Nyero Rock Painting

It is among the dozen discrete panels of pre-historic rock art that are known from five different localities in Kumi and Soroti districts.

Nyero Rock Painting

It is among the dozen discrete panels of pre-historic rock art that are known from five different localities in Kumi and Soroti districts. The painting is in most cases monochromatic typically either red or white and the predominant figures are sets of four or five concentric circles, and strange compartmentalized sausage-shaped figures reminiscent of acacia pods. The paintings are traditionally believed to have been painted by the first settlers, the Bushmen who were hunter-gatherers and they were decentralized by the current settlers, the Itesots. The rocks were painted because it is said that they were places of worship. And another version has it that the rocks were painted by the first people to explain to the next generations that they were always disturbed by the lizards which ate the domestic animal like the hens and cocks and even killed people.

The palate drown was sourced from whatever the natural materials were available to them. Red pigments were created by scrapping the surface of a ferruginous rock, while the white paint was derived from a combination of clay, dung and sup and black from oxidized organic matter such as charcoal and burned fat. The raw ingredients would be ground finely and then mixed into a thick liquid such as albumin to form an adhesive paste that was applied to the rock using a rudimentary brush of animal hair. Unless you assume that the artists had one eye focused on posterity, it is reasonable to think that the surviving paintings constitute a minute proportion of their work, much of which would have been painted on to exposed rocks or more ephemeral surfaces such as animal hides.

The age of the rock art is a matter of conjecture, as is the identity of the artists. The Iteso people who have inhabited the region for the last 300 years reckon that the art has always been there. The Iteso tradition does relate that the region’s rock shelters were formally occupied by a short-light skinned race of people and excavations at Nyero have unearthed several microlithic tools of a type not used by the Iteso. Most likely, then, that the artists were hunter-gatherers with ethnic and cultural affiliations to the so-called Bushmen who were responsible for much of the rock art in Southern Africa. The paintings must be at least 300 years old and are possibly older.

As for the intent of the artists, the field is wide open. The circle is a universal theme in prehistoric art and its use could be mythological, symbolic (for instance, a representation of the cycle of the season) or more literal (the sun or moon). The possible clue to interpreting the rock art of Eastern Uganda comes from a style no house painting practised in Northeast DRC in association with rainmaking ceremonies. Here, concentric circles represent the sun, while wavy lines symbolize the moon’s feet which it is said-follow the rain (a reference to the link between the new moon and stormy weather). Could a similar purpose be attributed to the rock art of Eastern Uganda? Quite possibly, since Nyero is known to have been the site of Iteso rainmaking ceremonies in historic times. But it is a considerable part of these ancient painting’s mystique that they pose more questions than there are answers forthcoming-the simple truth is that we will never know.

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