With a Prehistoric People: The Kikuyu of British East Africa


“With a Prehistoric People: The Akikuyu of British East Africa – Being an account of the method of life and mode of thought found existent amongst a nation on its first contact with European civilisation” was the first broad ethnographic study of the Gĩkũyũ people. Prior to that, most studies were journal papers focusing on single topics or very general discussions by people like K. R. Dundas, C. W.  Hobley , Richard Crawshay and others in Journals like The Journal of The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain, Journal of Royal African Society, The  Geographical Journal etc. With a Prehistoric People is a 373 page book published in 1910 by William Scoresby Routledge and his wife Katherine. It is profusely illustrated with photographs, drawings and paintings with a surprising level of detail.

Routledge, an Englishman, came to Gĩkũyũ country in 1902 and camped at Nyeri on the site where the White Rhino Hotel stands today. He was joined by his wife in 1904 and together they made in the space of five years a surprisingly detailed study of the nearby Gĩkũyũ. They were assisted by a group of Swahili speaking servants they had picked up in Mombasa and several young Gĩkũyũ men who understood Swahili from their coastal trade journeys. Routledge learned both languages to a reasonable degree to comprehend the various issues he was investigating though even at the end he could not avoid certain glaring errors which found their place in the final published book. He also made friends with influential men like Ndũinĩ wa Mũrathimi and Wambũgũ wa Mathangani and Munge. He was even able to meet Karũri wa Gakure though Karũri’s place was quite far in Mũran’ga. His relationship with these Dons made others open up to him. His wife also endeared herself to the Gĩkũyũ women and her documentation in areas like pottery, basket making, jewelry and food attests to her intimate connection with them.

At that time the camera had just been embraced as a very useful documentation tool and we owe the accurate documentation of objects and artifacts found in the book to Routledge’s mastery use of the camera. Some of these objects were to disappear very fast and when Leakey did his study much later in the 40s, they were nowhere to be found and dramatic changes in dress, jewelry and other artifacts was clearly evident. Katherine also painted some wonderful watercolors and the beautiful rendering of a Gikuyu homestead that dons the cover of the published thesis, Transformation of Kikuyu Traditional Architecture by Joseph Kamenju was by her.

Some of the areas the couple was able to document remain to date the most serious and sometimes the only published studies notwithstanding the the so-called centers of African research that churn out PhDs like Chinese production lines. Examples of some of the Rotledges’ seriousness is their record of Gĩkũyũ iron making, chain making and a careful documentation of Gĩkũyũ pottery, Kĩondo basket weaving jewelry and dress. They were also able to document and carefully draw on beautiful fold-out sheets in color one of the most important Gĩkũyũ artifacts, the Ndome shield, a central element in the Gĩkũyũ initiation of boys into men. Neither Kenyatta, a Mũũgĩkũyũ in his celebrated book Facing Mount Kenya nor Leakey’s three volume treatise were able to document the Ndome to anything close to Routledge. The Consolata Mission in Nyeri can be credited to have at least done a decent photographic record of the Ndome in use. (See Father  C. Cagnolo’s The Akikuyu: Their Customs, Traditions and Folklore, 1933) Katherine apart from drawing the various designs accurately went as far as identifying the shade of blue used on the Ndome as ‘Reckitts’ blue’. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, the Gĩkũyũ tribe’s deepest secrets buried in the Ndome could not be revealed to them. The other subject Routledge was able to document was the Gĩcandi, a gourd inscribed with strange heliographics and that accompanies a long epic poem that like the Ndome is also a repository and the deep end of Gĩkũyũ lore. Though they were unable to decipher it they were able to draw it out accurately and give some elementary interpretations. The instrument as well as most of Routledge’s documented artifacts were donated to the British Museum and as far as I know are still there. A cartoon version of the Ndome can be viewed at the Nairobi Kenya National Museum though the internet is far better with its many photos of Ndomi in private collections all over Europe.

The Routledges were also able to pepper their book with several surprising gems they uncovered mostly by accident. In his many walks into the bush and the markets Routledge happened to notice that beehives bore distinctive markings distinguishing them by clan. He made a drawing of one design apparently belonging to the Anjirũ clan. When I upturned the drawing, (for it might have been difficult for Routledge to have known which way is up in a round hive), I noted its similarity to the Jewish Hanukkah, a sacred candlestick.

Upturned Anjiru clan beehive marking. Source:Routledge 1910
Jewish Hanukkah. Source: Google photos

A close examination showed nine candlestick prongs for the Hanukkah and nine prongs for the Anjiru symbol. I assumed the three prongs at the base of the Anjirũ symbol was a variation of the pyramidal base of the Hanukkah.   I searched my memory for where I had seen this before in Gĩkũyũ documentation and I remembered it was on the cover of the very famous old Gĩkũyũ Primer, Mũthomere, by the Missionary Beecher published in 1942. Looking closely at the header strip of the cover I saw variations of the Anjirũ Hanukkah.

Could it be possible that the other clan symbols that Routledge was unable to give us were variations of the Hanukkah as suggested by the Primer? I have met many seekers of the Gĩkũyũ Holy Grail who will jump at this to further their thesis that the Gikuyu have a Jewish connection.

Muthomere. Source: Beecher 1942
Variations of the Anjirũ Hanukkah. Source: Beecher 1942

The other surprising gem uncovered by the Routledges had also attracted the interest of another Missionary researcher, Hobley who had written that each Gĩkũyũ clan apart from having different characteristics also had its own symbol and totem animal. Hobley wrote that for instance the Aithiegeni clan had the Impala as their totem animal, the Anjirũ the Elephant, the Agacikũ the Zebra and so on. This may indicate that the Gĩkũyũ assigned a much deeper interpretation to the classifications of the Ten full clans much like the Jewish Kabbalah assigns archetypal meanings and interpretations to its ten houses of the Kabbalah. If this is so then the clans and their relationships in for example who can marry into which clan correlates very closely to how the various houses or stations in the Jewish Kabbalah relate. The Kabbalah is described by the Jews as the Tree of Life. The Gĩkũyũ is a large fig tree, the bearer of the name Gĩkũyũ or the Tree of Life.

Jewish Kabbalah. Source: Google photos

Perhaps these little gems sprung from a very prehistoric people by Routredge and now expounded by Mũkũyũ will excite the enthusiastic Gĩkũyũ – Jewish brigade and propel more research in this direction.

Download the book here: With a Prehistoric People.

Chains. The making of which was documented by Routledge source: Routledge 1910
Gĩcandĩ heliograhics and tentative decoding. Source: Routledge 1910
The Ndome dancing shield: the deep end of Gĩkũyũ symbol systems. Sorce: Routledge 1910