Taita - Feature Articles

Cup-Marks of Chomoto Hill and Rukinga Kopje

In this page:
Rukinga Kopje - the Bao Game Theory
Chomoto Hill - Crime and Punishment
Other possibilities

Mysterious Cup-Marks of Chomoto Hill and Rukinga Kopje, by Jens Finke

I must confess that, before I met my archaeology-mad girlfriend, 'mere' depressions in a rock would not have been likely to stir my interest or stimulate my curiosity in any way. But there you go - I have now been sensitized to such delights, and so it is that I'm writing now about the mysterious 'cup-marks' of Chomoto Hill and Rukinga Kopje. The latter, incidentally, is the name given by me, as I am unaware of the rock's local name (though it must surely have one). You won't in any case find either site in any literature, academic or otherwise, because as far as I know, these two sites remain to be 'discovered' by experts.

My girlfriend is Portuguese, and like me lives in Portugal. On a few occasions, usually during my work updating guidebooks, she's dragged me up Lusitanian hills and through thorny bushes in order to see a boulder here, a stone there, which invariably bear the traces of ancient peoples: sometimes the Celts, sometimes much, much older people from palaeolithic or neolithic times. Apart from the common motifs of concentric circles, crosses, axes and a few engraved animals, also frequent on these boulders and rocks are what archaeologists call 'cup-marks'. These are actually little more than circular man-made depressions in the rocks, usually no deeper or wider than 10cm, and look as though someone had spent days grinding the hole using another - and presumably harder - stone. Though simple in appearance, these cup-marks are one of the most enigmatic features of ancient 'rock-art', for which - as far as I know - archaeologists have yet to find a plausible meaning.

Suitably sensitized, I was surprised to be shown the exact same 'cup-marks' on two rocks in and just south of the Taita Hills in Kenya, where there was certainly never any Celtic influence! I present my images of the two sites in the hope that someone might suggest what these holes were for. My informants in Kenya - who knew about the existence of the cup-marks and showed me them - were both unsure as to their significance, although both were also certain that they were made long before the present inhabitants - the Taita - arrived (in years, this means the holes are at least five centuries old).

Rukinga Kopje
Rukinga Kopje Rukinga Kopje Rukinga Kopje

Rukinga Kopje - the Bao Game Theory

The cup-marks of Rukinga were introduced to me as a bao game. Bao, and its many variations (often called mankala), is very popular throughout Africa (I first saw it being played by old men in the Gambia, on the Atlantic coast), and has been played, as far as I know, for at least 3000 years. The rules, which change from tribe to tribe and from place to place, are invariably complicated, and playing the game well demands a high level of skill. The first time I saw the game being played in Kenya was at Baragoi, on the traditional border between Turkana and Samburu territory. It was late afternoon, and people had come from all over the district to the livestock market. The old men were playing the game whilst waiting for business, if business there was any. The board with its 'cup-marks' had been etched in the sand with a finger or a stick, and for counters the men used pebbles and seeds.
   I later learned that similar 'boards' had been found engraved in a rock at Hyrax Hill near Nakuru, and that the Somali - for example - carved almost identical playing boards out of wood.
   Sadly for the bao game theory, however, both the Rukinga Kopje and Chomoto Hill sites seem most unlikely to have been used for such games, for the simple reason that if the holes were playing holes, the 'boards' would have extended about five metres in length: rather more of a physical test than a game of mental skill!
   So, having discarded the bao-game theory, the question remains: what were these holes used for?

Chomoto Hill - Crime and Punishment

The possibility of a ritual or social use for the holes is suggested (though far from proved) by a story connected to Chomoto Hill. The hill is one of several with flat tops in the Taita Hills. In the past, it would have been heavily forested (although there's now a small tree plantation there). The only exposed part of the hill was right on one edge, just over a steep cliff. There's a tree growing here, right at the edge of the cliff, and it literally hangs over a deep cleft in the rock, which plunges into the chasm. In the past, I was told, thieves - once convicted by a council of elders - were taken there for punishment. There, their fingers were beaten to a pulp, after which they were tied by a rope to the tree, and thrown down into the crevice, to be left dangling to their fate. They usually died, of course, either from their injuries, exposure, or from being eaten by wild animals. But once, a man a man somehow managed to climb out of the crevice despite his useless fingers, and reappeared down in the shambas (farms) in the valley below. Having escaped fate, the elders reconsidered their judgement and left him free to go.

Other possibilities

At both sites, the holes are arranged in two roughly parallel lines on a horizontal surface, though their spacing is far from being equidistant or regular. The compass bearing of the two rows, also, seems somewhat haphazard - I doubt whether they had any astronomic (stellar, solar, lunar) significance. Yet to completely discount a ceremonial or spiritual purpose would be premature, as both sites are situated on the very top of exposed hills - Chomoto Hill in the Taita Hills, and on top of a much eroded Kopje (stony outcrop, often one huge boulder as in Rukinga's case), in the otherwise flat and featureless Rukinga Plain, which is part of the Taru Desert.

All that remains for me to offer are some suggestions, and a request for comments from you...

The holes could merely be humble grinding holes, used like a mortar with a separate pestle (eg. a suitably sized or fashioned hand-held rock), to grind nuts, grain or seeds.

The holes could have been used for sharpening points on spears, arrows or other tools.

The holes could have been used like an abacus, for counting multiples (of stock or produce), represented by small stones, seeds or whatever.

The exposed, hill-top locations of both sites - giving good vantage over the surrounding area (in fact, the best in both cases) - would have been ideal for observing and noting terrain / plots of land / property / other hill peaks or geographic features.

Astronomy/seasonal calendar
Though I'm doubtful, the cup-marks may yet have represented particularly important alignments of stars or other astronomical bodies, perhaps related to the seasons or other natural phenomena.

Ritual use
Hilltop locations are favoured throughout the world as propitious religions/spiritual/mystical places. If the ancient people here attached spiritual value for certain herbs and plants, they may well have been placed in the cup-holes for 'sacrifices', to be scattered by the wind.

Iron smelting/forging
This is an equally speculative variant on the ritual use idea, in that iron smelting was often a ritual craft among African societies, and was clothed in the same mystery, fear and taboos that cloaked the art of alchemy in medieval Europe and the Islamic world. Although the Taita no longer forge iron, they certainly did in the past (as did many of the indigenous hunter-gatherer societies such as the Okiek, who may well have lived in the Taita Hills before the arrival of the Taita). The ritual nature of the craft shows in the fact that iron items such as weapons and agricultural implements were not traded outside the Taita. For your information, iron-working was practised by the Wanya and Waikumi clans in Mwanda and Mgange locations.

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