A monumental cemetery built by eastern Africa’s first herders near Lake Turkana, Kenya

Featured Journal Content – Heritage Stewardship

PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States
of America
[Accessed 25 Aug 2018]
A monumental cemetery built by eastern Africa’s first herders near Lake Turkana, Kenya
Elisabeth A. Hildebrand, Katherine M. Grillo, Elizabeth A. Sawchuk, Susan K. Pfeiffer, Lawrence B. Conyers, Steven T. Goldstein, Austin Chad Hill, Anneke Janzen, Carla E. Klehm, Mark Helper, Purity Kiura, Emmanuel Ndiema, Cecilia Ngugi, John J. Shea, and Hong Wang
PNAS August 20, 2018. 201721975; published ahead of print August 20, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1721975115
Archaeologists have long sought monumental architecture’s origins among societies that were becoming populous, sedentary, and territorial. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, dispersed pastoralists pioneered monumental construction. Eastern Africa’s earliest monumental site was built by the region’s first herders ∼5,000–4,300 y ago as the African Humid Period ended and Lake Turkana’s shoreline receded. Lothagam North Pillar Site was a massive communal cemetery with megalithic pillars, stone circles, cairns, and a mounded platform accommodating an estimated several hundred burials. Its mortuary cavity held individuals of mixed ages/sexes, with diverse adornments. Burial placement and ornamentation do not suggest social hierarchy. Amidst profound landscape changes and the socioeconomic uncertainties of a moving pastoral frontier, monumentality was an important unifying force for eastern Africa’s first herders.

Monumental architecture is a prime indicator of social complexity, because it requires many people to build a conspicuous structure commemorating shared beliefs. Examining monumentality in different environmental and economic settings can reveal diverse reasons for people to form larger social units and express unity through architectural display. In multiple areas of Africa, monumentality developed as mobile herders created large cemeteries and practiced other forms of commemoration. The motives for such behavior in sparsely populated, unpredictable landscapes may differ from well-studied cases of monumentality in predictable environments with sedentary populations. Here we report excavations and ground-penetrating radar surveys at the earliest and most massive monumental site in eastern Africa. Lothagam North Pillar Site was a communal cemetery near Lake Turkana (northwest Kenya) constructed 5,000 years ago by eastern Africa’s earliest pastoralists. Inside a platform ringed by boulders, a 119.5-m2 mortuary cavity accommodated an estimated minimum of 580 individuals. People of diverse ages and both sexes were buried, and ornaments accompanied most individuals. There is no evidence for social stratification. The uncertainties of living on a “moving frontier” of early herding—exacerbated by dramatic environmental shifts—may have spurred people to strengthen social networks that could provide information and assistance. Lothagam North Pillar Site would have served as both an arena for interaction and a tangible reminder of shared identity.