Ethiopia’s Gedeo zone has the largest concentration of stone stelae in Africa. A new study published in the Journal of African Archaeology has pushed back the dates of megalithic stelae dotting the landscape of the Gedeo zone in southern Ethiopia by a whole millennium, from AD 1100 to 50 BC! Ashenafi Zena, Ethiopian native and lead author of the study, decided to study the Ethiopian megalithic stelae after travelling to the region in 2013 with his doctoral advisor, Washington State University (WSU) professor of archaeology Andrew Duff.
Zena, who is now at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, is quoted in a Washington State University (WSU) press release as saying, “It was shocking to see such a large number of monuments in such a small area. Looking at the stones, many of which had fallen to the ground, and some have broken into pieces, I decided to focus my dissertation work there instead of investigating cave sites in southern Ethiopia.”
The amazing and a little scary Ethiopian megaliths at the Gedeo Tuto Fela site. (Arminius1000 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Charcoal Dating Revises Age of Ethiopian Megaliths
The team of researchers from WSU dated charcoal samples from the bases of the phallic stone monuments from three of the 60 sites in the region that house almost 10,000 stelae. Attempts have never been made to date the monoliths at the three sites of Chelba Tututi, Sakaro Sodo, and Soditi.
In the 1990s French scientists tried to determine the age of the stone monuments in the region but took samples only from the site of Tuto Fela 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Sakaro Sodo. These were found to have been erected in AD 1100.
Now the new study, using advanced radiocarbon dating , has found that the megaliths at one of the three sites studied, Sakaro Sodo, were erected sometime around 50 BC, making them at least a thousand years older than the Tuto Fela ones.
Ethiopia’s megalithic Waheno phallic stelae site, in the Sidama zone, photographed by François Azaïs in 1931. (F. Azaïs / CFEE)
How Were and Who Made The 50-BC Ethiopian Megaliths?
Despite the fact that the zone is so densely packed with the stone megaliths and is now under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage site , surprisingly little is known about the purpose of the stone monuments or how they were built. According to Mail Online , Zena said, “This is one of the most understudied archaeological sites in the world, and we wanted to change that.”
Little is known about the people who lived in the region at the beginning of the Christian era and “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 Duff, according to the WSU press release. The research indicates that the dates for the oldest megaliths in the region are similar to those for the domestication of animals in southern Ethiopia and the emergence of a more complex economy and society.
From archaeological and ethnographic data and current cultural traditions, the researchers concluded that the stele sites at Sakaro Sodo and nearby were created for two purposes: to mark generational change of power and to celebrate group achievement. The press release quoted Duff as saying:
“The diversity of function of the stele in Ethiopia is really fascinating. For example, we know that the more recently constructed stele monuments of Tuto Fela in the north part of Gedeo were used as burial markers. While the linear placement pattern of the earliest stones at Sakaro Sodo makes us think they may have been markers to signify the passing of generational leadership.”
The study has also been able to establish for the first time where the stones for the stelae were quarried. Incomplete stelae were recovered from quarry sites in both the Gedeo zone itself as well as from the Sidama region.
The research team was also able to identify the sources of the obsidian stone for the several small obsidian artifacts recovered from sites across the Gedeo zone. Interestingly, they found that most of the obsidian came from as far away as northern Kenya, which is nearly 186 miles (300 kilometers) from Gedeo. This meant that the builders of the monuments had some kind of long-distance trade with Kenya.
The researchers plan to continue investigating the Gedeo stele sites despite the challenges posed by the political situation in Ethiopia as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. For the UNESCO World Heritage tag to come through, it is important to have a better understanding of the site and its builders.
“This could in turn help generate tourism revenue, which is a major economic factor for the country,” Duff says in the WSU press release. This is an outcome much to be hoped for in this war-ravaged and famine-stricken country.
Top image: These Ethiopian megaliths in the Gedeo Sakaro Sodo area, photographed in 2014, have been dated to 1,000 years older than previously believed and everyone’s amazed!. Source: Ashenafi Zena / Washington State University
By Sahir Pandey