Reconstruction of spatial organization in abandoned Maasai settlements: Implications for site structure in the Pastoral Neolithic of East Africa

Ruth Shahack-Gross, Fiona Marshall, Kathleen Ryan, Steve Weiner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The analysis of spatial organization in archaeological sites is important for the interpretation of economic and social issues. In East Africa, the appearance of mobile herders, adoption of pastoralism by some hunter-gatherers, and spread of competing pastoral groups, create a complex archaeological record and interpretive problems associated with the beginnings of food production. Spatial analyses could contribute to their resolution, but are difficult because most sites lack macroscopic features. We present a geo-ethnoarchaeological study of abandoned pastoral Maasai settlements that allows us to evaluate the "archaeological visibility" of ephemeral features such as hearths, trash pits, gates, houses and fences. Micromorphology, mineralogy and phytolith analyses show that features containing ash have the highest visibility. Livestock enclosures, a feature studied by us previously, can also be identified based on this suite of techniques. Large livestock gates have poor visibility but may be recognized. Small gates, fences and house floors could not be detected using the methods applied here. Identifying livestock enclosures, trash pits and cooking hearths based on this approach, and houses based on post-hole positions, will contribute to a better understanding of the spread of food production in Africa. Our findings will also contribute to studies of pastoralists in other regions of the world.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1395-1411
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2004
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Dr. Karega-Munene, Head and Senior Research Scientist, Archaeology Division, National Museums of Kenya for his collegial support and friendship over many years of collaborative research. We thank all members of our team, S. M. Kahinju, P. N. Kunoni, C. Ngange, K. Seberini and J. Ndungu, W. R. Fitts, Parmitoro Ole Koringo, Ole Kaaka, Lekatoo Ole Parmitoro, and Ole Seela for their hard work and unfailing good humor. We thank the staff of the Archaeology and Osteology Divisions of the National Museums of Kenya for their courtesy and encouragement. Very special thanks go to the families of Ole Kaaka and Ole Koringo, our main Maasai consultants for many years, for their hospitality, patience, and friendship. Permission to conduct the study was granted by the President's Office of the Government of Kenya, in collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya. R.S.-G. thanks R. M. Albert for discussions about issues related to phytolith data, and F. Berna for initiation of heating experiments of sediments. The study was supported by an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, a Wenner-Gren Foundation grant and the Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science, Weizmann Institute, to R. S.-G., an Israel Science Foundation grant to S. W, and grants to K. R. from the NSF, the Social science Research Council, the Boise Fund, Sigma Xi, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. We are indebted to Diane Gifford-Gonzalez and Bernard Mbae for “showing the way”.


  • Ethnoarchaeology
  • Geoarchaeology
  • Maasai pastoralists
  • Micromorphology
  • Mineralogy
  • Phytoliths
  • Site structure

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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