Pre-Islamic Cairns and Stone Monuments


In 1931, Italian scholar Enrico Cerulli visited the Bari and Nugaal regions of Puntland to study the numerous cairns, graves and monuments that scattered the landscape. The locals attributed the mysterious cairns and stone monuments to a pre-Islamic and non-Somali past, notably to a group they referred to as ‘Galla‘ (the Galla people or non-Muslims).

Types of Cairns

It wasn’t until the 1960s when British anthropologist I.M. Lewis identified two main series of cairns. The first, Series A, consisted of small rough cairns usually no more than eight feet in height which are especially common in Puntland, “are also found in central Somalia and become more sparsely distributed in Southern Somalia and they become extremely common again in the Northern Province of Kenya”. In these graves the outer walls form a circular chamber which contains the corpse and which is roofed over with wood and branches and finally covered with the stones which form the top of the mound. The second, Series B, were more carefully and elaborately constructed and appear to consist entirely of stones without internal wooden supports and are particularly common in Maydh, Bandar Ziyada and Wajir.

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Lewis argued that at least some of these tumulis were constructed in the post-Islamic era and, thus, contained Somali remains. This hypothesis was based on the findings of Cerulli in Laasa Carro (Las Arro) and Kelyexeed (Kal Yehid), Bari where he visited several tombs of the series A variant. They were formed by a circular shaped dry wall 1 – 1.5 metres in height with a circular wall that had an opening ( generally towards the North East direction, but some tombs had it towards the East) so as to allow entrance into the interior of the tomb. The diameter of the circular wall varied from 3 to 6 metres but within this drywall there was burial scaffold.

In one of the tombs, Cerulli found a plate with a mihrab niche and the name Diriye Isa Muhammad Hersi written on it, indicating that this was indeed a Muslim grave. Cerulli noted the difference between the tombs at Laasa Carro and the graves of the nomads of the time (the 1930s) which were much simpler and often marked by a stone slab on a mound.

In Kelyexeed, at the northern edge of the Nugaal valley, Cerulli visited the tombs of Mahamuud Saleebaan and his three sons ( Omar Mahamuud, Issa Mahamuud, and ‘Isman Mahamuud). The graves were surrounded by drywall and built like those of Laasa Carro, with Omar Mahamuud’s tomb being the best preserved. Each grave had a stone slab with their name and the tomb in the centre was decorated with white stones arranged with a hook. Cerulli concluded that the dry wall tombs, though very ancient, continued to be in used for long after Somali’s converted to Islam.

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Thirty years later, Lewis concluded the same:

Thus while Somali today consider both series of tumuli to be non-Muslim or pre-Islamic, since they differ markedly in construction from Somali burials today, this is not evidence that they are Galla graves. Indeed, in general Somali vaguely attribute them to the distant past, to the ‘people who were before’ (dadki hore): and they are most widely referred to as talo (mounds) or habaal maguur (lit. graves that do not move).

The problem of discovering who the cairn-makers were can most profitably be approached after a brief consideration of some Northern Somali burial customs. Today Northern Somali funeral rites are similar to those practised in most Muslim countries and the graves, in which the deceased is buried with his head turned towards Mecca, are marked by two upright stones, one set at each end of the grave which lies in an east-west direction.

Types of Stone Monuments

In the 1970s, British archaeologist Neville Chittick added additional information with his discovery of two other types of monuments:

The first of these I refer to as a platform monument. They are rectangular structures low in height, formed by a drystone wall, or kerb, the space within which is filled with rubble, and covered with selected small stones. There are usually relatively large stones set upright at the corners. There may also be normally subsidiary features, assumed to be graves, outlined in stones adjacent to the platform. The platforms are usually of considerable dimensions; the largest observed, measuring 24 m by 17 m is situated on the coastal plain 20 km east of Alula.

The second type I refer to as an enclosed platform. This consists of a relatively small rectangular platform similar to that described above, surrounded by an enclosure wall. There is an entrance-way through the enclosure wall on the north-western side. Between the enclosure wall and the platform is a space which is usually greater on the south-western side than on the others. in this larger space are grave-like features, built of rubble in similar fashion to the platform. Two or more such monuments may be adjacent to each other, apparently added to the original; in one case five were observed in line.

These monuments are mostly very ruined. They were observed only in the extreme north-east, the most southerly seen being 18 km south of ‘Unun. in this region there are also many cairns. All such monuments seem popularly to be acribed to the Galla. The extreme north-east however appears to be a very unlikely region for the Galla to have inhabited in considerable numbers or even penetrated.

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Chittick believed some of the monuments resembled the tombs of eastern Sudan. While in Ras Hafun, he discovered a number of cairn graves, some of an “unusual type”. At one of the cairns, he found the base of a Sasanian-Islamic jar dated to between the 7th-10th century and through the excavation of another Chittick found “a crouched burial with the hands to the face, facing west with the head to the north” and concluded that the burial was in accordance with the description of nomadic troglodytes in Strabo’s Geography.

Chittick agreed with Lewis that it was highly unlikely that these cairns were attributed to the Galla peoples. It’s now becoming clearer that early Cushites are to attribute for the monuments and cairns as they are unknown in the areas not associated with early Cushitic settlement.


Taalo: the term is also applied to small piles of stones which are not graves but cairns commemorating a legendary queen Arawelo who is said to have ruled the Somali country at some time in the unspecified past. Such Arawelo cairns are sometimes seen at the side of a road or track.

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