Ethiopian Megalithic Stelae Much Older than Previously Thought
An international team of researchers has conducted an archaeological survey and test excavation at Sakaro Sodo, one of the ancient megalithic stele sites in Gedeo zone, south Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s Gedeo zone is known to have the largest number and highest concentration of megalithic stele monuments in Africa, with an estimate of more than 10,000 stelae.
While many of the monoliths have fallen and/or are undecorated, a few have intricately wrought faces and other anthropomorphic designs carved into the stone that can be seen today.
Existing archaeological, ethnographic, and living megalithic stele traditions in the region suggest that the oldest stele sites were likely created for two purposes: to commemorate the transfer of power from one generation to the next or to record and commemorate group achievement.
Prior to the current work, only one absolute date was available (850 years ago) from a stele site in the Gedeo zone, suggesting the monuments began to be constructed in the region approximately a millennium ago.
“This is one of the most understudied archaeological sites in the world, and we wanted to change that,” explained Dr. Ashenafi Zena, a researcher with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and Hawassa University.
Dr. Zena and colleagues used advanced radiocarbon dating to determine the megalithic stelae at the Sakaro Sodo site were likely created sometime during the first century CE.
They also found that obsidian artifacts from the site originated some 300 km (186 miles) away in northern Kenya, illustrating that the people at Sakaro Sodo obtained most of their obsidian raw materials through some form of exchange or trade.
While little is known about the pastoral and/or agricultural people who populated the Sakaro Sodo region at the turn of the first millennium, the new construction dates of the stele monuments appear to coincide with the arrival of domesticated animals in the region and the beginnings of more complex social and economic systems.
“One of the reasons why this research is important is because it has the potential to shed new light on what the earliest people in this area were doing for a living as well as what their cultural and social practices were,” said Professor Andrew Duff, an anthropologist at Washington State University.
The team’s paper was published in the Journal of African Archaeology.
Ashenafi G. Zena et al. New Dates for Megalithic Stele Monuments of Gedeo, South Ethiopia. Journal of African Archaeology, published online November 9, 2021; doi: 10.1163/21915784-bja10006