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Tsavo's Man-Eaters Volume 54 Number 3, May/June 2001
by Mark Rose

[image] Chapurukha Kusimba examines a Taita ancestor shrine in Kenya. (The Field Museum, Chicago, IL) [LARGER IMAGE]

Between 1898 and 1899, two man-eating lions killed more than 130 railroad workers in eastern Kenya, stalling construction of the Tsavo River bridge. Hunting them down took Lt. Col. John Patterson nine months. His account, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907), including his claim to have found the lions' den, was portrayed in the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness. The movie shows a cave, strewn with human bones and skulls, matching Patterson's description: "Round the entrance and inside the cavern I was thunderstruck to find a number of human bones, with here and there a copper bangle such as the natives wear. Beyond all doubt, the man-eaters' den!"

In 1997, scientists from Chicago's Field Museum identified the cave using Patterson's description and photograph of its exterior. Excavation in and around it, in conjunction with the National Museums of Kenya, has just been completed. The Field Museum's Chapurukha Kusimba summed up the results: "We didn't find anything." Was Patterson's description a complete fabrication, or based on something else?

Kusimba thinks what Patterson saw matches the indigenous Taita people's burial customs. Among the Taita, a second burial ceremony is carried out six months to two years after the initial burial. The skull and, in some cases, long bones are removed and placed in a family ancestral shrine, often on a ledge beneath an overhanging rock or in a rock-shelter or cave. Perhaps Patterson saw such a shrine at the "lions' den."

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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