Origins of Cattle Pastoralism in East Africa is the Focus of a New Three-Year Study by Penn Museum and International Research Team

National Science Foundation Awards Team a $185,000 Research Grant

22 AUGUST 2007, PHILADELPHIA, PA—In Africa today, cattle pastoralism and dairy farming are principal livelihoods for millions of people, integrated into most aspects of cultural life. In the last few years, harsh and unpredictable climate fluctuations in East Africa—probable signs of global warming—have affected the region’s pastoralists, and threaten their long-term ability to continue their semi-nomadic way of life. Surprisingly, until recent decades little research had been conducted on the origins and spread of cattle domestication across that huge continent.

Cattle enclosure inside a Maasai settlement. Photo: Kathleen Ryan.

The beginnings of cattle pastoralism in East Africa will be the subject of an intensive, three-year international collaborative research effort, made possible by a $185,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Archaeozoologist Dr. Kathleen Ryan, Research Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and an international team of colleagues, will engage in systematic archaeological fieldwork, including mapping and test excavation, in central Laikipia, Kenya.

Though cattle domestication is believed to have occurred in Africa roughly 9,000 years ago, cattle pastoralism in East Africa began millennia later, between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago. The research team hopes to shed new light on the advance of cattle pastoralism and its impact on the social organization, settlement patterns, and diet of the area’s indigenous, hunter-gatherer peoples, adding to a developing understanding of the early forces that shaped present-day cattle pastoralism, now so at risk.

As a pivotal part of the study, the team will work to identify the beginnings of widespread cow milk consumption in Laikipia, contributing to current scholarly discussions about the genetic basis in modern East African populations for lactose tolerance in adults—something generally not true of adult populations in other parts of the world.

Co-investigators with Dr. Ryan are Professor Karega-Munene of the United States International University (USIU), Nairobi, Kenya, and Professor Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol, England. The team will collaborate with researchers at the National Museums of Kenya, the Weizmann Institute of Israel, and MASCA (Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology) at Penn Museum, and offer hands-on research experience to U.S. students from the University of Pennsylvania and Kenyan students from USIU.

From 1990 to 2002, Dr. Ryan worked among the Maasai of East Africa, one of the most well known of Africa’s many cattle pastoralist societies. She focused on what she termed “cattle ecology,” and the ways in which the requirements of the cattle shaped Maasai life.

Ryan's project with the Maasai expanded to include research on their use of traditional medicines to treat cattle and people. The majority of these medicines are derived from naturally growing botanicals readily available on the range. Recognizing that key botanical knowledge held by Maasai elders was in danger of being lost, she worked with Maasai colleagues to find ways to bridge the information gap. The goal was to preserve practical knowledge about the environment, garnered over many hundreds of years. To this end, in 1999 and 2002, she organized field schools to teach the basics of environmental science in cooperation with Maasai elders and teachers at the local boarding school for Maasai girls in Rombo, her main study area. Included in the instruction were walks for plant collection and identification led by Ryan's main Maasai consultant, Parmitoro ole Koringo, and his son Lekatoo ole Parmitoro.

Photo: Cattle enclosure inside a Maasai settlement. Photo: Kathleen Ryan.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, located at 3260 South Streets on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage. For general information, visitors may call (215) 898-4000, or visit the Museum’s award-winning website at


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