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Mapping the Rock Art of Northern Kenya: Dating thousands of years ago, it’s an insight into a world that once was through art chiselled on rock by our human ancestors

Above: African Rock Art with giraffe illuminated against the night sky, north Kenya. Copyright: Paolo Torchio

Published: The East African Nation Media 28 September to 4 October 2019, abrdiged version

“It’s the night sky, the same night sky seen thousands of years ago by another person,” explains Paolo Torchio. “It’s what l wanted to capture.”

The image is taken in Turkana in Kenya’s northern desert lands, the bedrock of human evolution from several million years ago. The rock illuminated by a galaxy of stars shines on a giraffe chiselled on it by our human ancestors. It’s dated between 10,000 and two thousand years ago.

“The sky is the same thousands of years later,” comments Torchio, “but the landscape is not.”

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African Rock Art with giraffe, north Kenya. Copyright: Paolo Torchio

In 2017, Torchio was commissioned by the Italian Cultural Institute in Nairobi to photograph the little-known rock art of northern Kenya. In the company of John Mwangi from the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) Earth Sciences department, the two men trawled the desert sands in extreme temperatures to map some of the world’s least known rock art with many documented for the first time on this expedition. They covered 50 sites in ten days with every site now marked with a GPS pin. They were guided by Lorenzo Rizzini, an expert of the Turkana territory without whose knowledge of the difficult territory in the Turkana region, this job would not have been possible.

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At the Jade Sea, the other name for Lake Turkana because of the colour of the water. Copyright: Paolo Torchio

The photographic exhibition opened Thursday 19 September 2019 for the conference titled “Rock Art, an African legacy” by Prof. Savino Di Lernia (“La Sapienza” University of Rome) and by Dr. Emmanuel Ndiema (National Museums of Kenya) hosted by the Embassy of Italy and Italian Cultural Institute in collaboration with National Museums of Kenya

Torchio is more famous as an award-winning wildlife photographer than a pre-historic man. Mwangi on the other hand is an old-hand at relics from the past. He’s worked in the northern deserts for ten years including the Koobi Fora Field Station on the shores of Lake Turkana in Sibiloi National Park.

Between 2015 and 2016, Mwangi was commissioned by the Lake Turkana Wind Project to document the heritage sites around Lake Turkana, a requirement by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to preserve the cultural and natural heritage of the country.

Rock Art

Rock art is our first tangible insight into the world of our ancestors evolving from the ape into a ‘thinking’ human. It is the thinking human’s first attempt at depicting the world around using the rock as a canvas and a sharp-edged stone as a chisel, way before ochre was used as paint and paper invented.

“Between 2015 and 2016, l recorded as many rock art sites and other sites with features of interest like the stone tools,” tells Mwangi showing the image of a microlith.

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John Mwangi from the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) Earth Sciences department on a ock art site in north Kenya standing by an ancient game called bao, still played on boards and even holes scooped out in the sand. Copyright Paolo Torchio

“This is a refined stone tool,” he tells describing the sharp edged shard about half an inch long. “It dates about 2000 years ago and we found thousands scattered around the rock shelters used by the humans.” The innocuous looking stone flint was a major leap forward from the older stone tools like the palm-sized hand-axes dated between 900,000 and 600,000 years ago at Olorgesailie prehistoric site in the Great Rift Valley, 60 kilometres south of Nairobi. The microlith was multi-purpose. It was used as an arrow tip to hunt and then to neatly slice open the skin of the animals.

Mwangi continues to describe the images featured. “This one of the men standing near an ostrich is probably them comparing their height to that of the ostrich and on the same rock we have gazelles with men behind them. It’s probably them hunting.

“What’s really interesting that in all these rock art sites, we have seen only a single cow.”

According to research, the ancient domesticated African cattle originated in the ‘Fertile Crescent,’ that is today modern-day Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Israel. They are similar to the cattle first domesticated in the Middle East nearly 10,000 years ago, proving that cattle were brought to Africa as farmers migrated south.

The most numerous animal in African rock art is the giraffe.

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Giraffes and antelopes – African rock art – in north Kenya. Copyright Paolo Torchio

It’s ironic because fewer than 10,000 exist today. The last three decades has seen a 40 per cent decline in the world’s tallest animal with some of the nine sub-species listed as Critically endangered or endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List.

Other animals featured on the rock canvas are also numerous elephants, camels and gazelles including the long-necked gerenuk.

“So we see a very different Turkana from what it is today,” states Mwangi. “It was a grassland with trees because of the animals we see on the rock art.

“Our ancestors depended on the environment. It was the source of their food.”

And the rock art chiselled by our ancestors thousands of years ago shows the environmental degradation that is today – a desert continuing to expand.

Protection

None of the 50 rock art sites are gazetted and many have been damaged or destroyed over time. An image shows timber poles piled on one site belonging to a wind farm.

There are many more that are yet to be recorded, according to Mwangi.

“I’d say only five per cent of Kenyans are aware of rock art. We need more education and research for people to appreciate it,” counsels Mwangi. “The NMK has the mandate to gazette, so hopefully we will see many sites protected.”

“Rock art is amazing,” chips in Torchio. “I realised that there is a lot that you don’t see when driving and if you don’t look for it, you don’t see it. Many times we were just asking the local herders and they would take us to these rock shelters or gorges where the rock art is. After a while, you get to recognise the sites and so wherever there was a flat land with a rocky hill, we would climb and we’d see the art.

“It’s great for tourism. Instead of always rushing to the national parks to see wildlife, this is a new area.”

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The African rock art team camping in north Kenya. Copyright Paolo Torchio

Tips for Rock Art Photography

“It’s very different from wildlife photography,” says Torchio. “Rock art is almost invisible at times. It comes alive in different light.

“If you just shoot, you get a blank rock and not the art. So you have to choose the right lens and set the right shutter speed. The night picture of the desert sky with the rock art was using a tripod with a long exposure.”

Turkana

Lake Turkana basin is famous for fossils of our earliest human ancestors. The most famous is the 1984 discovery of the Turkana Boy, a nearly complete skeleton of a Homo ergaster juvenile, by Kamoya Kimeu dated 1.5 million years ago to 1.6 million years ago.

In 1994 Maeve Leakey discovered Australopithecus anamensis fossils dated around 4 million years ago and recently, a 3.5 million-year-old skull named Kenyanthropus platyops (“the flat-faced man of Kenya”).

Richard Leakey, son of Louis and Mary Leakey are the first family of hominin fossil finders. The Leakeys have led many anthropological expeditions in the area which have led to important discoveries of hominin remains.

Lake Turkana is the world’s largest permanent desert lake (and the world’s largest alkaline lake).  Lake Turkana National Parks are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These are Sibiloi National Park  on the lake’s eastern shore, while Central Island National Park and South Island National Park lie in the lake.

But it’s a World Heritage Site in danger now threatened by the construction of Gilgel Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia due to the damming of the Omo River which supplies most of the lake’s water.

Trust for African Rock Art – TARA

Read more on African Rock Art on the TARA https://africanrockart.org/website. TARA is a Nairobi-based organisation committed to recording the rich rock art heritage of the African continent, to making this information widely accessible and, to the extent possible, safeguarding those sites most threatened by humans and nature. To achieve its mission, TARA works closely with communities where rock art is found as well as with national and international heritage bodies including the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

There are rock art sites around Nairobi the capital city of Kenya and around the country and on the African continent.

Important: Never touch rock art and scratch on it for it is a cultural heritage and a timeline of our evolution. By defacing it, you are destroying something that has been there for thousands of years and.

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