Uganda

Highlight images

Country overview

Image count

863 images

Date range

c.12,000 to 1,000 years ago.

Main areas

Concentrated in the east and south east of the country in and around Lake Victoria and also in north-eastern Uganda.

Techniques

Mostly painted in red and white pigment, with some engravings.

Main themes

Geometric designs in red and white pigment follow a basic and recurring repertoire of shapes including circular, rectangular, elongated ovals (or sausage-shaped), dots and lines.

Famous for

Concentric circles with emanating rays are a unique feature of Ugandan rock art.

Introduction

Rock art in Uganda is mostly concentrated in the eastern part of the country, but more broadly sits within a regional belt of geometric rock art spanning East and Central Africa. It is mainly geometric in nature and includes both paintings (red and white being the most common pigment) and engravings; it comprises a basic and recurring repertoire of shapes including circular, rectangular, sausage, dot and lines. Concentric circles with rays emanating from them are a unique feature of Ugandan rock art.

One of the most well-known sites is at Nyero, a large granite outcrop situated between Mbale and Soroti in the east of the country. Nyero consists of a cluster of six sites and is on the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage sites†. All of the paintings found here are geometric in design and have been attributed to the ancestral Batwa, and dated to before 1250 AD.

Geography

Uganda is located in East Africa, comprises an area of 236,040 km² and shares borders with Kenya to the east, South Sudan in the north, Democratic Republic of Congo in the west, and Rwanda and Tanzania in the south. It sits in the heart of the Great Lakes region, flanked by Lake Edward, Lake Albert and Lake Victoria, the latter being the second largest inland freshwater lake in the world, containing numerous islands. While much of its border is lakeshore, the country is landlocked. Predominantly plateau, Uganda is cradled by mountains with Margherita peak (5,199m) on Mount Stanley the third highest point in Africa.

Research History

The first documentation of rock art in Uganda occurred in 1913 (Teso Report) at Nyero, a painted rock shelter of the Later Iron Age period. After its initial recording the site was subsequently cited in a 1945 excavation report (Harwich, 1961) and meticulously noted by J.C.D Lawrance during the 1950s. Only a small number of studies of Ugandan rock art rock art have been published (Wayland 1938; Lawrance 1953; Posnansky 1961; Morton 1967; Chaplin 1974), with early analyses being predominantly descriptive and highly speculative.

The first major publications on Ugandan rock art emerged in the 1960s (Posnansky 1961; Morton 1967; Chaplin 1974) with rock art researchers proposing that the geometric and non-representational depictions served a documentary purpose of identifying cultural groups such as hunter-gatherers, cultivators or pastoralists. During this decade researchers attempted to place the rock art in a chronological framework, tying it to broader archaeological sequences. Political instability greatly impeded research during the 1970s and 1980s, although Chaplin’s thesis and in-depth survey on prehistoric rock art of Lake Victoria was published posthumously in 1974.

Much of the interpretation of the rock art in the region was based on the assumption that the art was attributable to the so-called “Bushmen” of southern Africa, using these explanations to understand the rock art of Uganda. Catherine Namono’s (2010) recent doctoral thesis on rock art in Uganda has opened up these debates, “tackling the more slippery issues of attribution, interpretation and understanding of rock art” (Namono, 2010:40).

Chronologies/Styles

Paintings

The geometric rock art that predominates in Uganda is attributed to the Batwa cultural group. Modern Batwa are descendants of ancient aboriginal forest-dwelling hunter-gatherer groups based in the Great Lakes region of central Africa. Their rock art has been divided into two traditions: firstly, the red animal tradition that comprises finely painted representations of animals in red pigment painted in a figurative style. These are all in the far north-eastern corner of Uganda. Antelope are the most common animals depicted, but this imagery also includes elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, giraffe, hyena, warthog, wild pig, ostrich and buffalo.

While some of the animals are remarkably naturalistic in their portrayal, the majority are highly distorted and difficult to identify to species level, and are associated with rows of dots superimposing the animal forms. The second tradition, the red geometrics include images painted in red and applied with the fingertip; the most common motifs comprise concentric circles, concentric circles with radiating lines, dots, U-shapes, dotted, straight, horizontal and vertical lines and interlinked lines. Other motifs and shapes are described as ‘acacia pod’, ‘canoes’, and ‘dumbbell’; a testament to the problems researchers face when attempting to use descriptive terms in identifying complex designs.

Engravings

Geometric engravings occur in and around Lake Victoria and also in north-eastern Uganda. Motifs comprise concentric circles, grids, concentric circles with internal radiating spokes, lines and dots. Proportionally, there are fewer engravings than paintings but as Namono (2010) has observed this may reflect a research bias rather than an actual disparity.

Another common type of engraving is small cupules aligned in rows, found predominantly on hilltops or large rock slabs near water sources. None have been found on vertical rock faces or in rock shelters. They are known locally as omweso (a traditional board game of Uganda) as there are similarities between these and the traditional mancala game, originally introduced to Africa with the Indian Ocean trade.

Dating

Attempts to understand the chronology of Ugandan rock in the 1960s were based on sequences focusing on pigments used in paintings. Lawrance proposed that yellow paintings were the oldest; followed by orange, red, purple, red and white; white and dirty white were the latest in the sequence. It is highly problematic developing sequences based on pigments because of the ways in which they chemically react with particular surfaces, other pigments and the natural elements, which can compromise the integrity of the pigment. However, there appears to be a consistency (across East and Central Africa) that suggests red and white geometric paintings are the oldest and have been in existence for millennia.

Initially thought to be the work of San Bushmen of southern Africa, archaeological, genetic and ethnographic evidence has subsequently attributed the paintings to the Batwa people, a cultural group who are today found in small groups near the Rwanda/Uganda border. If it is accepted that the geometric imagery was made by these hunter-gatherers then the rock art of Uganda probably dates from between 12,000 to 1,000 years ago.

However, more recent studies have proposed that these were the work of settled human groups and not early hunter-gatherers. Radiocarbon dating at Nyero (and another site at Kakoro) has dated the paintings to between 5,000 and 1,600 years ago. It has been proposed that rock shelters were used by semi-nomadic peoples engaged in animal herding, which they used as reference points in the landscape. Generally positioned away from flat land, they may have served to direct herders of cattle and/or goats towards paths and water.

Interpretation

A recent comprehensive study (Namono, 2010) of the potential meaning of geometric art in Uganda looked at the ways in which the geometric shapes in the rock art can be associated with the ethnographies of hunter-gatherers of the region. The approach proposed that the symbolism of geometric rock art derives from a gendered forest worldview. The forest is pivotal to hunter/gatherer cosmology in this region, whereby it plays a central role in cultural production and reproduction over time and is regarded as both male and female. The forest is not only a source of subsistence and well-being but informs their identity and the rock art reflects these complex concepts.

It is difficult to determine when rock art sites were last used, and in some cases, such as at Nyero, sites are still in use by local peoples with offerings being made and sites associated with rain-making rituals. However, the advent of colonialism influenced such traditions bringing a change in the way the forest was venerated, used and conceptualised.