Cattle in African rock art and traditions

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