The Stone circles of The Gambia, West Africa

Wassu stone circles

You might say that this post is a little bit overdue. When I visited the stone circles in The Gambia, West Africa however, back in 2007, I didn’t have this outlet to describe and share what I had seen.

Wassu stone circles

Wassu Stone Circles: Credit Richard Williams

The stones circles of the Gambia and Senegal are a UNESCO World Heritage site but when we visited them 10 years ago they were almost completely off the tourist radar. I only have these images because we (myself and my partner Richard Williams) were interested, and potty enough, to take the time to go and hunt them down.

According to the African World Heritage website there are an astonishing 1053 stone circles with a total of 28,931 monoliths in the region between the River Gambia and the River Senegal. Four main sites have been identified by UNESCO, Wassu and Kerbatch in Gambia and Wanar and Sine Ngayene in Senegal.

Wassu stone circles

Some of Wassu’s 11 circles: Credit Richard Williams

Back then we visited 3 sites in Gambia – Wassu, Lamin Koto and another near Farrafenni I think (which we don’t seem to have pictures of). At that time we were living most of the year out of a backpack and a few weeks in Africa in winter sounded like a great idea.

These stone circles vary greatly in date, between 300BC and 1600AD, but during that period literally hundreds of monoliths and tumuli were constructed, suggesting a civilisation that was long-lasting, prosperous and highly organised. Excavations at Wassu have uncovered pottery, grave goods and human remains.

Below is Lamin Koto, a smaller circle found amongst trees. It stands alone in the bush, apart from an single outlying stone a few metres away.

But Wassu is much more complex, an impressive site by any standards. Here you will find 11 circles, of various shapes and sizes, all standing close together in one small area. Each circle has between 10 and 20 stones and the tallest pillars are roughly 2.5m high. Each one, like in all the Senegambian circles, has been painstakingly carved from laterite using basic iron tools. The monoliths were quarried and then shaped, so that all the stones in an individual circle are of a very similar in shape and height, all usually with a curved top.

I remember it was a long, hot walk to Wassu and that the only person there when we arrived was an elderly caretaker who admitted he knew nothing about the site. Like our own stone circles the exact purpose of these monuments has been lost and can only be guessed at. The tribes that live in The Gambia now actually moved into the area long after the circles had been built. Their purpose is as much a mystery to the people of the region as it is to us. I remember being told that the locals are suspicious that it is the white people know what the circles are really for, as they are the ones who visit them all the time!

Me and the Wassu caretaker

We are all aware I think that stone monuments cover huge areas of Europe. The megaliths at Carnac, the hunebedden of the Netherlands or the dolmens of southern France are familiar to us. We feel a kinship with the people that made them and rightly so. As the story of the Nebra Sky Disc shows us that we were all once far more connected than you might imagine, not only by trade but by belief systems also. We do not however immediately imagine the same cultural kinship stretching as far as West Africa.

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However standing beside the stones at Wassu I remember I was struck by the similarities withstone circles that I had grown up with in Cornwall, rather than the differences. What really separates Wassu from the Hurlers for instance? Or Lavin Koto from Tregeseal. The time period, location and materials are different of course but couldn’t it be possible that all these sites are connected in some way?

This post would not be complete without me acknowledging the love of my life and driving force behind every adventure, Richard Williams, who took these beautiful pictures.

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My better half

For an adventure closer to home try: Boscawen un

Or Goodaver stone circle

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16 thoughts on “The Stone circles of The Gambia, West Africa

  1. Great reading this post and wish there was more information regarding this stone circle and the many others in Africa. These appear to be much shorter stones than the Stonehenge circle and much smaller in diameter than the Avebury one.

    1. I agree, there seems to be very little detail about them available and I would be so interested to learn more!

      1. I have holidayed in the Gambia many times, but never heard of any stone circles.

  2. I have been an archaeology nut all my life. (I am now 80) and have traveled the world to see some things. I just started hearing about stone circles in Africa a few years ago. Great photos….especially the tree growing around one stone.
    Thank you!

  3. I’m hoping that the one who is investigating these stone circles will be able to read my reply. I have been studying the dark ages and Scandinavian history for a long time. And I believe just from looking at these pics…that these stone circles may have Africans buried in the middle of the circles. These “Circles” in Africa look a bit more oval than circular. They remind me of the ship burials up in Norway and Sweden. I’m hoping that a team of archeologists will start digging and exploring around these circles. This article was fascinating.

    1. Hi Amanda thank you for your reply, I haven’t been involved with the archaeology but I think yours is an interesting idea! I love thinking about the connections between cultures. Fascinating stuff!!

  4. Great piece!.Thank you for sharing your experience with us.Sometimes I tend to believe that the stones are spiritual but other times I connect them with a strategic defense system against warring opponents and wildlife alike. My thought.Thank you.

  5. Is it possible that these could have been circular dwellings? A common traditional African style of building is the circular hut, along with it’s cone shaped thatch on wood roof. Often the walls are made of mud or stones cemented together using mud or clay. A more permanent solution, which would also have been better defensively, would have been using cut stone for the walls. The gaps would have served as doors and windows. The use of fires inside such a structure would have been less dangerous to the occupants than the smaller enclosed huts. Also, larger families would have been able to live in them over many generations as they were more permanent. This would also suggest that their occupiers may have been early subsistence farmers rather than hunter/gatherers.

    It would seem odd to me if all of the circles were of religious significance while no durable structures were built for safe living.

  6. This has been a fascinating read as I had no idea that those places existed. When it comes to archeological sites in Africa, I usually think of the North African countries, Ethiopia, or Zimbabwe. I’m glad today I learned that a relatively small country like the Gambia also has such an interesting collection of stone circles.

  7. In a reort on these circles in the JRAI (1923), Henry Parker theorised the builders were Carthaginian.
    Dates for the Wassu circle of between 3500/3000 BCE on astronomy based on the comparion of the Wassu circle and the Virgo constellation of that date have been put forward by Andis Kaulins (online).
    Florence Mahony’s makes a passing reference to these Senegambian rings and her editions connect them with Noah. Presumably the intention is to again indicate dates somewhat earlier than generally accepted.
    A feature shared with the circles called Namoratungas (= men turned to stone [& recall the The Hurlers) of Kenya is the placing of pebbles atop the menhirs/uprights.

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