Maasai people

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Maasai tribe.jpg
Total population
c. 2 million
Regions with significant populations
 Kenya1,189,522 (2019)[1]
 Tanzania800,000 [approximate] (2011)[2]
Maa (ɔl Maa)
Maasai, Christianity, Maasai mythology
Related ethnic groups
Samburu, Ilchamus people and other Nilotic peoples

The Maasai (/ˈmɑːs, mɑːˈs/)[3][4] are a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting northern, central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are among the best known local populations internationally due to their residence near the many game parks of the African Great Lakes, and their distinctive customs and dress.[5] The Maasai speak the Maa language (ɔl Maa),[5] a member of the Nilotic language family that is related to the Dinka, Kalenjin and Nuer languages. Except for some elders living in rural areas, most Maasai people speak the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania, Swahili and English.[6] The Maasai population has been reported as numbering 1,189,522 in Kenya in the 2019 census,[1] compared to 377,089 in the 1989 census.[7][8] Many Maasai tribes throughout Tanzania and Kenya welcome visits to their villages to experience their culture, traditions, and lifestyle, in return for a fee.[9]


The Maasai inhabit the African Great Lakes region and arrived via the South Sudan.[10] Most Nilotic speakers in the area, including the Maasai, the Turkana and the Kalenjin, are pastoralists, and are famous for their fearsome reputations as warriors and cattle-rustlers.[10] The Maasai and other groups in East Africa have adopted customs and practices from neighboring Cushitic-speaking groups, including the age set system of social organization, circumcision, and vocabulary terms.[11][12]

Origin, migration and assimilation[edit]

Maasai man

Many ethnic groups that had already formed settlements in the region were forcibly displaced by the incoming Maasai,[13] while other, mainly Southern Cushitic groups, were assimilated into Maasai society. The Nilotic ancestors of the Kalenjin likewise absorbed some early Cushitic populations.[14]

Settlement in East Africa[edit]

The Maasai territory reached its largest size in the mid-19th century, and covered almost all of the Great Rift Valley and adjacent lands from Mount Marsabit in the north to Dodoma in the south.[15] At this time the Maasai, as well as the larger Nilotic group they were part of, raised cattle as far east as the Tanga coast in Tanganyika (now mainland Tanzania). Raiders used spears and shields, but were most feared for throwing clubs (orinka) which could be accurately thrown from up to 70 paces (approx. 100 metres). In 1852, there was a report of a concentration of 800 Maasai warriors on the move in what is now Kenya. In 1857, after having depopulated the "Wakuafi wilderness" in what is now southeastern Kenya, Maasai warriors threatened Mombasa on the Kenyan coast.[16][17]

Maasai warriors in German East Africa, c. 1906–1918

Because of this migration, the Maasai are the southernmost Nilotic speakers. The period of expansion was followed by the Maasai "Emutai" of 1883–1902. This period was marked by epidemics of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, rinderpest (see 1890s African rinderpest epizootic), and smallpox. The estimate first put forward by a German lieutenant in what was then northwest Tanganyika, was that 90% of cattle and half of wild animals perished from rinderpest. German doctors in the same area claimed that "every second" African had a pock-marked face as the result of smallpox. This period coincided with drought. Rains failed completely in 1897 and 1898.[18]

The Austrian explorer Oscar Baumann travelled in Maasai lands between 1891 and 1893, and described the old Maasai settlement in the Ngorongoro Crater in the 1894 book Durch Massailand zur Nilquelle ("Through the lands of the Maasai to the source of the Nile"). By one estimate two-thirds of the Maasai died during this period.[19]

[20][21] Maasai in Tanganyika (now mainland Tanzania) were displaced from the fertile lands between Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro, and most of the fertile highlands near Ngorongoro in the 1940s.[22][23] More land was taken to create wildlife reserves and national parks: Amboseli National Park, Nairobi National Park, Maasai Mara, Samburu National Reserve, Lake Nakuru National Park and Tsavo in Kenya; and Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tarangire[24] and Serengeti National Park in what is now Tanzania.

Maasai are pastoralist and have resisted the urging of the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. They have demanded grazing rights to many of the national parks in both countries.

The Maasai people stood against slavery and never condoned traffic of human beings; and outsiders looking for people to enslave avoided the Maasai.[25]

Essentially there are twenty-two geographic sectors or sub tribes of the Maasai community, each one having its own customs, appearance, leadership and dialects. These subdivisions are known as 'nations' or 'iloshon' in the Maa language: the Keekonyokie, Damat, Purko, Wuasinkishu, Siria, Laitayiok, Loitai, Kisonko, Matapato, Dalalekutuk, Loodokolani, Kaputiei, Moitanik, Ilkirasha, Samburu, Lchamus, Laikipia, Loitokitoki, Larusa, Salei, Sirinket and Parakuyo.[26]


Recent advances in genetic analyses have helped shed some light on the ethnogenesis of the Maasai people. Genetic genealogy, a tool that uses the genes of modern populations to trace their ethnic and geographic origins, has also helped clarify the possible background of the modern Maasai.[27]

Autosomal DNA[edit]

The Maasai's autosomal DNA has been examined in a comprehensive study by Tishkoff et al. (2009) on the genetic affiliations of various populations in Africa. According to the study's authors, the Maasai "have maintained their culture in the face of extensive genetic introgression".[28] Tishkoff et al. also indicate that: "Many Nilo-Saharan-speaking populations in East Africa, such as the Maasai, show multiple cluster assignments from the Nilo-Saharan [...] and Cushitic [...] AACs, in accord with linguistic evidence of repeated Nilotic assimilation of Cushites over the past 3000 years and with the high frequency of a shared East African–specific mutation associated with lactose tolerance."[28]


A Y chromosome study by Wood et al. (2005) tested various Sub-Saharan populations, including 26 Maasai males from Kenya, for paternal lineages. The authors observed haplogroup E1b1b-M35 (not M78) in 35% of the studied Maasai.[29] E1b1b-M35-M78 in 15%, their ancestor with the more northerly Cushitic males, who possess the haplogroup at high frequencies[30] lived more than 13 000 years ago.[31] The second most frequent paternal lineage among the Maasai was Haplogroup A3b2, which is commonly found in Nilotic populations, such as the Alur;[29][32] it was observed in 27% of Maasai males. The third most frequently observed paternal DNA marker in the Maasai was E1b1a1-M2 (E-P1), which is very common in the Sub-Saharan region; it was found in 12% of the Maasai samples. Haplogroup B-M60 was also observed in 8% of the studied Maasai,[29] which is also found in 30% (16/53) of Southern Sudanese Nilotes.[32]

Mitochondrial DNA[edit]

According to an mtDNA study by Castri et al. (2008), which tested Maasai individuals in Kenya, the maternal lineages found among the Maasai are quite diverse, but similar in overall frequency to that observed in other Nilo-Hamitic populations from the region, such as the Samburu. Most of the tested Maasai belonged to various macro-haplogroup L sub-clades, including L0, L2, L3, L4 and L5. Some maternal gene flow from North and Northeast Africa was also reported, particularly via the presence of mtDNA haplogroup M lineages in about 12.5% of the Maasai samples.[33]


Maasai warriors confronting a spotted hyena, a common livestock predator, as photographed in In Wildest Africa (1907)

[34] The monotheistic Maasai worship a single deity called Enkai or Engai. Engai has a dual nature: Engai Narok (Black God) is benevolent, and Engai Na-nyokie (Red God) is vengeful.[35] There are also two pillars or totems of Maasai society: Oodo Mongi, the Red Cow and Orok Kiteng, the Black Cow with a subdivision of five clans or family trees.[36] The Maasai also have a totemic animal, which is the lion; however, the animal can be killed. The way the Maasai kill the lion differs from trophy hunting as it is used in the rite of passage ceremony.[37] The "Mountain of God", Ol Doinyo Lengai, is located in northernmost Tanzania and can be seen from Lake Natron in southernmost Kenya. The central human figure in the Maasai religious system is the laibon whose roles include shamanistic healing, divination and prophecy, and ensuring success in war or adequate rainfall. Today, they have a political role as well due to the elevation of leaders. Whatever power an individual laibon had was a function of personality rather than position.[38] Many Maasai have also adopted Christianity and Islam.[39] The Maasai are known for their intricate jewelry and for decades, have sold these items to tourists as a business.

Maasai people and huts with enkang barrier in foreground - eastern Serengeti, 2006

[40] Educating Maasai women to use clinics and hospitals during pregnancy has enabled more infants to survive. The exception is found in extremely remote areas. [41] A corpse rejected by scavengers is seen as having something wrong with it, and liable to cause social disgrace; therefore, it is not uncommon for bodies to be covered in fat and blood from a slaughtered ox.[42][43]

Traditional Maasai lifestyle centres around their cattle, which constitute their primary source of food. A man's wealth is measured in cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man who has plenty of one but not the other is considered to be poor.[44][45]

All of the Maasai's needs for food are met by their cattle. They eat the meat, drink the milk daily, and drink the blood on occasion. Bulls, goats, and lambs are slaughtered for meat on special occasions and for ceremonies. Though the Maasai's entire way of life has historically depended on their cattle, more recently with their cattle dwindling, the Maasai have grown dependent on food such as sorghum, rice, potatoes and cabbage (known to the Maasai as goat leaves).[46]

One common misconception about the Maasai is that each young man is supposed to kill a lion before he can be circumcised and enter adulthood. Lion hunting was an activity of the past, but it has been banned in East Africa – yet lions are still hunted when they maul Maasai livestock.[47][48] Nevertheless, killing a lion gives one great value and celebrity status in the community.

Maasai school in Tanzania


Body modification[edit]

Maasai woman with stretched earlobes

The piercing and stretching of earlobes is common among the Maasai as with other tribes, and both men and women wear metal hoops on their stretched earlobes. Various materials have been used to both pierce and stretch the lobes, including thorns for piercing, twigs, bundles of twigs, stones, the cross section of elephant tusks and empty film canisters.[51] Women wear various forms of beaded ornaments in both the ear lobe, and smaller piercings at the top of the ear.[52] Amongst Maasai males, circumcision is practiced as a ritual of transition from boyhood to manhood. Women are also circumcised (as described below in social organization).

This belief and practice is not unique to the Maasai. In rural Kenya a group of 95 children aged between six months and two years were examined in 1991/92. 87% were found to have undergone the removal of one or more deciduous canine tooth buds. In an older age group (3–7 years of age), 72% of the 111 children examined exhibited missing mandibular or maxillary deciduous canines.[53][54]

Genital Modification[edit]

Young Maasai warrior (a junior Moran) with headdress and markings

Traditionally, the Maasai conduct elaborate rite of passage rituals which include surgical genital modification in order to initiate children into adulthood. The Maa word for circumcision, "emorata," is applied to this ritual for both males and females.[55] This ritual is typically performed by the elders, who use a sharpened knife and makeshift cattle hide bandages for the procedure.[56]

The male ceremony refers to the excision of the prepuce (foreskin). In the male ceremony the boy is expected to endure the operation in silence. Expressions of pain bring dishonor upon him; albeit only temporarily. Importantly, any exclamations or unexpected movements on the part of the boy can cause the elder to make a mistake in the delicate and tedious process; which can result in severe lifelong scarring, dysfunction, and pain.[57] [58] [59][60]

Young women also undergo excision ("female circumcision", "female genital mutilation," "emorata") as part of an elaborate rite of passage ritual called "Emuatare," the ceremony that initiates young Maasai girls into adulthood through ritual circumcision and then into early arranged marriages.[61] The Maasai believe that female circumcision is necessary and Maasai men may reject any woman who has not undergone it as either not marriageable or worthy of a much-reduced bride price. In Eastern Africa, uncircumcised women, even those highly educated members of parliament like Linah Kilimo, can be accused of not being mature enough to be taken seriously.[62] To others the practice of female circumcision is known as female genital mutilation, and draws a great deal of criticism from both abroad and many women who have undergone it, such as Maasai activist Agnes Pareyio. The female rite of passage ritual has recently seen excision replaced in rare instances with a "cutting with words" ceremony involving singing and dancing in its place. However, despite changes to the law and education drives the practice remains deeply ingrained, highly valued, and near universally practiced by members of the culture. [63][64]

Graduation from warrior to junior elder takes place at a large gathering known as Eunoto. The long hair of the former warriors is shaved off; elders must wear their hair short. Warriors who do not have sexual relations with women who have not undergone the "Emuatare" ceremony are specially honored at the Eunoto gathering.[65] [66][67]


Maasai woman with short hair


[70][71] This would symbolize the healing of the woman.[72]

Two days before boys are circumcised, their heads are shaved.[73][74] When warriors go through the Eunoto, and become elders, their long plaited hair is shaved off.[75][76]

Music and dance[edit]

Traditional jumping dance

Maasai music traditionally consists of rhythms provided by a chorus of vocalists singing harmonies while a song leader, or olaranyani, sings the melody.[77][78] Unlike most other African tribes, Maasai widely use drone polyphony.[79]

Women chant lullabies, humming songs, and songs praising their sons. Nambas, the call-and-response pattern, repetition of nonsensical phrases, monophonic melodies, repeated phrases following each verse being sung on a descending scale, and singers responding to their own verses are characteristic of singing by females.[80][81][82][83] When many Maasai women gather together, they sing and dance among themselves.[84]

[85] [86]

Eunoto, the coming of age ceremony of the warrior, can involve ten or more days of singing, dancing and ritual. The warriors of the Il-Oodokilani perform a kind of march-past as well as the adumu, or aigus, sometimes referred as "the jumping dance" by non-Maasai. (Both adumu and aigus are Maa verbs meaning "to jump" with adumu meaning "To jump up and down in a dance".[87])[88][89]


A Maasai herdsman grazing his cattle inside the Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania

Traditionally, the Maasai diet consisted of raw meat, raw milk, honey and raw blood from cattle—note that the Maasai cattle are of the Zebu variety.

In the summer of 1935 Dr. Weston A. Price visited the Maasai and reported that according to Dr. Anderson from the local government hospital in Kenya most tribes were disease-free. Many had not a single tooth attacked by dental caries nor a single malformed dental arch. In particular the Maasai had a very low 0.4% of bone caries. He attributed that to their diet consisting of (in order of volume) raw milk, raw blood, raw meat and some vegetables and fruits, although in many villages they do not eat any fruit or vegetables at all. He noted that when available every growing child and every pregnant or lactating woman would receive a daily ration of raw blood.


Most of the milk is consumed as fermented milk or buttermilk (a by-product of butter making). Milk consumption figures are very high by any standards.[91][92]

The Maasai herd goats and sheep, including the Red Maasai sheep, as well as the more prized cattle.[93][94]

Maasai eat soup laced with bitter bark and roots containing cholesterol-lowering saponins; those urban Maasai who don't have access to the bitter plants tend to develop heart disease.[95]

Although consumed as snacks, fruits constitute a major part of the food ingested by children and women looking after cattle as well as morans in the wilderness.[96][97][98]


Shelter covered in cattle dung for waterproofing


Panoramic view of Maasai Enkang, seen from the inside
Panoramic view of Maasai Enkang, seen from the outside


A Maasai woman wearing her finest clothes

Clothing changes by age and location. Young men, for instance, wear black for several months following their circumcision. However, red is a favored colour. Blue, black, striped, and checkered cloth are also worn, as are multicolored African designs. The Maasai began to replace animal skin, calf hides and sheep skin with commercial cotton cloth in the 1960s.[100]

Shúkà is the Maa word for sheets traditionally worn wrapped around the body. These are typically red, though with some other colors (e.g. blue) and patterns (e.g. plaid). Pink, even with flowers, is not shunned by warriors.[101] One piece garments known as kanga, a Swahili term, are common.[102] Maasai near the coast may wear kikoi, a type of sarong that comes in many different colors and textiles. However, the preferred style is stripes.[103][104][105]

Influences from the outside world[edit]

Maasai women repairing a house in Maasai Mara (1996)

A traditional pastoral lifestyle has become increasingly difficult due to outside influences of the modern world. Garrett Hardin's article, outlining the "tragedy of the commons", as well as Melville Herskovits' "cattle complex" helped to influence ecologists and policy makers about the harm Maasai pastoralists were causing to savannah rangelands. This concept was later proven false by anthropologists but is still deeply ingrained in the minds of ecologists and Tanzanian officials.[106] This influenced British colonial policy makers in 1951 to remove all Maasai from the Serengeti National Park and relegate them to areas in and around the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). The plan for the NCA was to put Maasai interests above all else, but this promise was never met. The spread of HIV was rampant.

Maasai wearing protective masks during COVID-19 pandemic.
Maasai driving a motorcycle (2014)

Due to an increase in Maasai population, loss of cattle populations to disease, and lack of available rangelands because of new park boundaries and the incursion of settlements and farms by other tribes (this is also the chief reason for the decline in wildlife-habitat loss, with the second being poaching), the Maasai were forced to develop new ways of sustaining themselves. Many Maasai began to cultivate maize and other crops to get by, a practice that was culturally viewed negatively.[106] Cultivation was first introduced to the Maasai by displaced WaArusha and WaMeru women who were married to Maasai men; subsequent generations practiced a mixed livelihood. To further complicate their situation, in 1975 the Ngorongoro Conservation Area banned cultivation practices. In order to survive they are forced to participate in Tanzania's monetary economy. They have to sell their animals and traditional medicines in order to buy food. The ban on cultivation was lifted in 1992 and cultivation has again become an important part of Maasai livelihood. Park boundaries and land privatisation has continued to limit grazing area for the Maasai and have forced them to change considerably.[107]

Over the years, many projects have begun to help Maasai tribal leaders find ways to preserve their traditions while also balancing the education needs of their children for the modern world.[108]

The emerging forms of employment among the Maasai people include farming, business (selling of traditional medicine, running of restaurants/shops, buying and selling of minerals, selling milk and milk products by women, embroideries), and wage employment (as security guards/ watchmen, waiters, tourist guides), and others who are engaged in the public and private sectors.[109]

Many Maasai have moved away from the nomadic life to positions in commerce and government.

Notable Maasai[edit]

See also[edit]


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