In Cross River State in southern Nigeria, around 300 stone monoliths can be found arranged in circles across the landscape. Made from volcanic stone, and carved between the 16th and early 20th centuries they stand between one and six feet high (0.3 to 1.8 m).
What makes these stones unique are the carvings found across them. These carvings, consisting of repeating patterns, stylized faces and inscriptions have fascinated archaeologists almost as much as they have baffled them.
For it is believed that the inscriptions on the stone are a form of visual communication and writing. These monoliths, engraved between the 16th-20th centuries, contain a language only recently lost, and potentially the key to unlocking an unknown culture.
The Standing Stones of Nigeria
The Alok Ikom stone monoliths are a group of stone sculptures located in Ikom, an area inhabited by various tribal communities of the Ekoi people. These people live in scattered villages, and call the stone monoliths the Atal or, most commonly, the Akwanshi.
These monoliths are distributed among thirty communities in the area. Although damaged by erosion in some instances, in each community, the stones were arranged in perfect circles.
Some Alok and Agba tribal villages have even been built around the stone circle, sitting at the center. By way of contrast, in Nabrokpa and Etinan communities the stores are located in the forest, outside of the villages.
Most of the stores are carved from basaltic rock, although a few are carved from shelly limestone and sandstone. But it is the un-decoded markings on the stones which make them so fascinating. It may be the language of a different civilization of that time.
All of the monoliths stand upright and are decorated with carvings of human features with two eyes and a mouth, a pointed beard, and a crowned head. The carvings also include a marked navel, five fingers, and geometric shapes.
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The faces are depicted with apparent tribal scarring or decoration, Most of the stones are carved very skillfully and the complex geometric motifs and features cover the entire stone.
The Mystery of the Monoliths
The 30 stone circles are distributed across seven main areas in Cross River State. According to Dr. Abu Edet, researcher from the Department of History and International Studies in Cross River State, these monoliths represent the collective memory of activities that took place in the past.
Some people believe that the term “Akwanshi” refers to a dead person underground. This term specifically refers to monoliths owned by a family, clan, or village, and the stones are assumed to be associated with the forerunners of these people.
Each monolith therefore represents an ancestor, a concept supported by the oral history of the Ekoi people. According to the oral history, the ancestors of the Ekoi placed the stones where they are, bringing them from the nearby river where the water flow made the stones smooth. After that, the ancestors cut the faces of the stones with irons and other stones to represent their dead chiefs.
For the Ekoi people in their scattered villages, a chief priest or spiritual head is called a “Noon”. These central figures in the communities are the ones who have been honored in this way, with a carved stone placed to represent them after their death.
The Ekoi people believe that the soul of the dead returns to live in the stones, and therefore their communities endured with their great ancestors still present.
Undeciphered for a Century
Although the carvings only depict the upper half of the figure, with no features carved below the navel, the consistent presence of beards is an indication that all the people are male. But there are different opinions and theories about this and there are many differing carvings across the sites.
Akwanshi has a huge role in the history of the Ekoi people of the Ikom community. It is believed that the Akwanshi represents their ancestors, who are still present in their community. During their celebratory festivals, these stones are decorated with palm leaves and chalk.
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Some monoliths look unusual, having a massive head or lacking a navel, for unknown reasons. The age of the monoliths in relation to each other is also uncertain, with only erosion and positional arrangements able to offer some clues as to seniority.
The monoliths were first discovered by modern researchers in 1903, and have eluded all attempts at decoding them since. The inscriptions on the stones appear to be an early form of pictographic writing known as “nsibidi” and similar undeciphered writing has been found elsewhere in Cross River State.
Although the inscriptions are similar in arrangement across all the stones, each is unique, like a fingerprint. Each stone is different from the other in terms of design and execution.
The geometric images on the monoliths show that their makers had a basic knowledge of mathematics and geometry. But the meaning of the patterns, like the inscriptions, is only known to the makers.
There are similar stone designs in Gambia with their own unique design, interpretation, and complexity, and similar geoglyphs have been found in Tanzania. However none of these other sites have been able to help with the decoding of the stones.
But time may be running out to unlock the secret of the stones. The Alok Ikom monoliths are threatened by exposure to heavy rainfall, which erodes the patterns carved on them.
In addition, the high humidity and extreme heat in Cross River State damaged the delicate outer surface of the stones, and falling trees have led to further damage. Vandalism and theft of the valuable stones also threatens them.
The Nigerian government, with international aid, recognize the importance of the stones and steps are being taken to protect what remains. Perhaps, with what remains, the stones will still be deciphered and the traditions they enshrine understood at last.
Top Image: The monoliths all have stylized faces and features on them. Source: Dotun55 / CC BY-SA 4.0.
By Bipin Dimri