New research draws connections between ancient herders and contemporary issues of pastoralist health and climate change

Banting Postdoctoral Fellow Elizabeth Sawchuk launches project on the archaeology of health and herding around Lake Turkana, Kenya

Donna McKinnon - 25 June 2020

About 5,000 years ago, people living around what is now known as Lake Turkana in northern Kenya experienced an abrupt shift in their environment when the comparatively wet climatic conditions known as the African Humid Period came to an end. As Lake Turkana rapidly shrank, fishing habitats diminished while new grasslands appeared, opening up land and opportunity for the pastoralists migrating from the Sahara with herds of goats, cattle, and sheep. The resulting dynamic period of cultural contact, economic shifting, and massive social change led to the birth of eastern African pastoralism, an economic strategy that is still dominant in the region today.

This period of climatic and socioeconomic change and its effects on the health of people who lived during this time is at the core of Elizabeth Sawchuk’s research. In June, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council awarded Sawchuk the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship — the first Banting in Anthropology at the University of Alberta — to further her research into this tumultuous period which has parallels to the current climate crisis not only in Africa, but around the world.

“The thing I find really interesting is that ancient peoples responded to all these changes around them by coming together and building a new society,” says Sawchuk. “I think the past offers a lot of important lessons that could help us today.”

While Sawchuk’s prior work has focused on who the earliest herders were and how pastoralism spread in eastern Africa, her new research will look at how environmental, economic, and social changes impacted herders' health and well-being. “As a bioarchaeologist,” she says, “this means looking for evidence of stress and disease preserved in peoples' remains.” 

Globally, the transition from hunting and gathering to food production is associated with negative consequences for peoples’ health, but most studies have focused on early agriculture, explains Sawchuk. “We don’t really know what the impacts were on people who didn’t settle down or farm. Yet this is highly relevant in places like eastern Africa, where millions of people are mobile pastoralists.”

Sawchuk works in the field and in the lab, carefully excavating human remains from archaeological sites, meticulously recording their burial context (which can provide important clues about culture and behaviour), and then analyzing the remains under laboratory conditions. Her research focuses on teeth in particular, as they can reveal who ancient individuals were related to, stress they experienced while growing up, what kinds of food they ate, and more.

The area around Lake Turkana is unique, with one of the richest archaeological records on the African continent spanning several million years. Sawchuk explains that as the environment changed and herding began to spread 5000 years ago, people built elaborate cemeteries around the lake—the oldest monumental architecture in eastern Africa. The analysis of skeletons excavated from Turkana makes it possible—for the first time—to investigate how the shift from foraging to pastoralism impacted herders’ bodies and how this might compare to health patterns among contemporary pastoralists.

“Turkana is one of the hardest-hit areas in terms of contemporary climate change,” says Sawchuk. “Severe droughts over the past several years have caused a lot of suffering for herders and their animals. There is ongoing debate about whether pastoralism will continue to be possible or if herders should give up this way of life. Revealing the deep roots of pastoralism and how people have adapted to challenging landscapes can help inform policymakers and empower present and future herders to use their Indigenous knowledge to navigate the current climate emergency.”

Sawchuk calls archaeology a “team sport”, involving a diverse range of experts coming together to tell a story that encompasses microbes all the way up to monumental architecture. The Edmonton native says her interest in archaeology grew out of childhood fascinations with Ancient Egypt, digging in the dirt, and biology. Her first course in Anthropology at the U of A combined all those things and more, compelling Sawchuk to switch into the honours program the following year.

“For anyone interested in the past, Africa is as deep as it goes—all the way back to the evolution of our species,” she says. “I started out interested in fossils and our hominin ancestors, but the more research I do, the more I realize that the past 10,000 years is where all the real action lies!”

With a BA(hons) and a MA from the University of Alberta, followed by a PhD at the University of Toronto and a postdoc at Stony Brook University in New York, Sawchuk was drawn back to the U of A as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology for several reasons. Chief among them is working with Lesley Harrington, whom she describes as a “fantastic mentor” for this project because of her global expertise in health-related research, primarily stress indicators in ancient bones and teeth among ancient mobile hunter-gatherers in Africa. Together, they hope to determine how  adopting herding impacted peoples' bodies and health, and whether this differs from what is known about other early food producers.

Like many researchers across the globe, Sawchuk’s summer research plans have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, she directed a dig on the east side of Lake Turkana, and had planned to finish up the analyses at the National Museum in Nairobi and collect pilot data for her new project. She was also co-organizing a DNA workshop that was supposed to be held in Nairobi this August, now postponed. 

Sawchuk says she is not sure when she will be able to safely return to Africa. The area where she and her team work is very remote, and they don’t want to risk introducing the virus and endangering local communities. Until then, she says they are following updates with the Kenyan authorities to ensure an ethical resumption of their field research. 

“Hands down”, says Sawchuk, the best part about her research is working in Turkana and getting to know the people who live there.

“It’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet and I feel very privileged to spend time with pastoralist communities and learn about the desert’s past.” she says. “Also, there is nothing quite like brushing the dirt and being the first person in 5,000 years to see an artifact. It’s hard to top that feeling.