African Rock Art: From ‘paintings and drawings’ to part of our heritage

When people hear of rock art, the first thing that comes to mind might be painting designs on rocks, pictures of rocks, or rocks balanced in beautiful arrangements. Very few people know what prehistoric rock art is about, let alone the fact that it is part of our heritage. Before I joined TARA, I was also among the people who thought rock art was only paintings or drawings on rocks.

I joined TARA as an intern last year, and only then did I realize that prehistoric art is so much more than just drawings and paintings on rocks.  Rock art is part of our heritage and culture. It is part of our history.  Rock art tells us of past events, stories and lives that were lived by our ancestors and forefathers: who they were, how they dressed in comparison to present day, what they ate, what was important to them… It is beautiful and unique.

African Rock Art: From ‘just paintings and drawings’ to part of our heritage

Kakapel, Chelelemuk Hills

Rock art also tells us of how our forefathers got sustenance out of their environments- hunting and gathering for food, and later domesticating animals. The paintings found at Chelelemuk Hills in Western Kenya for example, are a good example. They were done by the Abatwa people, and are around 4000 years old. They show cattle among other geometric symbols.

Rock art can also contribute to myths and stories as well. For example what looks like a giant footprint in South Africa is part of a story of giants who might have trodden on the face of the earth; and paintings of what look like fish with human features are part of a myth about mermaids. There are more stories that the rock art tells all around Africa and in particular in Kenya. All of which I would not have known if I had not joined TARA.

Being a part of TARA opened me up to understand and see how rock art is an important part of our heritage. I did research on various themes in rock art like handprints and footprints, ways of preserving rock art, attractions and cultures around rock art sites, depictions of women in rock art and fashion and style in rock art (yes, they were fashionable then too!). All these themes gave me new perspective on rock art and some even led me to raise some questions of my own about rock art.

Through attending the Kalacha Festival and co-guiding a visit to a local rock art site, I learnt that prehistoric paintings and engravings are not only beautiful and misunderstood but also endangered. The stories rock art tells can and should be preserved through conservation.

African Rock Art: From ‘just paintings and drawings’ to part of our heritage

Neglected rock engraving near Lake Turkana, perhaps centuries, if not millennia old. See bird poop on right.

However, our rock art faces a big threat in the name of vandalism. Some is lost through people scrapping pigment off using sharp objects or when people scribble graffiti over paintings and engravings. Other art is lost through quarrying and theft. Besides human forces, natural ones take a toll as well. Since most African rock art is found in the open, natural processes like stone weathering or even bird poop as in the image above may destroy it. These threats lead to loss of a big part of our history and heritage, yet some communities are not even aware of these priceless works of art.

This led me to question how best TARA can create awareness within local communities around rock art sites and in the rest of the country; and also what can be done to preserve rock art from the various threats it faces. TARA has been saving Africa’s rock art through documenting and archiving images of rock art and raising awareness among custodian communities. However, efforts are not always fully effective as a result of multiple challenges including a lack of funds, the remoteness of some rock art sites, and competing economic interests. A concerted awareness effort that would include the creation of more rock art materials for people of all ages and walks of life like bookmarks, handbags for ladies, T-shirts, pens for school children, utensils, drawing books for children, flyers, posters and banners to be used in exhibitions and festivals might help all people be aware of how important rock art is. Hopefully this would lead them to participate in conservation efforts.

African Rock Art: From ‘just paintings and drawings’ to part of our heritage

Being part of TARA, I got to work with a great team of supportive, kind and engaging individuals who do their work with excellence. TARA enabled me to grow individually and do my work well with great pride in it. TARA also made me aware of how important rock art is as a part of our heritage. Now I hold rock art with a higher regard and appreciate it more since it’s no longer just paintings and carvings to me, but has a more important meaning as part of our history and culture.

by Deborah Chemtai