In the undulating landscape of vivid red sandstones in northwest Kenya, near the shores of Lake Turkana, lies a mysterious mound nestled between two prominent ridges of dark volcanic rock. A ring of boulders defines the mound’s edges; rock pillars demarcate its center.
The mound, known as the Lothagam North Pillar Site, has stood for some 5,000 years—a beacon of stability for ancient mobile herders faced with an ever-shifting landscape.
Now an international team of researchers have gotten their most detailed look yet into the mound’s enigmatic construction and contents. Their results, presented in a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest it is a meticulously planned cemetery that generations of mobile herders returned to for hundreds of years to lay their dead to rest.
Though the researchers only excavated a fraction of the 7,500-square-foot burial mound out of respect for the sanctity of the monument, the site has yielded a trove of pottery, jewelry, and other riches of the time. It is the oldest and largest monumental cemetery yet found in the region.
“This work is completely path breaking,” says Fiona Marshall, an archaeologist with at Washington University in St. Louis who was not part of the new study. Long overlooked by past archaeologists, she says, the site offers an unprecedented glimpse into the life and death of ancient East African herders.
Gerbil Tooth Headdresses and Hippo Tusk Bangles
Supported in part on a grant from the National Geographic Society, the researchers collected samples of charcoal and ostrich egg to date the site. They also conducted ground penetrating radar to non-destructively look into the mound’s subsurface structure, then excavated a 43-square foot section to document its contents.
The excavation revealed that ancient peoples had cleared an expanse of sand just smaller than the size of a volleyball court on the shores of Lake Turkana. They dug the burial cavity over three feet deep to the soft bedrock below. Sandstone slabs were hauled in to shore up the cavity’s walls.
Women, men, young adults, and babies were all buried in pits carved in the bedrock, seemingly arranged without regard for age or position in the community, demonstrated by the equal distribution of goods they were buried with. In just the small region excavated, the researchers identified 36 individuals. Based on this find, they estimate that the mound contains some 580 burials.
A variety of riches adorn each individual, highlighting their own unique flair, explains Katherine Grillo, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Florida and author of the study. One wore a necklace with beads fashioned from what study co-author Elisabeth Hildebrand calls “gorgeous green amazonite.” Another had bangles of hippo tusk. Still others wore ivory rings.
One of the most remarkable pieces is a headdress composed of 405 gerbil teeth, which would have required more than 100 animals to create. “I don't think anything like that has been found before, as far as we know,” says Grillo. Gerbils weren’t domesticated at the time, which meant ancient herders had to trap a large number of the wily rodents, she notes.
The Master Plan
Though early work hinted the site may have once served as ancient burial grounds, the new study suggests Lothagam North was a surprisingly large and structurally complex cemetery. “Everything about this site indicates that there was a master plan for each architectural element,” says Hildebrand, associate professor in anthropology at Stonybrook University. “And that master plan was executed carefully and successfully.”
Mysteriously, the ancient herders didn’t fill the burial cavity to capacity. Around 4,300 years ago, they made the decision fill the remaining space with earth and create the massive mound, its slopes extending well beyond the bounds of the cavity.
Cemeteries often develop in an unplanned, aggregate fashion, explains Hildebrand. One person is buried, and then a few more. Eventually you have a cemetery. But the complexity of Lothagam North emphasizes the monument's significance to the ancient community, who crafted a spot that could be used for generations.
Archaeologists study a colossal Olmec stone head in La Venta, Mexico in this 1947 National Geographic photo. The Olmec civilization, the first in Mesoamerica, offers valuable clues into the development of the rest of the region.
“When you think about monumentality in lots of other parts of the world, it is associated with social inequality,” says Grillo. Take, for example, Egyptian pyramids or Maya monuments that were built with low-status labor for high-status occupants. But that doesn’t seem to be the case at Lothagam North. The equal distribution of these stunning grave goods and arrangement of all ages and sexes together suggests that the society was non-hierarchical.
This conclusion, however, might change with larger-scale excavations, notes Peter Robertshaw, an archaeologist and emeritus professor at California State University, San Bernardino who was not involved with the work. He praises the work for its thoroughness, but notes that excavating a larger portion of Lothagam North may reveal overlooked patterns in burial positioning or wealth.
Changing Climate, Shifting Livelihoods
Dating suggests that the origins of the mound extend back some 5,000 years ago, to the close of the African Humid Period. During this time, Lake Turkana was likely double in size, rain was abundant, and the local peoples made their living from fishing, hunting, and gathering.
But as the African Humid Period ended, the lake level dropped and fishing became more unpredictable, says Hildebrand. The changes opened up grassy plains that presented new opportunities for grazing. And fishing, hunting, and gathering communities gave way to mobile herders.
“The landscape around them transformed under their feet,” says Hildebrand. Rains became more unpredictable and, as Marshall notes, the herding community would have to remain on the move in the continual hunt for green pasturelands.
“Every year, people were having to rethink things,” Hildebrand adds. “But Lothagam North would have been kind of standing there [in the landscape] like a beacon; it was one of the landmarks people could really count on.”
Overall, the new study challenges our ideas about connections between monumental building programs and social inequality, and emphasizes complexity of ancient societies. “If we want to look at the full range of the human experience, sites like this open our minds to other possibilities,” says Robertshaw.
“This is a really poignant story for us to consider today,” Hildebrand adds. In the face of numerous economic and environmental changes, these ancient people came together to create something massive. “It probably led to much stronger communities that were able to operate in a much more strategic fashion,” she says. “I think there's a larger message there for all of us, whether you live in Kenya or North America.”