Early Herders and Monumental Sites in Eastern Africa: Dating and Interpretation

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Stone or earthen monuments are associated with early food production in many parts of the world, but their emergence is more evident among early cultivators than among groups focusing on livestock (Sherratt 1990; Solis et al. 2001; Johansen 2004; Wright 2007; Frachetti 2008). Determining why and how early herders built monumental sites is a compelling question, because their subsistence economies, mobility patterns and social institutions would have differed from those of sedentary farmers. Several parts of Africa offer the opportunity to study monumental architecture among prehistoric herders with no domestic plants.

During the Early Holocene, the Sahara, Sahel and portions of eastern Africa had high rainfall and lake levels (Owen et al. 1982; Goudie 1996). Humans living in these regions used aquatic resources and made barbed bone points and ceramics with wavy-line decoration (Robbins 1974; Phillipson 1977; Sutton 1977; Barthelme 1985; Close 1995; Yellen 1998; Holl 2005), but do not appear to have built monumental sites. Africa's first food production--herding--began in the eastern Sahara during the Early Holocene and initially spread west (Figure 1). As conditions became drier during the early Middle Holocene, Saharan sites were abandoned (Kuper & Kropelin 2006). Herding spread south, and cattle and caprines were present in the Turkana Basin by 4000 [sup.14]C BP (Marshall et al. 1984), long before evidence for plant food production in the region (Marshall & Hildebrand 2002).

New social institutions emerged as herding spread. In Egypt, herders erected standing stones at Nabta during the Early Holocene (Wendorf 1998). In Libya, mortuary evidence suggests they had 'cattle cults' 6400-6000 [sup.14]C BP (di Lernia 2006). In Sudan, herders at Kadero buried their dead in distinct areas with different degrees of material cultural elaboration c. 5500 [sup.14]C BP (Krzyzaniak 1991). Near the Middle Niger, ephemeral elites may have existed among mobile herding groups c. 5200-3650 [sup.14]C BP (MacDonald 1998).

In north-west Kenya, several 'pillar sites' have standing stones, platforms and sometimes cairns and/or stone circles (Figure 2). Later herding sites in southern Kenya do not appear to have such complex architecture (Marshall et al. 2011), although cairn building is widespread. Preliminary studies have attributed north-west Kenyan pillar sites to a spatially extensive 'mortuary tradition' linked to the first herders around Lake Turkana (Koch 1994; Nelson 1995), but up to now few pillar sites have been radiometrically dated.

Establishing a definitive chronology for the construction and use of pillar sites can answer three questions crucial to both local culture history and larger processes of social change. Were pillar sites contemporary with early herding? Did the practice of monumental construction spread quickly, or gradually? Was the social significance of pillar sites ephemeral (a few generations) or long-term (many centuries)? In this article we examine existing chronological data for Middle Holocene sites around Lake Turkana, introduce new radiocarbon dates for five pillar sites and examine their social implications.

Early herding and pillar sites in north-west Kenya

Early herding in north-west Kenya is demonstrated by c. 4000 [sup.14]C BP, when cattle and caprine bones appear at habitation sites Dongodien and GaJi2 in contexts securely dated via charcoal (Marshall et al. 1984). Several other habitation sites are regarded as Middle Holocene in age (Table 1), but have insecure dates based on aquatic shell (Broecker & Walton 1959) or bone (Collett & Robertshaw 1983).

Nine possible pillar sites have been recorded near Lake Turkana (Figure 3). Five of these--Jarigole, Lothagam North, Lothagam West, Kalokol and Manemanya--have massive pillars of columnar basalt and raised platforms. Each would have required coordinated labour by a large group to transport pillars up to 800kg in weight from sources up to 2km away, and to build platforms up to 500[m. …