Fellow: Nik Petek, MA, PIfA
Supervision: Prof Paul Lane
Host Institution: Institute of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, Sweden
Duration: 4 years – starting in January 2014
ESR 1 focuses on the archaeology and the historical ecology of the Lake Baringo Basin, Kenya, between AD 900-1750, understanding past landscapes and socio-ecological resilience of past communities.
Aims and goals
Focusing on the Lake Baringo Basin (Figure 1), the aim of the study will be to investigate the land use and landscape use of communities living there in the late Holocene and examine how their practices shaped the landscape in a time when the landscape and the environment were themselves undergoing changes due to East Africa’s unstable and variable climate. Climatic events around the world, such as the Medieval Warm Anomaly (AD 800-1250) and the Little Ice Age (AD 1250-1850), also had dramatic effects in East Africa, while also being affected by the Indian Ocean sea surface temperatures and other climate phenomena. It is then necessary to discern how communities adapted, and how these adaptations eroded away or increased the resilience of their socio-economic and socio-ecological structures in an unpredictable environment, and in turn shaped the environment and landscape. This research will discern these processes by combining archaeological survey and excavation with phytolith and soil carbon isotope analysis. The combination will contribute to a broader examination of the social and environmental landscapes and how these were entwined into people’s ‘dwelling’. The study will discern any evidence of agricultural, horticultural, and livestock herding practices throughout the various climatic changes by analysing phytolith and soil carbon isotope samples, and the archaeological assemblage. The same record will be used to compare the local vegetation to that of the broader Baringo environment. Survey and excavation data will elaborate on social changes associated with climate and subsistence, what localities were preferred for certain activities, and the relationship between these localities.
The objectives of the research, which will lead us to achieve our aim, will be to investigate and understand:
• What role (if any) agri- and horticulture had in the everyday livelihood and the survival of Baringo’s communities through various climatic periods
• How the land was used and transformed by livestock-herding and agricultural practices, and in general by human habitation
• The changing use of the landscape as a form of adaptation and resilience, by looking at mobility and practices associated with certain landscape characteristics
• How these subsistence practices affected the people’s adaptability and resilience to various climatic and environmental changes in the past 2000 years
• In what way communities in Baringo were related to and what was the level of contact between the communities in other well researched regions (e.g. Laikipa, Elgeyo-Marakwet)
Significance of research
The Lake Baringo catchment area is experiencing increased erosion and the food production economy in the area is not self-sufficient. Moreover, the vegetation and the environment are quick to respond to climatic changes, and the palaeoenvironmental studies show there has been a consistent tendency towards an increase in dry-indicator plant species. Alongside all of this, the Kenyan state, and the colonial government before it, has been subsidising development schemes in Baringo to encourage crop production, without any success. In fact, the region’s dependency on food imports only increased since the introduction of development project. There is a general perception of Baringo as an extremely degraded area without the proper understanding of its environmental and ecological past!
In contrast to the picture above, this research will give deep historical context as to why Baringo’s landscape and environment are in the state that they are in now. It will try and understand the development and the resilience of the livelihoods of people in Baringo and the landscape they live in. For example, the Il Chamus indigenous irrigation systems on the Molo and Perkerra rivers in the 19th century were producing enough grain to sell to Swahili trading caravans, and giving the false impression of a “granary” of the area. Although these irrigation systems were abandoned in the 1920s, one of them was restarted in the 1960s, only to be much more successful than the Perkerra Irrigation Scheme. Furthermore, the British colonial government built up an image of the people of Baringo as unsustainable farmers and pastoralists that are destroying their environment. But, as a matter of fact, it was the colonial government that inhibited them from employing a sustainable livelihood. The current government’s policies are not helping the situation. It is then of extreme importance that we understand the historical ecology of the Lake Baringo Basin, as this can reveal practices which are sustainable and efficient in exploiting the environment, and that in the future can improve the populations resilience to the oncoming global warming.
The proposed research can and will help structure better sustainable development policies and guidelines for the Lake Baringo region, and it will reveal which subsistence practices were (un)sustainable. The research will show how resilient the environment (which is currently perceived as extremely fragile) is to human practices and see how households’ resiliency increased/diminished with the adoption of new livelihood practices and with climate change. In addition, while palaeoenvironmental studies of the area were successfully undertaken, none of them were anthropocentric and no secure assertions could be made between environmental and ecological change and human habitation. The proposed research has a good palaeoenvironmental background to draw on, build on, and weave the “human” into the ecological history of the area.