View of Lothagam North Pillar Kenya, built by eastern Africa’s earliest herders ~5000-4300 years ago[Katherine Grillo]

A new study has discovered that the largest cemetery in East Africa was built 5,000 years ago around Lake Turkana.

The study by scientists from the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) and Stony Brook University from the US found that the cemetery, in which about 580 people were buried, was built by pastoralists.

The findings show that Kenya was not only the home of culture but innovation as well.

“The study debunks the view that only Western societies organise themselves socially. It confirms that even pastoralists in Kenya and East Africa lived in organised societies. This research is significant as it shows that Kenya holds key to other cultural, biological and behavioural evidence,” said Dr Emmanuel Ndiema from NMK.

He said the findings show that pastoralists knew how to adapt to climatic and cultural changes 3,000 years ago.

Those buried in the cemetery are believed to have lived without major inequalities, contradicting narratives about the origin of early civilisations, according to the study released in Nairobi yesterday.

Dr Elisabeth Hildebrand, from the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University, led the team.

“The Lothagam North Pillar Site was a communal cemetery used over several centuries. A platform 90 feet in diameter held a large cavity in its centre. An estimated minimum of 580 individuals were placed close together,” Hildebrand said.

She added: “Men, women and children were buried with elaborate personal ornaments. Eventually, burial activities ceased and herders capped the entire platform with stones.”

She said archaeologists who settled among agricultural societies found that large groups of people built permanent monuments as reminders of shared history, ideals and culture.

“These ancient monuments have been regarded as reliable indicators of complex societies with emerging elites and social classes. However, the Lothagam cemetery was constructed by mobile pastoralists and carries no evidence for hierarchy. It therefore requires alternative models for the relations between monuments and social change,” Hildebrand said.