Ancient Cemetery Packed With Hundreds of Bodies Discovered in Kenya

By George Dvorsky on at

Archaeologists in Kenya have discovered a 5,000-year-old cemetery containing at least 580 bodies. Built by Africa’s earliest herders, the ancient cemetery contains virtually no signs of social stratification, pointing to a surprisingly egalitarian society.

Eastern Africa’s earliest monumental cemetery — as in, a cemetery containing monuments, such as pillars, cairns, and other landmarks — was built by the region’s first herders some 5,000 years ago, according to new research published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Typically, archaeological sites containing monuments are the product of large, complex societies; it typically takes a lot of people to build large structures that are designed to convey a shared set of beliefs or values. But this monumental cemetery, intentionally built by early pastoralists during the middle Holocene, suggests this isn’t always the case.

It’s called the Lothagam North Pillar Site, and it’s now the largest and oldest known monumental cemetery in eastern Africa. The communal cemetery was used continuously from about 5,000 years ago to 4,300 years ago by early herders who were living around Lake Turkana in what is now Kenya. This was happening during a time of significant environmental change, as rainfall in the area gradually decreased, and as water levels in the lake began to drop.

Team leader Elisabeth A. Hildebrand from Stony Brook University, along with colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and several other institutions, explored the site through excavations and ground-penetrating radar. The ancient cemetery included a large stone-encircled platform measuring 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter above a large pit that was used to bury the dead. The pit, or mortuary cavity, was nearly 4,240 cubic feet (120 cubic meters) in size, and it contained at least 580 individuals (it’s possible that more bodies are contained within, as the pit was too deep to fully probe with the ground-penetrating radar).

An engraving of a cow-like creature found at the site. Image: Katherine Grillo

“Data from excavations,” write the researchers in the study, “reveal a construction plan that envisioned the platform’s dimensions from the outset. People first removed beach sands from a [1,300-square-foot, or 120-square-meter] area down to sandstone bedrock, creating a large cavity shored up with sandstone slabs. They capped surrounding beach sands with a stone pavement ringed by boulders. Within the cavity, people dug closely spaced burial pits into the soft bedrock.”

Corpses were tightly placed into this area in a series of individual burials.The mortuary cavity gradually filled up over the course of several centuries, and it was eventually filled with rubble and capped with stones. Large stone pillars were placed on top from materials sourced well over a kilometre away. Stone circles and cairns were also added nearby.

Excavation work done on bodies found within the pit shows that both males and females were buried at the site, ranging from infants through to the elderly. None of the burials exhibited conspicuous signs of hierarchies or social inequalities. The bodies were buried tightly alongside each other, and in an arrangement not suggestive of rank or social status. What’s more, virtually every corpse was associated with some kind of personal adornment, which weren’t restricted to any particular age, sex, or other criteria.

“Many individuals had ostrich eggshell or stone beads around the necks, hips, and/or ankles,” write the researchers. “Others had hippo ivory finger rings or forearm bangles. Two burials had disintegrated headpieces with intricate latticed arrangements of mammal incisors...Another individual was buried with 12 perforated hippo tusks that may have been strung together and worn in life.”

Stone pendants and earrings from the communal cemetery. Image: Carla Klehm

In addition, more than 300 “vibrantly coloured” stone and mineral beads were found, many of which would have required great time and effort to create.

The communal grave, in addition to providing a shared place to inter the dead, was a place to congregate, share information, and renew social ties, the researchers say. Indeed, by building permanent monuments, these early herders were helping to forge a community identity, with the cemetery reminding them of their shared history, ideals, and culture. The presence of this cemetery also means that dispersed, mobile, and egalitarian societies without strong social hierarchies were capable of constructing monuments — a finding that goes against conventional thinking.

“This discovery challenges earlier ideas about monumentality,” explained Sawchuk in a statement. “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.”

Those “other narratives,” aren’t immediately obvious, but “additional investigation and careful comparison, to see whether (or how) similar socioeconomic circumstances may have prompted the emergence of monumentality in different parts of the continent,” are now warranted, the researchers write in the study.

As a final note, it’s important to point out the limitations of inferring social dynamics through the study of a mass grave, albeit a very organised one with seemingly egalitarian characteristics. The researchers say none of the buried individuals exhibited signs of social stratification, but we can’t know, for example, who was not included in the grave (i.e. there may have been a selectional effect at play here). What’s more, there’s no such thing as a perfectly egalitarian society, as discrepancies in power, influence, and privilege exist along multiple domains, such as sex, age, or other lines of social delineation.

The dead don’t speak, so we may never know the ways in which these individuals may have been marginalised or otherwise set apart. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

Featured image: Katherine Grillo