Herders in east Africa 5,000 years ago lived in peaceful communities that shunned social hierarchies, communicated intensively and worked together to build massive cemeteries, new research by archaeologists has revealed.
Work by a team of US-based experts on a remote site near Lake Turkana in Kenya contradicts longstanding beliefs about the origins of the first civilisations. It suggests that early communities did not inevitably develop powerful elites or compete violently for scarce resources, but may have worked together to overcome challenges instead.
The study, led by Elisabeth Hildebrand, an associate professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, New York, is based on more than a decade of work in the northwest of Kenya at the “Lothagam North pillar site”, a communal cemetery constructed and used over a period of several centuries between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago.
The archaeologists discovered a platform 30 metres (90 feet) in diameter marked by megaliths. It had a large cavity in its centre where the remains of at least 580 individuals had been placed close together.
Researchers studying the early history of agricultural societies believe large groups of people built permanent monuments to reinforce identities based on a sense of shared history, ideals and culture.
This allowed communities to grow in size beyond immediate family or the relatively small number of individuals well known to one another, leading to greater specialisation, technological advances and prosperity.
However, the Lothagam cemetery was constructed by mobile pastoralists – or nomads – and contains no evidence for the existence of social hierarchies.
Human remains were tightly packed and their arrangement did not suggest any ranking or social priority. Men, women and even small children were buried with elaborate personal ornaments, for example.
“When agrarian societies started to develop, hierarchies started to develop too. Some people became more powerful and disparities in wealth and health and social circumstances emerged. So the big question is: Did the same thing happen in pastoral societies?” said Hildebrand.
“Lothagam North pillar site is the earliest known monumental site in eastern Africa … built by the region’s first herders … and gives us solid evidence that these pastoralists did indeed follow a different trajectory of social change. People came together in large numbers, probably expending blood, sweat and tears to build these large structures, but we have no evidence for hierarchy or social difference.”
The discovery will prompt researchers to re-examine similar examples elsewhere in Africa and on other continents. It challenges established ideas on how and why large groups of people come together to form complex societies.
In eastern Africa, pastoralism remained dominant as a means of gaining sufficient food long after communities in Mesopotamia, Egypt, parts of south Asia and what is now modern China had begun to practice organised agriculture on a large scale.
The exact role played by monuments such as the Lothagam North site is unclear, but they may have served as a place for people to meet, renew social ties and exchange vitally important information. This would have been particularly important to a population that had become increasingly dispersed as they sought food for themselves and fodder for cattle, goats and donkeys over an increasingly large area.
Lothagam North’s architects seemed to have faced highly uncertain environments as rainfall decreased and Lake Turkana receded, possibly leading to economic and social instability.
Yet the burial of even small children with ornaments indicates that “every one in the society was valued”, said Kate Grillo, the co-director of the excavations.
“This was a supposedly terrible period, with much harder environmental conditions that earlier periods, but instead of the conflict you would expect we are seeing larger and tighter social networks,” Grillo, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, told the Guardian. “There are lessons here for us today.”
Early work at the site was arduous, with archaeologists camping in temperatures reaching upwards of 43C (110F). More recently, the Turkana Basin Institute, founded by famous paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey, has provided logistic assistance.
Significant study has been carried out on similar sites on the eastern side of Lake Turkana but not on what were once its western shores. Earlier studies had indicated that megaliths had been brought some distance but it was not understood that the pillars marked big cemeteries.
Northwestern Kenya is a major source of fossil and archaeological evidence for all stages of human development. Scientists believe every living human shares DNA inherited from a common ancestral population believed to have lived in or within a few hundred miles of the Turkana Basin 60,000-70,000 years ago.
It is unclear what happened to the herder communities that built the pillars and cemetey. The use of the cemetery ended suddenly, but apparently in a deliberate and organised way. The herders made tens of thousands of trips to fill it up and cap it with stones.
“We don’t know why or what happened next,” Grillo said.