Hunter-Gatherer Interaction and Learning from the Pastoralist Past

This month, a news article in Science focussed on Jeff Leach’s latest research among the Hadza. Jeff’s previous positions, such as in the archaeology department at the University of Leicester might, at first glance, suggest a change of direction when compared with his current position at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine but in truth his research has always focussed on the effects of diet on an individual. Indeed, his research career is based on a very personal story and, however much the ‘palaeodiet’ fad may, to my cynical eyes, appear to be a direct descendent of the noble savage paradigm, his research may turn out to be important.

Part of me wonders at the way in which such projects are typically reported, however. ‘One of the few last remaining hunter-gatherer peoples’ can often be swallowed and spat back out by the media as ‘endangered’. Indeed, the Hadza are themselves often portrayed in this way (I chose that link not because of any exceptional reporting content but because it has some very good photographs!). The truth is probably rather more complex than that, however. The Hadza are, it is true, surrounded by modern life. The thing is, they always have been. Today it’s a disinterested (embarrassed? well-meaning?) government, before that it was farmers, but, before that, it was pastoralists. It’s only the nature of the ‘modern’ that changes in this story and we could perhaps place more emphasis on the cultural resistance of the Hadza.


Long-time readers of this ‘blog will be aware of our catchily named ‘Archaeological Investigation of a “Moving Frontier” of Early Herding in Northern Tanzania’ project, which focuses on identifying the spread of pastoralism in Sub-Saharan Africa. An important contextual area of study for that though is to understand the mechanism for spread and, therefore, herder/hunter-gatherer interactions (an important primary research interest for Mary Prendergast, one of the project’s co-directors). From a zooarchaeological point of view, for example, it’s probably overly simplistic to suggest that an assemblage containing domesticated animals from this period is necessarily produced by pastoralists – trading and raiding undoubtedly took place on both sides, just as they continue to do so today.

That said, the presence of domesticated animals clearly indicates that pastoralists, with their livestock, were in the area if not on the site, which does at least help us to identify the spread of the phenomenon. Understanding the nature of that spread is probably a topic which will continue to be debated for the rest of my lifetime. Following our fieldwork in 2012, we are now able to confidently assert that this spread was occurring in Northern Tanzania at least as early as 1023-846 BC. We published this date as part of an article in Azania last month, discussing the results of one part of our survey work that year. The full abstract for the paper is repeated after the break.

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Pastoral Neolithic sites on the southern Mbulu Plateau, Tanzania

As part of a larger project examining the introduction of herding into northern Tanzania, surveys and excavations were conducted at the southern edge of the Mbulu Plateau, documenting the presence of Narosura ceramics dating to the early third millennium BP, as well as a Later Stone Age occupation dated via ostrich eggshell to the tenth millennium BP. This marks the southernmost extent of the Pastoral Neolithic in eastern Africa. The paucity of sites attributable to early herding in this area may be due to a lack of survey in landscapes likely to have been preferred by livestock owners and to extensive contemporary cultivation in those same areas. Links can be drawn between the study area and previously documented sites with Narosura materials near Lake Eyasi, and between the study area and obsidian sources in the Lake Naivasha area of the Rift Valley, making the plateau and its surroundings a potentially promising area for further research.


What have Zooarchaeologists ever done for Pastoralists?


Pronunciation: /ˈpɑːst(ə)r(ə)l/

  • 1 (of land) used for the keeping or grazing of sheep or cattle

Derivatives: pastoralism (noun); pastorally (adverb)1


What do you think of when you hear the word ‘pastoralism’? A proud Maasai guiding his herds across the savannah? Quechua people escorting their llamas down steep passes in the Puna? A Cornish dairyman tying a gate back on a misty morning so his cows can enter the milking parlour?

Clearly, the word can cover many things. I remember my first geography teacher explaining in a class that there were two basic forms of agriculture (farming): pastoral and arable. One that relied on animals and one that depended on plants. Of course, outside of the modern Western world it’s rare for any subsistence strategy to be completely reliant upon one or the other and it’s perhaps for this reason that the terms have become muddied by archaeologists. ‘Agriculture’ seems to have assumed the role of descriptor for sedentary, plant-dependent, farmers for many; with ‘arable agriculture’ being applied more particularly to cereal crop cultivation. It’s probably no surprise then that ‘pastoralism’ has become almost synonymous with ‘nomadism’ and ‘transhumance’.

Understanding the labels being used is just the first step in navigating the discipline of archaeology though: understanding where they’re being used is just as important. Archaeology is now a huge and occasionally bewildering subject: there is simply too much information and too many new advances to maintain more than a sketchy understanding of many of its facies. It is primarily for this reason that the the discipline fragments with specialist conferences and journals. There is, however, and must be, overlap: without it each sub-discipline, and eventually the discipline as a whole, will become stale.

I was a little surprised when I bumped into a friend at a conference not long after my first field season in Mongolia and she said “so you’re a Central Asian archaeologist now, that’s great!”. She seemed a little hurt when I said “no.” Later that same year I bumped into another acquaintance at a different conference who said to me “I didn’t expect to see another Africanist here”.


The truth is, I’m neither. I’m a zooarchaeologist and also an ethnoarchaeologist. Like most archaeologists I have primary areas of research interest but these are not linked to cultures – or, at least, not to Cultures. I have a strong interest in pastoralism, influenced perhaps by a childhood surrounded by cattle farms and African holidays, and many of my research projects are linked to this theme. Steppic culture is fascinating: as is savannah culture. There are, and must be, links between the two at a fundamental level however. Not in the direct sense usually implied by archaeologists but in the way that people interact with their environments – physical and imagined. If not, why not?

As much as I’ve enjoyed engaging in debates about the development of East African and Mongolian pastoralist societies in recent years I’ve also noticed an alarming insularity – not, I’m sure, a conscious one. In Africa, it often seems that the West and North of the continent are studied separately to the East and South: this is largely a colonial legacy which sees French, German and Italian researchers work in the West and North and publish in those languages. English speaking researchers publish elsewhere and the problem persists and perpetuates. Academic fragmentation means something similar for Africanists and Central-Asianists, meanwhile: conferences and publications are frequently organised along geographical lines and so the two never meet.

I couldn’t help but notice this as I moved in two distinct academic circles over the last few years. It also made me wonder what other comparative research I was unaware of: what about those Quechuas? What about the Saami reindeer herders? The Corsican pig herders? Pastoralism takes a variety of forms around the world but one thing is constant: the interaction of people and their animals. This, I think, places zooarchaeologists in a unique position to comment on pastoralist cultures.

Last week, I proudly announced that my session with Richard Madgwick, ‘Bones in Space’, had been approved for next year’s ICAZ conference, in San Rafael, Argentina. I submitted one other session proposal to the conference committee too, with Robin Bendrey, and I’m delighted to let the world know that ‘Zooarchaeology of Pastoralism’ has also been accepted. I’m really looking forward to this session: I think it represents the first time that pastoralism has been treated in this way by zooarchaeologists and I believe it’s important. Like with my last ‘blog post, this should be treated as a first call for papers and I’m including the session outline below.

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Zooarchaeology of Pastoralism

Pastoralism is a form of agriculture (food production) which is focused on the raising of livestock. Societies that have chosen to engage in pastoralism as a subsistence strategy may find that it becomes the defining feature of their individual lives and their collective culture – at the very least their livelihoods come to depend upon the successful and regular creation of animal based products (either for direct consumption or for trade) and, thus, they form symbiotic relationships with their herds.

The interdependence of people with particular animals has led to the adoption of a broad spectrum of land-use patterns and labour divisions around the world, ranging from full nomadism, through transhumance to more closely managed pasture exploitation as individuals, families and (occasionally) larger groups of humans direct their herds towards the most abundant and best quality sources of food and water.

Zooarchaeologists, with a de-facto research interest in the relationship between people and animals through time, are uniquely placed to investigate the development of pastoralism and its variations. This session aims to investigate issues such as how much variation in pastoralism is culturally driven and how much it is geographically or climatically driven? To what extent do people directly control their animals and to what extent are they equal partners in their enterprise or else animal-led? To what extent does the type of animal define the type of pastoralism (e.g. is it possible to live in the same way with bovids, suids, cervids and camelids)? How and why do the compositions of herds and human-animal relationships vary? How does pastoralism develop through time?


  1. OED, accessed 2/10/13,

Animal Other Than Horse Found in Diet Shock!

With the British currently horrified at having been tricked into breaking one of their most cherished taboos and the associated scandal now spreading to Europe, it’s with peculiar timing that I should learn that my paper (co-authored with Jean-Luc Houle) “More than Just Horse: Dietary Breadth and Subsistence in Bronze Age Central Mongolia” should have recently been published in Mongolian Journal of Anthropology, Archaeology and Ethnology.  Of course, the real issue in the European meat trade scandal is one of labelling and honesty (although I’d question the intelligence of anyone who honestly believed that bargain processed meat was ever anything but suspicious) but the way that it has been reported in Britain serves to remind us of the cultural implications of dietary choice.  Were this a muslim country then it’s safe to assume that the pork that ended up unlabelled in beef meatballs would have been more controversial.

The reasons behind the British taboo on hippophagy remain as obscure as its origins.  The simple truth is that we do not know when the taboo began or why.  I recently read an archaeologist who referred to the consumption of horse-flesh in Mediaeval Winchester but did so without fully explaining that interpretation, which is a great shame when related to such a controversial topic and in a period which sees butchered horse remains more commonly interpreted as dog-food waste in Britain.  Others have suggested that the taboo extends back into at least the Iron Age.  What we do know is that the taboo is not shared by our neighbours across the English Channel: the taboo is a peculiarly British phenomenon not shared by our Europeans cousins.

Given the prevalence of this taboo, largely carried over to other British-settled states such as Canada, Australia, South Africa and the USA, it may seem odd that academics might argue for the existence of a people subsisting on nothing but horse meat.  Nevertheless, that is just what has been suggested in the case of prehistoric Mongolia; a case of the projected ‘barbarous other’?  Our work in Mongolia has revealed a far more complex society than hitherto suggested, with a dietary base already broad in the Bronze Age.  Here’s a copy of the abstract of that article I mentioned that’s just been published:

Our current state of knowledge of subsistence strategies and dietary breadth in Bronze Age Mongolia has been hampered by a monument focused research paradigm, which has largely ignored habitation sites. This approach has skewed our understanding by extrapolating the ordinary from the extraordinary. The Khanuy Valley Project has recently excavated Bronze Age transhumant habitation sites in central Mongolia and recovered the associated faunal remains. Analysis has revealed a complex subsistence strategy focused on the herding of several species of domestic animal, with dietary breadth increased through the minimal exploitation of wild resources.

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Season’s Greetings

This has been another very busy year for me: fieldwork for projects in Mongolia and Tanzania has been completed and post-excavation work has continued on the material from Nigeria, whilst my PhD research has been refined and refocused.  We decided from the beginning that the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project should involve only one year of fieldwork; we now begin the process of consolidating our research from that project and the Khanuy Valley Project, planning how best to develop knowledge and our interest in Mongolian Bronze and Iron Age cultures further.  The Archaeological Investigation of a “Moving Frontier” of Early Herding in Northern Tanzania, meanwhile, was envisaged as a pilot project and, having met our research goals for that project we await news to hear whether or not the project will enter its mature phase.

All in all, 2013 promises to provide significant new opportunities and, more pleasingly still, the fruition of the work of several previous years.  As I look forward to the new year I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my colleagues and clients for their help and support in the last year and to wish them A Very Happy Yule.

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All Quiet?

Things haven’t been quite so quiet around here as my silence would suggest.  We managed to gather some very useful ethnoarchaeological data on the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project, but while I was away my laptop broke: hence the deafening silence here.

In that time I’ve had copies of book reviews published of Living With Herds by Natasha Fijn (in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society) and Food, Craft and Status in Medieval Winchester by Dale Serjeantson and Helen Rees (in Hortulus).  Both are available now via my profile.

In terms of the dissemination of research, I also heard that a paper jointly presented with Mary Prendergast, Oula Seitsonen, Katherine Grillo and Audax Mabulla has been accepted for this year’s AEA conference in Reading, concerning the spread of Pastoralism in East Africa.  A full copy of the abstract for this is given after the break.

On the teaching front, the next Introduction to Zooarchaeology short course at the University of Sheffield has now been fully booked, dates about the next one will be published here when they are settled.  Bookings are now open though for both the Introduction to Zooarchaeology and Introduction to Ethnoarchaeology courses at the University of York.

After such a lightening round up it only remains for me to excuse myself for another absence.  My bag is now packed and I’m about to leave for more fieldwork as part of the Archaeological Investigation of a “Moving Frontier” of Early Herding in Northern Tanzania project.  Before returning home and teaching in Sheffield I’ll be visiting Helsinki for the EAA conference; I may be able to access the internet and post something from there but otherwise I’ll be out of contact until the second week of September.

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No Flies on Us: The Diffusion of the Neolithic in Africa


The emergence of the Neolithic in Sub-Saharan Africa was not accompanied by a move towards sedentism, as in many other parts of the world, but instead accompanied the diffusion of a nomadic pastoralist lifestyle. Although pastoralist Neolithic sites are known in both East and West Africa as well as in Southern Africa, the precise route, timing and method of this diffusion through a tropical environment which would require acclimatisation to different ecologies and diseases is still the subject of some conjecture but two competing models have gained wide support among archaeologists working in the area. The more favoured model supposes that livestock (and, therefore, pastoralists) could have moved relatively freely through a tse-tse fly free corridor in the eastern side of the continent stretching from modern day Kenya to South Africa.

The Archaeological Investigation of a “Moving Frontier” of Early Herding in Northern Tanzania project was conceived to identify sites in the northern most part of this corridor in order to test this theory and to examine issues of Neolithic – Hunter-Gatherer interaction. This presentation aims to highlight the on-going work to answer some of these questions through the initial results of the zooarchaeological analysis of the sites identified thus far.

1, Department of Archaeology, University of York, The King’s Manor, York. YO1 7EP. UK. 2, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, St. Louis University in Madrid, Avenida del Valle, 34 28003 Madrid. Spain. 3, Department of Geosciences and Geography, University of Helsinki, P.O. Box 64, FI-00014. Finland. 4, Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1114, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899, USA. 5, Archaeology Unit, P.O. Box 35050, University of Dar es Salaam, Dar es Salaam. Tanzania.

Mongolia 2012

I have felt privileged to have been involved with the Khanuy Valley Project over the duration of the last, most informative phase of the project in recent years.  I am, therefore, delighted to announce that the project will leave a legacy beyond our research output and friendships.  The same core team of researchers that ran the last phase of the Khanuy Valley Project (Jean-Luc Houle, Jamansarav Bayarsakhan, Oula Seitsonen and myself) will be joining together again to run the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project in 2012.

This project will feature a fieldwork component run along similar lines to the Khanuy Valley Project between 21st May and 22nd June.  I’m also pleased that some of our previous students and volunteers have already asked to join us – such requests help to reassure us that we create the space for a fun and supportive element to our fieldwork and campsites, building friendships and nurturing colleagues beyond our core team of staff.  In addition to this core team, the project will collaborate and share resources with the Rock Art and Archaeology: Investigating Ritual Landscapes in the Altai Mountain region of Western Mongolia Project, run by Bill Fitzhugh and Richard Kortum.  Working so closely together in the field, when looking at very different aspects of the same cultures, should provide valuable new insights for both teams, as well as new opportunities for our students and volunteers,

The Western Mongolia Archaeology Project has been added to the Project Gallery on my website, and applications are now open for students and volunteers to join us.  We’re only taking a small team this year and, although applications are not processed on a first come first served basis, those interested would be best advised to apply as soon as they have made that decision.

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