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Sandra Swart

Animal history in Africa—the multi-species story of the continent’s past—as a separate subdisciplinary “turn” is both recent and tentative, but as an integrated theme within the broader historiography it is both pioneering and enduring. Historians of Africa have long engaged with animals as vectors of change in human history and, of course, at the same time, understood that humans were a key agent of change in animal histories too, especially in the long-lived and extensive writing on epizootics, livestock farming, pastoralism, hunting, and conservation. African animal histories should resist the imposition of intellectual paradigms from the Global North.


The Rift Valley is a stage on which the history of Eastern Africa has unfolded over the last 10,000 years. It served as a corridor for the southward migration from the Upper Nile and the Ethiopian highlands of Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic speakers and cultures, with their domestic animals, which over time defined and restructured the social and cultural fabric of East Africa. Genetic evidence suggests that, contrary to other regions in Africa where geography overrides language, the clustering of East African populations primarily reflects linguistic affiliation. Eastern Sudanic Nilotic speakers are dedicated livestock keepers whose identification with cattle over thousands of years is manifested in elaborate symbolism, networks created by cattle exchange, and the practice of sacrifice. The geographical attributes of rich grasslands in a semi-arid environment, close proximity of lowland and highland grazing, and a bimodal rainfall regime, made the Rift Valley an ideal setting for increasingly specialized pastoralism. However, specialized animal husbandry characteristic of East Africa was possible only within a wider socioeconomic configuration that included hunters and bee-keeping foragers and cultivators occupying escarpments and highland areas. Some pastoral groups, like Maasai, Turkana, Borana, and Somali, spread widely across grazing areas, creating more culturally homogeneous regions, while others settled near one another in geographically variegated regions, as in the Omo Valley, the Lake Baringo basin, or the Tanzanian western highlands, creating social knots that signal historical interlaying and long-term mutual coexistence. At the advent of the colonial period, Oromo and Maasai speakers successfully exploited the ecological potential of the Rift environment by combining the art of raising animals with social systems built out of principles of clanship, age and generation organizations, and territorial sections. Faced with displacement by colonial settlers and then privatization of rangelands, some Maasai pastoralists sold lands that they had been allocated, leading to landlessness amid rangeland bounty. Pastoral futures involve a combination of education, religious conversion, and diversified rangeland livelihoods, which combine animal production with cultivation, business, wage labor, or conservation enterprises. Pastoralists provide urban markets with meat, but, with human population increasing, per capita livestock holdings have diminished, leading to rural poverty, as small towns absorbing young people departing pastoralism have become critical. The Great East African Rift Valley has had a 10,000-year history of developing pastoralism as one of the world’s great forms of food production, which spread throughout Eastern Africa. The dynamics of pastoral mobility and dedication to livestock have been challenged by modernity, which has undermined pastoral territoriality and culture while providing opportunities that pastoralists now seek as citizens of their nations and the world.


Veerle Linseele

Archaeozoology is the study of animal remains, mainly bones and other hard parts, from archaeological sites. It contributes to a more complete understanding of various aspects of human life in the past. Ideally, archaeozoologists, like other specialists, should be involved in the entire process of an archaeological research project, from its design, to fieldwork and data collecting, to final reporting and publication. For efficient communication and fruitful collaboration, the archaeologists involved in this process need to understand the basics of archaeozoological methodology and the range of questions that the discipline can answer. Methods vary among archaeozoologists—not least with regard to quantification—and it is important to be aware of these differences and their possible impact on results when comparing data for different sites. While the actual analysis of animal remains is done by the archaeozoologists, preferably in circumstances where they have access to a comparative collection of recent animal skeletons, the excavation and collection of remains is often the responsibility of the archaeologists. Animal remains are affected by a host of taphonomic processes of loss that are beyond our control. To avoid additional loss of information at the fieldwork stage, appropriate methods are particularly important. The use of sieves with a mesh size no greater than 2 mm is essential in order not to miss the smaller, but no less informative, animal remains. Project leaders play an important role in providing good storage facilities for archaeozoological remains after excavation and after study. With the rapid development in analytical methods, it can be extremely interesting to return to previously studied remains and sample them.