Lothagam North Pillar, built by early shepherds ~5000-4300 years ago. Megaliths, stone circles, and cairns can be seen behind the 30-m platform mound Katherine Grillo

Monumental 5,000-year-old Graveyard Found in Kenya

Archaeologists believe a giant cemetery near Lake Turkana was built by egalitarian nomads who buried their dead without distinction of rank

Nomads weren’t supposed to have had the capacity to create monumental construction, nor of course were prehistoric shepherds living in classless societies, but apparently some of them weren’t told that. Archaeologists have unearthed a 30-meter (100-foot) high burial mound surrounded by boulder-like rocks — megaliths — and rock circles near Lake Turkana in Kenya that date back about 5,000 years. 

Used from 5,000 years ago to 4,300 years ago, the Lothagam North Pillar site is the earliest known cemetery of its type in eastern Africa, the researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday. The archaeologists believe that the cemetery was created by an egalitarian society of nomadic shepherds, in contrast to the common assumption in archaeological circles that only settled, orderly and hierarchical societies could build such huge things.

Classless in prehistoric Kenya 

Lothagam North Pillar was a communal cemetery used for roughly 700 years. The hypothesis that the nomadic pastoralists there were egalitarian is based on the absence of evident stratification into social classes. That in turn is based on everybody being buried much the same way.

The archaeologists, from Stony Brook University in New York and Germany’s Max Planck Institute, report finding remains of at least 580 men, women and children of various ages crowded inside the cavity of the central platform, which is about 30 meters (100 feet) in diameter with a big space dug in the center. 

Elsewhere in the world at least, prehistoric elites were afforded special treatment, even after death. So for instance, the artifacts buried with a wealthy woman 12,000 years ago in Israel included a human foot, 86 tortoise shells and a leopard pelvis, which led archaeologists to surmise that she had been a shaman, a priestess who made use of magic. 

No such distinction was evident in the Kenyan burial ground. Men, women and children were buried with no indication of status, although all of them were interred with their own personal ornaments. The archaeologists say that the ornaments were also distributed equally throughout the cemetery. So in short, none of the burials had special features that could be discerned millennia after the event, and it’s possible that everyone buried there enjoyed roughly the same status.

Carla Klehm

It could also be that the people living around Lake Turkana didn’t have possessions beyond those buried with them. In any case, at some point, the cavity was filled up and was capped with stones and megaliths, some of which had been brought from as far as a kilometer away.

In the vicinity of the central cavity, the archaeologists found circles made of piled up rocks (as opposed to rock slabs, for instance), as well as cairns (rock piles of uncertain significance). 

Could nomads build monuments?

Monumental remains from prehistoric societies have been found throughout Eurasia and the Middle East, and they are extremely puzzling. One key issue has been how on earth people who didn’t have wheels or domesticated animals could have moved and lifted stones weighing tons. The thinking has been that monumental edifices, involving heavy engineering, immense work, skill sets and leadership, had to have been the hallmark of settled societies that, because they were supplied food by crops, had the luxury of devoting time to activities beyond finding food. 

That controversy has swirled over sites such as Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, dating back around 11,000 to 12,000 years, which some believe is the world’s earliest temple. There are those who tout Gobekli as evidence that hunter-gatherers could built monumental structures perfectly well. But the truth is that we don’t know who built the gigantic stone cult figures, let alone what the builders did for a living.

That is because we do not know when agriculture as such began. There is evidence in Israel dating back 23,000 years that some crop cultivation had already been carried out, and that the Neolithic peoples in the area were cultivating some grains. But that was evidently short of "true" agriculture, and they were still subsisting on hunting and gathering, archaeologists say with confidence. That said, when Gobekli Tepe and the sites around it were being built, agriculture proper was apparently beginning in roughly that area.

There are a number of equally mysterious prehistoric monumental sites in Israel — one a gigantic pile of rocks in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Another is Rujm el-Hiri, the so-called “wheel of giants” in the Golan Heights. Nobody has any idea when they were built or by whom, but only that they date from prehistoric times. Now we have indirect evidence from Kenya that classless nomadic shepherds also created major sites thousands of years ago, lending more credence to the theory that Gobekli and surrounding sites could have been created by hunter-gatherers.

“This discovery challenges earlier ideas about monumentality,” says Elizabeth Sawchuk of Stony Brook University and the Max Planck Institute. “Absent other evidence, Lothagam North provides an example of monumentality that is not demonstrably linked to the emergence of hierarchy, forcing us to consider other narratives of social change.”

Disappearing Lake Turkana

The archaeologists do note that the Lothagam burial grounds were created at a time of flux in eastern Africa: the climate was drying, which reduced the surface area of Lake Turkana by 50 percent over a period of thousands of years. Herders with sheep and goats, which had been domesticated about 5,000 years earlier in Mesopotamia, clashed with local fishermen and gatherers living around the shrinking lake. 

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The archaeologists have a fuzzy view of how the cemetery could have been helpful and worth all that effort: “The monuments may have served as a place for people to congregate, renew social ties and reinforce community identity,” suggests Anneke Janzen of Max Planck. “Information exchange and interaction through shared ritual may have helped mobile herders navigate a rapidly changing physical landscape.” 

Maybe. In any case, the new herders were there to stay. The lake stabilized, and when all that happened, the cemetery ceased to be used. 

Now the lake is shrinking again thanks to modern climate change and latter-day fishermen are again facing a crisis, not from strangers with goats this time, but from scorching winds and misuse of its sources. None other than Oxford University warned in 2017 that an ill-conceived hydroelectric dam being erected on the Omo River, one of the lake’s sources, and over-exploitation for irrigation will make this desert lake another Aral Sea, which is now little more than a dust-bowl littered with the rusting remains of ships. Rather than leading to the creation of cemeteries that celebrated equality, now the disappearance of the lake is leading to war over water and land between two tribes that are self-proclaimed to be among the world’s oldest.

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