I Love Rock Art Nigeria
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.

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.

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

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

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