Senegambia in West Africa has a remarkable collection of megalithic monuments and corresponding narratives, shared here by Mark Greener
Even setting the pyramids aside, Africa is home to rich and diverse megalithic traditions. The Ntondomo complex in western Mali, for instance, consists of almost 150 barrows and stone circles.1 One Ghanaian complex contains at least 600 earth mounds, which are up to 35m across, up to 4m high and seem to be burial sites. Circles of between 10 and 50 stones top some of these mounds.2 On the other side of the continent, Ethiopian monuments include tumuli with burial chambers and elaborate stelae.3
Like many British and Irish stone circles, some African megalithic sites show astronomical alignments. The stone circle at Nabta Playa in Egypt aligns with the rising sun on the June solstice, for instance. Some Nabta Playa megaliths seem to be oriented to bright stars, such as Orion’s Belt, Sirius and Arcturus. The two main periods of alignments appear to be 4600–4200 BC and 3800–3400 BC. The second period “may reveal a resurgence of interest in the heavens just as life was getting increasingly difficult in the desert”.4
The Senegambian stones, which are “unique, without antecedents”,5 exemplify Africa’s remarkable megalithic traditions. The megalithic area covers some 30,000 km2 in modern Senegal and the Gambia, which includes at least 1087 megalithic sites and, on average, about one monolith a km.5 In 2006, UNESCO designated Wassu and Kerbatch in Gambia, and Sine Ngayene and Wanar in Senegal as World Heritage Sites.1
The Senegambian megaliths that remain are part of a long tradition loaded with spiritual, sociological and political meanings. “Even today these monuments signal strong identity values, as the megaliths symbolise an ancient history that is specifically African,” Laporte and colleagues comment.1 And, as Holl notes, the Senegambian megaliths “leave a powerful spiritual message to … posterity”.5
The megalith landscape
The Senegambian megalithic tradition probably began along the banks of the Niger, spreading towards the Atlantic coast.1 The Gambia and Saloum rivers, which are 120 to 150 km apart, mark the southern and northern borders of the megalithic ‘area’, which stretches more 250 km from the Sandougou river in the east to the Bao Bolon basin in the west.5 The density of megaliths is greater in the west and the sites seem to be concentrated along water courses.1
The stones are typically cylinders or polygons that rise about 2 m above ground level.5 According to local legend, the monoliths were once considerably taller. But local priests asked Allah to expel the site’s occupants. (We’ll come back to the occupants.) This caused the monoliths to shrink to their present size.6 (I wonder if this legend may reflect subsidence causing the monolith to sink.)
In 1923, Henry Parker published his survey of 68 Senegambian stone circles, which typically contain 8 to 18 monoliths. Of these, 40 were between 15 and 19 feet (4.5-5.8 m) in diameter at their inner faces.6 There are also 12 double concentric circles. The Sine Ngayene complex, for instance, contains 1102 monoliths, more than 100 tumuli and 52 stone circles including a double–circle local people call the King’s tomb.5
Most stones are arranged in true circles. Parker suggested that this arrangement perhaps formed a fence to shut out evil influences, which could injure the souls of the dead. Indeed, when Parker wrote, local rituals still intended to “exclude evil influences”.6
Excavations at Wanar suggest that a facade, for instance, drystone walls between the uprights, may have surrounded an earth monument, such as a raised platform.1 (Drystone walls may have connected stones in some British rings, such as Doll Tor in Derbyshire.7) The walls have since collapsed.1 Nevertheless, people still left ceramic vessels as offerings when the monument was in ruins: some collapsed monoliths overlie pottery fragments.1
Many Senegambian sites have isolated monoliths. Some of these, called frontal stones, are erected east of the stone circles and tumuli as single blocks or rows of parallel stones.1 Wanar, which comprises 21 stone circles, has the largest numbers of Y and inverted A–shaped frontal stones in the Senegambia.5 Some frontal stones consist of two upright parallel branches, sometimes joined by a tenon.1 These ‘lyre-stones’ seem to be unique among African megalithic traditions.1,5
There are two types of circle at Wanar and Sine Ngayene. Firstly, tall, slender, cylindrical stones standing close together and, secondly, shorter, squatter, more widely spaced trapezoidal monoliths. The latter circles often feature a monolith erected to the west, which is shorter and squatter and sometimes pointed.1 The monuments with tall slender monoliths may be earlier than those of short, squat monoliths.1
Laporte and colleagues argue that Wanar developed in three stages: firstly, graves and mounds associated with funerary rites (see below); secondly, standing stones around the mounds, which collapsed; thirdly, frontal stones, which became ritual sites. As mentioned, local people still left pottery offerings even as the circle decayed. With a couple of exceptions, the monuments do not seem to have been repaired, added to or changed.1
Until recently, most archaeologists estimated that the Senegambia megalithic sites dated from the 7th to 15th century AD. Laporte and colleagues note, however, that “secure dating evidence has remained sparse”1 and some researchers think that constriction began centuries earlier.
Holl, for instance, comments that local people began erecting megalithic monuments about 1350 BC at Ngayene-II and 950 BC at Sine-Ngayene. These traditions lasted almost 3000 years, ending around 1500 and 1600 AD.3 As an aside, French archaeologists estimated that monoliths at Tuto Fela in Ethiopia were erected about 1100 AD. But recent dating of another Ethiopian site (Sakaro Sodo) suggests a date a millennium earlier (NE 167). If the longevity of the Senegambian tradition is anything to go by, both dates could be correct.
Why the Senegambia megalithic tradition faded remains unclear. Disease or war could have cut a swathe through the population.5 The arrival of Europeans and the Atlantic slave trade along with changing cultural standards and values may have spread over Senegambia.3,5 It’s just one of the many mysteries that still surround these enigmatic structures.
Quarrying, shaping, smoothing the stones was, obviously, time-consuming, needed highly skilled craftsmen and was probably expensive. The groups erecting the stones also needed to fund the stones’ transportation and erection. So, economic differences could contribute to some of the variations between the monuments. Perhaps, some groups could only afford one to two monoliths. Richer groups could fund a stone-circle.3
Perhaps inevitably, some archaeologists felt that native Black Africans lacked the sophistication to build the megaliths, speculating that, for instance, the Romans, Carthaginians and Jews were responsible.5 Parker suggested “in the absence of direct evidence” that Carthaginian traders could have brought stone masons in exchange for ivory and other products.6 There’s probably an element of racism in this view.5 But antiquarians suggested some equally unlikely origins for Stonehenge. In the 17th century, for example, Aylett Sammes suggested that Phoenicians built Stonehenge using, ironically, stones from “the furthermost parts of Africa”.8
Incidentally, Merlin – according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century – transported the Giant’s Ring stones in Ireland to Salisbury Plain. The Giant’s Ring stones supposedly came from Africa.9 I’d love to think an oral tradition of African megaliths underpinned this story.
Commemorating the dead
Archaeologists speculated about why the Senegambian tradition arose. Jouenne suggested a connection with a solar religion.5 The consensus, however, is that the megaliths marked the resting place of the dead. The associated rituals helped bind societies together: the circles may have been a common cemetery for possibly scattered groups. The Senegambian stone circles typically contain the remains of 30 to 56 individuals, probably members of the same descent groups, their allies or both. A ceremony could bring the dead together to enter the ancestors’ realm, from where they can support the local villages.3
Megaliths worldwide are often associated with the dead. The north-facing shaped stones at Nabta Playa, may represent the spirits of dead people, for example.4 Closer to home, there are burials at several megalithic sites, most famously, perhaps, the cremations in some of Stonehenge’s Aubrey Holes.7
Over the centuries, funerary practices in Senegambia inevitably changed. Single and multiple primary burials in earth tumuli seem to be the oldest tradition, dating to 1360-1200 BC at parts of Ngayene II and 990-850 BC for some monuments at Sine-Ngayene. A circle at Tiékéné Boussara in Senegal shows a shift to multi-stage burials combined with single interments dating to 200-150 BC.3 Burials became more common from 600 to 1000 AD.1
Some burials include grave goods. For instance, the primary burials in the Sine Ngayene tumuli include iron implements, such as spearheads with bent tips. This may suggest the spear was ‘de–commissioned’ when the owner died.5 Excavations also uncovered copious amounts of pottery associated with the circles. Most vessels left in front of the megalith in the east have a hole bored at their base, another example, perhaps of decommissioning.5
A burial pit under one monument at Wanar included long bones associated with a set of three metal bracelets, two made of iron and one of copper alloy.1 The upper part of the fill under another monument contained numerous human bones carefully arranged in a perishable container. A mandible was radiocarbon-dated to between AD 1047 and 1255. Other grave goods included a small gold ring, an iron buckle, copper arm–rings, ear–rings, finger–rings as well as objects made of iron, glass or carnelian.1,5
Large stone circles, such as those at Ngayene II, are interim graves and collective multi-stage burials.3 During secondary burials, a, presumably, community member selected certain bones, such as skulls, long bones and jaws. But, Holl notes, the rules guiding burial and the selection of the bones remains “completely opaque”.5 Indeed, some bodies in an advanced state of decomposition before burial. A body in the centre of a circle at Tiékéné Boussara probably decomposed in the gap within two rows of four or five monolithic fragments. The body probably rested on a perishable structure above the ground.1 Such funerary houses may have been built or transported to the grave for the funeral. Ancient texts across west Africa report similar practice, which survived almost until the present.1
Myths and legends
Myths and legends swirl around many megalithic sites, wherever they are in the world. In Scotland, for instance, a 19th century mason who removed a stone from the ring-cairn at Culburnie “died a sudden death in consequence of this violation”. A poor man took a stone from Auchquhorthies in Kincardineshire to use as a hearth. Each night, “noise and din” tormented the man until he returned the stone.7
Senegambia is no exception. Indeed, the myths share a moral with the British stories: leave well alone. Parker recorded the local belief that the circles were a favoured haunt of the Earth Spirit (Banko Sentane). Ceremonies before villagers started cultivating their crops of millet or ground-nut fields ensure at least the Spirit’s neutrality and ideally its assistance. A ‘harvest festival’ thanks the Spirit for preventing crop failure. Locals believe that without these ceremonies “there would be little prospect of obtaining a satisfactory crop,” Parker recounts.6
So, the villagers worry about angering the Earth Spirit. About twenty years before Parker’s survey, the Commissioner in charge of the province excavated one or more circles. The Commissioner died shortly after. At least some villagers regarded his death as the Spirit’s wrath.6
Such beliefs hinder archaeology. When Parker arrived to survey the megaliths, villagers worried that he may damage the circles, possibly triggering reprisals from the Earth Spirit. So, the head-men and villagers initially said they were ignorant about the megaliths existence.6
Certainly, Parker reported some curious co-incidences. On one occasion, villagers were clearing the thick grass and thorns around the stones so that Parker could measure accurately. He heard the villagers cry, “Safara!”(fire). A plume of thick smoke rose above their village. Within about half an hour, the fire destroyed a third of the houses. Parker says a sudden gust of wind blew sparks from a house-fire into the thatched roof. The villagers, however, believed the Earth Spirit caused the fire to indicate his anger at Parker’s “pottering about and desecrating his favourite haunts and generally annoying him.”6
The villagers worried that more serious problems could follow if they did not heed the warning. A few days later, however, the owner of the land agreed to allow Parker to partly to clear the circles “in return for a present suited to the risk he incurred”.6
The owner of the land with another circle was uncertain how the Earth Spirit would feel about the dig. But Parker and the owner agreed to make offerings before starting the excavations. A day or two before the ceremony, however, the owner developed a severe abscess on his thigh that stopped him from taking part. His brother had agreed to help, but fell ill and was unable to leave his house. No other man in the village wanted to help. So, the excavation did not take place.6
During another excavation in a different district, Parker badly cut his left thumb and his hand “became nearly useless for a week or more”. His assistant developed severe blisters near the end of his right forefinger, which hindered digging. All the villagers developed blisters on their palms when chopping the hard ground and refused to work on the dig. “To them, I have no doubt that these experiences showed a direct interference of the Earth Spirit with the work of excavation,” Parker writes.
Perhaps that’s why locals were so reticent about discussing their megalithic heritage. In his 1935 book Africa Dances (which sparked my interest in the Senegambian circles), the pioneering anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer mentions “a perfect and inexplicable monolithic stone circle” near Kaffrine, a town in Senegal. The natives, Gorer reports, “had made no legends about it; they were just stones”.10 Or perhaps, with a cautious eye on the Earth Spirit, they just weren’t telling.
- Laporte L, Bocoum H, Cros JP et al. ‘Megalithic monumentality in Africa: from graves to stone circles at Wanar, Senegal. Antiquity 86 (2012) p409-427
- Anquandah J. The stone circle sites of Komaland, N Ghana, in West African archaeology. African Archaeological Review 5 (1987), p171-180
- Holl AFC. Megaliths in tropical Africa: social dynamics and mortuary practices in ancient Senegambia (ca.1350BCE-1500CE). Int’l Jnl of Modern Anthropology 2 (2021), p363-412
- Malville JM, Schild R, Wendorf F et al. Astronomy of Nabta Playa. African Skies July 2007, p2-7
- Holl A. Senegambian megaliths as world cultural heritage. Arts and Humanities Open Access Jnl 2 (2018), p179-185
- Parker H. Stone circles in Gambia. Jnl of Royal Anthropological Inst of Great Britain and Ireland 53 (1923), p173-228
- Burl A. A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. 2nd ed. Yale UP 2005.
- Chippindale C. Stonehenge Complete. 3rd ed. Thames & Hudson 2004
- Lawrence-Mathers A. The True History of Merlin the Magician. Yale UP 2020
- Gorer G. Africa Dances. Faber & Faber 1935
Published in NE170 (December 2022), pp.20-23