Introduction to rock art in central and eastern Africa

Central and East Africa

Central Africa is dominated by vast river systems and lakes, particularly the Congo River Basin. Characterised by hot and wet weather on both sides of the equator, central Africa has no regular dry season, but aridity increases in intensity both north and south of the equator. Covered with a forest of about 400,000 m² (1,035,920 km²), it is one of the greenest parts of the continent. The rock art of central Africa stretches from the Zambezi River to the Angolan Atlantic coast and reaches as far north as Cameroon and Uganda. Termed the ‘schematic rock art zone’ by Desmond Clark (1959), it is dominated by finger-painted geometric motifs and designs, thought to extend back many thousands of years.

Eastern Africa, from the Zambezi River Valley to Lake Turkana, consists largely of a vast inland plateau with the highest elevations on the continent, such as Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895m above sea level) and Mount Kenya (5,199 m above sea level). Twin parallel rift valleys run through the region, which includes the world’s second largest freshwater lake, Lake Victoria. The climate is atypical of an equatorial region, being cool and dry due to the high altitude and monsoon winds created by the Ethiopian Highlands. The rock art of eastern Africa is concentrated on this plateau and consists mainly of paintings that include animal and human representations. Found mostly in central Tanzania, eastern Zambia and Malawi; in comparison to the widespread distribution of geometric rock art, this figurative tradition is much more localised, and found at just a few hundred sites in a region of less than 100km in diameter.

This collection from Central and East Africa comprises rock art from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, as well as the Horn of Africa; although predominantly paintings, engravings can be found in most countries.

History of research

The rock art of East Africa, in particular the red paintings from Tanzania, was extensively studied by Mary and Louis Leakey in the 1930s and 1950s. Eric Ten Raa observed Sandawe people of Tanzania making rock paintings in the mid-20th century, and on the basis of oral traditions argued that the rock art was made for three main purposes: casual art; magic art (for hunting purposes or connected to health and fertility) and sacrificial art (to appease ancestral spirits). Subsequently, during the 1970s Fidelis Masao and Emmanuel Anati recorded numerous sites, classifying the art in broad chronological and stylistic categories, proposing tentative interpretations with regard to meaning.

There has much debate and uncertainty about Central African rock art. The history of the region has seen much mobility and interaction of cultural groups and understanding how the rock art relates to particular groups has been problematic. Pioneering work in this region was undertaken by Margaret Metcalfe in central Malawi in the early 1920s, Clarence van Riet Lowe visited Zambia in 1936 and attempted to provide a chronological sequence and some insight into the meaning of the rock art. Since the 1950s (Clarke, 1959), archaeologists have attempted to situate rock art within broader archaeological frameworks in order to resolve chronologies, and to categorise the art with reference to style, colour, superimposition, subject matter, weathering, and positioning of depictions within the panel (Phillipson, 1976). Building on this work, our current understanding of rock in this region has been advanced by Benjamin Smith (1995, 1997, 2001) with his work in Zambia and Malawi.

East African Rock Art

Rock art of East Africa consists mainly of paintings, most of which are found in central Tanzania, and are fewer in number in eastern Zambia and Malawi; scholars have categorised them as follows:

Red Paintings:
Red paintings can be sub-divided into those found in central Tanzania and those found stretching from Zambia to the Indian Ocean.
Tanzanian red paintings include large, naturalistic animals with occasional geometric motifs. The giraffe is the most frequently painted animal, but antelope, zebra, elephant, rhino, felines and ostrich are also depicted. Later images show figures with highly distinctive stylised human head forms or hairstyles and body decoration, sometimes in apparent hunting and domestic scenes. The Sandawe and Hadza, hunter-gatherer groups, indigenous to north-central and central Tanzania respectively, claim their ancestors were responsible for some of the later art.

The area in which Sandawe rock art is found is less than 100km in diameter and occurs at just a few hundred sites, but corresponds closely to the known distribution of this group. There have been some suggestions that Sandawe were making rock art early into the 20th century, linking the art to particular rituals, in particular simbo; a trance dance in which the Sandawe communicate with the spirit world by taking on the power of an animal. The art displays a range of motifs and postures, features that can be understood by reference to simbo and to trance experiences; such as groups of human figures bending at the waist (which occurs during the simbo dance), taking on animal features such as ears and tails, and floating or flying; reflecting the experiences of those possessed in the dance.

Zambian rock art does not share any similarities with Tanzanian rock art and can be divided into two categories; animals (with a few depictions of humans), and geometric motifs. Animals are often highly stylised and superimposed with rows of dots. Geometric designs include, circles, some of which have radiating lines, concentric circles, parallel lines and ladder shapes. Predominantly painted in red, the remains of white pigment is still often visible. David Phillipson (1976) proposed that the naturalistic animals were earlier in date than geometric designs. Building on Phillipson’s work, Benjamin Smith studied ethnographic records and demonstrated that geometric motifs were made by women or controlling the weather.

Pastoralist paintings:
Pastoralist paintings are rare, with only a few known sites in Kenya and other possible sites in Malawi. Usually painted in black, white and grey, but also in other colours, they include small outlines, often infilled, of cattle and are occasional accompanied by geometric motifs. Made during the period from 3,200 to 1,800 years ago the practice ceased after Bantu language speaking people had settled in eastern Africa. Similar paintings are found in Ethiopia but not in southern Africa, and it has been assumed that these were made by Cushitic or Nilotic speaking groups, but their precise attribution remains unclear (Smith, 2013:154).

Late White Paintings:
Commonly painted in white, or off-white with the fingers, so-called ‘Late White’ depictions include quite large crudely rendered representations of wild animals, mythical animals, human figures and numerous geometric motifs. These paintings are attributed to Bantu language speaking, iron-working farmers who entered eastern Africa about 2,000 years ago from the west on the border of Nigeria and Cameroon. Moving through areas occupied by the Batwa it is thought they learned the use of symbols painted on rock, skin, bark cloth and in sand. Chewa peoples, Bantu language speakers who live in modern day Zambia and Malawi claim their ancestors made many of the more recent paintings which they used in rites of passage ceremonies.

Meat-feasting paintings:
Meat-feasting shelters exist from northern Tanzania through Kenya to Lake Turkana, and are places where Maa-speaking initiated men, who are not permitted to eat meat in their homes, gather to kill and feast on animals, predominantly cattle. The term Maa relates to a group of closely related Eastern Nilotic languages, which historically dominated the east African hinterland; and today is spoken by around a million people. During or after feasting, symbols of the animals that had been eaten were painted on the shelter ceiling in white or less often red. Maa speakers brand their cattle and camels with symbols that signify the lineage of their owners, but may also indicate if an animal has been treated for a particular disease. Different symbols may be used for male and female animals. Over the centuries, because the depictions are on the ceiling of meat feasting rock shelters, and because sites are used even today, a build-up of soot has obscured or obliterated the paintings. Unfortunately, few have been recorded or mapped.

Central African Rock Art

The rock art of central Africa is attributed to hunter-gatherers known as Batwa. This term is used widely in eastern central and southern Africa to denote any autochthonous hunter-gatherer people. The rock art of the Batwa can be divided into two categories which are quite distinctive stylistically from the Tanzanian depictions of the Sandawe and Hadza. Nearly 3,000 sites are currently known from within this area. The vast majority, around 90%, consist of finger-painted geometric designs; the remaining 10% include highly stylised animal forms (with a few human figures) and rows of finger dots. Both types are thought to date back many thousands of years. The two traditions co-occur over a vast area of eastern and central Africa and while often found in close proximity to each other are only found together at a few sites. However, it is the dominance of geometric motifs that make this rock art tradition very distinctive from other regions in Africa.

There are a few engravings occurring on inland plateaus but these have elicited little scientific interest and are not well documented. Those at the southern end of Lake Turkana have been categorised into two types: firstly, animals, human figures and geometric forms and also geometric forms thought to involve lineage symbols.
In southern Ethiopia, near the town of Dillo about 300 stelae, some of which stand up to two metres in height, are fixed into stones and mark grave sites. People living at the site ask its spirits for good harvests.

In the Sidamo region of Ethiopia, around 50 images of cattle are engraved in bas-relief on the wall of a gorge. All the engravings face right and the cows’ udders are prominently displayed. Similar engravings of cattle, all close to flowing water, occur at five other sites in the area, although not in such large numbers.

Rock art in the Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa has historically been a crossroads area between the Eastern Sahara, the Subtropical regions to the South and the Arabic Peninsula. These mixed influences can be seen in many archaeological and historical features throughout the region, the rock art being no exception. Since the early stages of research in the 1930s, a strong relationship between the rock art in Ethiopia and the Arabian Peninsula was detected, leading to the establishment of the term Ethiopian-Arabian rock art by Pavel Červiček in 1971. This research thread proposes a progressive evolution from naturalism to schematism, ranging from the 4th-3rd millennium BC to the near past. Although the Ethiopian-Arabian proposal is still widely accepted and stylistic similarities between the rock art of Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen or Saudi Arabia are undeniable, recent voices have been raised against the term because of its excessive generalisation and lack of operability. In addition, recent research to the south of Ethiopia have started to discover new rock art sites related to those found in Uganda and Kenya.

Regarding the main themes of the Horn of Africa rock art, cattle depictions seem to have been paramount, with cows and bulls depicted either isolated or in herds, frequently associated with ritual scenes which show their importance in these communities. Other animals – zebus, camels, felines, dogs, etc. – are also represented, as well as rows of human figures, and fighting scenes between warriors or against lions. Geometric symbols are also common, usually associated with other depictions; and in some places they have been interpreted as tribal or clan marks. Both engraving and painting is common in most regions, with many regional variations.

Rock art in the Horn of Africa faces several challenges. One of them is the lack of consolidated chronologies and absolute dating for the paintings and engravings. Another is the uneven knowledge of rock art throughout the region, with research often affected by political unrest. Therefore, distributions of rock art in the region are steadily growing as research is undertaken in one of the most interactive areas in East Africa.

The rock art of Central and East Africa is one of the least documented and well understood of the corpus of African rock art. However, in recent years scholars have undertaken some comprehensive reviews of existing sites and surveys of new sites to open up the debates and more fully understand the complexities of this region.


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