Ancient Teeth Help Solve Mystery of African Herd Migrations
New research has discovered ancient livestock teeth that are helping to solve the mystery of African herd migrations, a route which has long been debated by researchers.
It was previously believed that as early herders traveled from northern to southern Africa, they avoided Kenya's Lake Victoria because of a natural barrier - bushland filled with dangerous tsetse flies that could infect both humans and livestock with African sleeping sickness, a fatal disease.
However, after a team from the University of Utah studied nearly 2,000-year-old teeth in wild antelopes and domestic plant-eating animals, such as cows, sheep and goats, it turns out that land by Lake Victoria could have actually been grassy - not tsetse fly-infested.
As described in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers determined this after finding traces of grass from the Lake Victoria Basin in the animals' old teeth.
"That means Lake Victoria could have been an area through which people passed while migrating southward to southern Africa," Kendra Chritz, the study's first author, said in a statement.
So why is this even important to scientists? For thousands of years, humans relied on hunting, fishing and gathering to survive, but then when domestic animals began showing up between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago - at least in Africa - it set the stage for herding livestock. This transition, researchers say, it important because it would mark the beginning of civilization as we know it.
"Food production led to modern human society," Chritz explained. "Food production may have helped change our way of living - like building cities and having a political system with a central governing body."
Interestingly, in Africa, animal domestication moved eastward and southward, the practice popping up in east Africa and Kenya about 4,500 years ago, in southwest Kenya's Lake Victoria basin 3,500 years ago, and in southern Africa not until about 2,000 years ago. Now, researchers have finally figured out the exact migration route, and the reasoning behind these movements.
The people that traveled through Kenya were known as Elmenteitan herders. The Elementeitan herders at GogoFalls, in particular, have long puzzled researchers. That's because they only relied about 50 percent on domestic animals, spending the other half of their time hunting and fishing.
"The assumption was that due to some sort of environmental constraint, they weren't able to maintain large herds of domestic animals," said Chritz. "The specific assumption relates to the presence of the tsetse fly, which carries African sleeping sickness or trypanosomiasis. This is fatal to cattle, goats, sheep and people. It's very difficult to maintain livestock where there are abundant tsetse flies."
However, now that does not seem to be the case. After examining the enamel of 86 fossil teeth, the researchers found that the animals ate a grassy diet rather than a bushy diet. This, in turn, indicates that the environment around Gogo Falls and Lake Victoria consisted of a grassy landscape that may have attracted herders rather than repelled them.
The new findings suggest that Lake Victoria may have been a pit stop along the southern migration across Africa, revealing a bit more about early herders.
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