Rock Art in Kenya

A Guide to Rock Art Sites in Kenya

Travel Quote - "No amount of stone and bone could yield the kinds of information that these paintings gave so freely" - Mary Leakey. A guide to rock art sites in Kenya

About Rock Art Sites in Kenya

The wholeness of rock art sites in Kenya is no longer just an academic concern. Today, this important memoirs enjoy both local and global appreciation. As the digital wave continues to propel us into an indeterminable realm of information and data, the unparalleled change has also compelled the need to look back into primeval relics for inspiration. One of the global responses to the intense social, environmental and technological change has been a creative explosion, not only in technology but also in the arts, as contemporary artists draw on cultures the world over for inspiration. Rock art sites, from all the foregone generations, are keyhole encyclopedias which offers glimpses of time, in ciphers, the esthetic of it forming riddles for the imagination. Rock art, or more proper rock paintings, are proof that early man sought to keep a record for the benefit of future ages, and left simple messages at just the right places, however vague or blurred the form and our interpretation of them. “Rock Art is amongst the world’s oldest surviving art, predating writing by tens of thousands of years. It is significant because it offers tantalising glimpses into early cultures and beliefs, as well as into early morality and the development of imaginative abilities. As such, rock art is irreplaceable”. The information on rock arts sites in Kenya, and Africa in general, is sparse on details, opaque in methodology, and only now and then put under the limelight which undermines the value of these gems. One of few organizations actively involved in the discovery of rock arts in Africa is Trust for African Rock Art – an international, Nairobi-based organisation committed to recording the rich rock art heritage in Africa, to making this information widely accessible and, to the extent possible, safeguarding those sites most threatened by humans and nature – working closely with UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

CNN Inside Africa: Rock Art Trailer

List of Rock Art Sites in Kenya

1. Kakapel Rock Art Monument

Kakapel Rock Art Monument - Image Courtesy of Steven T. Goldstein

This one of the most elaborate Iron Age sequences so far documented in Kenya. Gazetted as a National Monument in 2004, the other-worldly Kakapel Rock Art sheltered at the base of a gigantic granite outcrop is both a dramatic landscape and a rare historic destination deserving a visit by any tripper to Busia County. Kakapel, unlike the other large rock art sites in Kenya, is composed of art from three discernible time-scales. “The first painting is done in red, and drawn with fingers; it includes geometric designs and a red animal, probably an elephant. These paintings may date from 2,000 to 4,000 years old. The second painting depicts domestic cattle and a small elephant. The date of these cattle paintings is unknown, but they could be more than 3,000 years old. The third painting is entirely of finger-drawn images of geometric designs and animals and its origin is the most difficult to determine” – Trust for African Rock Art. This chain of rock art is the most intricate in Kenya. The three adjacent shelters are reached via a secure walk-ledge and curators are on-site to guide you through the tour. Kakapel sits at the slopes of the pretty Chelelemuk Hills where very little of the range has been exploited, and there is an abundance of high rocks and hillocks to explore on foot. It’s also a dreamy and brill location for camping and birding.

Situated at the foot-hills of Mt. Elgon near the Kenya-Uganda border, Kakapel Site and the surrounding region is the perfect place to begin searching for the earliest farmers in eastern Africa. It’s cited that the first florescence of farming lifeways in the region is associated with the “Urewe” culture. Urewe pottery is distinctly directed with linear incised and paneled motifs, and it also appears along with evidence for iron production and use, and the earliest domesticated crops in the region. The Urewe phenomenon is thought to mark the arrival of the Bantu speaking populations from western Africa into the region. These pioneering farmers brought some crops (like pearl millet) with them from western Africa, however when they reached the Great Lakes region of eastern Africa around 2500 years ago they came into contact with other domesticated plants like sorghum and finger millet. They would have also encountered new peoples too, particularly the “Kansyore” fisher foragers and the diverse mobile herders who lived around the Lake Victoria. Culture and crop contacts helped propel Urewe producing peoples throughout the Lake Victoria Basin over the next several hundred years. While we know that the Urewe were likely farmers, there has been very little solid evidence for what they grew, or how they grew it.

2. Mawanga Rock Art Site

Mawanga Rock Art in Homabay County. Image Courtesy of Victor Matara

Although transport to Mfangano Island is basically limited to engine boats, with one ferry and waterbus linking it to Uyoma and Luanda, a causeway is under construction to ease movement. Most arriving on the Island reach it from the southeast terminus, near Joyland Lodge. From the boat landing, it’s a quick 5 to 10 minutes walk westbound to Mawanga Cave and to the 8 m2 rock art panel, consisting of concentric geometric circles. The last few metres of the approach are quite steep and a railing is provided. A didactic pediment reads: “This rock art site is sacred to the Wasamo Clan who are the rainmakers of the Abasuba Community and who used it until recently for rainmaking ceremonies. The red and white painted concentric circles, spirals and sunbursts were used in the morning for specific rituals by women from the clan during ceremonies. The red paintings were believed to represent the moon and the white ones the sun”. Howbeit, it is also widely thought that the panel, originally painted by the Twa People over 100 years ago, was meant to ward-off bad omen and enemies from the site. Interestingly, Mawanga Cave overlooks the tiny island of Nzenze which carries yet another fascinating rainmaking folklore. This, according to the local generational wisdom of the community, is also sacred to the Wasamo Clan and was believed to be the ‘abode’ for the rainmaking spirits. “It is believed that the rainmaking spirits were vested in the rock art of Mawanga Cave which directly faces Nzenze Island”. Also of interest at Mawanga is an impression on the base rock thought to resemble fingerprints, locally known as “Sacred Hand of God”. Not too far from here is the resplendent Mount Kwitutu where the larger and more impressive Kwitone Rock Art Site is located. It takes about 45 minutes by ferry from Mbita to Mfangano and there are a few good hotels found nearby to set up base, that include Joyland Lodge and the Mfangano Island Beach Resort.

3. Kwitone Rock Art Site

Rising to 1,635 ms from the south to center of Mfangano Island, Mt. Kwitutu is its most prominent land-form. Its moderate slope allows for easy walking to its upper reaches and where the Kwitone Rock Art site in located. Made up of sets of intricate red and white circles, on a concealed 40 ms overhang ledge on the hillside, sometimes known as the Kwitone Hill, the Kwitone Rock Art delineates that this site was most probably used as a shrine.  It bears much resemblance to Mawanga although here the colour and vibrancy is more intricate. “According to the elders, in times of war and trouble, people would come to the cave to ask the ancestors to bring peace. In their battle between the Wagimbe and Wasaki (about 200 years ago), the Wagimbe had taken refuge in the cave” – TARA. The Abasuba used Kwitone Rock Art Site for rainmaking ceremonies as late as the 1980’s, before the missionaries opposed ‘these rituals of worship’.  The Kwitone Rock Art is found 6 kms from Mawanga site. It can be visited with a guide from the Abasuba Peace Museum, and requires a hike of one and half hours to reach.

4. Marti Rock Art

Marti Rock Art in Marsabit County

Believed to be wildly mystical in nature, the rock depictions at Marti Rock Art near Loiyangalani are consisted mainly of a collection of giraffe paintings and other concentric art shapes. Located within easy reach of the Desert Museum, the Marti Rock Art occurs within a bio-sphere of lovely landscapes. Trippers to Marti Art may also be interested in visiting nearby Sarima and Kargi Rock Arts.

5. Kalacha Rock Art

Kalacha Rock Art in Marsabit County. Image Courtesy of Twenzetu

Found at the periphery of the Chalbi Desert, in North Horr, Kalacha is a land of a myriad allures. The ancient rock engraving of the Kalacha Rock Art, of mostly animals, are thought to be associated with rainmaking and date back over 1000 years. Also of interest close to Kalacha Rock Art site are the Agfaba Rock Art, Agfaba waterholes, cultural tourism into Gabbra villages, the Annual Kalacha Festival, the Kalacha Cultural Cottages (or Kalacha Camp) and Maikona Village.

6. Lokori Pillar Site

In contrast to the four prominent pillar site around Lake Turkana Lokori Pillar Site (also known as Nariokotome II) lacks massive basalt pillars. In instead, the site is comprised of dozens of upright black slabs driven into ground to profile low-lying concentric circle formations – with the larger often surrounding the smaller. These circular rings of short, upright slabs enclose burial pits covered by several layers of stone slabs. Also of interest nearby this site are several huge rocks bearing ancient rock arts depicting mainly animals. Not easily spotted from the road as is with the Namoratunga Stones, Lokori Pillar Site is located 5 kms east of South Turkana National Reserve, and about 64 kms from Lokichar.

The Mystery of Namoratunga – Published by Trust for African Rock Art

About Rock Art Sites in Africa

According to the Trust for Rock Art in Africa, there are upwards of 10 million rock images spread across more than 30 countries, far more than in any other continent. Some are vast in scale covering at least 1 km2, while others are at least 12,000 years, and all point to Africa’s rich history and culture, of a time long before writing was invented. Today, the rock art of southern Africa enjoys the most worldwide appreciation of the sites found across Africa, and some of these sites have been inscribed as World Heritage Sites. Concomitantly, “aware of emerging conservation problems, African states are creating management plans and encouraging local communities to get involved in the arts protection”.

Rock Art Distribution in Africa

Map of Rock Art Distribution in Africa

List of Major Rock Art Sites in Africa

1. Twyfelfontein, Namibia

Twyfelfontein Rock Art in the Kunene Region of Namibia

Inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2007, Twyfelfontein in the Kunene Region of Namibia has one of the largest concentrations of rock engravings seen on the African continent. The rock art engravings and paintings at Twyfelfontein Site forms a coherent, extensive and high-quality record of ritual practices relating to hunter-gatherer people in this frontier of southern Africa over at least 2,000, and eloquently illustrates the links between the ritual and economic practices of hunter-gatherers. Most of these well-preserved engravings represent rhinos. The famed site also includes six painted elephant, ostrich and giraffe, as well as drawings of human and animal footprints rock shelters with motifs of human figures in red ochre. The objects excavated from two sections were date to the Late Stone Age. Discovered in the late 1940s, although the elemental discovery goes back to before 1915, this site, on the slope of a wide flat basin in a hilly dry terrain, has several thousand engravings on sandstone slabs and walls. There are also a few interspersed rock painting shelters which deviate in their motif repertoire by an emphasis on the human figures. The human figures are almost entirely lacking in the engravings where large game animals, animal spoor and geometric designs prevail. Today, the area is occupied mainly by Damara Tribe.

Spatial Location of Twyfelfontein Rock Art Site in Namibia
Spatial Location of Twyfelfontein Rock Art Site in Namibia

2. Brandberg Mountain Rock Art Site, Namibia

Brandberg Mountain Rock Art Site, Namibia

Another noteworthy rock art site in Namibia, not far south of the outstanding rock art site at Twyfelfontein (being well visible from here) is the Brandberg mountain rock art site. Both of these sites lie in ‘DamaraLand’ in the Erongo region in north western Namibia. Brandberg is entirely dissimilar in character from Twyfelfontein, being a huge granitic inselberg rising up to over 2500 ms, with the rock art located mainly in the upper reaches. Generally speaking, the whole mountain contains almost 1,000 distinct rock painting. “The paintings largely date from the Later Stone Age period of 4000-2000 years ago, and a specific painting of which a small exfoliated piece was excavated in a stratified layer and was dated at 2760 years old. The art comprises largely human figures in a rich variety of activities. Motifs of the animal kingdom are dominated by rather few species – springbok, giraffe, gemsbok, ostrich, zebra, and elephant – that surprisingly do not thrive or live in the mountain. It is thought the animals drawings may have been used as metaphors for imploring or for celebrating an intact and prolific environment. Another important rock art area in Namibia is the Erongo Mountain rock art site, found southeast of the Brandberg Mountain.

3. Rock Art Site at Tsodilo, Botswana

Rock Art Site at Tsodilo, Botswana

Botswana has long been a magnet for travellers from the world over yearning to experience its great riches that include the Okavango Delta. Even as the heady days of the delta come to a close over the warm months of the year, one can find a Kalahari bushman guide to tour the Tsodilo Hill, which contain not less than 2,000 Stone Age rock paintings. In 2014, the Okavango Delta was inscribed as the 1,000th World Heritage Site. The only mountains or rocky hills in Botswana are either on the eastern side of the country near the border with South Africa or in the extreme north east of the country near the borders with Namibia and the Caprivi Strip, west of the Okavango Delta. This is where the Tsodilo Hills are located – inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2001 – where almost 4,500 paintings have so far been recorded, earning it a fine reputation as “the world’s greatest outdoor art gallery.” Or again, as the “Louvre of the Desert” owing to its spectacular quality and quantity of rock art in a relatively small area of only 10 km2. “Tsodilo Hills are a small area of massive quartzite rock formations that rise from ancient sand dunes to the east and a dry fossil lake bed to the west in the Kalahari Desert. These revered hills have provided shelter and other vital resources to people for over 100,000 years” – UNESCO. The rock art shelter is characterised by a wide variety of paintings on exposed rocks made mainly by Khoe pastoralists. The “white-painting shelter” has been periodically inhabited almost 100,000 years. Early Iron-Age villages and prehistoric mines set Tsodilo apart from other Southern African sites. It is possible that most of this art was made during the last 2,000 years. In eastern Botswana a lot of the art is San art but there is also some Khoe art in the east. Today, Tsodilo as a place of worship.

Spatial Location of the Rock Art Site at Tsodilo, Botswana
Spatial Location of the Rock Art Site at Tsodilo, Botswana

4. Rock Art in the Drakensberg Mountains

Rock Art in the Drakensberg Mountains

There are two simple reasons that the Drakensberg Mountains have become a lighthouse attraction for South Africa – and together they have tickled the fancy of a sizeable number of travellers and elite researchers to a place of exceptional natural beauty in its soaring basaltic buttresses, incisive dramatic cutbacks, and golden sandstone ramparts as well as its visually spectacular sculptured arches, caves, cliffs, pillars and rock pools. The first is its conservation area, the Maloti-Drakensberg Park, which is a popular transnational property composed of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg National Park in South Africa and the Sehlathebe National Park in Lesotho. The second reason is the Rock Art in the Drakensberg Mountains. This spectacular natural site containing caves and rock-shelters, has the largest and most concentrated group of paintings in Africa south of the Sahara. They represent the spiritual life of the San people, who lived in this area over a era of 4,000 years. Inscribed in 2000 as a World Heritage Site, the 2,493 km2 Maloti-Drakensberg Park, that spans the boundary between Lesotho and South Africa, constitutes the primary water production area in Southern Africa. 

Spatial Location of Rock Art in the Drakensberg Mountains
Spatial Location of Rock Art in the Drakensberg Mountains

5. Kondoa Rock Art Site, Tanzania

Kondoa Rock Art Site, Tanzania

Discoveries of new rock art sites in Africa are still grabbing the headlines and sometimes get significant commendation. Researchers carry out years of costly studies to prove the age, decrypt the symbols and effectively document these findings: bringing together experts from multiple disciplines to participate, hunting down local experts who understand the finds, tracking to relevance and relation to other similar finds across the world, and then combining through heaps of data the official reports. It’s the little-talked about side of archaeology and anthropology, and it’s a big reason it can take years to officially launch a new rock art site. Currently, there are eight African rock art sites inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Tassili n’ Ajjer, Algeria 1982, Tadrart Acacus, Libya 1983; uKhahlamba/Drakensberg, South Africa 2000; Tsodilo, Botswana 2001; Matobo Hills, Zimbabwe 2003; Chongoni, Malawi 2006; Kondoa/Irangi, Tanzania 2006; and Twyfelfontein, Namibia 2007. Kondoa Rock Art Site in one of seven World Heritage Sites in Tanzania along with: Cultural Ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Ruins of Songo Mnara (1981); Stone Town of Zanzibar (2000); Kilimanjaro National Park (1987); Selous Game Reserve (1982); The Serengeti National Park (1981); and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (1978). This site is situated on the eastern slopes of the Masai escarpment bordering the Great Rift Valley and contains natural rock shelters, overhanging slabs of sedimentary rocks fragmented by rift faults, whose vertical planes have been used for rock art for at least two millennia. The collection of images from over 150 shelters over 2,336 km2, many with high artistic value, displays sequences that provide a rare testimony to the changing socio-economic base of the area from hunter-gatherer to agro-pastoralist, and the beliefs and ideas associated with different societies. Some of the shelters are still considered to have ritual associations with the people who live nearby, reflecting their beliefs, rituals, and the cosmos.

Spatial Location of Kondoa Rock Art Site, Tanzania
Spatial Location of Kondoa Rock Art Site, Tanzania

Rock Art Sites North of Sahara

Rock Art in the Green Sahara. Published by the British Musuem