GOHITAFLA, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - When Bernadette Vouinan tripped over a rock with eyes and a nose in 1982, she unearthed one of the first of more than 1,000 ancient stone head sculptures to emerge from Ivory Coast's pre-historic soil.
The origin of the heavy granite and laterite stones of up to three feet high and 2,000 years old remains a mystery. But some villagers have no doubts, even challenging theories on East Africa's Rift Valley as the cradle of mankind.
``We believe they were created and placed in the earth here by God,'' said one farmer in the remote Marahoue valley in central Ivory Coast where many of the heads have been found. Such lore attributes flattened rocks found there to the creator's footprints as he stepped back to heaven.
Farmers are often less star-struck, selling any heads they find to tourists for a pittance.
Ivorian anthropologists staging an exhibition in the commercial capital Abidjan this month hope to dispel myths and spur a wider interest in promoting Africa's forgotten past.
``It means we have had art for a long time,'' said leading anthropologist Georges Niangoran-Bouah, chief researcher on Marahoue. ``And where there is art there is civilization.''
The problem is that West Africa's tropical climate means clues to history often rot, leaving only rich oral tradition.
``We Africans say man was not made in a day. And the most important part of man is the head,'' Niangoran-Bouah told Reuters.
Folklore says the myriad facial designs -- many Marahoue heads have no mouth, nose or eyes -- are but one sign of God's use of Marahoue as a human test-bed. Later carvings with busts and full figures show man's head at one third rather than one seventh of his height.
``African artists think God must have made a mistake,'' said Niangoran-Bouah, holding a giant-nosed head nicknamed Charles de Gaulle, one of his garden collection of 200 stones.
The faces, once used in mask rituals, are said to have been buried by God to protect women and children from seeing them.
But some village wives have more pressing domestic concerns.
``They are very good. They withstand the heat,'' said one cook who was using three around a fire to support her pots at Diacohou.
The heads have yet to be accurately dated but similar stones in Senegal date back as far as 2,000 years.
``No one knows what role the heads played in ancient times,'' Niangoran-Bouah said.
``They are not the work of men known to us or our ancestors,'' said Ta-bi-Tra, a hunter at Gohitafla, now inhabited by Ivorian President Henri Konan Bedie's ruling Baoule tribe. Baoule warriors arrived there under Queen Abla Pokou in the 17th century, displacing Gouro tribes who in turn had pushed out the Wan culture in the 15th century.
``The Wan consider them to be ancestral objects,'' said Niangoran-Bouah, citing the stories of nearby Wan descendants, including a theory that the heads betrayed them to the enemy.
The heads are also seen as grave charms for Wan warriors, homes for dead mens' souls or guardian spirits and talismans.
``We make offerings for a safe voyage, to find a good partner or fight off evil sorcerers, eaters of souls, jealous people and poisoners,'' said one soothsayer. ``We trust them.''
Animal sacrifices in cult rituals ensured successful childbirth and stone heads still play a part in ritual exorcisms and purification of adulterers. One man described being inhabited by a spirit from stones surrounding his house. ``I have 13 children, they all come from the stones.''
Prehistoric stone heads have been found around the world, from Africa to Europe and America. Marahoue's are thought to be among the largest and oldest along Africa's Atlantic coast.
Ivorian standing stones are larger than average and found deeper in the ground than similar African examples, suggesting a greater age of up to 7,000 years, Niangoran-Bouah said.
Such African megaliths weighing between half a ton and 15 tons are found in a northwestern strip on the Mediterranean and pockets in a wide west-east sub-Saharan band between Senegal and Kenya. Villagers showed Reuters a 19-foot rock said to be one of the largest African megaliths.
In Mali, to the north, anthropologists have been baffled by the Dogon culture's ability to predict cycles of an invisible satellite of the star Sirius, which appears every 60 years. The Dogon, whose God Amma is said to have thrown a ball of clay into space to create Earth, is just one example of deep civilization in Africa often brushed over by colonists.
``This civilization before the pre-colonial period honorsour country,'' Niangoran-Bouah said. ``During colonial times the stones were probably kept hidden in the forest. The whites did not see them.''
That, for better or worse, is no longer the case.
© Copyright 1998, Reuters News Service