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18 May 2004
Petroglyphs puzzle experts

An intriguing series of carved images on rock faces in the desert near Kalacha (Kenya) has generated a number of theories. But so far there is no consensus amongst experts on why they were carved. The images, of giraffe, antelope and elephant, line a path that runs along the base of a hill. Local guide Worabu explains: “Hunters would come here, where they could look down at a sunken waterhole where animals came to drink. They just had to block the way out and would kill their prey with spears and arrows safely from their own sort of balcony.”
     But it would probably be a mistake to regard the images as hunting trophies or a score card of kills, warns David Coulson, a British expert who has traveled all over Africa to record its rock art. “It’s more likely to be something about magic, shamanism or the power attributed to this or that animal,” says Coulson, who has published several books on the subject from his Nairobi base. Coulson, with co-author Alec Cambell, sits on the committee of the Trust for African Rock Art, which works to preserve ancient images.
     “The giraffe, which we find depicted in the Sahara and East Africa, is clearly considered to be an animal with particular powers. Sometimes we’ve seen them with their heads poking through the clouds, getting rained on. The giraffe seems to be associated with rain, which is essential for hunters who depend on lots of game.” But there is as yet no explanation of the other animals portrayed at Kalacha, and at two other sites in the region. “The trouble, or perhaps the appeal, of the East African carvings is that nothing is known with certainty about them,” says Coulson. “I recently took part in a seminar of experts in London. The conclusion, quite normal for rock art matters, was ‘we don’t know’.”
     Precise dating of the images found at Kalacha and in the Sahara is problematic because carbon dating cannot be used on non-organic material. Coulson speculates that the images could be one or two thousand years old, but certainly no older than 2,300 years because the area was under a lake at that time. The identity of the artists is also unknown. “A whole series of different peoples lived here in succession and disappeared during numerous clashes over the centuries.”
     The National Museums of Kenya has never conducted a detailed study of the Kalachi site, but Coulson is pressing for the images to be protected from the elements and tourists before they are lost forever.

Source: News24 (17 May 2004)

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