Megalithic monuments exist in all regions of Ethiopia. Most of the megalith sites are located in the Southern Nation Nationalities and Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS). The major megalithic sites are found in Gedeo Zone, Gurage Zone, and Sidama Zone. Tiya is one of the megalithic sites registered by UNESCO. Stele, tumuli, and dolmens are the common megalithic monuments found in Ethiopia.
Megalith is a Greek word meaning big stone. The term megaliths were first coined by Algernon Herbert in 1849. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology (2003) describes megaliths as a general term applied to monuments of Neolithic and early Bronze Age in northwest Europe. It is used for tombs and standing stones, forming circles Dolmen, Alignment, and Menhir. Megaliths are large stone structures built without mortar.
The nature and distribution of megaliths in Ethiopia vary from region to region, from Gurage, Silti, Hadiya, Kambata, Gedeo, Sidama, and other areas. The types of megaliths in southern Ethiopia are different from the megaliths of Eastern Ethiopia.
Dolmens are the type of megaliths widely distributed in the Eastern part of the country. It is not common to identify dolmen in the central and southern regions of the country. The type of megaliths found in southern and central Ethiopia are Tumulus and stelae. Some Tumuli sites are reported Shewa (central Ethiopia) Gedeo and Borana zone (southern Ethiopia).
Stelae are a type of megaliths found in central, south, and southwestern Ethiopia. Several stelae sites have been discovered in the southern part of Ethiopia. A significant number of stelae sites are identified in other areas of the southern region. several stelae sites from Gurage, Silti, Hadiya, Kambata, and Wolayita. The stelae are commonly named Ya Gragn Dingay (literary the stone of Gragn). The total number of stelae in the southern region was estimated at 10,000. The southern region is known for its huge concentration of megalithic culture. Due to this, the region is referred to as the “stelae belt”.
Stelae are also found in Aksum in northern Ethiopia. The Aksumite stelae are somehow different from other stelae. Aksumite stelae are part of the Aksumite civilization and date to the 2nd and 4th centuries AD. Some of these stelae have an association with cemeteries. It is believed that dolmens and tumuli pre-date pre-Aksumite civilization.
Gedeo zone is known for the existence of 20 megalithic sites in the Bale, Gedeo, and Sidama areas. Out of these sites, 16 sites were in Gedeo and Sidama. Later Anfray estimated the stelae of Gedeo about 10,000. Recently 45 megalithic sites were identified in Gedeo. Tutela, Chalba-tutiti, Sakaro-Sodo, and Sade-Marcato are some of the known sites from Gedeo.
Rising as high as 20 feet, the ancient stone monoliths in southern Ethiopia are 1,000 years older than scientists previously thought, according to a new study in the Journal of African Archaeology.
A Washington State University research team used advanced radiocarbon dating to determine the often phallic-shaped monoliths, or stelae, at the Sakaro Sodo archeological site in Ethiopia’s Gedeo zone were likely created sometime during the first century A.D.
The only other attempt to determine the age of the more than 10,000 stele monoliths located at various sites in the Gedeo zone was conducted by French scientists in the 1990s. It provided a far more modest construction date of around 1100 A.D. for the monuments of Tuto Fela in the northern part of Gedeo.
Under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sakaro Sodo and other archeological sites in the Gedeo zone have the largest number and highest concentration of megalithic stele monuments in Africa. The standing stones range widely in size, function, and arrangement in the landscape.
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. Despite the impressive nature of the archeological site, little is known about why or how the monoliths were built.
“This is one of the most understudied archaeological sites in the world, and we wanted to change that,” said Ashenafi Zena, lead author of the study and a former WSU doctoral researcher now at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
Zena, an Ethiopian native, originally decided to conduct a study of the stones after traveling to the region with his doctoral advisor Andrew Duff, a WSU professor of anthropology, in 2013.
“It was shocking to see such a large number of monuments in such a small area,lLooking 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.”
In addition to pushing back the date of the earliest monoliths’ construction by a millennium, the researchers also determined where the ancient builders of the site likely quarried raw stone for the project. They also identified, for the first time, the earliest known sources of obsidian artifacts that were recovered from the Gedeo stele sites. Surprisingly, most of the obsidian the researchers identified at Sakaro Sodo originated some 300 km 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 of southern Ethiopia at the turn of the first millennium, the new construction dates of the stele monuments identified by Zena and Duff appear to coincide with the arrival of domesticated animals in the region and the beginnings of more complex social and economic systems. Duff said:
“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.”
“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.”
Existing archaeological, ethnographic, and living megalithic stele traditions in the region suggest that the oldest stele sites in Ethiopia at Sakaro Sodo and other nearby locations 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.
One project involves more additional archeological investigations at other stele sites in the areas with colleagues at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. The other is a project led by Duff and current WSU doctoral student Addisalem Melesse who are working with the Ethiopian Department of Archeology and Heritage Management to determine how the stele sites can be better managed to both preserve the heritage of the region and generate tourism.
“Developing a better understanding of the function of these stones and how they were erected is really useful in terms of gaining a UNESCO World Heritage designation, this could in turn help generate tourism revenue, which is a major economic factor for the country.”
Sidama is one of the zones in the region where several megalithic sites are located. There are 303 megalithic in 26 sites in Sidama. These sites were found in 5 woredas and they are not far from the main road. In a total 71 stelae are standing from 16 sites. Most of the stelae were destroyed by human interference. From the listed sites Waheno, Amate, Aruje-Mogesha, Alamura, Futa’e, Gobadamo, and Makala have 68, 53, 22, 18, 26, 18, and 31 stelae respectively.
In Makala and Alamura most of the stelae are displaced from their original locations. But in Waheno, Aamate, Gobadamo and Aruja-Mogasha 48 stelae are standing. Dongora-Elmate, Masincho, and Sabicha 11 are found in original locations. In the 1931 Azais and Chambard reported 82 stelae from Waheno. Now 68 stelae were reported and only 26 stelae still standing.
Waheno is a site where many stelae are located. The site is in Aleta-Wondo woreda, Homecho-Waheno kebele, Bora-Gento, and Lakola locality. The size of stelae in Waheno ranges from 1m-4.5m. It contains phallic and decorated stelae. Wijigira and Santaro in Hawasa Zuria Woreda; Bonkaki in Arbegona woreda, and Hofa-Hamate in Hula (Hageresealm) Woreda. Shabe-Dela, Tula-Iracha, Babie-Kololcha, Bamisa, and Setingela are some newly reported sites in Sidama. The other two sites from Dara woreda were reported. These sites are Dela and Hamate which are located at Banko-Markos Kebele. At Dela 5 stelae were identified and one stele still standing. At Hamate 20 stelae were identified and 6 are still standing. But Anfray listed 53 stelae from the Hamate megalithic site.
Most of the stelae sites of Sidama are in Dara, Aleta-Chuko, Aleta-Wondo, Shabadino, and Hawasa Zuria woreda. The remaining sites are in Basa and Arbegona woreda. Two stelae sites are reported. The current conservation status of the sites is not known. Most of the sites were destroyed by human interference and only their names were left in the documents. When compared with early reports few sites are survived and most of these sites were under threat. Development activities and population pressure are some of the major challenges for these sites. Some of the stelae in Tuto Fela and Tiya were restored.
The research works on megalithic monuments are limited. Only a few stelae sites are dated in Gedeo and Gurage areas. In Gedeo, Sakaro Sodo stelae site is dated to 1st c AD. Tutofela is the first dated site in Gedeo and it lies between 1st to 2nd AD. The charcoal identified from Chalba-Tutiti is dated to 17th C. A single stelae from Sodit is dated to 7th -8th AD. Eric Godet dated Gattira-Demma a site in the Gurage zone and it ranges between 12-13th c AD. The other dating site is Tiya also in the Gurage zone. Tiya is dated to 11th to 13th c AD.
Hadiya and Kambata
Stelae sites of Hadiya and Kambata are few when compared to that of the Gurage area. Azais and Chambard in the 1920s, visited Shashogo, Kalisha. Later additional sites were listed by Anfray. Kunafa, Gora, Lafto-Lenka, Bishata, Bulula, Kalisha, Suta, Lisana-Kotancho, Lisana-kosa, Dishamo, Bidika, hirco, Kachara Eba, Ilfat, Danama, Wubara, Sike-Giorgis, Kutube-Jarso are stelae sites reported from Hadiaya. Leghe, Zogoba, Deketta, Bazena, and Bula are some of the sites reported from Kambata. But later in 1979 but Ambo-Kuna, Achira, Adjora, Oddo, Moggisa, Gabara, Bidika, Jarso, Lage and Kachare-Eba were added in Hadiya and Kambata area. 26 stelae were documented from 23 sites. Except for one site, all are phallic stelae. Their size ranges from 0.50 cm to 2.12 meters.
In Wolayita Gurma, Ganame, Wachiga, Ofa, Sare Womba, and around Sodo phallic stelae sites were identified. The stelae of these areas range between 55 cm and 2.30meters. In terms of size stelae of Wolayita are relatively larger than the stelae identified in Hadiya and Kambata areas.
Few stelae were reported to the north of Addis Ababa, at a district called Efrata and Gidim of Amhara Regional State, some 17 km west of the town Effesson. The local people name the stelae as ‘Mushura Dingay’ (bride stone). 40 stelae were identified in this area. Some of them were standing, and the remaining were lying on the ground. The lying stelae were probably displaced from their original place. This site comprises both phallic and anthropomorphic stelae. The engraving of the stelae resembles Tiya and Tutofela. Nothing is known about the purpose of these stelae because no detailed research is done yet. The largest stela has 1.75meters with a circumference of 1.3meters, and the smallest stela is 0.76 meters.
The megalithic tradition exists in the northern part of Ethiopia. Some stone circles are identified in the Amba Dero area. But there is scarce information about the megalithic culture in the northern part of Ethiopia. Fattovich mentioned that Aksum stelae as part of the development of regional megalithic culture. He believes that they are memorial monuments. The new sites in the region and from these sites have only 13 sites. Research works on megalithism emerged in the 1970s but more relatively more research was started in Ethiopia and Djibouti in the 1980s. Since the 1990s more organized and multidisciplinary studies are emerging in the region.
The megalithic culture in the South Omo Zone of the SNNPR (Southern Nation Nationalities and Peoples Regional State) is somehow distinct from the usually known megalithic culture in other parts of the country. These stone platforms are identified in Mursiland near the River Omo. The platforms are referred to as benna kulugto by the local people. The stone structures are arranged like a concentric ring on the ground. The stones have different shapes. Some stones have flat rectangular surfaces whereas the others are irregular boulders. Their size ranges from 2m to 26m in diameter. These platforms were assumed to be ceremonial centers that had been used by the Bodi, one of the pastoral peoples living along the Omo valley. Recently the new site was reported from the Mursi area, at Dirikoro, near to Omo river, in Debub Omo Zone. The Mursi platforms were associated with pastoral adaptation to environmental challenges. The southern region is known for its megalithic culture. In Hadiya, Kambata, Silti, and Gurage areas peoples the peoples named it ‘Gragn Dingay’ (Grahagn stone). Gragn Mohamed was the leader of Adal, one of the Muslim sultanates, in Ethiopia. Among the Sidama and the Gedeo, the stelae are called as Gigamo Koyo. The similarity might not be only with signs and symbols engraved or drawn on stelae. Also, there is a striking inter-site similarity. Banko-Markos and Sakaro-Sodo stelae sites can be mentioned as an example of this inter-site similarity.