City of the dead reveals a treasure trove from the past
Grave site, said to be the earliest and largest monumental cemetery in eastern Africa, is discovered in Kenya
If you’ve ever wondered what a necropolis is, the magic is in that moment when you break it down into different components: necro (of death or the dead) and polis (city).
What’s also fascinating is how a City of the Dead – or a cemetery in its more boring linguistic incarnation – is an absolute treasure trove of information about the living, but from long ago.
The most recent such place to unlock secrets from our past as human beings is a huge cemetery that has just been discovered near Lake Turkana in Kenya, East Africa.An international team has now declared that it is “the earliest and largest monumental cemetery in eastern Africa.”
But that’s not the only or main interesting thing about it: it has come to light that it was built by an egalitarian society.
This, said the researchers, upends our long-held theories about the power relations behind large public buildings.
Named the Lothagam North Pillar Site, the researchers from Stony Brook University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have pegged it as being about 5,000 years old and say it was built by “early pastoralists” (eastern Africa’s earliest herders) who buried about 580 people there.The study, led by Elisabeth Hildebrand of Stony Brook University, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Early herders built a platform approximately 30m in diameter and excavated a large cavity in the centre to bury their dead,” said the researchers. “After the cavity was filled and capped with stones, the builders placed large megalith pillars, some sourced from as much as a kilometre away, on top.”
Stone circles and cairns were added nearby.
So how do we know this was a society free of a top-down hierarchy?
“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,” said Hildebrand, “and additionally, 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” – a reality that does away with our sense that you need powerful leaders in place, and different echelons within a community, to supervise and execute a project of this nature.
What’s also fascinating – given the deathly associations of such a place – is the researchers’ theory that it was a bustling centre of social activity. They say early herders “may have constructed the cemetery as a place for people to come together to form and maintain social networks” to withstand major economic and environmental change.“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.
“Information exchange and interaction through shared ritual may have helped mobile herders navigate a rapidly changing physical landscape.”
After several centuries, pastoralism became “entrenched” and lake levels “stabilised”.
It was around this time that communities ceased to use it, leaving in their wake a potted history of life and death for us mere mortals about 5,000 years later.