Turkana fieldsite in east Africa

Primary Site Researcher

Pierre Lienard

Dr Pierre Lienard holds a PhD in anthropology (2003, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium) based on extensive fieldwork mainly in eastern Africa and shorter field studies in Brazil. He received training in traditional fieldwork techniques and cognitive anthropology. He underwent extensive training in cognitive and evolutionary psychology. The common denominator of all components of his research agenda is an evolutionary approach to human cultures.

He has conducted in-depth ethnographic research among the Turkana and Nyangatom pastoralist populations of east Africa, on collective ritual, sacrifice and other ritualised behaviours. As a postdoctoral research scholar at Washington University in St Louis he is now doing research on individual and collective ritualised behaviour as well as evolutionary aspects of precautionary behaviour.

Pierre is also interested in the investigation of trust and exchange in conditions of great environmental and political uncertainty. Additionally he is investigating the role played by ritualised behaviours when tools or instruments are employed in the whole process of symbolic evocation.

plienard@artsci.wustl.edu | Website

Location and general political setting

The fieldsites involve the Turkana and the Nyangatom, two agro-pastoral populations, that belong to the Karimojong Cluster - a cluster consisting of seven ethnic groups sharing a common origin inhabiting adjacent territories in Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. The Cluster comprises the Karimojong, Jie and Dodos of Uganda, the Toposa and Jiye of Sudan, the Nyangatom of Sudan and Ethiopia, the Turkana of Kenya.

The ethnic groups of the Karimojong Cluster inhabit an area that has been troubled for many years thanks to the civil wars in Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan. A certain stabilisation of the situation occurred in the 90s in Uganda and Ethiopia and a peace agreement has recently been signed between the fighting factions (Khartoum and FPLA) in Sudan. The direct consequence of that long instability can be found in the ready availability of modern weaponry, such as assault rifles, in the region.

Desert landscape


The Turkana population is the biggest group in the cluster with approximately 250,000 people among which around 180,000 still depend entirely on a pastoralist economy


The seven ethnic groups comprising the Karimojong Cluster speak dialectal variants of a unique language.

Economic activities

The populations of the Karimojong Cluster are agro-pastoral but due to the different ecologies of the areas that they inhabit, specific groups have focused their economy more on either the agricultural or the pastoral component. Turkana economy is strongly focused on herding.

The Nyangatom are divided in two groups: a sedentary and agricultural component based on the side of the Omo River in Ethiopia and a truly agro-pastoral component inhabiting areas around the Kibish river bordering the Ilemi Triangle, Naita et Moruankipi in and near Sudan.

Elevated view of a man herding animals

Cooperation and solidarity

Turkana and Nyangatom families are often divided in several residences. By dispersing themselves, households take advantage of the different resources available in widely scattered ecological niches.

Splitting familial groups is necessary to diversify and to augment resources of households and hence to avoid relying on a few sources of provisions, stock of food and grasslands which could be disastrous in case of an enemy onslaught or a drought.

Turkana people gathering

The polygynic family is the basic sociologic unit. It comprises a head of household, his wives and their descendants. That unit is clearly divided in smaller sub-ensembles having a relative autonomy comprising a mother and her children.

This internal organisation of the polygynic familial cell has deep consequences for its operation as a whole. Though the family is conceived as an agnatic group (patrilineal descent), the household's daily operations are organised and controlled at the level of the matrifocal units that usually cooperate as long as the head of household is alive.

Each maternal hearth controls a portion of the herd that its member should inherited at the death of the head of household. When this occurs, familial groups usually split following the internal division existing between maternal hearths unless a brother of the deceased decides to take charge of the household and succeeds in keeping its components together. So scission tendencies strongly affect households throughout their existence.

Situations in which families are found alternate between stages of decomposition into competitive micro-segments and stages of recomposition of a unit comprising several segments under a new head of household. This may help explain why Turkana and Nyangatom genealogies have a very limited depth.

Households coalesce in ensembles or grazing community (adakar), cooperation units sharing zones of grazing. They are also the first level at which a collective defense is systematically organised. At its maximal extension an adakar can comprise the whole of a territorial sections.

Cooperation is stronger at the local level and occurs in many more domains of activity than at higher level. Between territorial sections most of the time cooperation is focused on organising the defense of the land and large-scale raids against the enemy.

Clothes and utensils hanging on branches

Kinship and hierarchical relations

Among the Paranilotes, we find an unfamiliar combination of various classificatory systems focusing either on a vertical or an horizontal solidarity: lineage, territorial, generational and age-set systems. Clans are exogamic. No alliance is allowed with members of the father's and mother's clans. A child belongs to his/her putative father's clan.

Given their dispersal, clans don't usually act as units. They don't have any political prerogative or ritual specialisation. Two essential dimensions are treated in both Turkana and Nyangatom generational systems:

  1. Generational ranking of men: the society is composed of generations of father engendering generations of sons.

  2. Age ranking: men belong to groups of men of approximately the same age, organised hierarchically.


World religions

Missionaries do not live permanently anymore in the Ethiopian Nyangatom homeland. There used to be an active protestant mission (Norwegian) but it closed down several years ago.

A minimal representation of the mission's interests is maintained in the region and relief food and a staff of highland Ethiopians are still funded for the time being.

Several groups of missionaries are present in Turkana. Catholic missionaries of the church of Ireland form the main contingent but several protestant denominations are also present.

Man with body paint

Churches are mainly an urban phenomenon that so far has not deeply influenced the majority of the pastoral population. However there is somewhat of a discrepancy between the south and the west near lake Turkana, where the Catholicism and Protestantism have much more pervaded the society, and the north, where their influence is much more sporadic.

Besides the occurrence of a few prayer groups (predominantly comprising women) here and there, most of the pastoral population I met in the north had not embraced much of the Christian doctrine and had no desire to engage in Christian rituals.

Traditional religion

Turkana foster ideas about an overarching entity called Akuj, Sky. Akuj constitutes en entity of the same type as the Kwoth of the Nuer as described by Evans-Pritchard. It is a distant entity that does not directly intervene in human's life but is responsible for the overall wellbeing of all things on earth (through its main and essential relation with water, hence fertility).

Two other types of counterintuitive entities interact with humans. The ngikaram, the emaciated people, are what we could call ancestors. The ngipyan are malicious spirits. These two sorts of entities are said to have a main way of manifesting themselves, by inflicting misfortune, illness, sickness… to people who are not conforming to social norms, for example etiquette.

Or rather, it is the opposite logic around: quite often a person who is unfortunate, ill, and sick repetitively is diagnosed as being the target of such entities because he/she hasn't respected some social norm like sacrificing for one's elders, has forgotten some friend, has refused to share or to go to raid, for instance.

Collective rituals involving the sacrifice of animals are essential religious expressions among the Turkana and the Nyangatom. Most of these rituals (with noteworthy exceptions) involve the communal consumption of the meat of the sacrificed animals by elders and seniors (in terms of age-set belonging). Such rituals are often performed to placate ngikaram and ngipyan. Indeed it is by inviting ones elders and seniors to a banquet that something can be done to fend off misfortune. Besides such endeavour, there is no other evidence of a cult to the ancestor.

Warrior ethos

Both Turkana and Nyangatom invest a tremendous amount of energy in war related activities. It has deep effect on those societies and on how its members conceived of themselves


Schooling is mainly an urban phenomenon and most of the Turkana and Nyangatom population is not acquainted with it. The Christian missions primarily fund the schools. The level of literacy is very low.


No permanent health post exists in the Ethiopian Nyangatom homeland. Several health centres and a hospital are found in the Turkana. But thanks to the lack of means of transportation and of road, de facto, most of the time, the majority of the population is not in easy reach of such amenities. Traditional medicine is still pretty much the main way of curing people.

Turkana people with donkeys carrying their equipment


Pascal Boyer and Pierre Liénard (2006). Why ritualized behavior? Precaution systems and action parsing in developmental, pathological and cultural rituals. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Pierre Liénard and Pascal Boyer (2006). Whence collective rituals? A cultural selection model of ritualized behavior. American Anthropologist, 108.4, 814-827.

Jesper Sørensen, Pierre Liénard, and Chelsea Finney (2006). Agent and instrument in judgment of ritual efficacy. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 6.3-4, 463-482.

Pierre Liénard (2006). The making of peculiar artifacts: Living kind, artifact and social order in the Turkana sacrifice. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 6.3-4, 343-373.

Pierre Liénard and François Anselmo (2004). The social construction of emotions: gratification and gratitude among the Turkana and Nyangatom of east Africa. In Steven Van Wolputte and Gustaaf Verswijver (eds.) At the Fringes of Modernity. People, Cattle, Transitions. African Pastoralists Studies 2. Tervuren : RMCA, 150-198, photographs.

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