New Evidence of Early Man Found In Kenya Shows Early Cultural Innovations

For many years, archaeological excavations in Kenya were focused on the Rift Valley region after evidence of the early man’s life was found in Turkana District in the northwest region of the country. Archaeologists have now unearthed evidence that could give Kenya’s coast a new identity.

Results of a project by a team led by the German-based Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in partnership with the National Museum of Kenya, recently found the first evidence of life in the Panga ya Saidi cave in Kilifi.

According to the researchers, the findings dating back 78,000 years ago represent the longest archaeological sequence from the Middle Stone Age to the Iron Age, with evidence of a gradual shift in cultural, technological and symbolic innovations from 67,000 years ago.

Selected artifacts from PYS. a. Levallois core from Layer 11. b. Two backed lithic artifacts from Layer 11. c. Backed lithic artifact from Layer 3. d. Notched bone from Layer 8. e. Notched bone from Layer 9. f. Ocher crayon from Layer 10. g. Ostrich eggshell bead from Layer 8. h. Conus shell bead from Layer 16. i. Gastropod shell bead from Layer 4. Image credit: Shipton et al, doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-04057-3.


The NatureResearch Journal revealed that more than 30,000 artifacts were discovered at Panga ya Saidi, a cave in the humid coastal forest of Kenya, which is shedding new light on the crucial time period when Homo sapiens first started showing signs of modern behavior.

The artifacts are highly preserved, as the cave environment which later became a habitation for humans underwent little variation over time.

“The new archeological cave site of Panga ya Saidi has a continuous record with people there right up until 500 years ago,” said co-lead author Dr. Ceri Shipton, from the Australian National University.

“The site has amazing levels of preservation with so many of the artifacts in mint condition.”

Analysis was carried out on archaeological plants, animals, and shells from the cave and the findings indicate “a broad perseverance of forest and grassland environments”.

“This suggests that humans exploited the cave environment and landscape over the long term, relying on plant and animal resources when the wider surrounding landscapes dried,”  the institution says in a statement.

Approach to the Panga ya Saidi cave. Limestone upland in background. The cave site is 15 km from the modern coast. Credit: Michael Petraglia

The cave is now the only known site in East Africa with an unbroken archaeological record of human inhabitation.

“Previous sites relating to this early period of modern human behavior have all been in South Africa and the East African Rift Valley, this is the first site on the coast of East Africa and the first with such a continuous record.” Shipton continues

The findings also revealed a trend of humans of the Stone Age adopting smaller tools over the years, a habit that has stuck with the digital mankind to date. “The miniaturization of stone tools may reflect changes in hunting practices and behaviors,” the statement reads in part.

Some of the items found revealed the complex cultural practices of the early man including incised bones, ostrich eggshell beads, marine shell beads, and worked ochre in the layers dating between 48,000 to 25,000 years ago.

The scientists also found the oldest known bead in Kenya, dating to 65,000 years ago as the beads were most commonly made of shells acquired from the coast. Interestingly, the research did not find evidence of regular exploitation of marine resources for subsistence purposes at that period.

Researchers involved in the project said these findings prove that the coastal region was not just used as a migratory route in Africa as widely believed in the past.