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The Stone Pillar Sites of Turkana Basin

Date of Submission: 30/06/2023
Criteria: (iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
National Museums of Kenya
State, Province or Region:
Turkana County
Coordinates: N01 22 E35 23
Ref.: 6663

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The stone pillar sites of Turkana Basin are associated with the advent of managed food production in East Africa, unlike other regions in the world where archaeological investigations have focused mainly on megalithic sites among early agrarian societies. The pillar sites consisting of basaltic boulders and others in the Turkana basin offer the opportunity to examine insights into the structure and related social phenomena among mobile herders and hunter gatherers with no access to domestic plants. The sites have linear arrangements of basalt blocks, sometimes accompanied by stone cairns, elliptical rings of stones, and/or platforms. The sites have been attributed to the region’s first pastoralists. The economic context and social significance of these pillar sites indicate differences in pillar sites’ settings and architectural elements. Material culture comparisons suggest strong affinities between Middle Holocene ceramic traditions around Lake Turkana. Possible functional differences among West Turkana pillar sites suggest that their builders had elaborate conceptions of non-domestic architecture.

Ethnographic studies of herders attest to elaborate social networks, diverse forms of social differentiation and organization, ranging from hierarchical to egalitarian. A rich array of social institutions relating to Pillar sites are present among African herding societies such as the Nuer and Dinka, Toposa, Mursi, Dassanech, and Hamar Ariaal, Rendille, Samburu, and Maasai.

Lothagam is about 8 km southwest of the Kerio River delta; two parallel volcanic ridges run roughly north south. Lothagam has a flat surface surrounded by gullies. This site has a cluster of 12 circles or ellipses, most clustered within 25 m of the east side of the platform.

Kalokol pillar site is located on the Lodwar-Kalokol, road 46 km from Lodwar town. Located between the Losedok Hills ridge and the lakeshore plains near Lake Turkana. The site is 1 km from a site that has natural weathered basalt columns. Located on a slightly mounded area, there are at least 19 pillars and two cairns. The local Turkana from Kalokol say they usually place a stone on the site as they pass by.

The Jarigole stone pillar site is located on the eastern side of Lake Turkana near Alia Bay. The site provides evidence of complex mortuary behaviour, large-scale work effort involved in the movement of large pillars, and long-distance and regional exchange networks that reached as far as the East African coast.  The site consists of a large oval-shaped platform, about 4.6 m to 0.6 m thick, and dates to 4500 years before present. The finds from this site include pottery, ostrich eggshell beads, flaked and stone implements. Importantly, shell beads (Strigatella paupercula) derived from the East African coast were recovered, as well as other exotic materials, such as Amazonite beads and pendants.

The Lokori pillar site is located between the Kerio and Kangetet rivers just south of Lake Turkana, and near the town of Lokori in northern Kenya. The site comprises over 160 graves marked by stone circles and hundreds of rock engravings that adorn both the cemetery complex and the surrounding hillside. The site has been dated to 4500 years. Today, the area is occupied by local Turkana pastoralists who brand their livestock with similar markings to those on the engraved stones.  The stone circles consist of outer rings of irregular standing slabs (pillars) arranged in a pre-planned form. Lithics and pottery have been recovered along with faunal remains suggestive of practices reliant on animal husbandry.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The stone pillars of Turkana basin present elements of unique outstanding value human resilience to climatic variability that were protected with two stone walls around them, making it a unique landscape at this period in history. These stone pillar sites are an outstanding testimony to the social and economic structure of the inhabitants of Turkana Basin 5000 years BP, in area occupied when the climatic conditions of the Turkana Basin were those of a wet equatorial climate.

Criterion (iv): The stone pillars of Turkana basin present elements of unique outstanding value of human resilience to climatic variability that were protected with two stone walls around them, making it a unique landscape at this period in history.

Criterion (v): They are an outstanding testimony to the social and economic structure of the inhabitants of Turkana Basin 5000 BP. 

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

A set of taboos have been used by the Turkana people to ensure that the stone pillar sites are not destroyed or abused. Because of this, the stone monumental architecture system has withstood the test of time even with pressure towards modernization. The traditional Turkana landscape is associated with a number of locals at which various stone pillars and taboos are held and which have various semi-historical stories or myths attached to them.

Comparison with other similar properties

The explanations of pillar site construction, including those derived from the knowledge of herders and hunter-gatherers in the region today, bear equal scrutiny. The sites are important when investigating pastoral frontiers in other parts of Africa, Asia and South America on explanations for monumental sites and the associated understanding of the many kinds of social innovations that occurred as food production spread through the world. Other comparable sites are in Egypt, where herders erected standing stones at Nabta.  Stone pillar sites have also been reported in Libya in the form of cattle cults. In Sudan, herders at Kadero buried their dead in distinct pillar sites.