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Archaeologists find earliest and largest monumental cemetery in eastern Africa in Kenya

Stone pendants and earrings from the communal cemetery of Lothagam North, Kenya. Photo: Carla Klehm

Relict of an egalitarian society, without a stratified social hierarchy which has been believed to be necessary for early complex societies

An international team, including researchers at Stony Brook University, New York and the German Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, has found the earliest and largest monumental cemetery in eastern Africa. The Lothagam North Pillar Site was built 5,000 years ago by early pastoralists living around Lake Turkana, Kenya. This group is believed to have had an egalitarian society, without a stratified social hierarchy.

Thus their construction of such a large public project contradicts long-standing narratives about early complex societies, which suggest that a stratified social structure is necessary to enable the construction of large public buildings or monuments. The study, led by Elisabeth Hildebrand, of Stony Brook University, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Lothagam North Pillar Site was a communal cemetery constructed and used over a period of several centuries, between about 5,000 and 4,300 years ago.

Early herders built a platform approximately 30 meters in diameter and excavated a large cavity in the center to bury their dead. After the cavity was filled and capped with stones, the builders placed large, megalith pillars, some sourced from as much as a kilometer away, on top. Stone circles and cairns were added nearby.

View of Lothagam North Pillar Kenya, built by eastern Africa's earliest herders ~5000-4300 years ago. Megaliths, stone circles, and cairns can be seen behind the 30-m platform mound; its mortuary cavity contains an estimated several hundred individuals, tightly arranged. Photo: Katherine Grillo

An estimated minimum of 580 individuals was densely buried within the central platform cavity of the site. Men, women, and children of different ages, from infants to the elderly, were all buried in the same area, without any particular burials being singled out with special treatment.

Additionally, essentially all individuals were buried with personal ornaments and the distribution of ornaments was approximately equal throughout the cemetery. These factors indicate a relatively egalitarian society without strong social stratification.

Historically, archeologists have theorized that people built permanent monuments as reminders of shared history, ideals and culture when they had established a settled, socially stratified agriculture society with abundant resources and strong leadership. It was believed that a political structure and the resources for specialization were prerequisites to engaging in monument building.

Stone palette with zoomorphic bovine carving from the communal cemetery of Lothagam North, Kenya. Photo: Katherine Grillo

Ancient monuments have thus previously been regarded as reliable indicators of complex societies with differentiated social classes. However, the Lothagam North cemetery was constructed by mobile pastoralists who show no evidence of a rigid social hierarchy.

Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Source: MPG

(11.09.2018)