Interactive African Rift Valley Culture Map and Analysis


A few years ago, HRAF anthropologists were involved in a project to help develop an agent-based model of violent conflict in Eastern Africa. As part of the project they mapped the different ethnic groups in the region using George Peter Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas and Africa: Its People and Their Culture History. The ethnic map was revealing of the history of the region: the waves of migration that occurred from different parts of the continent over the course of several millennium; the ancestors of the various ethnic and cultural groups today. The three major immigrant groups were the Cushites, Bantu, and Nilotes. In the map above they are identified by shades of tan, green, and red, respectively.  These three groups migrated into the area in different periods, beginning with Cushitic peoples from the Ethiopian plateau in northeast between 2000 and 1000 B.C. They were followed by the Bantus migrating east from the Cameroon Highlands in West Africa beginning in 500 A.D. The last major migration was the Nilotes who pushed south from the Sudan along the Great Rift Valley beginning in 1000 A.D. The success of the Bantu migration was due in part to their domesticated cattle. The Nilotes, too, domesticated a hardier breed of cattle that could survive the drier climate of the Rift Valley and savanna regions to the south.

Culture summaries for several of these groups are available in eHRAF World Cultures (see list, below). Cultural clusters as defined by Murdock are color-coded. Hover over the map for the names and locations of each individual culture.

A teaching moment: Based on the work George Peter Murdock did in the 1950s and earlier, this map is dated. Groups have migrated and changed location; others have split up, or joined with other groups. For example the migration of Nyangatom (Topotha) from Uganda pushed the Suri north of Lake Turkana. The names of some groups have changed, as well.  For example the Reshiat living at the top of Lake Turkana are now known as the Dassanach.  Finally, the map is not fine grained enough to capture smaller ethnic groups that make up larger entities. Murdock’s ethnic divisions and hierarchy are judgments based on his understanding of the linguistic, historical and subsistence data.  Not all scholars would necessarily be in agreement with him. At best we have a snapshot of a region in time, which has to be noted in any cross-cultural comparative research.

Mapped Cultures with Culture Summaries in eHRAF

Interlacustrine Bantu: Gisu (FK13), Nyoro (FK11), Ganda (FK07)

Tanzania Bantu: Bena (FN31), Ngonde (FN17)

Kenya Highland Bantu: Chagga (FN04), Gikuyu (FL10)

Nilotes: Nuer (FJ22), Luo (FL11), Turkana (FL17), Masaai (FL12), Kaffa (MP14)

Cushites: Konso (MP17), Somali (MO04)

Hunter-Gatherers: Hadza (FN11), Okiek (FL20)

Note: The map has two mistakes. The Sandawe should be colored grey as part of the East African Hunters, not purple for Southern Cushites. Also, the Tatoga, should be colored as part of the Nilotes, Nandi cluster, not East African Hunters.