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Our Common Ancient Ancestors

Our ancestors have inhabited this planet for many millions of years, probably originating from Africa and more specifically perhaps the Great Rift Valley in Kenya (also known as the "Cradle of Mankind").

One theory is that the African landscape and climate (for example the formation of the Great Rift Valley and a gradual change from rain-forest to savannah) encouraged the evolution towards modern humans. The clearing of forests drove a need to descend from the trees and walk upright (bipedal) - offering the advantages of faster speed over ground and a better vantage point to survey the surroundings whilst freeing the hands to carry objects or forage for food.

Fossil remnants have been found in Africa dating back many millions of years, however the best remains and knowledge of our ancestors extends back only around four to five million years. Scientific opinions vary but it seems there were at least two distinct genera; the early Australopithecus which eventually died out and the later larger-brained Homo which are our true ancestors (perhaps the intelligence and adaptability of early Homo habilis led to its success).

The Australopithecus genus has been dated back at least four million years with Australopithecus anamensis, Australopithecus afarensis and then Australopithecus africanus. The Homo genus has been dated back at least 2.5 million years with Homo habilis, Homo erectus, archaic Homo sapiens, Neandertals and finally modern Homo Sapiens.

"Lucy" is a famous three million year old substantially complete example of Australopithecus afarensis discovered at Hadar in Ethiopia. The "Taung child" is a 2.5 million year old example of the later species Australopithecus africanus discovered at the Taung caves in South Africa; this was a significant find at the time since the skull indicated a spinal cord entering from below rather than behind - a good sign that the owner walked upright. "Turkana boy" is a 1.6 million-year old example of Homo erectus found at Nariokotome by Lake Turkana in Kenya.

A fossilised skull of Homo habilis dating back around 2.5 million years was discovered by the eastern shore of Lake Turkana (then called Lake Rudolf during British Colonial rule) by a group led by the famous paleoanthropologist Dr Richard Leakey. Many believe that Homo habilis ("handy man") is one of the earliest examples of modern humans which developed the skills to make and use basic tools; this probably led to their success.

Other famous discoveries, some by Dr. Richard Leakey's parents Louis and Mary, include the 3.5 million year old bipedal footprints preserved by volcanic ash at Laetoli in Tanzania and various fossils around the Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti Plains of north-west Tanzania.

Our species Homo sapiens gradually developed through different ages in Kenya (for example the Stone Age and Iron Age), becoming hunter-gatherers and then (with increased use of iron) moving to agriculture and pastoralism (perhaps around 3000-1000 BC). The increased dependence on fertile land (for growing crops and grazing cattle) led tribes to migrate south in search of better pastures as their own lands became more arid. Some hunter-gatherers can still be found in the Boni and Dorobo people of Kenya.

Tribal Migration into Kenya

A number of different peoples headed into Kenya; these can be grouped by language: the Cushitics, Nilotes and Bantu. Some Cushitics (a group which includes Somali, Rendille and Boni) left Ethiopia towards north-east Kenya around 2000-1000 BC. Then some Nilotes (a group which includes Maasai, Luo, Turkana, Samburu, Pokot and Kalenjin) left the Nile valley in southern Sudan around 500 BC. Finally some Bantu tribes (a group which includes Kikuyu, Embu, Meru, Akamba, Luyia, Gusii, Taita and Taveta) headed into Kenya from west Africa over the next few centuries.

The Maasai are sometimes called Nilo-Hamitic (the Hamites came from north Africa) and all Maasai tribes share the Maa language (hence their name Maasai; they share the Maa language with the Samburu tribe from whom they split some time ago). They have been proposed as the "Lost Tribe of Israel" because of their history.

Coastal Development

Civilisation developed quickly along the coast of Kenya with Roman inhabitation in the first few centuries AD; this led to increased commerce with Arabs, Persians, Indians and Chinese over the following centuries. Muslims came from Arabia and Shirazis from Persia, leading to a strong Arab influence along the coast line between the 8th and 13th centuries AD - and the creation of trading posts at Mombasa, Lamu, Malindi and Zanzibar. The Swahili language (or more correctly Kiswahili language) started developing from the Arabic/Bantu mix.

The Maasai Arrive

It is difficult to be confident of Kenya's early development, especially when much information was only passed orally between generations (as happened in the less developed regions of inner Kenya) rather than by written records (as happened in the more civilised regions developing along the coast).

It is thought that the Maasai left their home in the Nile valley around the fifteenth or sixteenth century, reaching the Great Rift Valley and down into Tanzania between the seventeenth and late eighteenth century. This was around the same time of great Portuguese influence on the coast with the great explorer Vasco de Gama arriving in 1498; the Portuguese were finally driven out after the siege of Fort Jesus at Mombasa in 1698 (and failed their renewed attack in 1728).

The Maasai are divided into a number of clans and sections, some of which occupy the Mara region.

Their Reputation and Appearance

The Maasai are one of the best known African tribes although not as politically powerful as the Luo or Kikuyu (despite the Maasai being dominant in some respects due to their warrior caste and effective organisation). The word "maasai-itis" has even be coined to describe the western obsession with the Maasai. Perhaps they are so well known because of their tall elegant muscular features or their fierce, brave, stubborn and arrogant reputation; or maybe because of their simple yet distinctive appearance with ochre-covered warriors proudly holding their spear and wearing their bright blood-red shoulder cloak (shuka) and the women wearing bangles and strings of coloured beads around their neck (both sexes wear earrings, taking pride in stretching large holes in their ear lobes). The men sometimes cover their braided hair with a fatty ochre paste and may wear an elaborate head-dress, perhaps of a lion mane or eagle/ostrich feathers, during some ceremonies; the women generally have shaved heads (head-shaving is a significant feature of some rituals, both for men and women).

Difficult Times

The Maasai's history becomes more clear during the nineteenth century which saw increasing western encroachment into Kenya. This took the form of missionaries and explorers. The missionaries were keen to convert tribes to Christianity, halt slave trading and stop some of the Maasai practices which they perceived as barbaric (such as dressing almost naked and leaving their dead for wild animals to scavenge rather than having a burial ceremony). The explorers were less interested in tribal welfare and more interested in commerce, setting up a trade route from the coast through Kenya to Uganda (which took the form of a railway at the end of the nineteenth century; Nairobi was founded as head-quarters of development midway along this railway in 1899); some explorers did try negotiating land and access rights with local tribes but these were not always favourable to the native population. Arabs also headed inland attempting to widen their trading (in particular there was a busy slave-market at Zanzibar and a large demand for ivory) and unwittingly spreading the Swahili language.

Already under great pressure from foreign influence and some inter-tribal warfare, the Maasai were deeply affected when rinderpest (a cattle disease) struck their herds around 1880-1890; the reduced grazing led to more woodland which encouraged breeding of the harmful Tse tse fly. The Maasai were also hit with drought, famine, smallpox and cholera. In 1910 they were forced out of even more of their homeland which had already been bisected by the Kenya/Uganda railway, and in the early 1960's they lost yet more of their territory during the government land redistribution programmes (including the creation of the Masai Mara Game Reserve).

The Importance of Cattle

The Maasai are semi-nomadic pastoralists (they rear cattle and as a result sometimes have to travel searching for new grazing pastures). The cattle are fundamental to the tribe's survival and this has led to an almost mystical relationship. The Maasai believe that their (Rain) God Enkai granted all cattle to them for safe-keeping when the earth and sky split (they feel this justifies them raiding cattle from other tribes).

The cattle serve many purposes: their milk and blood is used for food; their hide is used for mattresses, shoes and other accessories; their dung is used for plastering hut walls; their (sterile) urine has some medicinal and cleansing qualities; their meat is rarely taken for food (but may be used during ceremonies and in times of famine). Blood is obtained by shooting an arrow at close range through the cattle's jugular vein, then capturing the spilled blood into a gourd (where it can be mixed with milk); the wound is not fatal and is patched afterwards.

Cattle are a major sign of wealth and exchanged during marriage (to pay for brides). The quantity of cattle is more important than the quality although the Maasai have well over a hundred words to describe their animals. However cattle are not without problems and the Maasai have to continually seek out good grazing for their cattle (sometimes travelling for days during the dry season); such free movement is becoming far more difficult in modern times. Other animals including goats, sheep and some domestic animals are also kept. Although mainly cattle-rearing and previously despising of those who till the soil, the Maasai are turning towards some cultivation (usually maize and some vegetables) which offers something else they can trade with other tribes (otherwise the Maasai would be forced to trade for such foods themselves).

The Maasai Home

Maasai families live in an Enkang (a form of enclosure, stockade or kraal) formed by a thick round 'fence' of sharp thorn bushes; this protects the tribe and their cattle, especially at night, from rival tribes and other predators. The Enkang may contain 10-20 small squat huts made from branches pasted with fresh cow-dung (by the women) which bakes hard under the hot sun.

Maasai huts are very small, with perhaps two 'rooms' and not enough height for these tall people to stand upright or lie fully stretched. They are also very dark with a small door-way and tiny hole in the roof. The hole in the roof serves two purposes; it lets a little light into the hut but just as importantly it lets some smoke escape from the smouldering (cow-dung) fire which is kept alight for warmth and cooking - and perhaps to smoke off unwanted insects. The Enkang used to be 'temporary' and something that could be built elsewhere if the Maasai had to migrate to fresh areas of grazing, although such action is less feasible these days.

Enkangs are sometimes called Manyattas, and the two are both collections of huts, however a true Manyatta is really a camp used by an age-related group of unmarried warriors and may contain many more huts (built by the women-folk and set a short distance away from the Enkang).

Rites of Passage

As with many tribes the Maasai have a distinct social structure based partly on significant stages of life (precise details vary between sub-tribes and under modern influences; the details here are deliberately vague and serve to give an overall impression).

The very young children simply play within the Enkang, or mind the cattle herds nearby as they get older. Then both sexes are initiated into young adulthood between the ages of 15-18 or more; this is done through circumcision. Western society (and increasingly Maasai women) argue against cliterodectomy (or - more harshly but perhaps more realistically- FGM Female Genital Mutilation) which 'prepares' the women for marriage. Boys tend to remain more keen to follow the ritual towards manhood.

Elders generally decide they need a new group of warriors every 6-10 years at which point (perhaps over a couple of years) all suitably aged boys are circumcised. This age-related group of warriors (Morani) live together in a Manyatta for anything from 8-12 years or more, learning and developing their survival skills (as juniors) and performing other warrior duties. In the past a Moran could be expected to prove his manhood by killing a lion armed with nothing more than a spear - but this process is no longer allowed under protective government animal legislation. The warrior's job is to protect his village and cattle from predators and other tribes, to take cattle grazing and search for new pastures (perhaps journeying for several days) and even to raid cattle from nearby villages ('justified' since the Maasai god Enkai had granted all cattle to the Maasai). Modern civilisation is forcing many of these activities to become traditional rather than real-life, however the passage into manhood still remains a significant step even today.

Women look after the young children, milk the cattle, repair the huts, collect fire-wood, prepare the food and may need to travel many miles to fetch water.
Warriors eventually go through the Eunoto ceremony leading to marriage when they can take several wives and have children (the men are allowed to have relationships with any circumcised women of their age group); they also begin to acquire cattle. Finally they become respected elders. Elders look to Laibon (spiritual leaders, perhaps one per clan) for advice and expect them to provide rain and good grazing. Mt Kenya's three peaks (Batian, Nelion and Lenana) are named after three legendary Laibon.

Looking Forward

The Maasai are a proud and independent people who have survived despite incredible pressures, however their greatest challenges remain ahead. They are losing their grazing land (taken either for commercial large-scale wheat-growing or other cultivation, or for wildlife conservation) and losing their ability to roam freely throughout the country. Their people, especially the younger ones, are being influenced by modern schools and city developments. Stricter controls on law and order have (perhaps rightly) reduced the warrior's role in tribal fighting and cattle-raiding, and taken power from the elders. Some Maasai may seek comfort and income from the tourist industry (selling beads and craft-work, parading and dancing, opening their Enkangs for inspection) - however such income is not sufficient and such a way of life is not proper for these people. It remains to be seen how well they continue to retain their identity.


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