You find them in Senegal, Gambia and Mali: clumps of red stones, sometimes in circles, sometimes just in clumps. The local population just seem to ignore them, ploughing around them, climbing on them, and in some cases uprooting them and using the land.
The best preserved sites are in Senegal and Gambia. In Senegal you have to take some rather small back roads through villages where the people are not aware of the place, and have difficulty in recognizing your pronunciation, before you come to Sine-Ngayène.
In Gambia the village of Wassu is easily reached from the main road, not far from the ferry at Georgetown, as Janjabureh is also known. Everyone knows Mr Pa Sangyang, the conservator of the site. A small museum with some displays try to explain something of the site. But the population, except for some superstitious dread, have little interest in these unusual constructions.
Archeological studies suggest that, during climatic changes about two thousand years ago the ancestors of the present Wolof population of Senegal migrated westwards, and created a highly organized, stable hierarchical society along the banks of the Gambia river. In time, around the sixteenth century they were pushed northwards by the present Madinka population, and what little remained of the cultural origins of the society disappeared in the Muslim cultural transformation of these peoples.
Some historical links remain, though. Colonial officials recounted that, on ceremonial occasions, the people would assemble, standing in concentric circles, based on rank in society, reminiscent of the stones.
Research produced signs of ceremonial burial, between or under the stones, with the bodies having simple adornment, a weapon, and some pottery buried with them. Some burials suggest sacrificial live burials, while in some cases there seems to be mass graves. At Wassu the stones are aligned north to south, while at a nearby site, Ker Batch, an east to west alignment is found, with an ‘altar stone’ implying sacrificial ceremonies.
Tradition has it, in Gambia, that small stones have to be placed on top of the pillars. These stones, carved from laterite, which is quite soft until exposed to the sun, are of different dimensions and shapes. In some areas they are squared, in some round. All indicate a degree of skill and organization, as the stones were carved with iron tools, and transported over considerable distance.
We camped between these stones, at Wassu, and despite the warnings by some people that the spirits would bother us, we experienced an immense calm and silence. Taking photos in the setting sun, I was amazed at the glow that the laterite rock seemed to give off as the light faded.
If you find yourself in the Gambia or southern Senegal, take a day off, and visit these sites. There are guest houses in Georgetown, or you can camp. The spirits will welcome you.