Ethnography and archaeometry of red ochre use by the Maasai and Samburu in Kenya


Red ochre occurs in African archaeological sites spanning more than 250,000 years. It is usually considered to be evidence of the evolving capacity for symbolic behavior. If geological outcrops have distinctive geochemical fingerprints then it may be possible to determine the sources of pigments in archaeological sites and rock art, and reconstruct source preferences, transport distances and perhaps exchange network patterns. Although ochre is almost universally used in Africa, ethnographic descriptions of red ochre source exploitation patterns, selection criteria, preparation and uses are virtually unknown. In 2012 we undertook a pilot study of ochre source geochemistry in the southern and central Rift Valley of Kenya, and found excellent discrimination among sources. In 2015 we systematically sampled 42 geological sources of ochre in the northern and southern Rift, guided by Maasai and Samburu informants who we interviewed about their traditional uses of ochre. We also collected samples from 12 rock art sites, and pigment fragments and artifacts with ochre residues from 10 Middle Stone Age, Later Stone Age and Neolithic sites. We will provide an overview of what we have learned thus far from this ethnographic survey, and from trace element and isotopic analyses of these samples.

Cite this Record

Ethnography and archaeometry of red ochre use by the Maasai and Samburu in Kenya. Stanley Ambrose, Andrew Zipkin, Mercy Gakii, Craig Lundstrom. Presented at The 81st Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Orlando, Florida. 2016 ( tDAR id: 403075)


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min long: -18.809; min lat: -38.823 ; max long: 53.262; max lat: 38.823 ;