Interpreting Standing Stones in Africa: A Case Study in North-West Cameroon

By Asombang, Raymond N. | Antiquity, June 2004 | Go to article overview
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Interpreting Standing Stones in Africa: A Case Study in North-West Cameroon

Asombang, Raymond N., Antiquity

Archaeologists have come to realise that prehistoric cultural developments in sub-Saharan Africa are very complex. There is no doubt that significant progress has been made in the last two decades with regard to the reconstruction of culture history in Africa in general. However, certain matters remain puzzling, and prominent among these is the role of Megalithic monuments. South of the Sahara desert such monuments have been reported, for example, in Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Ethiopia and northern Kenya. But while many authors have noted and described them, their significance, history, function, date of construction and the culture to which they are attached has remained elusive.

This paper tries to initiate a new discussion by presenting a group of monuments in northwest Cameroon and offering some preliminary observations on their possible interpretation. This interpretation will be assisted by archaeological survey and investigations of their recent ethnographic context. The multiple nature of the evidence leads to a new view of these monuments that is both practical and ritual, and may have something to contribute to the understanding of similar monuments elsewhere in the world.

Megalithic evidence in Africa

Megaliths are uncommon in Africa and their date and context relatively little known. A few examples may help to provide a background for our study. The Ethiopian megalithic monuments located in the Horar region some 400 km east of Addis Ababa consist of cists, tumuli and upright standing slabs, the latter quite often sculpted. Human skeletal remains, pottery and in some cases a microlithic industry, are associated with them and thus it is established that they are burial places, i.e. tombs. However, it is still not known when and by whom they were built (Joussaume 1973:23).

Allison (1962) and Harris (1959) report a different type of standing stone in the tropical rainforest of the Middle Cross River region of eastern Nigeria. These are described as 'appearing in groups' and are not more than than two metres in height. Their most outstanding characteristic is that they are carved or sculptured with the head and torso of a human figure and have primarily a memorial significance. They are generally made of dolerite although a few are made of limestone. It is not clear who made them and for what purpose, but it is suggested that they are between 300 and 400 years old (Allison 1962:17-18; Harris 1959:113).

In northern Kenya the stones known as Namoratunga are dated to around 300BC. They arc reported to be incised with cattle brand marks, located around graves and to have an orientation of astronomical significance (Lynch & Robins 1978).

Among the best studied stone monuments are the Tazunu of the Central African Republic reported by Vidal and David (Vidal 1969, 1986; David 1982, 1983; David & Vidal 1977). Unlike the Ethiopian ones, these were never covered with earth, but appear as low mounds of earth and granite rubble (about 1.3 m high), from which project, in varying numbers, standing stone uprights. Optional features of the Tazunu include three-sided cists and what David (1982:43) calls megalithic tables. They have been associated with pottery, lower grindstones, pounders and a polished stone axe. The technology of the Tazunu, together with radiocarbon estimates indicate that they are Neolithic, dated to between 1100 and 700 BC (David 1982:69-70, 1983:122). This is however contested by Zangato who argues that "the megalithic monuments ... were built between 800 BC and AD 1900, and that there is no megalithic monument before 800 BC, which appears to be the terminus post quem". (Zangato 1990:17). Be that as it may, the function of the Tazunu is still problematical. So Far there are no skeletal remains associated with them. Nevertheless, both David and Vidal are convinced that they were funerary monuments, but whether they indicated tombs or cenotaphs is still difficult to say.

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Interpreting Standing Stones in Africa: A Case Study in North-West Cameroon


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