Massive 5,000-year-old burial monument unearthed in Kenya

View of Lothagam North Pillar Kenya, built by eastern Africa's earliest herders around 5000 years ago, researchers say. Megaliths, stone circles, and cairns can be seen behind the 30m platform mound.

Lagos, Nigeria (CNN)Kenya's arid, gullied Lothagam Valley is a throwback to a very distant past. Now, the region is the site of a discovery that has the potential to change how the world views ancient societies and the way they operated.

A team of researchers from Stony Brook University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have discovered a massive, elaborate cemetery in the region that is the largest and oldest in Eastern Africa. Here, temperatures can rise to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), and the vast, rocky landscape can look like a desert planet from the "Star Trek" movies -- or Mars.
"This discovery challenges earlier ideas about monumentality," said Elizabeth Sawchuk of the Department of Anthropology, Social & Behavioral Sciences at Stony Brook University in New York.
    For decades, Lothagam's well-preserved grandeur has fascinated archaeologists. The researchers wanted to study a large community of animal herders thought to have built the Lothagam North Pillar site, a communal cemetery, about 5,000 years ago.
    The herders built a platform approximately 30 meters in diameter, with a deep cavity where about 580 men, women and children were buried side by side, each wearing nearly the same amount of ornaments, and no sign of special treatment.
    Local tribes have revered the sites for years, according to Sawchuk.
    "They regard the pillars as dancers turned to stone after they laughed at a god who visited them in disguise wearing strange clothes," Sawchuk said. "The Turkana do not consider themselves descendants of these people, but they watch over the sites and make sure that they are protected."
    The ornaments uncovered at the site, elaborate and resplendent pendants and earrings made of ostrich eggshells and stone, reflect the herders' expertise.
    Stone pendants and earrings from the communal cemetery of Lothagam North, Kenya.
    "The jewelry would have had great value, as each bead would have taken many hours of skilled labor to carefully grind down and shape," Sawchuk said.
    Beyond revealing the level of their skill, they also indicate how the society was structured.
    "They may have been a way for people to show who they were, the group they belonged to, and the strength of their social networks," Sawchuk said.
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    The findings suggest that the pastoralists, who led a mobile lifestyle, had a community in which everyone was equal -- an egalitarian society.
    "Until recently, archaeologists thought that emerging elites instigated monumental constructions to simultaneously bolster their own authority and serve as symbols of social unity," said Elisabeth Hildebrand, associate professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University.

    Simple society, complex achievement

    Scientists have long viewed ancient monuments as "indicators of complex societies with differentiated social classes," the archaeologists said in a statement.
    A familiar example is the Pyramids of Giza, built by the ancient Egyptians under the direction of their powerful pharaohs.
    "Ancient monuments have thus previously been regarded as reliable indicators of complex societies with differentiated social classes," the archaeologists said.
    However, the Lothagam North Pillar Site defeats that theory.
    "These motives may well have been the case among sedentary farmers, but the finds at Lothagam North Pillar Site show that some instances of monumentality developed for other reasons that did not relate to elites," Hildebrand said.
    Instead, this site showcases unity.
    "By constructing the mortuary cavity, people created a shared space where community members could be placed all toge