago, around the time people began herding near Lake Turkana.

Construction of monumental architecture by mobile people who have no domestic crops is extremely unusual in the global archaeological record. It suggests major social changes accompanied the economic shift to herding, and raises several questions: 1. How did animal-based food production systems spread into new areas when crops were not part of the package? Via migration, or the spread of ideas and livestock? 2. For what social purpose(s) did herders construct monumental sites? Did these purposes differ from those motivating agrarian megalith builders (eg. at Stonehenge)? 3. Did people build and use "pillar sites" during initial phases of food production, when economies/social roles were in flux, or later, when new norms were in place? To answer these questions, a team led by Dr. Elisabeth Hildebrand, with specialists from the United States, Kenya, Canada, Eritrea, and Germany, will conduct two seasons of archaeological survey, excavation, and analysis west of Lake Turkana.

One arm of the project will examine habitation (living) sites spanning the transition from hunting/gathering/fishing to herding, 6000-3000 years ago, in different environmental zones. Analysis of stone tools and pottery will show whether the region's first herders were immigrants, or longstanding residents who acquired livestock from people to the north. Studies of human and animal bone will assess changes in diet.

The other arm of the project will expand excavations at four pillar sites (already dated to c. 4000 years ago), probing platform, stone circle, and cairn features. Artifact analysis will determine what kinds of activities took place at pillar sites, and assess whether nearby contemporaneous pillar sites served similar or different purposes. Dates will indicate whether people built pillar sites just as herding entered the area, or slightly later, after new economic and social roles had taken hold.

Four American PhD students will acquire data for their dissertations, and gain field experience. The project will also support scientific innovation by three African scholars using novel methods (stone tool sourcing, isotopic studies of human teeth to reconstruct ancient diets, and dating of carbon in pottery) to address research questions related to the project. Finally, the project will conserve a pillar site vulnerable to damage due to its proximity to a major road, and facilitate its future protection by local communities and representatives of the National Museums of Kenya.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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State University New York Stony Brook
Stony Brook
United States
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