Turkana - Feature Articles
The Dancing Stones of Namoratunga
|By Jens Finke. Despite the considerable length of this piece, this article covers but a fraction of the detail I would eventually like to include, but seeing as this page was "being written" for over two years, I finally got round to writing something about it. I'll expand it sometime later this year, when I shall also be researching and writing articles about several rock art sites in Kenya (notably at Mount Elgon and on the shores of Lake Victoria). There are apparently also some rock engravings around Lake Turkana, which may or may not have a connection with the Turkana's cattle brands (a fascinating subject in itself which will also be treated at greater depth later on; there's currently a small section about this in the page on Turkana society). All in due course. For the time being, if you want more detailed coverage of Namoratunga, see Professor Craig Wheeler's riveting site, Ancient Astronomy in Africa.
Also known as Namoratunga II, and Kalokol Pillar Site, the Dancing Stones of Namoratunga are one of East Africa's most intriguing archaeological sites. The site, consisting of a small cluster of cylindrical stones beside the road from Lodwar to Kalokol, near the western shore of Lake Turkana, is believed by some to have functioned as an ancient kind of stellar observatory.
Although the site is almost next to the road (about fifty metres south of it), it's not the easiest to find, especially as the stones - which are positioned vertically - resemble from a distance the sacks of charcoal that some Turkana now sell to passers by (a woeful tribute to the loss of their herds a decade or two ago; the collection of wood for charcoal making is one of many pressing environmental problems in the region, and which has already turned many previously semi-arid areas into pure desert). Immediately visible are about ten one-metre-high stones, almost perfectly cylindrical, some tilted over, others fallen completely. There appears to be a vaguely east-west direction in their alignment, though that's not at all clear.
Like a miniature Stonehenge, the pillars are a spiritual focus and the scene, usually in December, of a major gathering of Turkana clans. The stones pre-date the arrival of the Turkana, however, and the Turkana themselves know nothing about their original purpose (the word namoratunga is used by them to describe any standing stone site). One theory, that the stones were aligned with the positions of important stars in Eastern Cushitic astronomy and were therefore used to determine the dates of ritual ceremonies, appears to have been discounted, albeit not conclusively.
Some of the larger upright and tilted stones had, when I visited (in late 1998), small rocks placed on top of them. Traces of several circles of small stones are also evident. Around the site (within a radius of fifty to two hundred metres) are a number of very clearly defined rock mounds or cairns overgrown with yellow grass, some of them clearly delineated by a girdle of larger stones. These mounds resemble burial mounds elsewhere in East Africa, although for them to have functioned as such, the environment at the time of their construction must have been far more habitable - as otherwise the dead would have had to have been carried for great distances to be buried here.
Incidentally, the sacred nature of the site - both in the past and to the present-day Turkana - may be explained by the nature of the rocks hereabouts: a mixture of volcanic and apparently rich haematite and copper ore (some rocks are quite positively rusty, others are covered in green verdigree). This suggests that the site's importance may be linked to iron- or copper-smelting or smithying - an art that has always had a magical aspect, both in Africa and elsewhere, including Europe where blacksmiths had alchemical connections. The same rationale still applies to some Kenyan societies, where blacksmiths are both respected and feared for their powers: the magical process of turning stone to blade, and the association of blades and weapons with food and survival, and therefore life. For example, the Embu of central Kenya - wholly unrelated to the Turkana - had distinct periods in their calendar when smelting could take place. The amount smelted had then to last the whole year, as smelting was not permitted any other time. For more on blacksmithying among the Embu and closely-related Mbeere, see Embu & Mbeere - Medicine and Witchcraft.
The site is above but near a seasonal (flood) river (though December is apparently a dry month), and overlooks the lake some 20km distant. In the past, the lake shore may well have come right up to Namoratunga, presumably endowing it with more life than the baking hot and dusty climate of the present-day allows.
By now, of course, I've failed miserably in my writerly obligation to answer one question I should have at the top of this page. Why give the name "Dancing Stones" to the site? Well, Turkana legend has it that once upon a time, there were no stones here at all. One fateful day, a small tribe of people were dancing on the site. Perhaps they looked strange, or had an unusual way of dancing, for when a group of strangers happened upon them (presumably the first Turkana to arrive here), the dancers pleaded with them not to laugh. The strangers, however, were unable to do so, and burst out laughing, upon which the dancers were turned to stone...
It's all very mysterious and fascinating, though if your head starts spinning, you've probably caught sunstroke - it's one of the hottest places in Kenya.