Highlight images

Country overview

Image count

439 images

Date range

1500 BC -1500 AD

Main areas

North-West and South-East, Cross River State


Paintings and engraved standing stones

Main themes

Animals, geometrics and stylised human faces


In general, West Africa is not well known for its painted or engraved rock art and does not have a long history of rock art research. The scarcity of paintings may be predicated on the topography and more humid conditions of the climate, but the shortage of discovered sites to date may indicate that the paucity of evidence is genuine. Painted rock art occurs in the north of the country and comprises humpless cattle, monkeys, antelope and human figures, mainly painted in red. More unique sculptural forms include standing stones engraved with stylised faces and codified motifs, found to the south, and are reminiscent of the burial stelae at Tuto Fela in Ethiopia.

Geography and rock art distribution

Located in West Africa, the Federal Republic of Nigeria shares land borders with Benin in the west, Chad and Cameroon in the east, and Niger in the north. Its coastline lies in the south on the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. The Niger and Benue River valleys make up Nigeria’s most extensive region, merging into each other to form a distinctive ‘Y’ shape confluence.


View looking east from the Ikom area towards Cross River and the Cameroon border. 2013,2034.24321 © TARA/David Coulson

Nigeria boasts a variety of landscapes - mangrove forests and swamps border the southern coastline; plains rise to the north of the valleys; rugged highlands are located in the southwest and to the southeast of the Benue River; hills and mountains extend to the border with Cameroon. Between the far south and far north is a vast savannah made up of three zones: the Guinean forest-savanna mosaic, the Sudanian savannah, and the Sahel savannah. Painted rock art is located in the northwest of the country, in the savannah zone, while engraved standing stones can be found in the more forested southeast.

History of the research

The existence of carved standing stones in Cross River State was first reported by an Officer of the British Administration in 1905 (Allison, 1967). In the 1960s, Philip Allison undertook extensive surveying in the area, resulting in a major publication by the Nigerian Department of Antiquities in 1968. Research was undertaken in the run up to the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War 1967-1970), during the course of which many of the monoliths were stolen and made their way on the international antiquities market. Today a number of these monoliths can be found in American and European museums, including an example from the British Museum.

The painted rock art found in the northeastern region of the country was first systematically studied and documented in the late 1950s. In 1964, the site of Birnin Kudu, in present-day Jigawa State was declared a National Historical Monument, as a means to promote tourism in the country. Unfortunately, criticism that the site has not been well-maintained or managed has impeded tourism development (Mangut and Mangut, 2012:37).


Painted rock art sites in northern Nigeria are often located adjacent to lithophones, also known as rock gongs - these are rocks and boulders that were used as percussion instruments. Painted rock art and lithophones occur systematically at Birnin Kudu, “where the lithophones produce eleven different notes“ and are associated with female rituals that precede marriage (Le Quellec, 2004:74). Depictions consist of humpless cattle and sheep as well as geometric signs. Although the original artists and meaning of the rock art are not known, local communities recognise them today as sacred sites and the images are thought to be associated with shamanic activities.

In northern Nigeria, the painted rock art at Shira in Bauchi State consists of two traditions: naturalistic, consisting of humans and cattle with suckling calves, and anthropomorphic images. Paintings are usually executed in dark red on steep rock faces or overhangs (Mangut and Mangut, 2012:36). Anthropomorphic images have been found nearby at Geji and Birnin Kudu, and are associated with marriage and initiation (Vaughan, 1962). Also at Geji, subject matter is quite varied including humpless long-horned cattle, monkeys, horse, human figures and antelope. These are painted in three different styles, as solid figures, in outline, and outline and stripe (Mangut and Mangut, 2012:37).


In the Marghi region, paintings are made with reddish clay that is found at the bottom of the river during the dry season. Cooked to enhance the brightness of the pigment it is mixed with karite butter. The clay is however rare and as such expensive, so poorer families replace the clay with charcoal ashes, resulting in black pigments. Thus, the differences seen in the colours used for rock paintings are “not related to chronology or symbolism but only to social status” (Le Quellec, 2004:77).

Near Geji, there is a rock shelter known as Dutzen Zane, that is visited by Fulani herders during the rainy season who peck the existing rock paintings to retrieve the pigment. The pigment is mixed with food for both humans and cattle and is consumed to protect “the fertility of the herd and the prosperity of the herders” (Le Quellec, 2004:77). The villagers of Geji did not presume these paintings had been made by humans but had appeared naturally from the rock, and if damaged or destroyed by pecking would reappear the next day (Le Quellec, 2004:79). Unfortunately, such practices have resulted in permanent damage or destruction of rock art.


Based on the depictions of both long and short-horned humpless cattle at Birnin Kudu, it has been suggested that paintings predate the introduction of humped cattle into northern Nigeria, and may be at least a thousand years old (Shaw 1978). However, depictions of horse at Geji have been used to suggest that painted rock art in Nigeria are no earlier than the 15th century BC (Mangut and Mangut, 2012:38). The engraved standing stones at Cross River are thought to be up to 1500 years old.