Massive cemetery built by Eastern Africa's earliest herders discovered

Scientists have discovered the earliest and largest monumental cemetery in eastern Africa built 5,000 years ago by early pastoralists.

The Lothagam North Pillar Site was built around Lake Turkana in Kenya by a group believed to have had an egalitarian society, without a stratified social hierarchy.

The 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 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.

According to the researchers at Stony Brook University in the US and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, early herders built a platform approximately 30 metres in diameter and excavated a large cavity in the centre 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.

An estimated minimum of 580 individuals were 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.

All individuals were buried with personal ornaments and the distribution of ornaments was approximately equal throughout the cemetery, according to the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

These factors indicate a relatively egalitarian society without strong social stratification.

Historically, archeologists have theorised 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 specialisation were prerequisites to engaging in monument building.

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.

"This discovery challenges earlier ideas about monumentality," said Elizabeth Sawchuk of Stony Brook University.

"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," Sawchuk said.

The discovery is consistent with similar examples elsewhere in Africa and on other continents in which large, monumental structures have been built by groups thought to be egalitarian in their social organisation.

"The monuments may have served as a place for people to congregate, renew social ties, and reinforce community identity," said Anneke Janzen of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

"Information exchange and interaction through shared ritual may have helped mobile herders navigate a rapidly changing physical landscape," Janzen said.

After several centuries, pastoralism became entrenched and lake levels stabilised. It was around this time that the cemetery ceased to be used.