Turkana stone beads inform a narrative of herder life in a drying east Africa 5,000 years in the past

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On the shores of Lake Turkana in east Africa, about 5,000 to 4,000 years in the past, pastoralists buried their lifeless in communal cemeteries that had been marked by stone circles and pillars. The north-west Kenya “pillar websites” had been constructed across the identical time as Stonehenge within the UK. However these locations have a distinct story to inform: about how mortuary traditions mirror individuals’s environments, behaviours and reactions to alter.

The burial websites appeared at a time of main environmental and financial change within the area. The Sahara, which obtained sufficient rainfall 9,000-7,000 years in the past to maintain populations of fisher-hunter-gatherers and pastoralists, was drying, inflicting teams of individuals to maneuver east and south. Even in japanese Africa, lake ranges had been dropping dramatically; grassy plains had been increasing. Round Lake Turkana, individuals started herding animals along with fishing and foraging.

At a number of of the pillar websites round Lake Turkana, archaeologists have discovered that tons of of individuals had been ceremonially interred below massive, round platform mounds. Lots of these people had been discovered carrying exceptional vibrant stone beads, some as a part of necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and different jewelry worn, for instance, across the waist. These lovely private ornaments embrace blue-green amazonite, mushy pink zeolite, deep pink chalcedony, purple fluorite and inexperienced talc, amongst different minerals and rocks.

I research relationships between people and their environments, particularly at instances of main financial transformations, utilizing scientific strategies utilized to archaeology. I not too long ago led a crew of specialists in geology and archaeology of the area to conduct the primary complete mineralogical evaluation of the Turkana stone beads.

The main target of our research was to find what forms of minerals and rocks the early herders had used to make adornments, and the place these supplies got here from.

This type of data can inform archaeologists concerning the position of artefacts within the society that used them.

Carrying beads

People have been making and carrying beads for over 140,000 years. Beads are one of many oldest types of symbolism and are sometimes used as adornment in a tradition. Carrying one thing in your physique is an expressive selection that may have many meanings, reminiscent of safety, acknowledgement of friendships and bonds, standing or position in society. Private ornaments like beads could point out a typical cultural understanding.

Evaluation of beads in archaeological websites has proven that we are able to study many issues from them.

On the Turkana pillar websites, the stone bead custom was clearly vital, partly due to the variety of beads discovered accompanying burials, and partly as a result of the follow continued for tons of of years.

Figuring out the vary of supplies helps us perceive panorama use prior to now: the place individuals had been buried, the place they watered their animals, seasonal actions for grazing, particular yearly journeys to vital locations and different actions. Pastoralists recorded or marked their worlds by what they left behind and what they took with them. Patterns within the composition of the bead collections could point out there was communication and alternate of objects throughout the area.

Sorting the stone beads

Of the six pillar websites which were excavated by archaeologists, three have yielded substantial assemblages of stone beads: Lothagam North, Manemanya and Jarigole. Our crew started by sorting the stone beads by website, and by their mineral and rock sorts.

Our research recognized the mineral traits of 806 stone beads. We checked out properties like particular gravity, crystal and molecular construction, and the attribute emissions which are explicit to sure minerals.

Stone beads from the Jarigole pillar website.
Carla Klehm, Creator offered (no reuse)

What we discovered was a strikingly numerous set of beads that assorted by website. The visible traits of a few of the beads – color, lustre and so forth – could have made them notably helpful or had a particular that means economically, socially, spiritually or symbolically. Their supply and workability might also have given them a sure worth.

Pink zeolites and turquoise amazonites had been the commonest stone beads on the website of Lothagam North, comprising over three-quarters of the assemblage. This was similar to the positioning of Jarigole, positioned throughout the lake. The websites are tons of of kilometres aside, with Lake Turkana in between – suggesting a cultural connection between them.

Beads from a single burial at Manemanya.
Carla Klehm, Creator offered (no reuse)

In distinction, the sorts of beads at Manemanya had been completely different: largely softer and paler pink and off-white calcite beads that had been fairly massive. Additional, whereas at Lothagam North there typically had been just some beads discovered with any particular person, one particular person at Manemanya was buried with over 300 stone beads and over 10,000 ostrich eggshell beads.

This implies that though having stone beads was a commonality throughout the websites, distinctions – and distinct meanings for various individuals – did exist.

Sourcing stones

We additionally needed to know whether or not the beads had been produced from native sources (inside a couple of days’ stroll) or acquired by long-distance journeys or commerce. Sourcing permits us to partially reconstruct how the earliest pastoralists moved across the panorama throughout the yr.

A survey of the areas west of Lake Turkana and a search of the printed literature on the geology of the area recognized locations the place these supplies might need come from.


Lake Turkana pillar websites.
Carla Klehm. Map by Mark Helper

There are attainable sources for many of those supplies inside about 150km of the pillar websites. Limestone rocks could have been procured simply close to the lake. Among the harder supplies, just like the chalcedonies, might have been carried to the lake space by rivers, to be picked up maybe by somebody watering cattle or fetching water from a stream. Different minerals come from a selected supply. The number of bead sorts demonstrates that folks knew their panorama properly.

Typically, they went out of their strategy to get sure minerals, or maybe traded for them. The closest recognized sources for amazonite and fluorite are, respectively,  225 km, in southern Ethiopia; and  350 km, close to the trendy metropolis of Eldoret, Kenya.

These counsel that bead making was not only a informal affair; materials choice was intentional.

Native landscapes

Early herders within the Turkana Basin obtained supplies from each native and distant locations, and formed them into private adornments. These stone beads had been positioned with the lifeless, in numbers and mixtures that differed by particular person and place. We don’t but totally know what they meant – however future analysis within the Turkana Basin will proceed to discover the lives and legacies of those pioneering herders as they negotiated new environmental and social landscapes.

Edits and feedback for this text had been offered by Late Prehistory of West Turkana challenge co-directors Drs. Elizabeth Hildebrand and Katherine Grillo, challenge minerologist Mark Helper, and Emmanuel Ndiema, who helped lead the sourcing research.


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