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