Family, death, and ancestry in ancient Aksum, northern Ethiopia (50-700 ad)


  1. Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University, Evanston, USA (


This paper seeks to explain some enigmatic aspects of Aksumite mortuary practice through an Africanist lens of family, ancestry, and death. Aksum was the capitol of an ancient kingdom in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea (50-700 AD) that would figure prominently into the histories of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The Aksumites originally buried their dead in necropolis tombs mounted by funerary stelae that stood up to 32m tall at 520 tons. Many aspects of Aksumite mortuary practice remain difficult to explain. The largest of the stelae were carved with the representation of multi-storied “houses” whose significance is not yet known. The stelae also held some unknown ritual power: when the largest stela collapsed, Aksumites were compelled to hack out the symbol of a handle on the inscribed door of its carved house. Additionally, human remains found around the stelae are often fragmentary, burnt, disarticulated, jumbled, and sometimes bear cut marks, often interpreted as evidence of looting and human sacrifice. However, this paper argues that these incongruences are more easily explained by a greater consideration of African views of family, ancestry, eldership, and symbolisms of stone. In this approach, Aksumite mortuary practices represent attempts to retain connections between family members not quite separated by the ephemeral boundaries of death.

Type Communication
Langue du texte intégral English
Thématiques REG.009: Les rites funéraires des populations nord africaines des périodes protohistoriques et préislamiques.
Mots-Clés Mortuary; Monuments; Death; Worldview; Religion;
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