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Kansyore Fisher-Hunter-Gatherers Abandoned the Northeastern Lake Victoria Shoreline during an Arid Period in the Middle Holocene: A Reconsideration of Dates from Western Kenya with New Radiometric and Faunal Evidence from the Namundiri A Shell Midden, Eastern Uganda

In: Journal of African Archaeology
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  • 1 School of Archaeology, University of Oxford, Oxford, OX1 3TG, UK
  • | 2 Department of Humanities Education, Kabale University, Kabale, Uganda
  • | 3 Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa
Open Access

Abstract

Kansyore pottery-using groups of the northeastern Lake Victoria Basin represent one of only a few examples of ‘complex’ hunter-gatherers in Africa. Archaeologists link evidence of specialized fishing, a seasonal land-use cycle between lake and riverine sites, and intensive investment in ceramic production to behavioral complexity after 9 thousand years ago (ka). However, a gap in the Kansyore radiocarbon record of the region between ~7 and 4.4 cal ka limits explanations of when and why social and economic changes occurred. This study provides the first evidence of lakeshore occupation during this temporal break at the only well-studied Kansyore site in eastern Uganda, Namundiri A. Within the context of other sites in nearby western Kenya, radiometric and faunal data from the site indicate a move from the lake to a greater reliance on riverine habitats with middle Holocene aridity ~5–4 cal ka and the arrival of food producers to the region after ~3 cal ka.

Abstract

Kansyore pottery-using groups of the northeastern Lake Victoria Basin represent one of only a few examples of ‘complex’ hunter-gatherers in Africa. Archaeologists link evidence of specialized fishing, a seasonal land-use cycle between lake and riverine sites, and intensive investment in ceramic production to behavioral complexity after 9 thousand years ago (ka). However, a gap in the Kansyore radiocarbon record of the region between ~7 and 4.4 cal ka limits explanations of when and why social and economic changes occurred. This study provides the first evidence of lakeshore occupation during this temporal break at the only well-studied Kansyore site in eastern Uganda, Namundiri A. Within the context of other sites in nearby western Kenya, radiometric and faunal data from the site indicate a move from the lake to a greater reliance on riverine habitats with middle Holocene aridity ~5–4 cal ka and the arrival of food producers to the region after ~3 cal ka.

1 Introduction

Technological elaboration and ownership of resources are thought to signal ‘complexity’ among Kansyore ceramic-producing fisher-hunter-gatherers in the northeastern Lake Victoria Basin of East Africa during the early and middle Holocene (Dale et al. 2004; Dale 2007; Prendergast 2010; Prendergast & Lane 2010). Kansyore groups made and used large quantities of highly decorated pottery, repeatedly occupied lakeshore and riverine sites, and practiced intensive fishing (e.g., weirs, nets) and diverse hunting strategies (high species diversity) (Robertshaw et al. 1983; Robertshaw 1991). The concept of complexity, in this case, is linked to Woodburn’s (1982) notion of delayed-return hunting and gathering, which emphasizes future food availability, reduced mobility, and hierarchical social structures. Globally, archaeologists often point to evidence of seasonal resource-use, sedentism, food storage, and the exploitation of abundant marine environments when identifying complex or delayed-return hunter-gatherers in the past (Arnold 1996; Binford 2001). Archaeologists have also begun to examine diachronic change and local variability among complex hunter-gatherers, drawing attention to factors that influence when, where, and why distinct social and economic systems appear, change, or disappear.

In some cases, researchers link seasonal and longer-term environmental changes to social, economic, and political reorganization among hunter-gatherers, as in temperate Eurasia and North America (Angelbeck & Grier 2012; Wengrow & Graeber 2015) and arid northern Africa (di Lernia 2001; Garcea 2001, 2006; Barich 2013). Studies in Mediterranean Eurasia (Byrd 2005; Munro 2009; Stutz et al. 2009; Maher et al. 2012) and coastal southern Africa (Jerardino 2010, 2012) also highlight the role of changing social dynamics – including rising human populations and increasingly dense, sedentary settlements – in shaping complex hunter-gatherer economic systems. In East Africa, Kansyore scholars recognize temporal variability in ceramic and faunal patterns, with a general trend toward increasingly delayed-return strategies ~8.5–1.5 cal ka (Dale et al. 2004; Dale 2007; Prendergast 2010; Prendergast & Lane 2010). This long record, spanning major climatic and human transformations in the region, provides an ideal opportunity to examine the ways changing environmental conditions and social dynamics affected complex fisher-hunter-gatherer systems in a tropical African lake setting.

Dale & Ashley (2010; Dale 2007) document the gradual adoption of Kansyore pottery production and use in the early Holocene, followed by an abrupt change in ceramic decorative styles after ~4.4 cal ka. On the basis of these ceramic shifts, they define two archaeological phases in the Kansyore sequence – Early ~8.5–7 cal ka and Late ~4.4–1.5 cal ka – with a notable radiometric gap in the record between ~7 and 4.4 cal ka. Scholars have argued broadly that specialized fishing methods (e.g., at rapids) reliant upon delayed-return technologies (e.g., weirs, nets) were integrated into a systematic land-use pattern in which groups cycled seasonally between lakeshore and inland environments over this 7000-year sequence (Robertshaw et al. 1983; Stewart 1991; Marshall & Stewart 1995; Prendergast 2010; Prendergast & Lane 2010). However, due to a lack of reliable dates and well-studied faunal assemblages in the region, it remain