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Historical Sites in Kenya – Archaeological Sites in Kenya

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East Africa is considered by many anthropologists to be the Cradle of Mankind and the many archaeological sites and Historical Sites in Kenya add substance to this claim.

Historical Sites in Kenya – Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site

In 1919 British geologist John Walker discovered Olorgesailie, a lower Palaeolithic archaeological site. Olorgesailie is a sedimentary basin situated 70 kilometres south of Nairobi along the Nairobi—Magadi road. Excavations at Olorgesailie show the habitats and animals these early humans encountered, the hand axe tools they made, and the climate challenges they underwent. Although it was discovered in 1919, excavations at this site began as early as the 1940s through the works of Louis and Mary Leakey and thereafter in the 1960 by Glynn Isaac. The site was donated to the Kenya government by the Maasai community and covers an area of 52 acres. In 1983, Prof Richard Potts of the Smithsonian Institution in the US took over the excavations in collaboration with personnel from the National Museums of Kenya.

Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site

Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site

The Olorgesailie site is unusual due to the large number of archaeological stone tools known as hand axes along with other tools such as bifaces found there. The site offers a very important record in the story of human evolution, especially in regards to human activity, animal populations, vegetation and climate change over the past one million years. Early humans lived in the Olorgesailie region, in what is now southern Kenya, between 1.2 million and 490,000 years ago. Today prehistory studies in Olorgesailie have evolved to include community activities related to the awareness and conservation of heritage. Prof Rick Potts has initiated community programs which assist the local people to develop activities that enhance their livelihoods.

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Olorgesailie is, therefore, one of the National Museums of Kenya prehistoric sites characterized by on site displays of prehistoric materials including numerous hand axes and fossilized skeletons of extinct species of elephant and hippopotamus that are well conserved and used for training and tourism. There is also a small site museum at Olorgesailie that holds exhibits on human evolution, stone tools and site formation.

Historical Sites in Kenya – Hyrax Hill

In 1929, while excavating a nearby site, palaeontologists Louis Leakey noted evidence of prehistoric habitation of Hyrax Hill. Eleven years later, Mary Leakey, noted several more habitation sites, including a stone walled fort and a group of pits. Mary Leakey began excavating the site in mid-1937 and her Work produced evidence of an Iron Age stone Walled enclosure and a Neolithic burial mound occupation. The results of these numerous excavations yielded three major areas of prehistoric settlement — the oldest dating 3,000 years and the youngest to possibly 200 to 300 years. The early field work at Hyrax Hill provided a new understanding to an important part of Kenya’s early history. Because of its significance, the site was proposed as a national monument and confirmed as one in 1943.

Hyrax Hill

Hyrax Hill

In 1965, the site was established as a museum, with a small gallery established at the base of the hill in a house donated by Mrs. A. Selfe. The museum displays ethnographic material of the different Rift Valley peoples; Neolithic cultures in the area are represented by excavated materials from the Hyrax Hill site, and include various types of obsidian tools and a stone platter recovered from a burial site. Today the site museum is used mainly by school students to further understand the field of prehistory. Tourists also visit the site museum during tours within the central rift.

Historical Sites in Kenya – Kariandusi

In 1928, Louis Leakey discovered the Acheulian pre—historic site of Kariandusi and started excavations. It is located near Lake Elementaita on the Nairobi—Nakuru highway. Kariandusi is a living site of hand axe man.



It is an Acheulian site characterized by the presence of heat? Hand axes and cleavers. There are several excavation pits. Undertaken by Louis Leakey between 1929 and 1947, each displaying a scattered assortment of stone tools made from obsidian — the black volcanic rock found in lava flows. Others who worked at the site after these initial excavations included John Gowlett Who re—excavated the site in the 1970s. Amongst the exhibits in its museum are Stone-Age hand axes, obsidian or black volcanic glass knives and a molar of the straight—tusked elephant (a species of elephant that once existed in England and the rest of Europe before it became extinct. Kariandusi is also important because of the commercial mining activities at the diatomite deposits nearby. The opening of the mines, apart from unveiling more archaeological materials. Has made it possible for dating of the site by use of pumice and other datable materials in the sediments. The site museum at Kariandusi displays excavated fossils and stone tools.

Historical Sites in Kenya – Koobi Fora Prehistoric Site

Lake Turkana also referred to as the Jade Sea is an area of great importance in terms of human culture. It is possible to visit the prehistoric site at Koobi Fora on the far North shores of the lake near Sibiloi. There is an ongoing excavation here that has produced a great wealth of fossil evidence.

Historical Sites in Kenya – Baringo

Geological research was undertaken in this region in the 1960s through the East African Geological Research Unit (EAGRU) funded mainly by the British Government in association with the Geological Survey of Kenya. The research was directed by Basil King at Bedford College, London. During the course of this work it became apparent that the Tugen Hills region was highly fossiliferous and thus paleontological research was started. As a result, Bill Bishop set up another research unit parallel to the EAGRU at Bedford concentrating mainly on fossil studies.

These studies realized that the Tugen Hills sequence was extensive, contained many sites and gave information about a long period of the African past, from around l6 Ma to quite recent times. Much of this time period was otherwise unrepresented in the fossil record of Africa. Some of the fauna recovered during this research included primates of species such as Paracolobus chemeroni and Theropithecus baringensis (define them) as well as mammals including elephants. In addition, several horninids were recovered. After the untimely death of Bishop, Martin Pickford continued with paleontological research in this region and when he left to work on the Miocene of Western Kenya, Dr David Pilbearn took over the project which later became Baringo Paleontological Research Project. Pilbeam directed this project until 19 85 when he handed it to Professor Andrew Hill from Yale University, The American professor has continued with paleontological research within the Tugen Hills to date. His team has now in cooperated Dr Sally McBrearty (University of Connecticut) whose focus is more on the Kapthurin Formation with tremendous archaeological and paleontological collections. Today, paleontological and archaeological Re-search has mainly concentrated within the Kapthurim Formation under Hill and McBrearty. Before the l990’s most of the sites reported were never documented and, therefore, most of the documentation started after this period. More than 22 archaeological and paleontological sites were discovered by a team led by Van Noten during this period. The current prehistory research since the 1990’s has discovered and documented over 30 archaeological and paleontological sites. Archaeological materials which have been recovered from this region include hand axes, picks, cleavers and even points. The earliest of these artefacts date to about 545ka and have given us a lot of information on the transition from the Acheulean to the Middle Stone Age technology. Other materials which have also been recovered from the area include silicified Wood and foot prints. The silicified Wood Was recovered Within the Mpesida facies exposed West of Rurmoch. These have contributed to our knowledge of the vegetation during the period 6 to 5Ma, a time when there is also evidence of fauna that has been linked to migratory exchange with Eurasia as Well as the notion of gradual replacement of subtropical forested environments by more seasonal, open country “sava.nr1a-mosaic” habitats considered characteristic of the latest Miocene. From the Lukeino formation of the Tugen Hills is also the hominoid material attributed to Orrorin tugenensis. This time period has however recorded very few other hominids especially in Eastern Africa

Historical Sites in Kenya – Turkana Basin

Sites within the Lake Turkana Basin were discovered in the early 1960s through the expeditions of Louis and his son Richard Leakey. During one of their expedition within the Omo, Richard noticed fossils eroding onto the surface along the eastern sediments of Lake Turkana.

This was to be the beginning of decades of both archaeological and paleontological works within the region. Many fossils and archaeological artefacts have so far been recovered from the basin both Within the Koobi Fora Formation to the east and Nawata, Kanapoi and Nachukui formations to the West of the lake. Collectively these sediments span intervals from over 7.0ma to less than 0.1Ma (Holocene period). Questions being addressed through prehistory studies have included not only human origins but also hominin behavior and tool use as interpreted from archaeological remains. The hominid fossil collection, which currently comprises more than 430 specimens, establishes Kenya as a key contributor to human evolution studies.

Turkana Basin

Turkana Basin

This huge and growing collection of fossils provides an opportunity to trace the evolution of numerous mammalian lineages back in time, including our own. Important archaeological sites are present both to the east and west of Lake Turkana during the time interval 2.4-0.1Ma. Studies deciphering the evolution of hominin technical behavior from this time frame, known as the Early Oldowan to Middle Acheulean as well as the late period have been key.

Discoveries of both early fossils such as Australopithecines, Homo habilis, Homo erectus (e.g. Turkana Boy) and early stone technologies (e.g. Oldowan, Acheaulean) have been highlighted by different teams working in the region. Many international and local researchers are now involved with research in the region. The region has also acted as a training ground for many paleoanthropologists through different field programs as well as through research expeditions.

The local communities have also been brought into light in regards to the importance of early history heritage. In the past, local communities were never directly involved with the management of this heritage but today campaigns geared towards the protection of the same have been pivotal in most if not all research expeditions.

Moreover, economic development in this region has been undertaken in line with the conservation of early history heritage. Such developments have included exploration of energy e. g. the wind power generation through the Lake Turkana wind power and oil exploration by Tullow Kenya B.V. This shows that early history study today is highly regarded not only by the researchers but also by the Kenyan government.

Archaeological Sites in Kenya – The Central Rift

Sites within the Central Rift of Kenya which have advanced our knowledge in the field of Prehistory include Enkapune ya Moto located on the Mau escarpment. This site represents an archaeological period between -40,000 and 1,300 years ago. Different cultural periods are thus evident and include Late Stone Age, Neolithic and the Iron Age. Of most significant is worked ostrich egg shell including complete and hundreds of fragmented beads. “These are some of the earliest known egg shell beads especially in eastern Africa.

Archaeological Sites in Kenya – Coastal Kenya

Sites Within the coast of Kenya which have over the years been instrumental in archaeological studies include Mtwapa, Manda and Gede. Issues related to the Iron Age and ceramic technology have been fore. However, more recently this has shifted to the issue of migration and trade between the coastal east African cities and other cities including those in Asia. Mtwapa is one of the earliest and longest inhabited sites on the East African Coast, founded by 1732 BCE and finally abandoned in -1750 CE. At its peak, Mtwapa had an estimated population of 5,000 to 10,000, placing it at the large end of the mid-size towns of the coast. Located on the Mtwapa Creek some 15km north of Mombasa, the site of Mtwapa originally covered approximately eight hectares out of which four still contain standing architecture, including one main congregation mosque, 64 houses, approximately 20 mounds of collapsed structures, and 13 wells and two well—preserved cemeteries.

Coastal Kenya Archaeological Sites

Coastal Kenya Archaeological Sites

Excavations have been undertaken mainly by Dr Chaprukah Kusimba, a Kenyan currently working at the Field Museum in Chicago. The current project at Mtwapa examines the role of migration (both regional and foreign) in the development of the large autonomous towns and city—states that grew out of small fishing, agrarian, and pastoral settlements on the East African coast in the late first millennium CE.

This project aims to determine the genetic relationships between ancient and modern Swahili and the origins of pre—colonial East African urban residents from genetic, isotopic and skeletal evidence, and to secure accelerated radiocarbon dates necessary for determining the chronology of urbanism.

These data will elucidate the ethnic and biological genealogy of the Swahili populations and contribute important information to long—standing questions in the archaeology of urbanism in East Africa including:

1)      What were the cultural, technological, and biological relationships between urban and rural populations of the coast;

2)      When and in what ways did East Africa become part of Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf trading systems; and

3)      What forms did this engagement take and how did they impact regional and interregional interaction spheres?

Historical Sites in Kenya – Gede

Gedi/Gede ruins were declared as a historical monument in 1927. Gede is located 16km south of the coastal resort town of Malindi. Founded in the 12th century AD, Gede was a large and prosperous town which flourished until its abandonment in the 17th century.

Gede ruins

Gede ruins

Nestled in 45 acres of primeval forest, the ruins of Gede reflect the unique architectural style and wealth of many Swahili towns of that period.

Excavations of the site in the late 1940s and early 1950s unearthed remains of numerous domestic, religious and commercial structures including a large ‘palace’ with sunken courts, a Friday (Congregational) Mosque, elaborately decorated pillar tombs, wells, and a town wall.

Studies on expansions and migrations have been undertaken at the Coast. These have included those related to the origins of the Swahili towns and city—states as early as the first millennium. Some of these studies are being undertaken by both Kenyans and a Chinese ship wreck currently under excavation is a good example which defines the interaction of its people with that of people along the Kenyan coast.

Archaeological Sites in Kenya – Rock art research

African rock art is amongst the world’s oldest surviving art, pre-dating writing by tens of thousands of years.

Rock art research

Rock art research

Today, it helps us understand how our ancestors thought, saw and portrayed their world. Rock art pictures were observed by Europeans in Southern Africa as early as the middle of the eighteenth century and in North Africa, the Sahara and the Nile Valley at least by the middle of the nineteenth.

In East Africa Rock Art remained of little interest until the 21st century when the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) was born. Prior to this period, Mary Leakey had attempted to study and even preserve some of this Art beginning with the Kondoa Rock Art in Tanzania.

Today, TARA has taken a great initiative in the documentation, study and preservation of the same within Kenya. The National Museums of Kenya collaborates fully in this mission and in the future it is hoped that there will be more research and understanding of this field.

Archaeological Sites in Kenya – Video