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.


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


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