Kenya’s Samburu warriors still practice a rock art tradition that tells their stories
The Samburu people in the north Kenyafrom Marsabit County are pastors. They migrate from place to place in search of pasture and water for their cattle, goats, sheep and camels.
As part of their way of life, Samburu boys go through a period of initiation while living in rock shelters, learning to care for their animals and becoming warriors.
Meanwhile, the young warriors – called lmurran – express themselves by painting pictures on the rocks. It is one of the few ongoing rock art traditions in the world, but it has received almost no attention from rock art researchers.
Rock art has been around for over 60,000 years and it exists on every continent except Antarctica.
Papua New Guinea and parts of Australia are among the few other places where new rock art is still being created, maintained or repainted, such as at the Samburu sites.
Ancient rock art images offer insight into human thoughts and beliefs from a time when there were no written records. But it is difficult to interpret these images because first-hand information is lacking.
The current Samburu rock art tradition therefore offers a unique chance to know where, when and why the rock art was created.
Linnaeus University in Sweden and the University of Western Australia have started a community project with the Samburu to learn more about this tradition.
The first results of the project were recently published in our research article.
Rock art scholars tend to view the images as representing rituals and myths.
In contrast, our project revealed that the current rock art of Samburu tradition commemorates real events and is intended as a leisure activity.
Samburu warriors and rock art
At the age of 15, Samburu boys leave their villages and go through initiation rituals that mark the passage from childhood to warrior status. During the two-month induction period, they learn their protection duties.
As young warriors, lmurrans move from camp to camp and live in rock shelters or caves where they eat, relax, dance, and sometimes hold feasts. It is during these stays in rock shelters that they create rock art.
The images they paint commemorate real events related to the world of warrior life and express the wishes and expectations of young men.
It could be an animal they saw or hunted, or a village girl. Dancing is an important part of Samburu culture and some paintings depict boys and girls dancing together.
The images are made with red, white, yellow and black paint. Before the arrival of Europeans in the 1940s, artists preferred a red ocher pigment, which was also used for smearing hair and body.
The white color was animal fat, which cleared as it dried. To make black paint, they used charcoal. As a binder, all pigments were mixed with fat from slaughtered animals.
Today, commercial paint is also used with more traditional pigments.
Talking to Samburu today, they often downplay the importance of rock art. We don’t talk about paintings but we do them for leisure.
By interviewing current and ancient lmurrans, we discovered that they were familiar with the rock art sites created by previous generations. The oldest rock art remembered by the ancients was over 150 years old.
While visiting the rock art sites, we saw an intriguing relationship between the rock art made by different generations of warriors. Today’s warriors draw on older art, but add their own memories and style, and sometimes the artists’ names as well.
The images become an intergenerational visual culture that reflects and recreates a warrior identity and way of life.
Samburu Visual Culture and Rock Art Research
Another thing we learned from Samburu rock art is that the artists always have specific people, animals and objects in mind when making their drawings. This is not clearly expressed in the drawings as they lack identifying details.
The study of the images does not reveal the intention of the artist: it is necessary to speak to the artist to understand what he wanted his art to express. Many works of art reflect the warriors’ first-hand experiences.
An example comes from Mount Ng’iro in South Horr. Here, at least five generations of Imurran have created the rock art. The most recent was created by two older brothers of a research participant, Lmapili Lengewa (26).
The brothers, Lpalani and Lejinai, were around 20 and 16 years old respectively when they made the paintings. Lmapili was present when the paintings were created, although he was too young at the time to be an lmurran.
The brothers learned by studying older paintings, but their paintings were made to commemorate what they had experienced as a newly enthroned Imurran.
A bull figure, for example, depicts a bull that they have slaughtered and eaten.
At the time, there were about five or six people in the shelter; most of them focused on food preparation, while the two brothers created the rock art.
While there are indeed many rituals in the Samburu culture, rock art is not one of those practices.
Certainly, there are standards that guide the creation of rock art, but the artist is free to express himself as long as the images reflect the experiences of young men.
Being able to hear the artist’s own thoughts, perspectives and stories on specific paintings is a unique opportunity for rock art researchers around the world.
Our in progress community led project aims to learn more about the Samburu lmurran lifeworlds and bring their stories to the world, also benefiting the local Samburu communities.
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