Kisalian Graves

The Kisalian graves represent one of the largest collections of artifacts ever found in an African site. Discovered in the area where the Baluba exercised hegemony, the Kisalian graves have become identified with the southeast area of the Central African Forest near the shores of Lake Kisale in the Upemba rift.
Initially, 145 graves were excavated, and 2 atypical ones were dated to the 1st century AD. What this means is that the Baluba culture is far older than the usual date given in the 18th century; this is particularly true if the founders of the Kisalian culture were related to the current occupiers of the region. Given that most European anthropologists date the Baluba culture from the time they became known to whites or Arabs, it is important to appreciate the significance of the Kisalian culture.
Kanimba Misago, a Congolese, and others have tried to reconstruct the culture of the region. Indeed, by the end of the 1970s, more than 200 graves were excavated. More than 40 of the sites had radiocarbon dating done on them, and the age of the sites was more precisely established. Scholars have now structured the activity at the grave sites into four broad stages. The first was the Kamilambian tradition dating from the earliest time of the Kisalian culture in the region to the end of the 8th century AD. The second stage was the Ancient Kisalian stage from the 8th century to the 11th century. The third tradition is called the Classic Kisalian, which began in the 11th century and lasted until the 14th century when the Kabambian tradition, the fourth tradition, began according to the artifacts that were found in the graves.

A Rich Culture

Clearly, the Kisalian graves reveal a rich cultural tradition on the shores of the lakes and rivers in the Upemba depression. Since before the Early Iron Age, humans have occupied most of these cultural sites, with little lateral movement. This means that sites have served purposes of living, harvesting, burial, and settlement. A lot of the habitations were not preserved because of the materials used to build the houses, but materials made of the iron that was used in these sites were preserved. Therefore, the graves provide incredible information about the nature of the culture of the Kisalian people.
Well-developed pottery with spouts and handles appear alongside hoes, axes, arrowheads, curved knives, spearheads, barbed harpoon heads, fishhooks, necklaces, and link chains. In addition, bangles, anthropomorphic bottles, copper bracelets, and ivory carvings were recovered from the graves. Researchers have also found copper in the form of croisettes used as ingots and currency. Consequently, it is probably true, as some believe, that extensive trade occurred between the villages of the copperbelt of Central and East Africa. The old Kisalian culture revealed items of trade that could have existed along the route of trade with people from the Indian Ocean coast.

Religious Implications

It appears that fishing was the principal activity of the people of the Kisalian culture. Because it was the way they subsisted, it is likely that fishing was centrally located in their cultural practice. There were so many fishhooks and harpoons buried with the dead and so many bones of fish inside the grave pots that the idea of fishing as the core of the culture does not seem to be off the mark. The graves also held remains of goats, chickens, elephants, antelopes, and crocodiles.
Studies done on the graves also reveal that there was a relationship between the age of the person and the burial of the corpse. Infants were buried in shallower graves than children, and children were buried in graves shallower than those of adults, who were buried the deepest of all. They were all buried decubitus dorsal, meaning lying on their backs, and their feet were pointed downstream in relation to the river. The pottery in the Kisalian graves was often used for funerary purposes, much like that of ancient Egypt.
It is impossible to determine the precise practice of the Kisalian grave culture people. However, it is possible to see how the Baluba are related to these people, their ancestors, as people who relied heavily on fishing and the cultivation of the land near the banks of the river. This is one more piece to add to the complicated narrative of the African contribution to human civilization.



  • graves
  • fishing
  • burial
  • copper
  • rivers
  • people and cultures
  • iron


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Asante, M. K. (2007). The History of Africa. London: Routledge.
  • Kent, S. (Ed.). (1998). Gender in African Prehistory. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
  • Phillipson, D. (2005). African Archaeology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.