I Love Rock Art Nigeria

TARA is pleased to share its latest publication, “I Love Rock Art, Nigeria”, which was produced to accompany the travelling exhibition, The Ancient Rock Art of Nigeria.      The exhibition, part of a project supported by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation in collaboration with the National Commission of Museums and Monuments, Ahmadu […]

TARA is sad to report that Chief Sylvanus Akong of Alok, near Ikom in Cross River State died on Sunday 17th May. I first met Sylvanus, known to his friends as Orlando when TARA invited him to attend a Conference we hosted in Nairobi in 2004. The conference in which he participated was entitled, The Future of Africa’s Past. I remember Orlando came to my home in Nairobi for dinner one night, something he reminded me of years later when we met again in 2016. 
TARA’s involvement with the Bakor Monoliths of Cross River began when we invited Professor Abu Edet from the University of Calabar to speak at a rock art conservation conference we organized in Morocco in 2015. One of our supporters, the Prince Claus Fund of Amsterdam was present at the conference and we suggested to them that they support a one year project on the Monoliths Starting in 2016. That was when Professor Edet took us to meet Chief Akong at the village of Alok, someone whom Abu Edet had worked with for many years due to his knowledge and deep interest in this unique heritage. This was the beginning of a collaborative project involving the Factum Foundation which greatly benefitted from the knowledge, passion and leadership  of Chief Akong, a project that was then taken over by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and broadened to include the rock art of Nigeria. The project partners now include the National Council of Museums for Museums and Monuments, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), the US Embassy in Nigeria, the Factum Foundation, the University of Calabar (UNICAL) and ourselves. 

Orlando, who was born in 1953, started out as an educator who had founded and run two schools but he was later appointed by the National Commission for Monuments and Museums to run the Alok Open Air Museum close to his own home/village. During the last two years of our joint project he devoted huge energy and passion, as well as leadership in helping to guide the team in how best to carry out and improve our research methods and approach. He was an invaluable source of knowledge and help to TARA and the whole team, a larger than life personality and leader who was respected and admired throughout the Bakor communities. 

— written by David Coulson, TARA Chair and CEO.


Photo courtesy of Ferdinand Smith 


One of the richest rock art areas in Kenya is the semi- desert region in the far north, now part of Marsabit County. Here, only 100 miles South of Ethiopia is a small mountain, Afgaba, sacred to the Gabbra inhabitants where hundreds of rock engravings can be found in a secret valley, believed to be […]

Dabous Giraffes, African Rock Art

Late last year, archaeologists working in the Blombos Cave in South Africa published findings regarding what is now the world’s oldest rock painting discovered, in the journal Nature. The painting comprises several hashed lines drawn by ochre pencil on a piece of rock dated to 73,000 years ago. The lines were possibly part of a larger work of art. Previous excavations in Blombos Cave have revealed an ochre paint processing laboratory, and other evidence of symbolic thinking and practice in the form of an etched piece of ochre, and ochre painted shell beads. This discovery sets the earliest date of rock art by Homo sapiens back several decades, and reconfirms the birthplace of Homo sapiens‘ symbolic faculties, as of Homo sapiens herself, to be in Africa.

Ochre drawing on rock found in Blombos Cave. Photo: Craig Foster

Read more about the finding in the Business Insider here and an interview with archaeologist Chris Henshilwood on the Conversation here.

During the last few years TARA has recorded three important  rock art sites in Kitui County, including one site which is located just inside Tsavo East National Park at a place called Ithumba, the regional Park Headquarters. At two out of three of these sites the art takes the form of geometric shapes and designs which represented powerful spiritual symbols for the people that made them. We call this Batwa art, a geometric form of rock art featuring concentric circles, spirals and other quasi geometric shapes. This art was made by forest/hunter-gatherer peoples (Batwa) similar to the forest foragers of eastern Congo, Gabon and other parts of central Africa.

Geometric art in Ithumba, Kenya

Batwa art dates from a time, several thousand years ago, when these particular areas were still forested and part of the original Central African Rainforest. With the exception of the Maasai and Samburu paintings, most of the rock art found in Kenya is in fact Batwa art, an indication of how much of the country used to be part of the Central African Rain Forest. This includes paintings and engravings found in the deserts of northern Kenya where instead of trees we now see only rocks and sand.  
The third site, located about an hour south of Kitui town, features a different type of art which is more abstract than geometric. Here we see star-shaped images, almost resembling a modern firework display, and zigzags as well as animal and human footprints. We believe that these images were also the work of hunter gatherers. 

TARA was recently commissioned to design and produce an African Rock Art exhibition to mark the opening of the new China-funded Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar, Senegal. The Museum was officially inaugurated on Thursday 6th by President Macky Sall.

The concept of this Museum, says its Director, is not to be a commemorative monument but rather a creative lobby to help shape a continent’s sense of identity.

Dakar’s Museum of Black Civilisations whose round shape was inspired by traditional houses

The rock art exhibit makes a powerful statement about the rich cultural diversity and artistic eminence of Africa’s past civilisations.

Africa’s rock art: religion, spirituality and ritual

The opening of the Museum marked as the world’s largest museum dedicated to black civilisations has been linked to calls from Senegal and other African nations for France to return art looted during the colonial era. Meanwhile President Macron of France has already made a major public statement agreeing to return some of these cultural treasures to their original homes.

Read more about the museum here.

In early November 2018, TARA’s David Coulson took a group of 8 people on a Rock Art Safari in Niger’s Air Mountains in the Southern Sahara, an area where the Trust has been documenting art since the mid 1990s. The group arrived by air from Niger’s capital, at the picturesque town of Agadez, once known as the Gateway to the Sahara.


The land expedition with 5 Landcruisers left the following morning and arrived that afternoon at Dabous, the Big Giraffe site which TARA put on the world map in 1997. When David first recorded these giant 7000 year old carvings, the news went viral. At a press conference held at National Geographic in 1998 the giraffes were described as one of the greatest pieces of prehistoric art ever found.

When the group arrived at the Dabous site on Nov 1st about 100 Tuareg, many mounted on camels, came thundering across the ancient lake-bed in their finery hooting a “Royal” welcome to a our group. Meanwhile the women gathered in circles clapping and chanting .

During the week that followed, David and his old friend Rhissa Agboulah (now Minister for Security) took the group on a grand tour of about 800 kilometres through spectacular mountains and dunes north east of Dabous, visiting many wonderful engraving sites. During this trip they saw only one human being, a 12 year old Tuareg boy who had been sent on a 59 km hike to check on some camels. Many of the Air engravings feature alien-looking warriors probably made between 2000 and 3000 years ago.

During the trip, David was able to document a number of new rock engraving sites (see images below) which they found to add to TARA’s archive, much of which is accessible as part of the British Museums global online collections. These safaris offer an opportunity to record new art.

TARA will be taking another group to the same region in 2019. Anyone interested in joining this trip should contact David Coulson directly (david@africanrockart.org) or his assistant, eunice@africanrockart.org.

In late June/early July 2018 TARA’s David Coulson and Terry Little were invited by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in Los Angeles to participate in an International Colloquium in the USA. This was the third such Colloquium on rock art awareness and conservation, and the largest. (The original meeting was held in Australia in 2016 and the second in Namibia last year.)

The main aim of this recent meeting was to generate new strategies and solutions for the recognition, sustainable use and conservation of rock art as a global resource of universal value. During the sessions at the Getty offices, and the presentations, David talked about TARA’s documentation work and about the rock art safaris which TARA has promoted and organised. Meanwhile Terry talked about Fundraising for rock art projects with special emphasis on Crowdfunding based on TARA’s experiences in 2014.

Getty Conservation InstituteGetty Centre Complex, Los Angeles, California

Getty Conservation InstituteGetty Centre Complex, Los Angeles, California

Most of the more formal presentations and discussions were held in the Getty Centre, an impressive complex of buildings on a hill overlooking the city, constructed with white marble. However the Colloquium also included a number of interesting site visits. Soon after arriving, for instance, the group, consisting of over 20 international specialists, were transported by coach to a place/site called Little Lake, in the Mohave Desert east of the Sierra Nevada, where we were guided by locally-based expert, Dr Jo Ann Van Tilburg from UCLA. This is mainly a petroglyph site although there also paintings here, and is situated close to Little Petroglyph Canyon, another well known site. Jo Ann has worked at this site for a number of years. She is also an old friend of TARA and helped us set up our original digital archive in 2004 with support from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

Carrizo Plains siteCarrizo Plains Site

Carrizo Plains siteCarrizo Plains Site

Carrizo Plains siteCarrizo Plains Site

Carrizo Plains siteCarrizo Plains Site

Carrizo Plains siteCarrizo Plains Site

The second site visit on the following day was further south where we visited the Carrizo Plains National monument, a remarkable site where two of our group had worked in the 1990s. This is very large painting site, but one that was seriously vandalised in the early 1900s. Dave Whitely and Nic Hall who had worked here in the past were able to show us old photographs which clearly showed what the site was like prior to being vandalised. These paintings were made by Shumasch Indians.

Getty Conservation InstitutePresentations at the Getty Conservation Institute

Getty Conservation InstitutePresentations at the Getty Conservation Institute

After further talks at the Getty offices we were again whisked away, this time by air to San Antonio in West Texas (approx 2,000 miles from LA). From San Antonio we were then driven to south west Texas very close to the Rio Grande (the US/Mexican border) between the Devils and the Pecos Rivers. This is hot, dry canyon country and one of the richest rock art regions in the United States. Our host here was Dr Carolyn Boyd, head of the Shumla project. Shumla was founded by Carolyn in 1998 in order to preserve, study and share this priceless cultural record. David Coulson first came here in the early 2000s at the invitation of Shumla co-founder, Prof Megan Biesele, who is also a member of TARA’s Advisory Board.

West Texan Sites near Rio GrandeWest Texan Sites near Rio Grande

West Texan Sites near Rio GrandeWest Texan Sites near Rio Grande

West Texan Sites near Rio GrandeWest Texan Sites near Rio Grande

West Texan Sites near Rio GrandeWest Texan Sites near Rio Grande

West Texan Sites near Rio GrandeWest Texan Sites near Rio Grande

West Texan Sites near Rio GrandeWest Texan Sites near Rio Grande

We visited a number of different sites guided by Carolyn, some of which had paintings which they’ve dated to as far back as 2,000 years before Christ. The most remarkable of these was the so-called “White Shaman Shelter” which is thought to be at least 3,000 years old and is exceptionally well preserved. These paintings appear to illustrate long lost myths and beliefs adding to American pre-history.

White Shaman Shelter near Rio GrandeWhite Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande

White Shaman Shelter near Rio GrandeWhite Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande

White Shaman Shelter near Rio GrandeWhite Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande

White Shaman Shelter near Rio GrandeWhite Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande

White Shaman Shelter near Rio GrandeWhite Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande

White Shaman Shelter near Rio GrandeWhite Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande

White Shaman Shelter near Rio GrandeWhite Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande

White Shaman Shelter near Rio GrandeWhite Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande

This colloquium is expected to give rise to a number of important international projects and collaborations.

Little Lake Rock Art Site, Mojave Desert, CaliforniaLittle Lake Rock Art Site, Mojave Desert, California

Little Lake Rock Art Site, Mojave Desert, CaliforniaLittle Lake Rock Art Site, Mojave Desert, California

Little Lake Rock Art Site, Mojave Desert, CaliforniaLittle Lake Rock Art Site, Mojave Desert, California

Discussion sessions at the Getty Conservation Institute and TexasDiscussion sessions at the Getty Conservation Institute and Texas

Discussion sessions at the Getty Conservation Institute and TexasDiscussion sessions at the Getty Conservation Institute and Texas

Discussion sessions at the Getty Conservation Institute and TexasDiscussion sessions at the Getty Conservation Institute and Texas

Discussion sessions at the Getty Conservation Institute and TexasDiscussion sessions at the Getty Conservation Institute and Texas

Akwanshi Conference, Calabar

Akwanshi Conference in Calabar on the future and plight of the Cross River Monoliths (Akwanshi), and subsequent field trip to record new monolith sites.

Akwanshi Conference, Calabar
Conference poster on wall of Conference Centre.

In early March 2018, David Coulson returned to Nigeria’s Cross River State to take part in a Conference on the Cross River Monoliths. This was a return visit following a highly productive visit in 2016, in collaboration with Factum Foundation (Madrid), to document the remaining monoliths in the Ikom area of Cross River State – a project funded by the Prince Claus Fund of Amsterdam.

These monoliths, known locally as Akwanshi, are carved anthropomorphic (and usually phallic) stones in previously forested areas, and are believed to have represented powerful ancestral spirits.

The oldest stones are thought to be around 1,500 years old but large numbers of them have been stolen during the last 40/50 years. Before that, there were around 500 stones and now there may be as few as 200. Indeed, some of the stolen stones have been turning up in international museums and private collections around the world, e.g. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Quai Branly in Paris, and we have heard, in the British Museum.

Using advanced 3D technology, Ferdinand Smith of the Factum Foundation has been recording the surviving stones. See link: www.factumfoundation.org/Cross-River-Monoliths-Metropolitan-Fragment-Conference-and-Site-Visits

The Conference was intended to raise the profile within Nigeria, as well as well as globally, of the Monoliths of this State/land, in a country known for its spectacular cultural and archaeological riches (ref: the international traveling exhibition ‘Treasures of Ancient Nigeria’ some years ago.) But so far, the Nigerian government has done little if anything to promote these monoliths which are by any standards exceptional artworks. The principal torch bearer for the monoliths has for some years been Dr Abu Edet from the University of Calabar, with whom TARA and Factum have been working. Dr Edet is a passionate and knowledgable promoter of these particular treasures. The opening of the conference was attended by several hundred people and a number of well known people shared the platform to speak of its importance. On the following morning, a range of academic papers were presented.

During the subsequent field trip, we were taken to 3 sites which we had not visited on our last trip. One of these, Iting Nta, had a number of exceptional stones but it was clear to us that many stones had been stolen, probably during the Biafran War but no doubt more recently too.

Cross River Monoliths
Conference Poster.

Akwanshi Conference, Calabar
Conference Hall audience.

Akwanshi Conference, Calabar
Akwanshi Conference, Calabar.

Akwanshi Conference, Calabar, David Coulson
David Coulson, TARA, Akwanshi Conference, Calabar.

Akwanshi Conference, Calabar, David Coulson
David Coulson, TARA, Akwanshi Conference, Calabar.

Akwanshi Conference, Calabar
Conference Hall audience.

Akwanshi Conference, Calabar
Group photo outside Conference Hall.

Cross River Monoliths
Conference Poster.

Cross River Monoliths
Ting Nta site Monolith.

Cross River Monoliths
Ting Nta site Monolith.

Cross River Monoliths
Ting Nta site Monolith.

Cross River Monoliths
Ting Nta site Monolith.

Chad Expedition

During the course of November 2017, David Coulson of TARA led a 4,000 kilometre expedition to the Tibesti Mountains in northern Chad, the highest mountains (3,415m) in the Sahara Desert. The expedition/project was funded by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) which included two rock art expeditions to northern Chad over 18 months.

The first was to the Ennedi Mountains in November 2016, and the second was to the Tibesti last month. The recent trip was also supported by a small grant from the National Geographic Society in Washington DC. The central Sahara is one of the richest repositories of ancient rock art on earth and dates from a time when the Sahara was green and full of people and animals.

The aims of the expedition were:

  • To document rock art sites using both high resolution digital photography, D-Stretch Enhancement and Photogrammetry
  • To sensitise individuals from the University of Ndjamena and from the Ministry of Culture concerning the rock art of this region as well as its importance and vulnerability.

As part of the sensitisation activities, TARA has designed and produced an exhibition which is now in Ndjamena and will soon be opened at the National Museum where TARA will be represented by Terry Little.

Also accompanying the expedition was a distinguished group of TARA supporters, including a well known international travel journalist, Lucia van der Post, who had been commissioned by the London Financial Times to write a story on the trip.

The expedition consisting of six Toyota Landcruisers left Ndjamena on Nov 3rd and routed up the eastern side of the country via the town of Abeche, not far from the border with Darfur (Sudan). After crossing the 16th parallel, the group camped just for one night at the edge of the Ennedi mountains (see map below) in an area rich with rock painting sites, mostly dating from the Pastoral period of Saharan rock art (2,000-5,000BC). From here the expedition travelled north west via Faya Largeau in the direction of the Tibesti, crossing huge tracts of desert and eventually reaching a massive crater known as the Trou au Natron, whose rim is at 9,000 feet above sea level. The crater is 700m deep and maybe 8 kilometres wide.

The return journey took the expedition through the southern foothills and canyons of the volcano, Emi Koussi (3,415m), the highest mountain. Amongst this wilderness of cathedral-like peaks and rock towers are some wonderful and important rock art sites. Some of these, David Coulson, TARA Chair, had seen on his first Chad visit in 1996.

Expedition Cars crossing sand desert.

Red cliffs, Ennedi Mountains.

Mt Emi Koussi (3,415m) on horizon.

Pastoral period paintings with more recent white camels.

High in the Tibesti Mountains.

Looking out of a painted cave.

Pastoral period paintings c.5,000BC.

Chadien archeologist, Dr Nangkara Clison with Dr Ahmed Oumouss.

Decorated figures, probably painted around 7,000 years ago.

Photographing rock paintings at an important cave site.

Royal Geographical Society, Hong Kong, David Coulson

The Royal Geographical Society – Hong Kong invited David Coulson to speak on “The Rock Art of Africa: 25,000 Years of World History and Climate Change on the World’s Biggest Canvas”.

Royal Geographical Society, Hong Kong, David Coulson

The prestigious event was introduced to RGS members and guests as follows:

“Residing in Africa for more than 40 years, British adventurer and photographer David Coulson has discovered and documented more rock art sites across the continent than anyone else. On the way, he has accumulated many amusing stories, including being charged by elephants and frequently lost in desert sandstorms.

In the Kalahari, Mr Coulson spent long periods with the Bushmen when he photographed some of their ancestral art. In Egypt’s Western Desert, he used modern photographic techniques to map the trove of faint images in a huge underground cavern known as the Cave of Swimmers, because of the front-crawl-like depiction of the figures.

Other African rock art discussed in the talk includes a collection of 8,000-year-old anatomically accurate carvings of nine running giraffes on an ancient riverbed in Algeria, the largest measuring 27 ft from muzzle to hind hoof. In addition, he talks of a series of white circles the size of dinner plates that migrating Stone Age hunter-gatherers painted on a granite hillside in eastern Uganda, roughly 1,500 years ago.

David Coulson is a photographer, writer and African explorer as well as being a specialist in African rock art. In the 1980s and 1990s, he worked out of Kenya as a professional photographer and writer, and his books and articles were published across the world. It was during his many travels for these projects that he became aware of the richness and diversity of Africa’s rock art.

He is the founder and Executive Chairman of the Trust for African Rock Art, founded with the help of Dr Mary Leakey and Sir Laurens van der Post. Since its inception, TARA’s work has been supported by a number of well-known international institutions such as National Geographic, and the Getty, Ford and Andrew Mellon Foundations. During this, he has driven the equivalent of at least three times around the Earth. Mr Coulson also spearheaded the Focus on Your World international photo competition on the Environment in the early 1990s sponsored by Canon. The competition, of which David was also a judge, attracted 32,000 entries from 140 different countries, the biggest photo competition ever held. He is the author of African Rock Art and Namib on Namibia’s coastal desert.”

Location: The Bloomberg Theatre, Hong Kong.
Date: Tuesday, 26 September 2017.

American Rock Art Research Organization

American Rock Art Research Organization(ARRARA) The American Rock Art Research Association will convene its 2017 rock art symposium June 1 – 5 at the Eagle Crest Resort, near Redmond, Oregon. ARARA is America’s preeminent rock art organisation, whose members explore the many facets of rock art – the study of prehistoric markings found on stone in natural landscape settings. The yearly conference attracts scholars from around the country and internationally, who come together to share research, images and ideas about rock art traditions from the Americas and beyond.

With a rich abundance and diversity of rock art sites nearby, Redmond is the perfect city for hosting this important annual research conference. Presenters will discuss painted pictographs and pecked petroglyphs, many found on public lands, in several identified styles, such as Columbia Plateau, Columbia River Conventionalized, Great Basin, North Oregon Rectilinear and Yakima Polychrome. The lovely Deschutes River runs right through the conference property.

The conference is open to all—professional archaeologists, avocationalists, and the interested public alike. Students in particular are welcome! Student attendees receive free registration, and student presenters receive a stipend to attend.

For those who register for the conference, ARARA offers two days of guided field trips on (June 2 and 5) to a variety of intriguing area rock art sites. Attendees discover the richness of the local rock art heritage while enjoying the spectacular Oregon countryside. Presentations on current rock art research form the centerpiece of the meeting (June 3 and 4). Other special cultural activities are planned throughout the conference, including social events and vendor offerings of rock art related merchandise.

In addition, two public lectures are planned at 2112 NE 4th Street in Bend.
June 1: Robert David, a Klamath Tribal member, will speak on “The Rock Art of Petroglyph Point, Lava Beds National Monument.”
June 2: Archaeologist Angelo Fossati, Director of the Italian archaeological cooperative Le Orme dell’Uomo, will speak on the “The Rock Art of the Ice Man”. These lectures begin at 7:30 pm, and are open to all—admission is $5.00.

The research presentations kick off the morning of June 3 with a session dedicated to the rock art of Oregon and then expand to cover rock art in other parts of the U.S. and the world. Details of the agenda can be accessed at arara.org/conference as we get closer to the conference.

Rock art symbols can be a challenge to understand, but for much of the prehistoric sequence of the past 5,000 years, we can now link broad patterns of prehistoric settlement adaptation and social change to the iconography inscribed and painted on rock faces, ceramics, and other items. Dating rock art has been difficult in the past—but answering the question “How old is it?” could become easier in some cases, thanks to new technologies. The Central Oregon region is rich in rock art from several periods that parallel the archaeological record of habitation of the area.

All are invited to attend the 2017 ARARA conference in Redmond to share the latest information and research into the fascinating ancient messages from the past.

Where: The Lodge at Eagle Crest, Redmond OR

When: June 1 – 5, 2017

Who: American Rock Art Research Association

Registration and conference information: arara.org/conference

Contacts: Conference Coordinator: Monica Wadsworth-Seibel   wadsworth-seibel@cox.net


camel rock art
camel rock art

Camel caravan in Niger

Camels: often called “ships of the desert”, you see them on the horizon, you see them at waterholes, you see them winding their way through palm groves and through sand dunes, throughout the Sahara.

camels rock art

Camel riders in Niger

You also see them on the rocks where they were carved or painted long ago. Yet the camel is a relative newcomer to this ancient land. The first camels to have reached Africa are believed to have arrived somewhere around 500 BC and to have gradually moved west across Northern Africa.

camel rock art

Engravings in Egypt

One of the reasons for our extensive knowledge about the camel’s movement and distribution in Africa is the ubiquitous images, both painted and carved/engraved, which adorn boulders, cliffs, and canyons in the Sahara desert. Not surprisingly, this period of rock art is known as the Camel Period, distinct from the earlier but overlapping Horse Period (and the even earlier Pastoral Period).

camel rock art

Painted camel superimopsed over engravings, Akakus, Libya

We have recorded hundreds of camel images now in the TARA archive and also accessible online through the British Museum’s global digital collections. These images are rich in camel period iconography such as saddles, trappings and weapons.

camel rock art

Camel and rider with saddle trappings, Chad

The history of the camel in North Africa is inextricably linked with trade and caravan routes. But today camels are found as far south as Kenya and Somalia. Most of the southernmost camel art TARA has recorded is in northern Kenya.

camel rock art

Engraved camels, Kenya

Interestingly however, we have recorded camel rock art even in South Africa. The engraving from the Northern Cape is visibly young looking since it is not highly patinated.

camel rock art

Engraved camel in South Africa’s Northern Cape

The Camel Period is the last identifiable period of North African rock art and since it started in the 1st millennium BCE, the practice has continued right up until recent times. Yet despite this and despite the exceptional quality of some of the images, it is the least studied period, perhaps because it is the youngest.

camel rock art

Procession of camel and riders, Algeria

One general indicator for dating rock art which applies to camel art and to earlier periods of art, is that the earlier periods tend to be more naturalistic in style, and the later periods increasingly stylised and schematic. The camel art of the Sahara is a remarkable testimony to the crucial role that this animal has played in the exploration and development of some of the world’s most remote areas and carries with it a wealth of other historical and cultural information about the Sahara and neighbouring regions.

camel rock art

Bas relief camel, Sudan

Time is however not on our side. On our trips we are finding more and more damaged art, not just by vandals but by oil and mineral exploitation activities as well. Despite the quantity of camel art which we and others have recorded over the years a huge amount still awaits documentation and may soon be lost for ever.

camel rock art

Bullet damaged camel art, Chad

making rock art contemporary

While we may never know the complete meanings and intentions behind prehistoric art, it still forms a bridge to the past for us today. It is inspiring to contemplate the worlds that existed at the time the art was made, and the worlds that these first artists created through their art. Kenyan born artist, Mwini Mutuku, explores this connection through his art today.

making rock art contemporary

Inspired by the endangered state of African rock art, conversations with TARA founder, David Coulson, and by the work of TARA, Mwini created artwork that blends ancient and contemporary art and makes commentary on the state of rock art today. His piece is named ‘Ashes to Ashes, Art to Art’. He explains,

“The piece is a floor installation depicting a “mass grave” of human figures taken from African rock art imagery accessed from TARA’s vast database of endangered rock art sites around Africa. The piece attempts to set up a simultaneous relationship between Art and Mortality.”

making rock art contemporary

Photo credit, Mwini Mutuku

Mwini hopes to tap into the human capacity for empathy in this work that aims to resuscitate genuine concern for the preservation of fast disappearing Rock Art Sites. He considers their neglect an alarming indication of a disregard for early human artistic expression. In ‘Ashes to Ashes, Art to Art’, the viewer is invited to imagine the role of a researcher analysing well preserved relics of a past civilisation.

The work has been selected for one of Africa’s most prestigious art competitions – the Barclays L’Atelier Competition, which rewards young visual artists with the opportunity to develop their talents abroad. For the 2016 competition, artists within the visual arts, including sculpture, painting, digital, installation, printmaking  from 10 African countries were invited to enter. The best 100 works of art will be exhibited in Johannesburg South Africa.

making rock art contemporary

We at the Trust for African Rock Art are excited to see this meeting of two worlds as it were, and wish Mwini all the best in the competition!

by Wangũi Kamonji

All photos by Mwini

rock art stamps

Are stamps still important in a digital word where letters can be sent at the click of a mouse or tap of a finger? Judging by the fact that people from all over the world are gathered in the hundreds of thousands in New York this week for the World Stamp Show 2016, yes would be a correct answer. While “snail-mail” is not as common a thing as it once was (sadly), stamps are still considered important by collectors, exhibitors, postal administrators, and of course those of us who still write and send letters. And this is as true for African rock art stamps, as for any other.

rock art stamps

“Despite their small size, stamps have a more concentrated ideological density per square centimetre than any other cultural form” David Scott states in his book on European stamp design.[1] And stamps have been a cultural form of choice for African countries from Algeria to Namibia, who have chosen this way to showcase and popularise their rock art heritage. In some cases where a country’s idea of itself has had rock art at its root, such as in South Africa, rock art images have not only appeared on postal stamps but also on currency and state insignia, all of which are public imagery.

Elwyn Jenkins avows, “the beauty of rock art images makes them ideal for the miniature format of the postage stamp”.[2] But there is no doubt that the choice to use rock art imagery was intended to also further the aims of heritage preservation, and even promote tourism. Stamps have been designed to commemorate heritage milestones such as the opening of the National Museum and Art Gallery in Botswana, or the inscription of Twyfelfontein, Namibia’s richest rock art area on the World Heritage List. Indeed rock art stamps “reflect a pride in, and concern for, the most ancient art treasures that a country may be fortunate enough to possess.”[3]

When letter sending was more common, stamps bearing rock art were ambassadors for rock art, reaching far off places to spread awareness of this heritage. In more recent times, such stamps have become collector’s items. It is possible to acquire rock art stamps from various dealers online for private hobby collectors. Rock art stamps are also an educational resource on heritage where images or other access to rock art are impossible. That said, however, governments and postal institutions continue to issue postage stamps. Perhaps a renaissance of rock art on stamps is due (as is a renaissance of letter posting, the slow way).

Check out our video featuring rock art images that have ended up on stamps! Remember to subscribe to our channel for more

Stamp images courtesy of colnect.com

[1] Scott, D. 1995. European stamp design: a semiotic approach to designing messages. Link

[2] Jenkins, Elwyn. 2012. Showcasing South African rock art on postage stamps. Link

[3] Jenkins, E. R. 1977. Checklist of postage stamps depicting prehistoric rock art. Link

dressing African rock art

One of the things I love about rock art is the many windows into forgotten pasts it opens, and the opportunity to imagine what those pasts might have been like from these small glimpses. We recently found ourselves going through our 25,000 image strong archive in search of representations of clothing and dress choices from past cultures. In a word, fashion. There are a variety of fascinating representations of dressing and head gear choices in African rock art, some whose purpose we might never know and some which we can posit possibilities for. From warrior accoutrements, spiritual embodiments, cultural significances we don’t know about, and even beauty.

Fashion in African rock art

dressing African rock art


Take for instance the so called “tulip-head” figures in Niger’s rock art. These figures are quite likely warriors since they are often represented holding weapons like spears. And what of their tulip shaped heads? These are likely to be some sort of helmet or other head covering.

Speaking of headgear, my favourite is from this Algerian painting. Two figures, possibly women, sit facing each other, both of them wearing outsized hats on their heads. I like to imagine what might be happening in this scene: a tea party perhaps? Maybe one of the ladies dropped in at her friend’s homestead for a chat. And what is one of the ladies pointing out to the other?

dressing African rock art


Fashion in African rock art also includes the interesting things people carry or hold on their arms. In an Algerian painting, a chariot and horse rider gallop through the streets past a pair of women. One of the figures carries a small round purse on her wrist. In an engraving from Niger depicting multiple figures facing forward, the figures on either end carry rounded bags as well.

dressing African rock art


Other decorations are present in African rock art too. These may represent forms of body paint, scarification or other adornment such as beads. In this image from Chad for example, a richly decorated female figure wears a series of bands around her neck as well as around the waist and hips. The series of dots around her hips may be beads sewn into her skirt, or worn buy prednisone online over it, as is done in many African cultures today. In another image from Libya three human figures hold what appear to be shakers or maracas in their hands and have white extensions on their backs and waists resembling capes.

dressing African rock art

Right, image of woman wearing a beaded hip belt, Chad. Left, Figures wearing white ‘capes’, Libya.

On the opposite end of the continent, we have an example of dress that holds deeper spiritual significance. Karosses are animal hides worn long or short, to protect oneself from cold. Karosses appear in South African rock art, often enveloping a human figure or substituting their torso for an animal’s. These figures, known as therianthropes, are posited to represent one’s embodiment of the qualities of the animal whose hide is ‘worn’. Most common and identifiable in paintings is the eland kaross, whose potency participants in various trance dances aim to acquire.

dressing African rock art

Right, painting of human figure in eland kaross. Left, Painting of women in large full skirts. South Africa

So what can fashion in rock art tell us?

Besides how fashionable ancient people were, a couple of things.

First, decorations such as beads and paints in the archaeological record have long been used to suss out economic and social relations among groups by archaeologists and anthropologists. These include, possible trade relationships, power and gender markers, and so on. Rock art fits into this archaeological record, and resource.

Second, depictions of elements may be used to set apart or date different when some artworks were made and place them in a broader historical record. For example, the above image of women in large and full skirts might seem more at home in Victorian England than in South Africa’s rock art record. But it tells of the contact between two cultures that happened with the invasion and colonisation of the Western Cape by Dutch settlers in the 1700s.

Check out the images of fashion in African rock art mentioned above, and more in our video below. From pantaloons, wrist purses and fanned skirts, to fly-to-the-sky hats and tunics tell us, will you be taking the next cue for your outfit from African rock art?


by Wang?i Kamonji

technology preserving rock art

South Africa is home to one of the world’s most spectacular mountain chains, the Maloti-Drakensberg Park (MDP). In these mountains and in the foothills below lies a treasure trove of priceless art left behind as a legacy of the oldest known inhabitants of South Africa, the San people. The African Conservation Trust (ACT) has been using cutting-edge technology to digitally preserve these amazing sites. The end products of their work can be used to assist rock art management, and to promote the sites with interactive virtual realities.

technology preserving rock art

A 3D model of the famous ‘Rosetta Stone’ panel at Game Pass Shelter showing the scan model in blue, and the final textured model. It was in this iconic panel that archaeologists first uncovered a significant key to understanding the symbolism of San rock art. Image: ACT

In South Africa, the rock art of the Drakensberg has been regarded as the only tangible record left of the San, who for the past 100 years have been considered an extinct people and culture in the country. The global significance of their rock art contributed towards the listing of the MDP as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 2000. The park contains over 600 known rock art sites that date back approximately 4,000 years, the largest and most concentrated group of paintings in Africa south of the Sahara. What makes Drakensberg rock art unique compared to rock art in other parts of the world is that the images are usually very detailed and intricate.  Drakensberg rock paintings are well known for their use of the shaded polychromatic technique where human figures and animals are represented using two colours, usually red and white, that delicately grade into each other. Animals are shown not only side on, but lying down, looking back, and even viewed from the front or rear.  Humans are also depicted in a range of sophisticated positions.

technology preserving rock art

Rear-view painting of two eland. Image: ACT

Unfortunately much of the rock art has been damaged by vandalism, fire, vegetation, and natural weathering. The fragile rock paintings are continuously exposed to the elements and are gradually deteriorating as time passes. As restoration is not possible, it is of the utmost importance to digitally preserve the rock art so that the legacy of the San people will not be lost forever.

ACT is a non-profit organisation based in South Africa that has been working with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the provincial heritage authority, Amafa, to create a detailed record of these important sites, and to deliver that information to the public using modern technology. Some of the methods we have used include 3D scanning, image enhancement, virtual tours, and interactive mapping to monitor change, inform management plans, and bring rock art to a wider audience. Here are some examples.

Using New Technologies to Preserve Ancient Pasts

3D scanning

3D scanning works by bouncing narrow pulses of light off objects to map them with incredible accuracy, collecting hundreds of millions of measurements to form a ‘point cloud’. This is used to create a realistic 3D model accurate to a few millimetres. Once a panel is 3D scanned and uploaded it is possible for researchers and rock art enthusiasts to virtually visit otherwise hard to reach rock art sites.

We used this technology to document a panel dubbed the ‘Rosetta Stone of San rock art’ in the Game Pass Shelter. This site is special for a number of reasons; it was one of the first South African sites to be known in other parts of the world, appearing in the Scientific American in 1915. In these paintings archaeologists first uncovered a vital key to understanding the symbolism of San rock art. Click on the image to explore the panel in 3D. Notice the exceptional detail in the dying eland, and the partly-transformed shaman who is mimicking the animal in a state of trance.

technology preserving rock art

Scanning the famous ‘Rosetta Stone’ panel. Click the image to explore the 3D model in detail. Image: ACT


Image enhancement

Natural weathering processes have resulted in many paintings becoming faded, and sometimes invisible to the naked eye. Using image enhancement techniques such as DStretch, developed by Jon Harman, we are able to go back in time and reveal these lost images.

The extensively painted Eland Cave is a spectacular example of Drakensberg San rock art and one of the best in the country. The whole site was photographed and ultra-high resolution panoramas of it were created and enhanced. The results have been amazing: barely-visible paintings are suddenly clear, and other paintings hidden beneath layers of paint are revealed. Click on the image to uncover the ‘before’ and ‘after’ panoramas.

technology preserving rock art

An enhanced rock art image showing some beautiful and very intriguing therianthrope paintings. Click on the image to see the before and after panels in detail. Images: ACT

Virtual tours

A virtual tour is a web-based tool that places the viewer at the centre of any chosen location and enables them to explore the scene in its entirety, and at their own pace. This is especially useful for remote sites that are inaccessible to many. The virtual tour example shown below is for Eland Cave which requires a very strenuous hike to reach! The tour allows anyone take a virtual walk along the cave and explore the site from their computer or mobile device.

technology preserving rock art

Click the image to take the virtual tour of Eland Cave. Image: ACT

Interactive mapping

Research has shown that 25% of damage to rock paintings is caused either intentionally or unintentionally by visitors.[i] As a result most rock art sites are closed to the public to protect this irreplaceable heritage. A number of sites in the MDP have been opened to the public provided visitors are accompanied by an accredited rock art custodian. These custodians live in the nearby communities and have been trained by Amafa on rock art protection.

There are many breath-taking sites in the Drakensberg (such as Game Pass Shelter shown in the example above), yet visitor numbers are very low. Most people who come to the Park do so for the scenery and other activities, and are not aware of the open sites and rock art custodian programme. Those who are interested have complained that there is no information hub to show which rock art sites are open and how one can arrange a visit. In order to make these sites more accessible, an interactive map was created together with Amafa. On the map you can click on any of the open sites and a box will pop up showing a key image, a short description, the cost of entry and finally the contact information to book a guide. We have had positive feedback so far and hope that this map will encourage people to visit the sites and in turn, support the local rock art custodians who do a fantastic job.

technology preserving rock art

Rock art custodian Zama Sithole showing the way! Click to view the interactive map. Image: ACT

How is the data used?

Monitoring change

The highly accurate data collected from the 3D scanner can be used as baseline data to monitor site deterioration over time. The following example is a beautiful petroglyph site in the Rooipoort Nature Reserve near the city of Kimberley in South Africa. The rock is weathering away which threatens the petroglyphs. Using the scan data, 2mm contours were created of the rock to show the eroded edge in detail. If this site is scanned repeatedly, the data can be used to assess the rate of deterioration.

technology preserving rock art

Left, a beautiful sun petroglyph site at the Rooipoort Nature Reserve in South Africa. Right, a 3D model of the site with 2mm contours overlaid. The eroded edge can be clearly seen and measured. Images: ACT

Better management of rock art sites

The laser scan data can also be used to create accurate site maps. The Eland Cave rock art shelter contains over 1,700 paintings including some fascinating mystical figures, a beehive, and even a moth/butterfly. Over time rocks have fallen off the cave wall and now lie on the floor. Many of these loose boulders contain rock art which is not immediately evident. The scan data was used to create a scaled map that shows each individual boulder clearly. This can be used to inform management plans to protect these paintings.

technology preserving rock art

A scaled top-view image of the Eland Cave site showing each individual rock on the cave floor. Image: ACT

Seeing underneath the paint

Superimposition is fairly common in the Drakensberg, with newer painting being painted on top of older ones. Image enhancement reveals the ‘hidden’ paintings, adding to the growing database of San art in the Drakensberg. These images can also be significant in the interpretation of the panels and the site as a whole.

technology preserving rock art

Left, a faded painting of an Eland at the Bushman’s Pools site. Right, the same image enhanced, two human figures are now visible within/behind the eland. Images: ACT


Models, tours, maps and images can be used to assist in the conservation and management of rock art sites, but equally important is delivering that information to the public so that they can appreciate and learn about this heritage. Former President Nelson Mandela said

“Africa’s rock art is the common heritage of all Africans, but it is more than that. It is the common heritage of humanity.”

In the past much of our data has been offline and only available to site authorities. However, we have just launched a new interactive website that we are populating with our entire collection of work. This will be continually updated as we do new projects and we hope that by making the data easier to access, people will be encouraged to learn about cultural heritage. The new immersive virtual realities will allow the public to reach remote locations to freely explore the caves and shelters at the click of a mouse, while still keeping the exact location unknown to restrict damage to the fragile paintings.   

We have been working in the Drakensberg for a number of years to create a digital database of known sites including photography and scanning of key sites, writing archaeological reports, and updating GPS coordinates. Yet we have only scratched the surface of rock art documentation in the Drakensberg. There is great need for this type of work and we keep working to preserve these special sites.

Our experience in heritage documentation has also taught us to be open about new methods and to evolve with changing technologies. A large part of this is learning from the work that others are doing in heritage documentation around the world, and sharing our experiences.  This knowledge-sharing helps us to reach the common goal of preserving this irreplaceable global heritage. Moving forward, we will keep promoting heritage sites and looking for new projects and funding to continue growing the digital library of heritage sites.

[i] Tommy, Topp. 2009. Value of the San rock art in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site. MSc dissertation. Programme: Management of Protected Areas, Department of Economics, University of Klagenfurt, Austria. 

This guest post is courtesy of Michelle Dye, GIS and heritage documentation officer, African Conservation Trust (ACT).

Pinterest_Favicon technology preserving rock art

trees rock art

A recent article on a National Geographic blog titled, ‘Vanished! The Surprising Things Missing from Ancient Art’ claims that there are no trees in rock art.

“Take a look, a long rambling look, at the cave paintings that Paleolithic artists drew as far back as 40,000 years ago. There are hundreds of them, in Spain, in France, all over the world. … But here’s what there’s not … Leafy things don’t appear in Paleolithic art. Nor do bushes. Nor trees.”

The author goes on to posit that perhaps plants only begin to appear in rock art once agriculture emerges; that commercialisation of plant commodities make them important and noticeable to people. But considering that different San groups who painted stunning botanical imagery in southern Africa lived as hunters and gatherers…it’s a bit difficult to accept this claim. Furthermore, Siyakha Mguni in his book ‘Termites of the Gods‘ has posited that the botanical images that San peoples made were strongly related to their spiritual worldviews, which would have existed prior to contact with Bantu farming groups.

What is tricky of course is the timing. While the article asserts that until 5,000 years after the Palaeolithic era (which ended about 10,000 or 8,000 years ago) no trees appear, we know that dating rock art is difficult. Where paintings contain carbon such as charcoal as an ingredient, it is possible to date paintings. However, charcoal was not a common ingredient of African rock art pigments, meaning paintings and engravings, such as those by Saharan cultures or the San, both of which represent long painting traditions, are near-impossible to date.

But trees, even though rare, are most certainly present in prehistoric art. In going through our African rock art archive, I came across leaves, branches, whole trees, palm fronds and even, wait for it, an animal “nuzzling a leafy thing”. So here’s 19 images that show that botanical imagery was not uninteresting or out of mind for ancient artists.

  • trees rock art
    Recently recorded painting in Kitui, Kenya. Possible palm frond.

aurochs cave art

One of the great things about rock art is that it opens windows for us onto vanished worlds. Nowhere is that more true than in North Africa’s Sahara Desert where the rock art gives us a priceless record of the millions of people who lived and flourished there over a period of 5,000 years (roughly 4,000 to 9,000 years ago), as well as all the wild animals that once lived there before the climate changed back to desert.

aurochs cave art

Aurochs from Libya’s Messak. Small human figure holds a bow below it while the aurochs has an angry and disdainful look

Among the animals depicted from that time are the huge prehistoric buffalo (Bubalus antiquus) and the aurochs a prehistoric ox, both now long extinct. The aurochs was once common across North Africa and indeed across large parts of Asia and Europe and is the ancestor of modern cattle. In Africa it seems to have disappeared around 4,000 years ago when the Sahara dried up, but in Asia it lingered on until the 1st millennium BCE. However, the last European aurochs died in a forest in Poland in 1628! But aurochs genes persist in modern-day cattle, a fact that has enabled a team of scientists and non profits to try and ‘resurrect’ the extinct animal through back breeding!

aurochs cave art

Aurochs from the Hall of Bulls in Lascaux Cave, France. Image: www.tes.com


Aurochs were powerful animals much larger than ordinary cattle, with bulls standing nearly 2 metres high at the shoulder. Perhaps the most famous imagery depicting them is the frieze of charging bulls in the so-called Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux Cave in France’s Dordogne. These may have been painted around 15,000 years ago. The earliest paintings at Lascaux have been scientifically dated to around 17,000 years before present.

aurochs cave art

Detail showing one of the 18,000 year old aurochs engravings at Qurta in the Nile Valley between Luxor and Aswan, Egypt.

Rock art depictions of aurochs are fairly common in North Africa especially in Algeria, Libya and Chad. TARA has recorded the earliest known aurochs images in Africa at the eastern edge of the Nile Valley between Idfu and Aswan. These were first recorded by Dr Dirk Huyge of the Royal Museums of Art & History in Brussels and subsequently dated to between 18,000 and 22,000 years of age, making them some of the oldest dated African rock art.

new rock art find kenya

Last weekend, a long-planned survey trip to Kitui County in South Eastern Kenya yielded two new rock art sites. The survey undertaken by Emmanuel Ndiema, Head of Archaeology at the National Museums of Kenya, and David Coulson, founder and chair of the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) was hoping to record two previously unrecorded sites that had been reported in 2015 by Dr. Ronald Mulwa, a Senior Research Scientist at the National Museums.

new rock art find kenya

New sites are often mentioned to TARA (some real, some not) but what sparked Coulson’s interest was that a few years ago he recorded a geometric site in Tsavo East not far from the Kitui County border. The reported new sites appeared to be in the same general area. One of the objectives of this trip therefore, was to see if the art at the new sites might be from the same ancient tradition as the Tsavo East sites.

new rock art find kenya

These paintings done in red and white paint do appear to have links with the earlier recorded Tsavo ones, and with other examples of prehistoric art common to the Eastern and Central African region. They mainly comprise concentric circles and other geometric art, and date to a time when the region was part of the Central African rainforest. According to Coulson, these sites are some of the best he has recorded in Kenya ever.

new rock art find kenya

The area where the paintings are located is full of granite hills and outcrops with lush valleys in between. The trip involved steep climbs up slippery granite slopes to reach the deep shelters and caves in which the paintings are located. All geometric art, the paintings consist of strange and often beautiful symbols created long ago probably by hunter-gatherer artists. Although we will probably never know the exact meaning of these symbols, studies of other African hunter-gatherer groups such as the San in southern Africa, or the Hadzabe and Sandawe of Tanzania give us clues as to their possible meaning.


Image credit: TARA/David Coulson

Moufa looked up from the edge of the small lake where she sat looking at the tiny shrimp. It was almost midday and a soft breeze rose from the water and fanned her face. She had always enjoyed playing with the shrimp, imagining what their lives at the bottom of the lake were like. Moufa enjoyed the delicious stews Mama made with the shrimp and she would later go to the lake to say thanks for eating a mama shrimp, or a sibling shrimp, or a grandma shrimp.

But Moufa looked up because something moving on the horizon had caught her eye. A black line that was growing thicker and thicker by the moment. She looked at it for a second, then realised what it was and jumped up excitedly to go tell her mama.

“They’re coming back! The hunters are coming back!” she exclaimed breathlessly as she ran into the thatched roof house. In her haste she ran full force into Mama who was just then putting the midday meal out.

“There there, you little volcano,” said Mama in the affectionate way she referred to Moufa’s explosive personality. Moufa had never seen a volcano, but she had heard stories of hills and mountains that would suddenly belch hot liquids and fire out. Sometimes Moufa felt like one of these mountains.

“Sit down and have lunch and you can tell me all about what you saw,” Mama added.


The hunters regularly took long trips to where the grasses and the trees met to hunt. They went in search of large animals and small animals: elephant, antelopes, bush pigs. And they also went in search of sweet things like honey and fruits.

To Moufa the trips seemed excruciatingly long, and the homesteads would be quiet without the sound of the men. During these times she would only have her shrimp, her Mama and the neighbourhood children to play with. But she missed her father who would tell her stories of the hunt and the forest when he came back.

The hunters had been gone for one moon but now they were coming back. And there would be celebration all round – a good big festival to thank the ancestors and spirit guides who had brought them safely back, and with food. Moufa was looking forward to one special part of the feast especially, the carving of the giraffes.

Moufa wanted to go back out and watch the steadily growing dots of hunters approaching but Mama wanted help with the dishes. She had to start getting things ready for the feast to come, and for Papa’s homecoming.


Mama put out her fresh pots, the ones she had decorated in the last potting season. The pots were large and beautifully etched with wavy lines that Moufa liked to trace with her fingers. The lines seemed to her like the paths the hunters took to the forest in the stories her father told her. Mama would use these fresh pots to make the feast meal.

Out beyond where the other homesteads were, a ringing sound came, it was the community gong sending out a message with five successive notes. Moufa knew what it meant. Tomorrow would be the day of the festival, and everyone must prepare. The hunt had been very successful. The hunters had come back with baskets upon baskets of meat, some fresh, some dried and salted to stay for longer. They had also brought fruits that grew in the forest, and honey that would be used to make wine.

Moufa’s father had even brought her the skin of a large snake that he found lying on the forest floor. He told her the story of how snakes changed clothes every so often. He said they did so whenever they got tired of their old clothes, or grew too big to fit in them anymore. Moufa couldn’t wait to show it to her friends and to tell them the story. She would find them tomorrow during the carving, she promised herself.

“Moufa!” Mama called from the hearth. Could you get me some of the spice grass? And hurry, the stew is almost ready. Then I need to do your hair.”

Moufa jumped up and ran to the edge of the lake where the spice grass grew and carefully picked some for Mama. They would be having some of the meat the hunters brought for lunch today, and the rest would be left boiling for tomorrow, because no-one would have the time to cook until evening.

After lunch Mama sat Moufa down to do her hair. She collected a pot of hippo fat and mixed it with some clay she had picked from the lake. While she parted Moufa’s hair into sections and ran her fingers through to prepare it, Mama told Moufa stories of the people of long ago, and of how the world had come to be.

Moufa enjoyed Mama’s stories although they were different from the ones Papa told. Mama applied the clay-fat mixture onto Moufa’s hair and made thick plaits out of it. After she had prepared Moufa’s hair, she did her own so they would both be ready for the feast the following day.

In all the homes by the lake, the women were preparing their hair in the same way, and covering their bodies with fat to be beautiful and to protect their skin from the sun.


Moufa was up before Mama the following morning- an uncommon thing. She was too excited to sleep for long. The air was crisp and cold as she lay on her reed mat softened by skins. Moufa thought back to other carving days.

Carving days happened after every successful hunt on top of the rocky outcrop some distance away from where the homesteads stood. The men, women and children would all gather to thank the ancestors for a successful hunt. Each family would carry their special carving stones – hard sharpened pieces of rock – and the elders and healers would lead them to the outcrop.

From below it looked only like a rock that jutted up and out of the ground. But on top were the spirit guides. The far-seeing giraffes that were called on to guide the hunters on their dangerous missions to search for food. Moufa had often wished she could touch a giraffe or even ride one so she could see up and far as they could. When she helped in the carving she felt as though she was touching one.

The carving had been going on for as long as Moufa could remember, and Mama said she too had helped in the carving when she was young. It was said that a long time ago the elders had begun with just an outline, the outer part of the giraffes. And since then they had celebrated and prayed by doing more and more, etching the lines deeper and deeper.

Soon Mama was up and so was Papa. They carried their food – the stew from the previous day that had been left simmering overnight – in medium-sized leather pouches, and put water in smaller ones. If there were no clouds it would get hot up on the outcrop. They also carried some fat to rub into the giraffes as a special thanks for ensuring that there was food. Moufa thought about carrying her snake skin to show her friends, but decided that the distance was too far. Besides, she didn’t want to spoil the skin. She would have to tell them the story and invite them back to her home later.

After a quick breakfast of cold soup they set off to join the other families also setting out to the outcrop. The healers led the way and they arrived while the air was still cool.

They carved in turns, some people climbing to the top of the outcrop to do some of the work while the others remained under the trees below singing, clapping, dancing and cheering the others on. The women sang praises of the hunters and danced their joy. Others shared bits of news with their neighbours and compared plaits and pots.

“You must teach me how to do this style Mama Moufa,” one of the women said, “It’s prettier than I can make my pots!”

Moufa and the other children played a game of hide and seek amongst all the adults. It was fun to be away from their usual surroundings and they were enjoying themselves. Occasionally Moufa and her friends would climb up the rock, supported by an adult to check on the progress of the carving. She went up to her father while he was working on the neck of the smaller female giraffe.

Papa turned when he saw her and offered her the carving rock saying, “Would you like to try Moufita?”

“Sure!” Moufa replied and excitedly got to work etching in the square her father had been working on.

Scraping against the light brown sandstone was tiring work. Moufa would scrape a little and then blow on the scraping in order to see how deep the grooves she was making were.

“That’s it,” Papa said. “Say a hope while you do it. Ask the giraffe spirit guides for something. And don’t forget to say thank you!”

Moufa paused for a moment and thought about the giraffes. They could see far off because they were so tall. Papa said they sometimes helped to warn them of approaching danger when they were on the hunt. They were also very graceful. Papa described how they moved and ran as water rippling on the lake- it moved but almost without hurry or violence. Moufa wished she could have this combination of qualities herself. She whispered something under her breathe and continued carving, feeling even closer to the giraffes as she did so.

Eventually Moufa got tired and she went back down to help Mama and the other women to get the mid-day meal ready under some trees. The stew Mama made yesterday would taste extra delicious today after the flavours had slept the night. All the gathering would share the food they had brought. It was one of those special occasions when Moufa would be eat a lot.

After lunch it would be the turn of the women to go up and carve as well. The men would continue the chanting, singing and dancing below.

At the end of the day while the sun was just about to say goodbye to the earth, they all gathered at the top where the women were now rubbing fat into the etched grooves to make them gleam. It had been a busy and successful day.

The community healers led a general prayer that thanked the spirit guides, the ancestors and the gods for their part in keeping the community going. Without food, they could not last. The shrimp and other fishes from the lake were good food, but the food from the forest gave them things the fish didn’t, and kept them going when the fish were few and growing. After the prayer, everyone began the walk home in the twilight.


“So what did you hope for?” Papa asked Moufa as he carried her on his shoulders on their walk home.

“I asked to grow as tall as the giraffes so I can see far.” Moufa answered. “And to be graceful as well,” she added.

“That would be a good thing my daughter.” Papa said laughing.

“How long do you think it will take for the giraffes to be finished?” Moufa asked her father.

“I don’t know,” replied Papa. “While we’re here we will never really finish I suppose. We will keep going, and the ones who come after us will continue where we leave off.”

And they walked on home, Moufa trying to imagine a time when she would not be there, but the giraffes would be.

“I suppose the ones who come after will know we carved, won’t they Papa? And they will remember to say thank you to the giraffes?”

“I hope so young one,” Papa answered. “I hope so.”

by Wangũi Kamonji.

giraffes of the desert

Head of a carved life-size giraffe, ~ 7000 years old, Dabous, Niger. Image credit: TARA/David Coulson

footprints African rock art

Prehistoric artists have long used human extremities (sometimes animal too) to make art. Hand-prints and stencils are found in rock art all around the world and have been linked to artists’ ‘leaving their mark’ in a location, or using such contact as a gateway to a spiritual domain. Slightly less common are footprints although they too are present, especially in African rock art.

footprints african rock art

The image panel shows different footprint engravings, all of them from the Erongo Mountains in Namibia

In going through the African rock art archive at TARA I found that while hand-prints are often painted (although some are engraved), almost all cases of footprints are carved or engraved into or out of rock surfaces. Even more fascinating was the large number of these footprint engravings that are in Namibia. The prints are often of only one foot but also occur in multiples (rarely in pairs). In some cases, the footprints are accompanied by animal engravings or tracks.

One explanation for footprints such as these is that they depict places where healers or other spiritual leaders (shamans) walked in and out of the earth. Such prints are frequently found next to or inside tunnels and fissures as if to indicate a path or entrance into the spirit world. In this way the rock face was not merely a canvas but a kind of veil leading to a spiritual world.

footprints African rock art

Multiple carvings and engravings on a boulder in Twyfelfontein, Namibia. Animals, animal tracks, cupules, handprints and footprints are all depicted.

Indeed, Siyakha Mguni has described the beliefs of various San communities that associated the underground with the birthplace of the earth. The creation story of the G|wi, a San group from the Kalahari, puts it that when the trickster deity Pishiboro first appeared in the world, he emerged from the depths of the earth by climbing up through a deep waterhole.[i] The G|wi people therefore believe that this world and the underworld are linked through deep waterholes.

A San group from the Orange River in South Africa had a similar creation story recorded in the mid-1800s.[ii] According to them all their ancestors and all the animals came to earth out of a hole in the ground at the roots of a large tree.

Such stories seem to be borne out in the rock art. Many of the footprints in the Damaraland region of Namibia are found near water sources such as rivers. Additionally, they are depicted facing up, as though the bearer were walking out of the underground, spirit domain onto earth.  

footprints African rock art

Human footprint in Algeria’s Oued Djaret

Footprints in other countries are also associated with spiritual traditions and rituals. While recording in Algeria’s Oued Djerat in 2002, a guide shared the story of a ritual to pray for rain associated with an engraved footprint with David Coulson. It was a custom to put goat butter on the footprint in order to bring rain to the area (and thus more butter), he said. The person would then put a small rock on top to protect the butter and this was a sign to others not to disturb the engraving.

Footprints are found less frequently than hand prints and stencils, and this may explain why they are less researched. It is doubtless that the appearance of so many footprints in Namibia especially bears significance.

by Wangũi Kamonji

[i] Mguni, Siyakha. 2015. Termites of the Gods: San Cosmology in Southern African Rock Art. 47-49

[ii] Stow, GW. 1905. The Native Races of South Africa cited in Mguni, S. Termites of the Gods 2015.

We ran a social media series highlighting ways in which girls, and more broadly, women, show up in or influence rock art as we celebrated the International Day of the Girl late last year. As we mark the International Women’s Day today we share 3 links we found between women and rock art.

women and rock art
Girls are authors of rock art
In ancient Cahuilla North American rock art, girls undergoing initiation into womanhood painted spirit helpers they had seen in visions in visible sites in their communities at the end of their initiation rites. This is similar to a tradition in Malawi. In the Dedza-Chongoni area of Malawi, a secret initiation rite known as the chinamwali marks girls’ entry into womanhood. While the girls learn stories, songs, and expected behaviour and roles from older women, they paint on the rocks as a mnemonic device.

women and rock art
Girls and women are depicted in prehistoric art
This frieze is from a shelter in Namibia’s Brandberg. It shows a row of young girls possibly walking to their initiation and with a guide at their helm. A San painting, it is finely detailed: the girls wear what might be beads across their heads and some form of headdress. Fascinatingly, a barely there figure is painted behind the girls perhaps indicating a spirit helper or guide. Around the girls, animals known to be revered by the San and considered reservoirs of potency, such as the giraffe and antelopes that might be kudu or springbok, are painted as well.

This is only one of more representations of women in African rock art. In other paintings, women are shown tending to herds of cattle, in various domestic scenes, or participating in healing dances.

Girls and women discover rock art
In 1879, Maria Sanz de Sautuola accompanied her father, an amateur archaeologist, to a cave on their property that he had been investigating. While her father worked, Maria wandered off deeper into the cave. Happening to glance upward, she screamed out to her father to come see the amazing oxen-like creatures that were painted on the cave’s ceiling. She had just discovered the cave paintings of Altamira, Spain.

Closer home, the only currently-active woman Somali archaeologist, Dr. Sada Mire, blazes a similar trail. She moved to Sweden as a teenager when civil war started in Somalia. It was in exile that a passion for discovering her own history developed and she decided to study archaeology. In particular, the sentence, “In order to write African history, we need to do archaeological research” found in a book inspired her ambition. She has discovered numerous prehistoric painting sites including the only one known to depict sheep (Dhambalin) in Somaliland.  

“This rock art has a teaching. It shows how people lived some time back, in caves, and they painted to let us know they lived here and what was there.” 12 year old Esther about the Kakapel paintings

In our outreach work we seek to reach students and share with them the great heritage that is rock art. Our travelling exhibition ‘Dawn of Imagination’, for example, incorporated student engagement in the form of essay competitions, and rock art knowledge games. Below are some excerpts. Just like Mary Leakey was inspired by cave paintings she visited at a young age to pursue a lifelong career in archaeology, and human history, we’re hoping prehistoric art will inspire generations of young women, and men, to be interested in their rich past.


Somaliland’s tourism industry is on the rise and may soon be a leading contributor to the seceded nation’s economy a recent article on Ozy.com reports. Cultural tourism to sites such as the ~5,000-10,000 year old prehistoric paintings of Laas Geel, has seen the number of tourists steadily increase with each passing year with visitors coming from as far as the US and some European countries.

tourism on the rise in Somaliland

Laas Geel is a complex of cave shelters within which some of the best preserved rock paintings in Africa are found. Human figures and animals (primarily cattle) decorate the walls and rooves, painted in bright reds, whites, yellows, and sometimes black. In many cases the human figures are shown arms outstretched in postures that demonstrate reverence and perhaps even worship, and are indicative of the pastoral culture from which the paintings emerge. The painting style is also unique to Somaliland. Some of the features include cattle painted in profile with tapering legs (2 of them) and with necks decorated in various ways. The cattle udders are prominent and heads and horns are shown in twisted profile.

But the fate of this beautiful heritage hangs in the balance. On the one hand no country in the world recognises Somaliland as a soveriegn state despite it having declared independence from larger Somalia in 1991. Additionally, the paintings would be inscribed on the World Heritage List (or at least proposed for it) but for the fact that Somalia has not ratified the UNESCO World Heritage Treaty. As it is, protection from the UN is impossible. While the dryness of the area and the folklore that maintained the caves were inhabited by spirits protected the paintings thus far, increased dust and visitors without hand in hand maintenance of the sites presents a potential threat to the preservation of them.

tourism on the rise in Somaliland

As the article soberly concludes, “the presence of tourists is both a risk and a boon: Any security blemish on its tourist track record could send Somaliland’s bid for recognition into the dust, while an increase in tourists could help it achieve that recognition.” A well managed increase in tourism, besides helping Somaliland achieve recognition, may also result in better protection of the invaluable – and unmatchable – rock art heritage.

See more images of rock art from Somaliland here

See a 3D rendering of the Laas Geel paintings, part of digital rock art preservation efforts, here


Reading Termites of the Gods

I read ‘Termites of the Gods’ by Siyakha Mguni on a bumpy trip to Northern Kenya. It helped that we often passed huge termite hills, like the ones Siyakha describes in his book, but which I had never had the fortune to see before. It was possible to see how these tall towers built by such small insects- a mind-boggling feat- could come to mean so much to San communities.

‘Termites of the Gods’ is a careful peeling away at the depiction and significance of the so-named ‘formlings’ in southern African rock art. Wits Press calls it the narration of the author’s ‘personal journey, over many years, to discover the significance of a hitherto enigmatic theme in San rock paintings.’

reading Temrites of the Gods

Here’s 4 reasons why I enjoyed the book:

Interdisciplinary research

Mguni employs an interdisciplinary lens to investigate these images. He combines ethnography, botany, zoology (entomology), archaeology, art analysis and personal reflection to arrive at the conclusion that formlings represent termitaria or termites’ nests and flying termites in association with them. These disciplines also serve to demystify the significance of termites in San cosmology.

Personal narrative

I particularly enjoyed insights into formative experiences that Mguni had in his childhood and young scholarly life which enabled him arrive at his conclusions. In fact, were it not for these significant happenings in the author’s life, he might not have successfully unlocked the key to what formlings represent. Keeping in mind that previous scholars had given explanations varying from the smoke from Mosi-a-tunya falls to bees’ hives, this was an integral piece of the puzzle to solve. In some areas of scholarship one is supposed to keep the self out, therefore the significance that personal experiences played in this mystery and that those narratives appear in the book is not small.

Beyond identification

Mguni goes beyond identification in his book. As mentioned previously, correct identification of formlings is no easy feat. But the book doesn’t stop at identifying formlings. It goes on to explore the cosmological importance of formlings to San painters. Considering how ubiquitous formlings are as a painted form in countries such as Zimbabwe, there must have been good reason to paint them. The book does not disappoint in its effort to explore these reasons.

Sound research

Finally Mguni employs a cable form of research, as he describes it, threading layer upon layer of evidence to reach his conclusions. As he explains in the book, in this way, even if one piece of evidence fails the rope remains firm. Because the book is so systematic in its threading of evidence it takes a while to get to the good stuff. However, all that is more than rewarded in the end.

Reading Termites of the Gods

After reading Termites of the Gods, I now look at termites’ nests and San powers of observation and meaning-giving with more respect: something so seemingly simple as termites nests can be imbued with much meaning, and be incorporated into the depths of a complex spiritual system. Formlings do not deviate from the other San rock art in this sense. In fact, these at first strange-looking representations are firmly in sync with other San cosmological representations in rock art.

Review by Wangũi Kamonji

rock art meets fashion

Late last year, TARA was invited to take part in a fashion event, ‘Where Art Meets Fashion’ where three fashion designers, Deepa Dosaja, Harriet Patrizi and Tim Redo would be showcasing their work. But one might ask what does rock art have to do with a fashion show? There are rock art images in which human figures are dressed or decorated (fashionably) but our participation in the fashion event began as an opportunity to reach out to new audiences and raise awareness of rock art and of our conservation work, but it turned out to be much more: it provided an opportunity to consider rock art in a different light.

rock art meets fashion

Artwork by Mwini


As the event started to take shape, the three designers and a contemporary visual artist, Mwini, came to our offices in Karen to learn about rock art and TARA’s work. A lot of our conservation and archiving efforts have been aimed at enabling archaeologists access research material. But through engaging with these artists, we began to consider the value of rock art as part of art history more. After all rock art is the first form of visual art. This shift in thinking also allows us to make rock art relevant to people today in a different way. Rock art served as an inspiration for the artists who interpreted it in their own pieces at the event: a new form of engagement with rock art. Mwini’s work for example, re-interpreted engravings and paintings in classical motifs found around the continent.

rock art meets fashion

Artwork by Mwini

At the event, TARA’s founder, David Coulson gave a speech, and during the whole event rock art images from around the continent were projected. We also had a stand with leaflets on our upcoming safaris and we held a silent auction. All in all, the event was successful; we were encouraged to see the positive reactions of people towards our work.

cattle in african rock art

Today many people see cows (and the consumption thereof) either as a contributor to environmental destruction, or as a solution to feeding the world’s population. Both views are centred on the (important) role that cows play in providing food primarily in the form of milk and meat. But cattle are more than that. Through millennia and in different places in Africa, cattle have been imbued with significant symbolic and social meanings in addition to their role as food providers.

Prof Savino di Lernia’s lecture last week at the Nairobi Museum based on his research surrounding ritual sacrifice and burial of cattle in the Messak region of Libya demonstrated just that. Drawing on multiple strands of evidence including stone knives, pottery, rock art, and remains of plants known to have medicinal value, he explained the extent of these burial complexes and interpreted them to be part of rituals that venerated cattle.

Archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that domestication of cattle occurred 10,000 BP in Western Asia. After this migrations of humans and cattle about 8,000 years BP occurred followed by interbreeding with wild cattle in Northern Africa to produce breeds local to the continent. More than 60% of the rock art of the Sahara depicts cattle or cattle related activities reflecting the importance of these events. All around Africa however, cattle depictions in rock art abound (see slideshow below).

cattle in african rock art

Zebu cattle on a Madagascar note. Image source

Dr di Lernia’s research illuminated the religio-spiritual values ascribed to cows in societies of African descent. Noting that cattle were rarely slaughtered for everyday food, the presence of cattle burial sites like his team discovered indicates that the sacrifices were for ritual purposes. During these rituals people gathered would eat meat and burn the remains and bones and then bury them. The evidence suggests that the rituals lasted over hundreds of years, beginning around 7000 BP.

In Madagascar, Zebu cattle are similarly revered. In fact they are so important that they appear on arms, stamps, banknotes and on the official seal of the country. They are slaughtered during festivities and in rituals to venerate ancestors; and among the Mahafaly, an ethnic group in the country, Zebu skulls decorate graves of important people.

cattle in african rock art

Ankole-Watusi long-horned cattle also feature on Uganda’s currency. Image source (1) and source (2)

Equally important is the political and social role that cattle play(ed). In Kenya, Uganda, and indeed a wide cross-section of Eastern and Southern African countries, cattle are important in social transactions that keep societies’ traditions continuing. Dowry is paid in cattle, as are fines for grave crimes. Oral lore in the form of songs, proverbs and narratives abound with cattle imagery showing the role of cattle as teaching aides. The graceful Rwandese dance, inyambo, for example, in which dancers stretch their arms upward imitates the long-horned Ankole-Watusi cattle that the region is known for.

What the Zebu is in Madagascar, Nguni cattle are in South Africa. Associated with the Zulu people, Nguni cattle are known for their beautiful and multi-coloured hides. They have been described as the most beautiful cattle in the world. Nguni cattle, like other indigenous breeds, are known to be tough and adapted to hot dry environments unlike imported breeds of cattle.

cattle in african rock art

Nguni cattle. Left ‘inala’ abundance and right ‘imatshoNgoye’ stones of the Ngoye forest. Images c/o SA Online

Traditionally (and today), they were a symbol of economic and political power. Zulu king, Shaka, would seize cattle belonging to peoples he conquered. Under his rule, cows with particular physical traits were bred for different functions. For example, his army regiments had particular hides associated with them and his personal guard was represented by white hide cattle. Nguni cattle were held in such high regard that there are multiple nuanced names by which to describe cattle depending on the colour and pattern of their hides or other physical features such as horns.

So there are many reasons why cattle were, and still are, prized and cared for in many African societies: beauty, hardiness, religio-spiritual use, social and political value – and food. Explore the slideshow below showing some of these values as represented in prehistoric art around Africa.

  • cattle in african rock art
    The crying cows of Algeria - so named because tears appear to roll from the eyes along grooves on the faces of the engraved animals
cattle in african rock art

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

Most people in any given society tend to buy anything the media propagates as the gospel truth; and this has not been any different for the Northern Kenya region. Violence between pastoralist communities over grazing lands and water resources has been at the centre of media coverage, both locally and internationally. Thus the image most Kenyans and the rest of the world have about this region is a tainted one. This makes it hard to retell the story of this region. Though there is much good in this region it remains unreachable, unbelievable and/or doubted- like Nathaniel many would question the existence of a bright side: can anything good come out of Nazareth?

However, if one stared at the back of the moon they would realise that it too shines. The people of Northern Kenya are beautiful in their diversities, as is the landscape despite it being arid. Organisations such as the Kivulini Trust have taken it upon themselves to showcase this often hidden bright side of the region.

Kalacha festival 2014

The Kalacha Cultural Food and Music Festival, an initiative of the Kivulini Trust, is one of these ‘shines’. For the past four years this event, which has become part of the Northern Kenya calendar, has brought together pastoralists, fisher-folk, hunter-gatherers, metal artisans and agricultural communities of the region (and Ethiopia) to share and celebrate their cultural and natural heritage, with an aim to promote cultural diversity, social harmony and sustainable development.

This festival showcases the diversity of the region’s rich cultural and natural heritage through artistic expressions, exhibitions of traditional foods, medicinal plants and demonstration of technology, including rock art at the Afgaba site. The number of the communities represented was over forty and these include the Gabbra, Rendille, Borana, Somali, Konso, Garri, Burji, Saakuye, Samburu, Waata, and Turkana among others.

It was amazing to see the proud display of both tangible (e.g. ornaments and traditional attire) and intangible (e.g. songs and dances), culture by the diverse communities. Also unforgettable was the relentless call by various speakers from the communities to live in harmony and peaceably with one another, especially during crises such as drought when crucial resources, water and pasture, are more scarce.

Afgaba gorge and rock art

The festival not only showcased present communities’ cultures but past ones as well. On the final day of the festival, participants had the opportunity to go on a guided visit to Afgaba rock art site. Mr Abdikadir Kurewa of the National Museums of Kenya and TARA’s Hanna Söderström led the team that visited the site. The rock art which is all engravings comprises representations of animals such as the camel and the giraffe. There are also circular engravings similar to those that are associated with rainmaking rituals in some communities. This artwork reveals the ingenuity and the imagination which the now disappeared artists had. Situated at the rock art site is a natural water tank into which surface run-off drains. One can imagine what view the artists who made the rock art saw. From this water tank the pastoralists water their animals.

Despite this rock art site being located in the region, very few people know about it and the few that are aware of its existence don’t know its significance. TARA (Trust for African Rock Art) therefore, took part in the festival to raise awareness of this kind of rock art and to help people understand the importance thereof. Just like the cultural traditions which the present generations have received from their forefathers are heritage, so too is the rock art. The rock art site visit was aimed at raising awareness but unfortunately very few from the local communities took part in the fully sponsored trip to the site.

Kalacha Cultural Food and Music Festival

The closing ceremony was another spectacular highlight of the festival. At some point during the closing ceremony, one of the members of the armed forces present, infull attire including rifle hanging on his shoulder, ledone of the traditional songs while others danced in a circle. Again whenever a certain community (e.g. the Turkana) was called to perform on stage, members of other communities joined in to sing and dance together while they held hands. It is as though they were shouting aloud for the whole world to hear their resolve to embrace each other and live harmoniously and peaceably with each other despite their differences, even the cultural ones, by their actions.

Yes, it is true that there has been violence between communities of this region, but that’s not all that there is, there are bright moments too. Taking opportunities such as the annual Kalacha Festival, and others, would help adjust one’s perspective a little in order to see the back of the moon shine.

by Mark Kamuyu

Cultural Mediation with Rock Art: 5 Questions with Hamidou Moussa

The organisation Culture Por Tous (Culture for all) describes cultural mediation as the deployment of intervention strategies – activities and projects – that aim to introduce publics to a variety of experiences in the context of art and heritage institutions, municipal services, or community groups. Hamidou Moussa, TARA intern and culture student and practitioner from Niger, explained it to me as creating an opportunity for the meeting of art(works) with the public.

On an afternoon in August, Moussa led one such cultural mediation with a French class at the Alliance Française in downtown Nairobi. He introduced African rock art, showing various examples, and spoke about TARA’s work documenting and conserving it. He then launched into a consideration of the values that one might derive from a consideration of rock art.

Cultural Mediation with Rock Art: 5 Questions with Hamidou Moussa

I sat down with him afterward to find out more about the médiation culturelle and his thoughts on rock art.

Wangũi: Tell me about your background and how it relates to rock art.

Moussa: I used to be a teacher in primary school in Niger, then I stopped teaching to go study literature at the university. As I finished with literature the university started an arts and culture programme, and I decided to study that as well. In my literature studies we studied history and heritage.

When you talk about heritage, when you talk about art, rock art is an important part of all of that. My physical meeting with rock art however, happened because I needed to do an internship for my arts and culture degree.

W: You led a cultural mediation at Alliance using different examples of rock art. Tell me what cultural mediation is.

M: It’s a concept and practice born in France and used in France and Canada. It means to create a meeting between the public and a work of art. You have a determined public – students, workers, members of parliament, soldiers, etc. – you choose your public. Then you choose your type of art – music, dance, painting, and so on. Then you create a meeting between the public and the work of art.

In the meeting you provoke a reflection on universal values like freedom, tolerance, duties, rights, respect, the relationship between humans and nature and so on. The public will then react to the work of art and/or to the values you bring up. There may be a discussion, and you may give them a task to perform, or even ask them to create works of art of their own in response. A cultural mediation can have various objectives, all linked with an engagement with art.

W: The mediation was in French, could you give me a brief summary of what you covered?

M: We started off by discovering TARA with the public. And then we discovered rock art: what is it, where is it, why rock art, etc.

After that we focused on the Dabous giraffes as the case study to look deeper into the importance and meanings of rock art for prehistoric peoples and for us now: spirituality, knowledge, economic meanings and so on.

Then we worked in groups to reflect on the relationship between humans and nature. We rounded it off by looking at where rock art fits into all of this.

“When I discovered rock art, I learnt that we have to learn again.”

W: What values do you think rock art evokes? What values does rock art evoke for you?

M: Rock art can mean liberty, freedom.

Take for an example the Dabous giraffes- you can think about the size and type of the art, it’s being an engraving, the quality of the engraving.

Everybody should ask themselves, how much time did the artists take to make it? So they must have had free time in order to make it.

Then it is in the desert. Somewhere outside, not in a house- therefore nothing to hide the artists. Therefore it is an indication of freedom.

We in Niger, to whom the rock art belongs now, we should also be free to protect it from vandalism, from mining companies and such like.

Rock art can mean beauty, it can also mean development. When you have rock art you have something to give to the world since it attracts tourists.

It can mean meeting points between different people in society, people from different cultures hence tolerance. I came to TARA in Kenya because of rock art. People who visit rock art come from different places.

W: You will be going back to finish your Masters in Niger now. What wisdoms do you take with you, and how will rock art be evident in your future work?

M: In my course at the university we studied the history of culture from Ancient Greece to now. We studied architecture, painting… and it was a lot of knowledge.

When I discovered rock art, I learnt that we have to learn again. Of everything we learnt in art history, there was nothing more beautiful or more interesting than rock art. I think I will focus my research on rock art now when I go back.

From TARA I learnt new methods of work. I had a chance to practise English for work. I also learnt a new way of working because at TARA people really work, and I take this work culture with me.

From Kenya I learnt to be nice to people. Kenyans are nice and always ready to help foreigners.

(Interview has been edited for clarity)

by Wangũi Kamonji

South African rock art depicting bees and honey

Digital tracing of a figure carrying honeycombs. Ebusingatha Shelter, South Africa. Tracing by Jeremy Hollman

TARA is happy to work together with organisations that share similar or related values and goals. Porini Welfare Association aims to strengthen local community ecological governance through the understanding that effective ecosystems are a function of cultural wisdom and commitment by the local communities. Recently Porini has launched a programme called An African Honey Trail that encourages local communities to revitalise and maintain their traditional beekeeping practices, as well as to foster and share knowledge on maintaining a balanced relationship with nature. The projects current focus is in Northern Kenya with potential to extend into Ethiopia.

Traditional bee keeping is one of the oldest practices carried out in Northern Kenya with the knowledge having been passed on from one generation to the other. The importance of bees for past societies can be seen in rock art depicting bees, honey and honey collection. These kinds of images have been found in a number of countries in Africa, although not yet from northern Kenya. In places where bee rock art is found, it is often in the form of catenary curves which are interpreted as the artist’s/artists’ observation of bees’ nests from a possibility of vantage points (read more). In rare cases, the practice of honey gathering is depicted in rock art as in the painting of an anthropomorph/therianthrope above from eBusingatha, South Africa.

In San rock art, known for its symbolism, depictions of honey and bees have been tied to deeply spiritual themes such as the harnessing of potency from bees. In the same image, more than simply carrying honey that has been harvested the figure represented may be delivering potency to community members after a spiritual journey.[i] Ethnographic research has shown that in the Kalahari the trance dance is preferably done when bees swarm in order to harness their potency.

Engraving of possible honey comb, Morocco

Engraving depicting catenary curves (U-shaped curves). Possible honey comb, Morocco

Currently this thousand-year old relationship between humans and bees is threatened by changes taking place in the society: in spiritual beliefs, economy, food production and consumption – culture at large, as are other forms of harmonious co-existence with nature that indigenous communities must be recognised for.

Through the project ‘An African Honey Trail’, Porini aims to draw attention to the bee not only for their tremendously important and now threatened role as pollinators, but also to a variety of closely tied issues. The bee is both an example of harmonious living and working, and of matriarchal societies. Moreover the bee allows us to get familiar with biodiversity and examine our actions with this view in mind: in order to produce honey, bees need flowers and a regular water source. The diversity of flowers and their origins and seasons are the source of the flavours of honey! Thus a greater connection to the bee can enhance individuals’ connection to nature.

African Honey Trail blessing hives

Blessing and installing of hives at Porini Sanctuary. Images by Wanjiku Mwangi

In a similar way, ties with the past can be enhanced. Current societies are disconnected from rock art- because they do not know (about) it or because they do not have a cultural attachment to it. Even though current custodians of rock art may not be the artists of it, rock art represents a history of humanity and has been part of the custodians’ landscape for a length of time. Hence both organisations face a similar challenge: how does one make the past relevant and desirable today? How can we create a future in which modernity and tradition support each other?

Both Porini and TARA believe that local communities are the key actors in recreating effective ecosystems and in conservation of rock art. In order to validate and make the past useful, communities need to see the relevance and the benefit of actions taken surrounding it. The benefits can be both tangible, such as economic development through tourism, and intangible, such as a better-rooted and balanced sense of identity. The tangible and intangible benefits often support and reinforce each other in the sense that admiration of an “outsider” creates a sense of pride within the community and will to carry on – hence continuity. To achieve these benefits both organisations hope to build the capacities of community members through reaching out to communities to share knowledge.

An African Honey Trail

Sketch map by Hanna Söderström

Bridging the gap between the past and the present can also be achieved through documentation. Documentation and conservation guarantees that the crucial information embedded in traditions will not disappear for good.  Working together with Porini in northern Kenya allows TARA to contextualise rock art both in history and today, and thereby create more coherent and complete knowledge. Ultimately, having a voice together strengthens our message.

Find more African Honey Trail updates

By Hanna Söderström

Date: 30 Nov 2015

[i] Jeremy C. Hollmann, ‘Bees, Honey and Brood: Southern African Hunter-Gatherer Rock Paintings of Bees and Bees’ Nests, uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’, Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 50, no. 3 (3 July 2015): 343–71. Link to full article



Homo naledi, by palaeoartist John Gurche. Image credit: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic

By now this facial recreation of recently discovered new species Homo naledi is familiar to a lot of the world. There’s a lot about the discovery that is phenomenal: more than 1,500 fossils found by an all-woman team in a hard to reach place and with behaviour that possibly challenges our paradigms of Homo sapiens exclusivity.

But the discovery of H. naledi has shaken up the world in more than one way- lead researcher, Lee Berger’s methods are changing the paradigms of research as science knows them. How? It’s all open access. From the excavating, to the analysis, to the announcement, to the published research, one could even say from the sourcing of the ‘underground astronauts’ which happened through a Facebook announcement. Images and video of the find are available on the Wits website, anyone can download and print 3D casts of the bones, and by the first weekend after the announcement there were 124,000 page views and 14,000 downloads of the H. naledi research papers on eLife.


In today’s world more and more research materials should be openly available to whoever needs them. Open access journals such as eLIFE and PLOS and user contributed platforms such as Twitter and Wikipedia are making this possible. As are recent Google Cultural Institute partnerships with the Kenya National Archives and the British Museum to digitise collections and make them available to anyone anywhere for example. They break the closed door nature of knowledge acquisition (the Ivory Tower) that has long meant that only some people are allowed in or are assumed to want in. Besides availing material to researchers, open access publication means educators can access current research for teaching as it happens, as can the general public.

Image credit: TARA/David Coulson

Head of a carved life-size giraffe, ~ 7000 years old, Dabous, Niger

TARA surveys, documents and works with communities to conserve rock art on the African continent. Over the past 2 decades we have amassed more than 25,000 images of rock art and other contextual data from 19 countries, all of which are now being catalogued and made available to the public through a partnership with the British Museum. Researchers, archaeology enthusiasts, appreciators of ancient art, and the simply curious, will all be able to search for, see, and use this extensive archive. Open access. We do this because not only do we think this heritage is great and should be wider known, but also because we recognise that it is the common heritage of all humanity. We not only encourage use of the images in research, but also welcome thoughts, and questions, on the material.

It’s not just research material that’s going open access, broader based data too. Governments are making data available to the public in an effort to promote transparency. And institutions on social media are fielding questions from people from all walks of life- a kind of access that would have been unimaginable just 10 years ago.

It’s not all uniform however and many of us have probably had the experience of asking a question of an institution only to hear…silence. And only a few days ago, the entire editorial team of one of Elsevier’s journals quit in protest when their calls for the journal to transition to Open Access were ignored. Not only do we want to be able to interact with information and knowledge and ask questions of it, but with open access we claim it as our right as citizens of the world. After all, we are the constituents that these institutions theoretically serve.

It is understandable however, that some organisations would be afraid to completely open themselves to the world; to potential criticism and questions from anyone. Questioning or oppositional voices in this case are seen as diminishing credibility. But they perhaps should be seen as opening up to the beautiful unknowns that interacting with all kinds of people brings with it. It seems paradoxical to want to do that, but the humility and openness is brave. And it inspires trust.

Image credit: Wellesley Centers for Women.

Image credit: Wellesley Centers for Women

“It is brave to be involved, to be not fearful to be unresolved” wrote Gwendolyn Brooks. To be unafraid to be unresolved is to be comfortable with not having all the answers. It is to be unafraid to show mistakes, to be unafraid to be questioned, and to be unafraid to sometimes say ‘I don’t know (yet)’ to those questions. It is the acknowledgement that knowledge is co-produced and is not within the purview of only a few. It is brave. It is also necessary.

The non-profit organisation GiveDirectly is a good example of how open data about everything that goes on within an organisation inspires trust. When something good happens you will know about it through the real time data on their site. When something bad happens you will also know. And this transparency and openness with the organisation’s ongoings (along with their successful evidence-based direct giving model) has donors pouring in. Other institutions would do well to follow this model.

Grave circle, Lokori.

Grave circle, Lokori, Northern Kenya

I’ll end with a story from a remote part of Northern Kenya- Turkana. There are rocky hills in Lokori all known as Namoratunga, the place of stones. One of these hills in particular is an archaeological site with graves ringed by stone-circles and with petroglyphs on the stones. On a recent visit community members eagerly shared their stories of how the stones came to be in those arrangements, stories passed down from generation to generation. But they had one big contention. In the 1960s, and again more recently, researchers had taken material away from the graves to study it, but never came back to share the results of their research. Community members were in effect saying, there’s something wrong with this equation: we gave you our knowledge, but we’re not getting anything back. Contrary perhaps to common Ivory Tower thought, they care(d) about the findings of those analyses- it is part of their heritage, and they want to be told.

Research is done in order to accomplish something. In my rose-tinted view I would say in order to make the world a better place. Everyone should be able to say of any piece of research, ‘It is part of my heritage (as an inhabitant of this world), I want to know’. Open access allows us to do that.

by Wangũi Kamonji

Date: 13 Nov 2015

Over the past weeks we did an informal staff survey to answer two important questions: What is your favourite African rock art image? and Why?

The choices were from all corners of the continent and the reasons behind them as diverse as TARA staff members. They spanned the gamut from the beauty of the paintings to the cultural connections associated with the images. Staff picks also included well known (and well loved) images as well as a few less so. And what was probably no surprise is that the Dabous giraffes featured twice!

Here’s a sampling of the responses:

Our administrative assistant, Cyprian, said that the fact that the Mfangano Island, Kenya concentric circle paintings were used in rainmaking ceremonies made that image his favourite. Our community projects manager, Josiah, is a lover of wildlife and his favourite image was the well executed eland painting from the Drakensberg, South Africa. For our COO, Terry, the connections to present day traditions of body painting as well as the wealth of questions that the Niola Doa ladies of Chad inspire made his pick. And our intern, Lindsay, chose an image some of us were not too familiar with- bas relief camels from Sudan- saying she loved the mix of abstraction and clarity in the art.

TARA favourite rock art

What became clear after this survey is that there are many reasons to love rock art, just as there are many reasons why rock art paintings and engravings were done. Another important take-away is the same one that guides us in other parts of our mission, that is, that for one to conserve cultural heritage they must have some form of attachment to it, whether economic, cultural, or religious.

What’s your favourite African rock art image?

Read all staff responses and full images in this gallery.

28 Sept 2015

At the end of August, TARA revisited the Lokori rock art sites in Northern Kenya to check on the state of the rock art, and to meet with the community members for discussions on the future management of the site.

Lokori is host to rock art sites located on rocky hills known as Namoratunga, the place of stones. Namoratunga is also an archaeological site where a number of ancient graves whose grave stones have geometric engravings on them have been found.

Lokori giraffes

Lokori is one of the most important and interesting sites that TARA has documented in Kenya over the last 15 years. The sites have large numbers of millennia-old rock engravings with the more heavily patinated images indicating greater age. The Namoratunga sites also have multiple “rock gongs”,  rocks with natural resonance probably used in ancient times for divining and ritual communication. The sound was/is made by hitting the rocks with smaller hammer stones. Often a rock bearing engravings is also a gong as in the example in the short clip below.

TARA once again noted that on one of the two hills here there were many goat bones and a broken gourd among the rocks suggesting continued ritual use of the sites. We also noted increased wear on the gongs, exfoliation caused by the beating of hammer stones. Oral legend has it that spirits lived in these hills and sounds of herding and dancing used to be heard.

See more images of our trip here and watch the TARA film on the mysteries of Namoratunga here.

Date: 14 Sept 2015

coss river monolith 4

Cross River State in Nigeria is home to around 450 ancient carved monoliths, a distinctive feature of the region. Known as Akwanshi, the monoliths are dated to between 500 and 1,500 years old and are believed to mark ancient burial sites. Along with depictions of faces, each monolith has unique decoration patterns and inscriptions.

But these monoliths are currently on the verge of total disappearance, prompting their inclusion in the World Monument Fund’s 100 Most Endangered Sites list in 2008.

In recent years the number of monoliths has decreased dramatically because of theft, vandalism and destruction by cultivation fires, as Dr. Ivor Miller and Dr. Abu Edet of University of Calabar, Nigeria discovered in a survey conducted early this year. Unfortunately, many local communities do not recognise the value of this heritage, or associate it with “witchcraft” in light of current monotheistic religions.

fires threaten cross river monoliths

Most of the monoliths have been removed to be preserved and some community members are responding to the dramatic loss of Akwanshi and trying to fight it. For instance, elder teacher, Mr. Paulinus Ayambe from Njemetop village has found around 100 monoliths in the area, which in a very short time decreased to just six. Mr. Ayambe launched an initiative to relocate the remaining six monoliths to Njemetop village, and to fence them in, in order to preserve them.

Such single efforts, while admirable, cannot the stem the tide of this huge loss, however. The National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria has also not been able to prevent the destruction of the monoliths. The only way to save this unique heritage is to appeal to the international community and garner broad-based local support to document and preserve the monoliths before they all disappear.

TARA has always been interested in closer collaboration in heritage preservation projects in Nigeria, and the current situation might be the start of a new heritage emergency project.

Images courtesy of Dr. Ivor Miller and Dr. Abu Edet

Date: 28 Aug 2015

For a $5000 donation on our crowdfunding campaign, available on igg.me/at/Saharan-Rock-Art, David Coulson, photographer and TARA founder, will guide you on a 3-day, 2 night rock art safari (travel inclusive) to Mfangano Island, Lake Victoria, Kenya, staying at a top lodge in one of East Africa’s most beautiful locations. Visit 2 ancient Twa rock painting sites and a TARA community project as well as pick David’s brain on all things rock art in Kenya and Africa. Along the way you will drive through spectacular landscapes including crossing the Great Rift Valley.*

*Time must be mutually agreed on. Travel costs to Nairobi exclusive. Direct air travel available for extra.
4. Kwitone shelter

Ancient rock etchings discovered at a dry lake bed in Nevada are the oldest ever found in North America, dating back at least 10,000 years and maybe as much as 14,800 years.

They resemble 7,600-year-old petroglyphs found previously in Oregon. While many later etchings show spears and antelope, the Nevada glyphs feature abstract geometrical designs. “We initially thought people 12,000 or 10,000 years ago were primitive, but their artistic expressions and technological expertise associated with these paints a much different picture,” said a Nevada museum curator who co-wrote a paper on the findings.

Nevada, Oldest Petroglyphs North America

Below: Two examples of African petroglyphs of a similar age (approx10, 000 years old), one from the Algerian Sahara and one from the Libyan Sahara. In the Nile Valley petroglyphs/ engravings of aurochs have recently been dated to around 17, 000 years old. Meanwhile in South Africa abstract engravings on ochre have been dated at 77, 000 years old, the worlds earliest known rock art.

African petroglyph


Fighting cats, African petroglyph

Erotisme et sexualite dans L’art rupestre du Sahara prehistorique Book.

Erotisme et sexualite dans L’art rupestre du SaharaA trained geologist, Francois Soleilhavoup has devoted many years of his life to the study of Saharan rock art. In this book, through imagery he has recorded, he opens a window onto the world of sex and eroticism in prehistoric north Africa.

Author: Francois Soleihhavoup.

Publisher: Harmanttan

Language: French

ISBN number 978-2-336-00723-6

In July 2013 TARA Chairman, David Coulson, visited China where he represented Africa at an international workshop organized by RARAC, the Rock Art Association of China (Minzu University). The Conference which was sponsored by the Mandala Tibetan Architecture and Culture Society of Qinghai took place mainly in Xining not far from the Qinghai/Tibetan plateau in western China. Coulson and his colleagues representing China, north America, Australia and Europe were taken to see rock engravings at 4000m on the Tibetan plateau and later to rock art sites in Inner Mongolia some of which date from the time of Genghis Khan in the twelfth century.

China July 2013
Prof Zangh Yasha of RARAC and David Coulson at China Workshop.

China, July 2013
Conference attendees viewing rock engravings, Inner Mongolia.

China July 2013
Rock with engravings and landscape “Panel of rock engravings, Inner Mongolia.”

Chongoni World Heritage Rock Art Site Malawi

TARA is pleased and proud to announce publication of an attractive 46-page guide about the Chongoni World Heritage Rock Art Site Malawi.

The book is loaded with information and pictures for different rock art sites at Chongoni. The sites highlighted are Chentcherere, Namzeze, Phanga la Ngoni, Mphunzi, Chongoni Mountain, Diwa and Nsama Wa’ngombe.

The publication of this book was made possible through the support of US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation through Department of Antiquities, Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture.

Click HERE to download Chongoni World Heritage Rock Art Site Malawi (PDF)



Nsama Wangombe rocka art site Malawi
PHOTO: Red geometric paintings on a boulder, Nsama Wa’ngombe site, Malawi.

The British Museum

The British Museum has formed a partnership with the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), acquiring a digital copy of TARA’s major photographic archive both to preserve it and to make it fully available online through the British Museum website, through the generous support of the Arcadia Fund.

The 25,000 digital photographs of rock art sites from across Africa will be catalogued and made accessible through the British Museum’s online collection catalogue, drawing on documentation from TARA staff and archaeological and anthropological research. The Museum will digitise its own African pictorial collection of 19th and 20th century photographs alongside the TARA images to support the integration of this archive.

Click HERE to download British Museum press release (PDF)

China news agency

The Xinhua News Agency, China’s largest news agency, has posted on their website a large selection of TARA’s African rock art images, and pictures of TARA Chairman and Founder, David Coulson, documenting rock art in remote locations in the Sahara Desert.

This follows a visit by the General Director of the Africa Regional Bureau of Xinhua, Mr Chaowen Wang, in November 2012.


Click to view news agency website (English)
Click to view news agency website (French)
Click to view news agency website (Chinese)

An article from The Star Kenya: Drive to Conserve Ancient Rock Art Sites in Kisii

HUMAN activities have been blamed on destruction of ancient rock art sites in the country, a trend which should be reversed urgently, according to experts.

Kisii Rock Art

Agricultural activities, quarrying, graffiti and deforestation have been identified as the main threats to cultural heritage sites in Kenya. However, concerted efforts are being made to map and gazette all the sites to protect them from further destruction.

Recently, a community rock art workshop was held at Ogembo in Gucha to brainstorm on how to protect the sites in order to benefit local residents.

Dutch organisation Prince Claus Fund has provided emergency funds to create awareness on heritage sites in Kisii County. Rock art sites at Gotichaki, Nyabigena, Tabaka, Nyatike, Ibencho, Mote O’Nkoba and Keboye areas in Kisii have been destroyed due to human activities including soapstone mining, according to sculptor Elkanah Ong’esa who is leading efforts to preserve the sites.

“We have an emergency situation at Gotichaki where valuable rock art on soapstone at Gotichaki quarry in Gucha South requires urgent action to save it. We want to involve the government and other agencies including Unesco to create awareness on the value of this art in order to protect it,” explained Ong’esa.

Click HERE to read the full article

Article from Daily Nation: Rupi Mangat takes a trip to Enkinyoi to explore the ancient art of the Maasai people.

Rock Art on the Kitengela Plains
PHOTO: Inside the cave.

A beautiful spotted cat stalks prey on a track in the Nairobi National Park. The cat, a serval with pointed ears, is on the hunt using the clear road as a vantage point. It spots its prey and, with a leap, vanishes into the long grass.

I have only seen this elusive cat twice — both times in Tsavo West, but only in its melanistic form — that is pure black. A strong cat, the serval has large ears and long legs relative to its body size. One of its sub-species, the barbary serval, only found in Algeria, is endangered, if not already extinct.

We are using the park to bypass the city on our way to the Athi-Kitengela plains in search of ancient rock art. I am in the company of David Coulson, the founder and executive chairman of the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA).

Sacred to the moran
Together with us are his assistants — William Omoro, who deals with community awareness, Evan Maina, an archaeologist, Jagi Githinji, the driver, Paula Kahumbu, the chairperson of Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNAP), and Nickson ole Parmisa, a FoNNaP member recently appointed as a Maasai chief. Mr ole Parmisa guides us to the site in Ololoitikoshi on the Athi-Kitengela plains, 14.35 kilometres as the crow flies southeast of Nairobi.

Click HERE to read full article

In an expedition led by Dr Sada Mire, current Director of Department of Antiquities, Ministry of Tourism and Culture in Somaliland and Research Associate at the Institute of Archaeology at the UCL – University College London, found prehistoric rock art created up to 5,000 years ago spread over 100 sites in Somaliland, on the Gulf of Aden. At least 10 of the 100 sites, scattered across semi-desert terrain, are likely to be given World Heritage status as the paintings are of great quality.

pix-news-Somaliland-Rock-ArtThe images depict domestication of animals, rituals, wild animals such as leaping antelopes, prancing giraffes and snakes. Also depicted is a painting of a man on horseback, believed to be a mounted hunter, around 4,000 years old. Other paintings include, geometric signs, 2,000 year old colourful images of the full moon and half-moon.

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pix-news-VonPetzingerGenevieve von Petzinger an Anthropology graduate student at the University of Victoria, Canada research has revealed that prehistoric cave art in France is coded with symbols that were the first signs of written language at least 30,000 years ago.

She came across 26 distinct geometric shapes scattered among ancient drawings across 146 cave sites in Ice Age France. At least 19 symbols were used frequently (circles, lines, triangles, spirals, s and x shapes) over thousands of years which suggests they represent abstract ideas such as life, love, a higher power and death. Her research focuses on the period when humans started creating works of art, wearing jewelry, firing clay and making tools. “What makes my research ‘new’ is that I was able to use all the wonderful modern technology at my disposal to compare inventories and digital images from nearly 150 locations – this gave me the ability to observe some startling similarities among the different sites,” von Petzinger says.

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pix-news-Vandalised-Art-North-ArizonaVandals in North Arizona damaged a 1,000 year-old rock art engraving in North Arizona at the Kaibab National Forest.

The damaged rock art engravings depicts bear paws, snakes, lizards and an ancient hunting scene believed to have been done by a prehistoric cultural group known as the Cohonina who were Native Americans.

The engravings were defaced by white paint with the word “ACE” sprayed on it and was reported by a hiker the previous month. Four years ago vandals had scratched their names on it but did not damage the engravings. Petroglyphs in America are protected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979.

Help protect rock art. For what to do when you come across rock art read the Code of Conduct.

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pix-Fungus-ThreatIn spite of conservation measures, black fungal stains are still a threat to Lascaux, a rock shelter in the Dordogne Valley of France, housing about 600 fabulous paintings and almost 1,500 engravings of birds, bison, deer, horses and signs painted between 15,000 and 18,000 years ago. The black fungal invasion has re-emerged and is as a result of rising temperatures, poor ventilation as well as heavy rains that affected the shelter’s overall climate and air circulation. Even though the fungal infection was previously contained, the fungus still stains the walls even if they are killed. Researchers are contemplating on the best ways to kill the fungi and remove the stains. They are considering developing fungal enzymes that attack the black fungi as a potential solution.

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On the right Jean Clottes, Photo courtesy of Ariegenews.comJean Clottes, Immediate Past President of IFRAO (International Foundation of Rock Art Organisations) and member of TARA Advisory Board, welcomed over 400 rock art experts from 37 countries to the Pleistocene Art of the World Congress 2010 in Tarascon-sur-Ariege and Foix, France from 6 -11 September, 2010. It was characterised by multidisciplinary approaches to Pleistocene art of the world (the Pleistocene began c. 2.6 million years ago and ended c. 12,000 years ago), with the principal themes being: Signs, symbols, myth, ideology in Pleistocene art, the archaeological material and its anthropological meanings, dating and taphonomy of Pleistocene palaeoart and application of forensic techniques to Pleistocene palaeoart investigations.

Read More:
Article in French
Blog from National Geographic

pix-rock-art-news-gerard-bailloudRenowned French archaeologist and author, Gerard Bailloud passed away on August 30, 2010 at the age of 90. He made an outstanding contribution to rock art, by writing several books which include Art Rupestre en Ennedi (Looking for rock paintings and engravings in the Ennedi Hills), based on the rock art of the massive Chad.
Publications by Gerard Ballioud.

Fabio MoriProf. Fabrizio Mori, eminent Africanist scholar and founder of the Italian-Libyan Archaeological Mission in the Acacus and Messak passed away in July 2010, aged 85. Prof. Mori was among the first western researchers to visit the Acacus Mountains, in the south-western Fezzan. His first expedition is dated 1955 and his most famous book, Tadrart Acacus (Turin, Einaudi), was published only ten years later (1965). His approach was incredibly modern – among the first in Northern Africa to adopt a fully multi and inter-disciplinary perspective and particularly clever in the use of up-to date technologies (his first radiocarbon dates at the site of Uan Muhuggiag, among others date back to the late 1950s).

Follower of the Italian tradition in the study of rock art – with Paolo Graziosi as his principal mentor – he had the ability to continue a passionate and vibrant field activity, combined with an inspired theoretical framework. Retired in 1997, he published other, more intimate and philosophical works, such as “The Great Civilisations of Ancient Sahara”.

Notwithstanding his age, and his difficult physical conditions, he had travelled to the Libyan Sahara until very recently. He was incredibly beloved in Libya and in particular within the community of the Kel Tadrart, the Tuareg living in the area of Ghat, Awayanat and the Acacus Mountains: his name is still ‘the name’ in these regions that is able to open every door.

As Director of the Archaeological Mission in the Acacus and Messak, I take the opportunity to express my personal gratitude and of the whole Mission to him, and to encourage our efforts to protect and safeguard the area where Fabrizio Mori has spent his whole life: the Tadrart Akakus and the Messak.

Savino di Lernia

For more info, visit : www.acacus.it

Rock Art, World HeritageThe 34th session of The World Heritage Committee meeting in Brazil on July 25 to August 3, 2010 has added 21 new sites on the World Heritage List of UNESCO. Fifteen are cultural sites, five are natural sites and one is a mixed site. Eight new extensions have also been added to List. This brings to 911 the number of properties inscribed on the List.

Among the newly inscribed sites are the Prehistoric Caves Yagul and Mitla in the centre of the valley of Oaxaca (Southern Mexico). This property consists of two Hispanic archaeological sites and a series of prehistoric caves and rock shelters. Some of these shelters have yielded archaeological remains and rock art that are a testimony of the first modafinilsmart.com farmers settled. Gourd seeds 10,000 years old discovered in the cave Guile Naquitz located within the eastern range of mountains in the Valley of Oaxaca, are considered the first evidence of domesticated plants on the mainland while fragments of corn found in the same cave appear to be the earliest evidence of domestication corn.

The cultural landscape of caves and Mitla Yagul (in the Central Valley of Oaxaca 20 miles from the city of Oaxaca) demonstrates the link between man and nature that is the origin of plant domestication in North America, enabling the development of Mesoamerican civilizations.

For more information, visit : World Heritage Centre (WHC) and World Heritage Centre (WHC)

ICCROMThe International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in cooperation with UNESCO and Blue Shield is organizing a 6 week course (17 September – 29 October 2010) in Rome, Italy. The participants will be taken through the necessary steps and modes that should be employed to protect endangered cultural heritage during armed conflicts as well as the values associated with cultural heritage and the impact that conflict has on them.

The course targets a maximum of 22 professionals drawn from the following fields; libraries, museums, archives, sites, departments of antiquities or archaeology, religious and community centers, etc. It is also aimed at professionals from humanitarian and cultural aid organisations, as well as military, civilian and civil defense personnel. Those with experience in conflict situations are particularly encouraged to apply. The course fee is 900 Euros and interested participants are encouraged to apply before the 14th May 2010.

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IFRAO, Rock Art News, AfricaThe International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO) is inviting proposals and contributions to examine Pleistocene Rock Art of the World addressing questions of dating, the definitions of palaeoart and its taphonomy, and its regional distribution of evidence in each continent, re-evaluating the topic of the global phenomenon of Pleistocene palaeoart traditions.

Willing participants are asked to register before the 30th of June 2010 and charges are 100 Euros for participants; 60 Euros for accompanying persons and for students.
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Coso Petroglyphs in California, USA, rock art newsRidgecrest, California in the United States of America is home to a complex of remote canyons holding the greatest concentration of ancient rock art in the Western Hemisphere, known as the Coso Petroglyphs. It is estimated that there may be as many as 100,000 images carved into the dark volcanic canyons above the China Lake Basin, some as old as 12,000 to 16,000 years.

David S. Whitley, an archaeologist and expert on prehistoric rock art and iconographic interpretation, believes that the Coso Petroglyphs are one of the most important rock art sites on earth.

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The British Rock Art Group is inviting colleagues to present papers on ongoing and completed rock art projects in Britain and other parts of the world for its 2010 meeting, which will be held on Saturday 8 May in the McDonald Institute Seminar Room, Department of Archaeology, Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

British Rock Art Group

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ICOM, rock art newsThe ICOM-CC Joint Interim Meeting (International Council of Museums – Conservation Committee) will be held in Rome at the Complesso di San Michele headquarters of the Ministry of Cultural Property, March 23-25, 2010.

Five Working Groups – including Murals, Stone, and Rock Art – will meet to discuss issues related to the artistic, historic, environmental, ethical and technical aspects that may arise at the conservation/ restoration of historical and cultural artifacts.

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The Second Cycle of the World Heritage Periodic Reporting for Africa will take place from 20 to 22 January 2010 in Dakar, Senegal. It aims at reviewing the implementation status of the Convention in Africa, in particular the state of conservation and management of World Heritage properties of the Region.

The meeting will share all the necessary methodological and strategic information to facilitate the preparation of various reports to be submitted by the States Parties.

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The University Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) of Dakar, and Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire Cheikh Anta Diop (IFAN-CAD), are pleased to announce the joint organisation of the 13th PAA Congress (Panafrican Association of Prehistory and Assimilated Disciplines), and the 20th conference of the SAFA (Society of Africanist Archaeologists).

This unprecedented opportunity to bring together members of these two associations dedicated to African Prehistory, on African soil, will certainly represent a turning point in the history of African Archaeology. This meeting will be held from 1st to 7th November 2010 at the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal. The conference, whose theme is “PRESERVING AFRICAN CULTURAL HERITAGE” proposes the following list of topics:

  • Geology of the Quaternary
  • Hominids Evolution
  • Paleo-Environments and the peopling of Africa
  • Prehistoric Art in Africa
  • Transition from Stone to Metal
  • Food Production
  • Pastoralism
  • Megalithism in Africa
  • The African Iron Age
  • Complex Societies
  • Power, Society and State Formation
  • New Research on Urbanization and Cities in Africa
  • Historical Archaeology in Africa
  • Recomposed Past: The Archaeology of Identity in Africa
  • The Archaeology of Inequality: Gender, Class and Material Culture in Africa
  • Population Movements in African Past: Rethinking Migration
  • The Archaeology of African Diasporas
  • Heritage Management in Africa
  • Ethnoarchaeology in Africa: Beyond Analogy
  • Matter and Techniques
  • Experimental Archaeology
  • African Languages
  • Bioarchaeology
  • Archaeology and NTICs in Africa

Participants are encouraged to propose additional topics and initiate thematic panels. Abstracts can be submitted in either in French or English at the following address:

Panaf / Safa2010
Laboratoire d’Archéologie
IFAN Cheikh Anta Diop
BP 206, DAKAR Senegal

Tel: (+221) 33 825 98 90
Fax: (+221) 33 824 49 18
Email: panaf2010@ucad.sn

DEADLINE: 30th April 2010

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satpura cave paintings, african rock art, trust for african rock art, TARAA set of 17 unique cave paintings was found by a group of naturalists from Amravati districts in central India. The caves are located in the nature-rich Satpura Range of Madhya Pradesh, and the art is believed to be from the Palaeolithic period.

The group, which calls itself ‘Hope’, includes scientist Dr V. T. Ingole, wildlife writer P.S. Hirurkar, Padmakar Lad, Shirishkumar Patil, Dnyaneswar Damahe and Manohar Khode.

Dr Ingole said that the work has been published in the journal of the Rock Art Society of India. “It is really unique and must be preserved,” said Dr Ingole, speaking on phone from Amravati.

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Wonderwerk cave paintings, rock art news, trust for afican rock artEvery two years, the World Monuments Fund receives nominations for its World Monuments Watch, aimed at raising awareness of endangered sites around the world. Among sites on the 2010 Watch list is Wonderwerk Cave in Ga-Segonyana / Kuruman, South Africa.

Wonderwerk is one of the few sites worldwide with evidence of human occupation nearly 2 million years old, and its rock art signifies the religious and spiritual importance of the site for over 10,000 years.

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The ICOMOS (International Council On Monuments and Sites) Documentation Centre has made available Rock Art Sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The document includes a description of the World nchd ambien zolpidem heritage rock art sites with a bibliography based on the documents available at the Documentation Centre.

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rock art news, female painters, trust for african rock artThe National Geographic reports that for about as long as humans have created works of art, they’ve also left behind handprints. People began stenciling, painting, or chipping imprints of their hands onto rock walls at least 30,000 years ago.

rock art news, female painters, trust for african rock artWith support from the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration and Pennsylvania State University archaeologist Dean Snow, they analyzed the hand stencils at caves in Spain and France and found most of them were female. For a long time it had been widely believed that pre-historic artists were mainly men.

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world heritage committee, sevilleThe World Heritage Committee will meet for its 33rd session in Seville, Spain from 22-30 June. During the session, the Committee will consider 30 properties for the inscription of new sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and examine the state of conservation of sites already inscribed on the List. There are no rock art sites buy accutane acne amongst this year’s submissions.

The Committee is chaired by H. E. Mrs María Jesús San Segundo, Ambassador, Permanent Delegate of Spain to UNESCO. Dr George Abungu, who is an Executive Board Member of TARA, represents Kenya and is currently one of the Vice Chairmen of the Committee.

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marsupial lion, aboriginal rock artSYDNEY: Ancient rock art depicting the extinct marsupial lion has been found in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, says a study in the journal Antiquity. The first convincing example of a marsupial lion found in rock art to date, the find suggests that early Australians and marsupial lions co-existed.

It also hints at what marsupial lions may have looked like. Painted in red ochre, the image depicts a large four-legged animal, with a strong, prominent front limb poised for action, protruding claws and stripes running the length of its back.

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Burrup, Western Ausytalia, rock art, Trust for African Rock Art, newsThe West Australian Government will prosecute cement company Cemex for allegedly destroying protected Aboriginal rock art up to 10,000 years old.

Last month, it was revealed that Cemex had breached a national heritage zone by bulldozing and blasting rocks known to contain important rock art in protected areas of the Burrup, Peninsula. The Cemex blasting and bulldozing operations in the protected zone are believed to have sent fragments splattering into nearby rock etchings, damaging three sites.

The blasting and bulldozing also affected an Aboriginal quarry containing archaeologically significant examples of indigenous tools. Cemex has admitted the breach into the heritage-protected zone occurred, but denies any rock art was destroyed.

Penalties under national heritage laws can include a $5 million fine for a company and up to seven years’ jail for individual managers.

In 2007, Heritage Minister Malcolm Turnbull protected 90 per cent of the Burrup region but set aside sites for industry development.

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Libyan Desert, Trust for African Rock ArtA dismissed tourist guide has been arrested for vandalising a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Libyan Sahara, on the Algerian frontier known as Tadrart Acacus in mid-April. Seven cave paintings from the Neolithic era, dating back to a period between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago, were vandalised with tins of spray paint. “The red, black and white graffiti written in spray paint consists of abuse addressed to the Libyan government and against Italians”, says Juma Anag, the head of the Department of Archaeology.

A mission from the department, together with colleagues from the Italo-Libyan Archaeological Mission from Rome’s La Sapienza University, under Professor Savino di Lernia, will be visiting the sites over the coming days to assess the extent of the damage. According to Seif Al Islam Al Gheddafi, a passionate archaeologist and president of the charitable foundation which bears his father’s name, the formation of a special commission of archaeologists, security experts and frontier tourist police is already in hand with the objective of affording the country’s archaeological sites, especially those in the remote desert, an efficient system of protection as soon as possible.

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pix-rockartnews0aThe International Congress of Rock Art is set to take place at the National Park Serra da Capivara in Piaui, Brazil, from 29 June to 3 July 2009. The congress will try to demonstrate that globalization is not a present-day occurrence, but started “…when man left his home in Africa and spread over all the continents.” For more information about the congress and registration, visit Global Rock Art.

pix-news-wmf-mapTARA nominated the Mathendous site in Southern Libya (“Fighting Cats”) to the World Monuments Fund, to be listed on the 2008 World Monuments Watch List. The nomination, endorsed by the Department of Antiquities in Tripoli, was successful and the site is now among the 100 sites listed for 2008.

pix-news-wmf-dabousThis is the second time that TARA has successfully applied for a major African rock art site to be put on the World Monuments Fund Watchlist, the first being the Dabous Giraffe, Niger, in 2000 – the first time that rock art had ever been listed. The site went on to be used for various publicity materials for the World Monuments Watch in 2000.

The 2008 World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites was announced on 6th June by Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund (WMF), the nonprofit organization that, for more than 40 years, has helped save hundreds of endangered architectural and cultural sites around the world. This year’s list highlights three critical man-made threats: political conflict, unchecked urban and industrial development, and, for the first time, global climate change.

View of plateau at Messak Sattafet showing one of the wadis.

View of plateau at Messak Sattafet showing one of the wadis.

Announced every two years, the WMF Watch List acts as a call to action, drawing international public attention to threatened cultural heritage sites across the globe. The Watch List is assembled by an international panel of experts in archaeology, architecture, art history, and preservation. For many historic sites, inclusion on the List is the best, and sometimes the only, hope for survival.

The 2008 Watch List clearly shows that human activity has become the greatest threat of all to the world’s cultural heritage, causing irreparable harm to many of the important places in the world that provide unique access to shared human history. Pollution eats away at ancient stones.

Engraving of dog-headed man confronting elephant.

Engraving of dog-headed man confronting elephant.

The rapid rise in global tourism is bringing more and more people to fragile and often unprotected places. Cities and suburbs are spreading unchecked, at the expense of historic landscapes and buildings. Political discord and armed conflict are not only wreaking havoc on sites directly-with modern weapons more destructive than ever-but are destroying communities, leaving the world’s cultural heritage open to neglect, vandalism, and looting. And, perhaps most daunting of all, the destructive effects of global climate change are already clearly apparent. The 2008 Watch List includes several sites that are threatened right now by flooding, encroaching desert, and changing weather patterns. Sadly, future lists will bring many more.

Tuareg inhabitant looking at 'Fighting Cats'.

Tuareg inhabitant looking at ‘Fighting Cats’.

“The World Monuments Watch List is our best indicator of the pressures that face the field of heritage preservation,” said World Monuments Fund President Bonnie Burnham. “On this list, man is indeed the real enemy. But, just as we caused the damage in the first place, we have the power to repair it, by taking our responsibility as caretakers of the world’s cultural heritage seriously. So today we are sounding the alarm, using the World Monuments Watch List to demonstrate, through the vivid examples of beloved places around the world, the importance of working together to meet these challenges and join forces to protect our world’s shared architectural heritage.”

Since 1996, WMF has made more than 500 grants totalling more than US $47 million to 214 Watch sites in 74 countries. These funds have leveraged more than US $124 million from other sources as a result of the momentum created by inclusion of sites on the Watch List. WMF raises funds from foundations, private donors, and corporations to support the Watch and the effort to save sites on the Watch List. WMF is committed to preventing these sites from disappearing and counts on the support of its donors and the many international and local experts in the field of preservation to carry out its work.

For more information on the Watch.
For the full Press Release, complete list of the 100 sites for 2008, photo gallery, panelist bios and more, click here.

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All photos © 1998 David Coulson/TARA