Rock art is distributed widely throughout Kenya, although historically rock art research has not been as extensive as in neighbouring countries such as Tanzania. Some of Kenya’s various rock art traditions are attributed to or associated with the ancestors of modern regional cultural groups, and as such sites sometimes retain local religious importance. Both painted and engraved imagery tends towards the symbolic and geometric, with occasional depictions of schematic animals and people. It must be noted that there are still probably many Kenyan rock art sites which have not yet become known outside of their local communities, if they are known at all.View featured rock art site
Mostly 1,000 BC to the 20th century
Throughout, particularly Turkana, the Laikipia Plateau and Lake Victoria
Pecked engraving, finger painting
Geometric motifs and symbols, giraffe, cattle, occasionally modern items such as vehicles
Rock art is distributed widely throughout Kenya, although historically rock art research has not been as extensive as in neighbouring countries such as Tanzania. Some of Kenya’s various rock art traditions are attributed to or associated with the ancestors of modern regional cultural groups, and as such sites sometimes retain local religious importance. Both painted and engraved imagery tends towards the symbolic and geometric, with occasional depictions of schematic animals and people. It must be noted that there are still probably many Kenyan rock art sites which have not yet become known outside of their local communities, if they are known at all.
Geography and rock art distribution
Kenya covers about 569,140km², bordering Ethiopia and Somalia in the north and east and Tanzania and Uganda in the south and west. The country stretches from a low-lying eastern coastal strip, inland to highland regions in the west of the country. Kenya’s western half is divided by the eastern section of the East African Rift, the long area of tectonic divergence which runs from the coasts of Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia down through Ethiopia and Kenya and into Uganda, curving around the eastern edge of the Lake Victoria basin. There are a significant number of painted rock art sites throughout west-central and southern Kenya.
Although researchers had been noting and investigating rock art in the neighbouring countries of Tanzania and Uganda from the early years of the 20th Century, the first published mention of Kenyan rock art appeared only in 1946, with Joy Adamson’s descriptions of engravings at Surima, in the northern Turkana region. It was in the 1960s that sustained academic attention began to be paid to other sites in the country. In 1961 Richard Wright published an account of a rock shelter (now known as Kiptogot Cave) with painted images of cattle on the slopes of Mount Elgon near Kitale. Wright suggested potential parallels in style with some Ethiopian pastoralist rock art. In 1968 Robert Soper was the first archaeologist to investigate the unique Namoratung’a burial sites to the east of Lake Turkana, with their engraved standing stones, the interpretation of which would be continued with the work of Mark Lynch and Lawrence Robbins in the 1970s. In the same decade significant painting sites at Lake Victoria, north of the lake near the Ugandan border, and in the far south were also reported on by James Chaplin, Osaga Odak and Richard Gramly. Research and discovery has continued and is likely that many rock art sites in Kenya remain to be documented. As recently as 2005, 21 previously unknown rock art sites in the Samburu area of central Kenya were recorded during dedicated survey work organised by the British Institute in East Africa.
Figurative imagery only features prominently in about 10% of the known rock art sites of Kenya. That which exists tends to consist of very schematic images of cattle, wild animals and people. The majority of both painted and engraved rock art iconography throughout Kenya comprises symbols, with common patterns including circles, sometimes concentric or containing crosses, spirals, parallel or cross-hatched lines and curvilinear shapes. Circular ground depressions in the rock surface, known as cupules, are also a common variant of rock art in Kenya, along with rock gongs, which show evidence of the use of natural rock formations as percussive instruments.
Interpretation, cultural attribution and proposed dates for these works vary widely across technique and area, although there are common themes. It has been suggested that the schematic nature and similarities in the art may point to shared East African symbolic understandings common to different cultural groups, for example equating circular shapes (some of the most popular motifs in Eastern and Central African rock art in general) with chieftainship or the sun, or acting as navigation devices.
Given the variations in distance, age and nature of the sites, there is a danger of generalising, but there are factors which may contribute to more incisive interpretations of specific sites and symbols. One set of interpretations for geometric shapes in Kenyan rock art points to the similarities of certain of these symbols to cattle brands used by Nilotic peoples throughout Kenya, including the Turkana, Samburu and Masai groups. Although the engravings at Namoratung’a are not thought to have been made by ancestral Turkana people, Lynch and Robbins noted the similarities of some of the symbols found there to contemporary local Turkana cattle brands. These symbols are pecked on stones at graves containing mens’ remains and have been proposed to represent male lineages, as animal brands traditionally do in contemporary Nilotic ethnic groups. Further south, it is known that some more recent rock paintings representing brand and shield patterns were made by Masai and Samburu men, in shelters used for meat-feasting—a practice forbidden in their home compounds after their formal initiation as warriors—or as initiation sites. Actual representations of cattle are rare, with the vibrant paintings at Kakapel near the Ugandan border the most reknowned. Their creators are unknown although Masai and Samburu have been known to paint occasional schematic cattle in the past.
Not all of Kenya’s rock art is associated with pastoralists. Much of the symbolic art, particularly to the south and west, is attributed to the ’Batwa’, ancestors of modern Batwa and related, traditionally hunter-gatherer cultural groups living around the Great Lakes Region of East and Central Africa. Circular designs and “Sunburst” symbols are some of the most common motifs usually associated with the Batwa rock art tradition; it has been proposed that they may have been associated with fertility or rainmaking. Some rock art on Mfangano Island, in the Kenyan portion of Lake Victoria, has retained the latter association, having been used until the recent past by local Abasuba people for rainmaking purposes, despite their not having produced it originally. This re-use of symbolic sites in Kenya and the difficulty of dating further confuses the question of attribution for the art. The same rock art sites used by different cultural groups at different times and for different reasons. Such is the case at Kakapel for example, where it is posited that the earliest paintings may be hunter-gatherer in origin, with more recent cattle images added later, and Namoratung’a, with some engravings apparently hundreds of years old and others made within the last century.
It is instructive to consider the use of rock art sites within their physical contexts as well as the rock art motifs themselves. Locality and landscape are significant, for example at Namoratung’a, where the engraved basalt pillars at a related nearby site have been posited to be positioned according to astronomical calculations, based on an ancient Cushitic calendar. There are various ways in which the creation and continued use of sites in Kenya may have been significantly interactive, such as in the ritual playing of rock gongs, or in the potential use of rows of cupules as gaming boards for forms of Mancala, a token game common through central and Southern Africa which was originally introduced to Kenya via Indian Ocean trade. It is not known if cupules were actually created for this purpose—it has been suggested for example that in some areas, cupules were formed for purely practical purposes, in the pulverising of food or materials for smelting activities. In Kenya, as elsewhere, what actually constitutes rock art is not always easy to identify.
Rock art ascribed to Batwa peoples could be anywhere between 15,000-1,000 years old, while pastoralist art is more recent. Radiocarbon dating of rock art is difficult unless it is buried and associated with other uncontaminated organic remains and as such, scientifically dated rock art from Kenya is rare. Radiocarbon dates from human remains in graves at Namoratung’a South date from the mid-1st Century BC to the mid-1st Millennium AD, but as dates like these are not directly relatable to the rock art, researchers have tended to concentrate on assigning chronologies based on varying levels of patination and style, without being able to ascribe more than estimated production dates.
There are occasionally defining limits which aid in dating specific sites, for example, cattle did not arrive in Eastern Africa until about 2,000 BC, so representations of cattle must postdate this. In addition, in some cases, artworks known to have been associated with certain groups cannot have been produced prior to, or post, certain dates for political reasons. For example, Masai paintings at Lukenya Hill are known to have been painted prior to 1915, as Masai people were displaced from this area by European settlers after this date.
The diversity of Kenyan rock art in motif, distribution and cultural context so far frustrates any attempts for a cohesive chronology, but the continuing local engagement with rock art sites in Kenya can potentially serve as a useful dating and interpretive resource for researchers alongside continuing archaeological research.