Vanishing Rock Art of Africa

John Otim


Once thought to be The Heart of Darkness where history was never made, Africa has come a long way. Few doubt now that Africans built the great Zimbabwe or that ancient Egyptian civilization was and is African. Now however the past of Africa is threatened again. A combination of forces and circumstances are poised to wipe out the rock art of Africa, some of the finest and oldest in the world. Africa is known to have far more rock art items than any continent in the world and its collections are the oldest.

Standing here on these compelling and inspiring low lying rocks, with boulders shooting out, and a dazzling view of the countryside around us, you can almost visualize the men and women that around 5 thousand years ago created this rock art. The presence today of young people, mostly students from nearby secondary schools, drawn here daily as if by some magical power, spurs the imagination. The students are sprawled about reading their school notes or bantering. Just like the ancients use to do, a few of the students are scratching, scrolling and painting on the sacred rock face. And they do so over priceless ancient art, apparently unaware of the damage their activities inflict.

But now on this windy day in this beautiful simmering sun you may if you will, clearly visualize the ancients. One could see them gathered here, sprawled about, just like these present day students. They too told stories and entertained one another in the pleasant shades cast by these amazing rocks. As the sun drops and darkness falls it is not too difficult to imagine the ancients, taking shelter away from the dangers and the chill of the night, in these spacious rock caves that but invites habitation.

We are in Kumi at the Nyero rock site near Ngora in north eastern Uganda, the site of one of the most amazing rock paintings in Africa. Considering their age they constitute perhaps the earliest example of recorded human thoughts in this landlocked country. What drove these hunter-gather crowd and pastoralists? What were they thinking when they drew, carved and painted on these granite rocks? What do their messages convey to us today, living so far away from their time? No matter, we feel that affinity with them, as we step now on the very grounds they walked on. Tread softly, these are sacred grounds, a voice whispers.

Scholars who have studied the ancient rock art of Kumi at the Nyero sites have discovered a basic difference between them and other rock arts. Unlike most rock art associated with hunter gatherer societies that generally depict images of hunters and the hunted, the Nyero rock art do not depict any recognizable human or animal shape. The Nyero images are composed mainly of what look like geometric shapes and images resembling the sun, the moon and other celestial bodies. This has lead researchers to conclude that these images were created for the purposes of divination and that these sites must have been used for such things as rain making and fertility rites. There is evidence that these two activities still go on here today albeit secretively. Virulent Christianity has put a damp on many traditional practices.

It is these human activities at the site that are now endangering the ancient rock art. The chemicals in the food used for the rites eat away the ancient rocks and the images. The algae tourists and the others bring with them nib away at the ancient paintings. The graffiti scrolled on them are a menace. The creeping activities of quarrying at the sites, bound to increase in future if left unchecked, pose a new and formidable danger.

The future for the ancient rock art of Uganda looks bleak. There is an element of irony here. Many new rock art sites have been discovered in the country lately and continue to be discovered, especially in the beautiful and pristine Karamoja Region. There years ago a landslide around Mount Elgon revealed an amazing set of rock carvings hundreds of years old never before seen, although they weren’t as old as the rock art of Nyero in Kumi. There is a growing interest in the country in its rock art heritage. There is hope, but a solution needs to be found urgently to undo the damage caused by the graffiti attack and to stop it completely.

*John Otim is the Editor of Nile Journal