Lothagam North Pillar Site
View of Lothagam North Pillar Kenya, built by eastern Africa's earliest herders, some 5,000-4,300 years ago. Megaliths, stone circles, and cairns can be seen behind the 30-m platform mound; its mortuary cavity contains an estimated several hundred individuals, tightly arranged. Most burials had highly personalized ornaments. Lothagam North demonstrates monumentality may arise among dispersed, mobile groups without strong hierarchy. Katherine Grillo.

Archaeologists have discovered a 5,000-year-old monumental cemetery in Kenya, giving us more insight into the life of ancient East-African populations.

The structure, officially named Lothagam North Pillar Site, is located near Kenya’s Lake Turkana. It was found by an international team scientists and is the earliest and most massive monumental cemetery to be located in the region.

According to the features noted by the researchers, the site was likely built thousands of years ago by Africa’s first herders and used as a burial ground for several hundred centuries. The central part of the cemetery had a 30-meter wide platform with a large cavity to bury the dead. Once filled, the people living back in the day capped it with large stones and pillars.

The researchers estimate that more than 500 people buried in the cavity, regardless of any social or ethnic difference. This was because the finding suggested that men, women, and children from all age groups and classes were buried in that same region. Every single individual was buried with their own personal ornaments and no one seemingly received special burial.

This, as the team posited, indicated the people living during that period were not divided into different social classes, as widely theorized by many.

Archaeologists have long believed large buildings monuments like these were built only in complex, socially stratified societies with strong leadership.

However, "this discovery challenges earlier ideas about monumentality," Elizabeth Sawchuk, one of the researchers involved in the discovery, said in a statement. "Absent other evidence, Lothagam North provides an example of monumentality that is not demonstrably linked to the emergence of [social] hierarchy, forcing us to consider other narratives of social change."

According to the researchers, the cemetery was probably built at a time when the Turkana basin was witnessing a number of changes. On one hand, early pastors were moving into the region and interacting with local fishermen and hunter-gatherers living near the lake, while on the other, the climate was changing.

Essentially, a decline in rainfall during that time would have shrunk Lake Turkana drastically. This would have prompted the herders to construct the Lothagam North Pillar Site as a place for gathering and coping with the environmental challenge.

"The monuments may have served as a place for people to congregate, renew social ties, and reinforce community identity," Anneke Janzen, another researcher involved in the work, added. "Information exchange and interaction through shared ritual may have helped mobile herders navigate a rapidly changing physical landscape."

That said, it is worth noting this is not the only evidence of an egalitarian or un-stratified society. Many large monuments thought to be built by egalitarian organizations have also been seen in parts of Africa and other continents. They believe discoveries like these could provide more insight into the motives behind the formation of ancient complex societies.

The study was published Aug. 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.