According to archaeologists, some 20-foot tall phallic monoliths in Ethiopia, also called’stelae,’ were created around 2,070 years ago, which is more than 1,000 years earlier than originally thought.
Researchers from the Washington State University dated charcoal samples from the bases of the stones at three sites: Chelba Tututi, Sakaro Sodo and Soditi.
All three locations fall within Ethiopia’s Gedeo zone, which harbours Africa’s highest concentration of megalithic stelae, with around 10,000 monuments over 60 sites.
The team’s analysis concluded that the monuments at the Sakaro Sodo site were likely erected sometime around the year 50 BC.
The only stelae to have previously been dated are at Tuto Fela, around 30 miles north of Sakaro Sodo. These stelae were constructed in 1100 AD making them much younger.
The striking structures are not uncommon, yet they are often overlooked. It is still unknown why.
Experts think that the stones could have been used as markers of burial, and others might have served to commemorate the transition of leadership.
Archaeologists have found that some of Ethiopia’s 20-feet-tall phallic monoliths — or ‘steale’ — were made 2,070 years ago, 1,000 years earlier than thought. Pictured: examples of the steale seen at the Sakaro Sodo site in the Gedeo Zone
The study was undertaken by archaeologist Ashenafi Zena, formerly of the Washington State University but now based at the State Historical Society of North Dakot, and his colleagues.
Dr Zena says Sakaro Sodo “is one of most understudied archaeological sites in the world” and that she wanted to make it better.
The archaeologist was moved to investigate the monuments’ origins further after visiting them with his supervisor Andrew Duff, also of Washington State, in 2013.
Zena described his trip as a shock because he saw so many monuments within such a tiny area.
“Peering over the broken pieces of many stones, I made the decision to do my dissertation there and not in the cave sites of southern Ethiopia.
Not much is known about the people who populated the Sakaro Sodo region at the turn of the first millennium.
According to the researchers, however, the new date for the earliest stelae appears to coincide with the arrival of domestic animals in southern Ethiopia, and the development of more complex social and economic systems.
Professor Duff stated that “One reason why this research was important is because it can shed new light on the early peoples in this region were doing for their living as well cultural and social practices,”
Researchers were able to establish for the first-time where monument builders mined raw stone. This helped push back the construction date by over a thousand years.
Partially completed stelae were found in quarry sites in both Ethiopia’s Gedeo zone as well as further afield in the Sidama region.
Additionally, the team was able to track the origins of small obsidian flakes found from stelae sites throughout Gedeo. They discovered, unsurprisingly, that the majority of these flakes originated in northern Kenya which is some 186 miles away.
It is clear that obsidian was most likely acquired through long-distance trading.
Using a combination of archaeological and ethnographic methods, including studies of living megalithic stele traditions in the region, experts have concluded that the stones were used for various purposes.
It includes commemorating the passing of power from one generation to another, and also recognizing group accomplishments.
Washington State University researchers dated charcoal samples taken from three different sites at the base of the stones: Chelba Tututi (Sakaro Sodo) and Soditi. Pictured: examples of some of the excavations at the base of the monuments conducted by the team at Sakaro Sodo
Professor Duff said that the diversity in function among Ethiopia’s stelae was truly amazing.
“For example, it is known that burial markers were placed at the Tuto Fela stelae monuments located in the north of Gedeo.
He explained that the linear pattern of the first stones of Sakaro Sodo suggests they might have been used as markers for the passing on of generations of leadership.
The team’s analysis concluded that the monuments at the Sakaro Sodo site, specifically, were likely erected sometime around the year 50 BC. The only stelae to have previously been dated — at Tuto Fela (pictured), some 30 miles north of Sakaro Sodo — were erected in 1100 AD, making them significantly younger
Both the Chelba Tututi and Sakaro Sodo site have been nominated for protection as a world heritage site.
Duff stated that it was important to gain UNESCO World Heritage status by gaining a deeper understanding of how these stones were erected.
“This could help to generate tourist revenue which would be a significant economic factor in the country.”
Journal of African Archaeology has published all findings.
The researchers also managed to push back by over 1000 years the date when the oldest stelae were constructed. They were also able, for the very first time, to pinpoint the exact location where the monument builders extracted raw stone. Pictured: unfinished stelae found in quarry sites in the Gedeo zone (Tututi, left, and Soditi, centre) and the Sidama region (Dilla), right
Pictured is Ethiopia’s Gedeo area, home to the highest concentration of megalithic sites in Africa, boasting over 10,000 monuments at 60 locations. This is the Sakaro Sodo research location.