Sirikwa people

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The Sirikwa were a people inhabiting the Great Lakes region of East Africa, in an area that is believed to have extended from Lake Turkana in the north to Lake Eyasi in the south. Most prominent from the 12th to 15th centuries,[1] they are credited with having built many of the historic stone ruins and irrigation systems that are found locally.[2][3]


The name Sirikwa derives from the name that various Kalenjin societies gave to the builders of the Sirikwa Holes, it is taken to be a term for "the people who were before us".[4]

Other Nilotic and Bantu peoples that today inhabit the eastern Great Lakes region have other names for this vanished people. The Dorobo refer to them as the Mokwan,[5] the Meru as the Mwoko,[5] the Kikuyu as the Enjoe,[3] and the Maasai as the Eboratta.[3]


What is known of the Sirikwa is what has been preserved in the archaeological record. Artifacts found in numerous sites across the central Rift Valley of Kenya tell of the history and way of life of this society.

Radio carbon dating of artifacts from the sites indicates that the culture formed in the central Rift Valley around 1000 A.D. and possibly earlier.

This society expanded over the plateaus and hills of Western Kenya, spreading their territories across the Mau-Nyanza, the Western Highlands, Cherangani Hills and Mt. Elgon areas in both Kenya and Uganda by the 12th century A.D.

This way of life would decline and eventually disappear by the 18th and 19th centuries.[6]

The Sirikwa have traditionally been viewed as descendants of the Neolithic Afro-Asiatic peoples who introduced domesticated plants and animals to the Great Lakes region[2] – a succession of societies collectively known as the Stone Bowl cultural complex.[7] Most of these early northern migrants are believed to have been absorbed by later movements of Nilotic and Bantu peoples.


Sirikwa-inhabited territory is believed to have extended from Lake Turkana in the northern part of the Great Lakes region to Lake Eyasi in the south. Its cross-section stretched from the eastern escarpment of the Great Rift Valley to the foot of Mount Elgon. Some of the localities include Cherengany, Kapcherop, Sabwani, Sirende, Wehoya, Moi's Bridge, Hyrax Hill, Lanet, Deloraine (Rongai), Tambach, Moiben, Soy, Turbo, Ainabkoi, Timboroa, Kabyoyon, Namgoi and Chemangel (Sotik).[8]

Kerio Valley[edit]

In the Kerio Valley of Kenya, among other neighbouring areas, there are vestiges of the Neolithic tillers' civilisation in the form of elaborate irrigation systems. Although these particular structures are today maintained by the Marakwet subgroup of the Kalenjin, the latter aver that they were the work of a northern people of peculiar language called the Sirikwa, who were later decimated by pestilence. According to the Marakwet, the Sirikwa "built the furrows, but they did not teach us how to build them; we only know how to keep them as they are."[2]

Uasin Gishu[edit]

Local tribesmen who for a period occupied the Uasin Gishu plateau also assert that the Sirikwa, who lived in the area prior to themselves, had constructed the numerous circular stone kraals that are today found in the region.[3] According to the Akiek (Dorobo), among others, these earlier inhabitants were long-haired,[3][9] with general traditional evidence further describing them physically as tall, bearded and "red" in complexion.[9] These northern agro-pastoralists were also in some accounts said to have possessed very large herds of cattle, specifically of the Egyptian long-horned variety.[9][5]


The Sirikwa are often associated with the modern Iraqw, a Cushitic-speaking people residing in the Mbulu Highlands of northern Tanzania. The Iraqw's ancestors have traditionally been credited with having constructed the sprawling Engaruka complex. According to the Maasai Nilotes, the Iraqw already inhabited the site when their own ancestors first entered the region during the 18th century.[2]


Sirikwa Holes[edit]

Key aspects of the Sirikwa culture persist in the form of Sirikwa Holes: round depressions having a diameter 10–20 metres and average depth of 2.4 metres that were built atop hillsides. They were surrounded by stone walls or wooden fences. Sirikwa holes occur as clusters, with usually 5 to 50 holes at a site, but sometimes over 100. Nowadays, these holes are often covered by grass and bushes. The Sirikwa kept their cattle inside these fenced enclosures, but constructed their houses outside them. The holes themselves were reportedly built for guarding purposes. Sirikwa holes were semi-permanent; after several years, they were abandoned and the communities moved on to construct new pens elsewhere.[8]

Sirikwa Pottery[edit]

In addition, excavation of the Sirikwa holes has yielded pottery and rare lithic assemblages that are typologically very similar to those found in archaeological sites of the larger Stone Bowl complex, such as Hyrax Hill.[10][11] The recovered stone implements also reportedly fit well into those belonging to the Upper Kenya Capsian culture.[11]


The Sirikwa practiced pastoralism. They herded goats, sheep, and cattle. There is also evidence that they raised donkeys, as well as domesticated dogs.[12] The cattle kept by the Sirikwa were most likely Zebu cattle. The Sirikwa focused on milk production, which is shown by the lack of lactating age cows in archaeological assemblages. Large herds of sheep and goats were kept for meat, and made up a large proportion or the Sirikwa diet.[13]


The Sirikwa language is believed to be linguistically ancestral to the Kalenjin language.[14] In more recent times, the Okiek language whose form is said to be early Kalenjin is believed to best represent the Sirikwa language.[15]

In the late 19th and early 20th century the Okiek living in and adjacent to Kalenjin areas were recorded as speaking a dialect of Nandi. There were also Kalenjin-speaking Okiek in Mt. Kenya and Kikuyu areas as well as near Lake Natron in Tanzania, areas that were by then occupied by non-Kalenjin speaking peoples.[16] This adoption of the language by the Okiek and the areas where it was spoken have been used to illustrate the dominance[16] and distribution[17] of the Sirikwa society in older times.


  1. ^ Kevin Shillington (2005): Encyclopedia of African history, Volume 1. CRC Press. ISBN 1-57958-453-5
  2. ^ a b c d Matthiessen, Peter (2010). The Tree Where Man Was Born. Penguin Classics. pp. 275–276. ISBN 0143106244. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1906). Man. 6: 120.  Missing or empty |title= (help);
  4. ^ Huntingford, G.W.B., Remarks upon the history of the Nandi till 1850, 1927
  5. ^ a b c Matthiessen, Peter (2010). The Tree Where Man Was Born. Penguin Classics. p. 144. ISBN 0143106244. 
  6. ^ Kyule, David M., 1989, Economy and subsistence of iron age Sirikwa Culture at Hyrax Hill, Nakuru: a zooarcheaological approach p.200-204
  7. ^ J.D. Fage, William Tordoff (2002). A History of Africa, Fourth Edition. Routledge. p. 29. ISBN 0415252482. 
  8. ^ a b Sutton, John (1990). A Thousand Years of East Africa. British Institute in East Africa. ISBN 1-872566-00-6. 
  9. ^ a b c Oliver, Roland Anthony (1963). History of East Africa, Volume 1. Clarendon Press. p. 73. 
  10. ^ Cottrell, Leonard (1974). The Concise Encyclopedia of Archaeology. Hutchinson. p. 26. 
  11. ^ a b Historical Association of Kenya, Bethwell A. Ogot, ed. (1976). History and Social Change in East Africa: Proceedings of the 1974 Conference of the Historical Association of Kenya, Volume 6 of Hadith. East African Literature Bureau. p. 16. 
  12. ^ Kyule, David (1997). "The Sirikwa Economy". Azania. 32 (1): 27–29. doi:10.1080/00672709709511586. 
  13. ^ Sutton, John (1998). "Hyrax Hill and the Later Archaeology of the Central Rift Valley of Kenya". Azania. 33: 102. doi:10.1080/00672709809511465. 
  14. ^ Shaw, I. and Jameson, R., A Dictionary of Archaeology, John Wiley and Sons, 2008, p.531
  15. ^ Kyule, David M., 1989, Economy and subsistence of iron age Sirikwa Culture at Hyrax Hill, Nakuru: a zooarcheaological approach p.20
  16. ^ a b Hollis A.C, The Nandi - Their Language and Folklore. The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1909, p. xiv
  17. ^ Spear, T. and Waller, R. Being Maasai: Ethnicity & Identity in East Africa. James Currey Publishers, 1993, p. 47 (online)