A local tip helps reveal an ancient ‘arcade’ in Kenya’s highlands
Two years ago, Yale archaeologist Veronica Waweru was in central Kenya, where she conducts her fieldwork, when she received a tip from a local contact. Tourists, she was told, were removing stone hand axes from a prehistoric site located within a private wildlife conservancy.
Beyond drawing her attention to the looting of the site, the heads-up eventually led Waweru to a stunning archaeological discovery: an “arcade” of ancient Mancala game boards carved into rock.
After receiving the tip, Waweru exchanged emails with the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, the organization that manages the nature reserve, about the hand-axe site, which was previously known but had never been excavated or dated. Then, last summer, Waweru, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and director of undergraduate studies at the Council on African Studies at Yale’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, had her first opportunity to visit the conservancy.
At Lewa, Waweru was driven around the property by a staff member who leads tours there and who had previously discovered multiple other ancient sites on the conservancy, including a burial complex consisting of 19 stone cairns. She learned that steps had been taken to preserve the known hand axe site and was relieved to find a “carpet” of hand axes covering the ground.
One site in particular grabbed Waweru’s attention — and not solely due to the many rhinoceroses that were roaming the area. She noticed rows of shallow pits drilled into a rock ledge. Some of the pits had eroded into pockmarks. Others were deep enough to comfortably hold a handful of stones.
The pits’ differing stages of erosion suggested that some were older than others, Waweru noted. Perhaps even more intriguing, she believes ancient people used them to play a version of the game Mancala, a two-player, strategy-based board game still played across the world today. Evidence suggests that the game originated thousands of years ago and examples of it have been discovered in ancient Egyptian ruins as well as other regions of Africa.
In all, the Kenya site includes about 20 of these Mancala boards. Some of the more recent examples are superimposed on their earlier counterparts.
“It’s a valley full of these game boards, like an ancient arcade,” said Waweru. “Given the erosion of some of the boards, I believe people were playing these games there a very long time ago.”
This revelation, said Waweru, also underscores the value of the working relationships she has built with local amateurs, people intimately familiar with the region’s landscapes and trained to identify fossils and artifacts contained therein.
Given that the gameboards share the site with the 19 burial cairns, it is possible that the two are somehow connected, she said.
“Was there some ritual going on there on a regular basis over long periods of time?” Waweru asked.
Waweru and her research team have applied for funding to further study the site, which is located along the equator in Kenya’s central highlands on the eastern side of the Great Rift Valley that extends from Lebanon in the Middle East to Mozambique in Southeast Africa. The conservancy is situated in a low-lying basin surrounded by highlands. Water flows into the basin from the surrounding hills.
“There is always a water source there,” Waweru said. “That could be a reason why very early human ancestors came there. It’s been occupied over and over again throughout time. Within the last 10 thousand years, people played Mancala there.”
The precise age of the game boards is difficult to determine, she said, as they are carved into 400-million-year-old rock. DNA analysis of material found in the burial mounds could indicate how people interred in them relate to modern people, she said.
“It’s possible the burial mounds were being reopened and new bodies were being interred in them,” she said. “That has been known to have happened at other prehistoric sites.”
She posits that there were herding societies in the area by 5,000 years ago at the earliest.
“Modern people in the region tend to play games like Mancala when they are out herding,” she said. “That’s probably what they were doing here. People tend to look at early life as brutish, nasty, and short. But perhaps life was not all about survival.”
Rocks at the site have wear marks consistent with the sharpening metal knives, she noted.
“If they are sharpening knives there, they are probably feasting and performing butchery and barbecuing,” she said.
Over the past several years, Waweru and her team have trained locals, mostly farmers, to help identify potential archaeological sites in an effort she calls “knowledge co-production.”
While it is not uncommon for researchers to hire local people as day laborers to help with digs, Waweru and her research team treat the locals as partners.
“We’re working with them as equals in the production of this knowledge,” she said. “They’re engaged and excited. They’re good at it.”
During the training, which occurs over two to three weeks during the summer research season, the professional archaeologists show amateurs examples of fossils and stone stools. They then visit sites to get a sense for how the fossils and artifacts look in the landscapes where they are discovered. Currently, the researchers pay a core group of four amateurs, who have completed training, Waweru said. (On occasion, she added, they have helped their local partners with health care expenses and their children’s school fees.)
If the amateurs find something that seems interesting, they’re encouraged to take a photo of it with their phones and send it to the professionals. If the objects are in a location where they might be at risk of being trampled by animals or destroyed by farming activity, the archaeologists will contact Kenya’s national museum to go collect it. If no one is available to come, the amateurs will look after the site as best they can until the researchers’ fieldwork season arrives.
The partnership consistently yields scientific discoveries, including fossils, artifacts, and new sites to explore, Waweru said.
For example, while uprooting a tree a farmer discovered a stone bowl and contacted an acquaintance whom he knew was working with Waweru’s team of scientists. Locals have also discovered burial sites. A local woman has proven to be adept at finding fossilized tooth fragments, Waweru said.
“We’d been working in this area for years without finding such things,” she said. “This is why you must involve local people who have an interest. You’ll be surprised by what you can discover. It’s a good approach to finding a lot more sites a lot faster than you otherwise would.”
The amateurs also engage intellectually with the objects they discover, she said.
After a farmer discovered the fossilized bones of an extinct buffalo species with horns spanning 14 feet, amateur partner John Mwangi, who has worked regularly with Waweru, considered the kind of ecosystem where a beast of that size would thrive.
“This animal could not have lived in a forest with these horns; this area must have been covered in grass,” Mwangi said.
The discovery caused Richard Kinyua, another amateur, to reflect on the importance of protecting local wildlife.
“I wish our children could see such an animal today,” he said.
Such discoveries create opportunities to discuss the importance of wildlife conservation with the locals, including the role they can play in protecting wild animals on their farms, Waweru said. In turn, the amateurs have taught the scientists about the tactics poachers use to kill wildlife, such as poisoning metal javelins to pierce the thick hides of rhinos.
The partnership has yielded about 35 sites, cementing the status of the highlands outside the Great Rift Valley as important to the study of human evolution, Waweru said.
The work, and the insights they’ve revealed about the key role Kenya’s central highlands had in the development of human civilization, have also fostered a sense of pride for the local amateurs, she said. Local and national media have covered their discoveries. Yale’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies supported “science and heritage” events at four of the region’s high schools, where evidence of newly discovered sites was presented to students.
“My research team’s hope is to show other scientists working on human evolution in Africa — most of whom come from western countries — that harnessing multiple voices to conduct human origins research is not just a social justice issue, but a productive model for conducting research,” Waweru said.