Humans have foraged across diverse eastern African landscapes for millions of years. In the 21st century, few eastern Africans rely exclusively on foraging, but there are groups for whom this strategy remains central to daily life. Drawing analogies between present and past lifeways is one approach to understanding ancient foragers, but multiple lines of evidence are needed to appreciate past variation. Ethnohistories, historical linguistics, and genetics are also potential sources of information on past foragers. However, most data come from the archaeological record, key to investigating the diversity of ancient foragers in terms of technology, subsistence, mobility, social organization, and cultural expression.
The spread of herding and farming in eastern Africa over the past five millennia had a definitive impact upon foraging lifeways. Ethnographic, archaeological, and ethnohistoric evidence enables development and testing of hypotheses for past forager–food producer interactions. Some evidence suggests that past social groups (or individuals in them) may have shifted among foraging and food-producing strategies on a situational basis. Other data indicate that foragers may have joined herding and farming communities, and vice versa.
Eastern African foragers have played an underappreciated role in large-scale social, economic, and political systems. Beginning in the late Pleistocene (some 130,000 years ago), prehistoric obsidian exchange networks extended over hundreds of kilometers. Early in the Common Era (nearly 2,000 years ago), foragers were involved in Indian Ocean economic spheres that extended to western and southern Asia. The precolonial and colonial ivory and slave trades in the 16th through 19th centuries exploited and impacted foraging communities. Settler colonialism in the 20th century had devastating impacts on foragers and their access to ancestral lands. More recent threats to forager livelihoods include economic “development” and environmental destruction. The future of the foraging lifeway is in peril, and the 21st-century state plays a key role in determining if it will continue.