As part of their lifestyle, Samburu boys go through an initiation period when they live in rock shelters, learning how to care for their animals and how to be warriors.
During this time young warriors – called Lamurans – expressed themselves by painting on rocks. It is one of the world’s few surviving rock art traditions, but it has received almost no attention among rock art researchers.
Rock art has been created for over 60,000 years and exists on every continent except Antarctica.
Papua New Guinea and parts of Australia are among a few other places where new rock art is still being created, maintained or repainted like the Samburu site.
“ Back to the recommendation story
Ancient rock art images provide a glimpse into the thoughts and beliefs of people from a time when there were no written records. However, these images are difficult to interpret due to the lack of first-hand information.
The ongoing Samburu rock art tradition, therefore, presents a unique opportunity to learn where, when and why rock art was created.
Linnaeus University in Sweden and the University of Western Australia have started a community-led project together with Samburu to learn about this tradition.
The first results of the project were recently published in our research paper.
Rock art researchers consider the images to represent rituals and mythology.
In contrast, our project revealed that current Samburu rock art traditions commemorate real-life events and are created as a leisure activity.
Samburu Warriors and Rock Art
At age 15, Samburu boys leave their villages and undergo initiation rituals that mark the transition from childhood to warriorhood. During the two-month initiation period they learn about their protective responsibilities.
As young warriors, Elmurans move from camp to camp and live in rock shelters or caves where they eat, rest, dance, and sometimes hold feasts. They create rock art while at the Rock Shelter.
The pictures they draw recall real-life events related to the warrior life-world, and they express the desires and expectations of the youth.
It could be an animal they have seen or hunted, or a girl returning to the village home. Dance is an important part of Samburu culture and some paintings show boys and girls dancing together.
The pictures are made using red, white, yellow and black colors. Before the arrival of Europeans in the 1940s, artists preferred a pigment called red ocher, which was also used to stain their hair and body.
The white color was animal fat, which turned lighter when dried. They used charcoal to make black paint. As a binder, all pigments were mixed with slaughtered animal fat.
Today, commercial paints are also used along with more traditional pigments.
When talking to Samburu today, they often downplay the importance of rock art. Painting is not about talking but is done for leisure.
By interviewing current and former lmurran we found that they were well aware of rock art sites created by previous generations. The oldest rock art known to ancients was more than 150 years old.
While visiting the rock art sites we saw an interesting correlation between the rock art created by different generations of warriors. Today’s fighters are inspired by old art, but add their own memories and styles, and sometimes even add artists’ names.
The images become an inter-generational visual culture that reflects and reconstructs a warrior’s identity and lifestyle.
Samburu Visual Culture and Rock Art Research
Another thing we learned from the Samburu rock art is that the artists had specific people, animals and objects in mind when they painted them. This is not clearly expressed in the drawings as they lack identifying details.
Studying images does not reveal the artist’s intentions: you need to talk to the artist to understand what they want their art to express. Many of the artworks reflect the first-hand experiences of the warriors.
An example comes from Mount Njiro in South Hor. At least five generations of Lamurans created rock art here. The most recent was made by the two older brothers of our study participant, Lampili Lengewa (26).
The brothers, Lpalani and Lejinai, were about 20 and 16 when they were painted. Lampili was present when the paintings were made, although he was then too young to be a Lammuraan.
The brothers learned by studying older paintings, but their paintings were created to commemorate the newly incorporated Elmuran experience.
A picture of a bull, for example, a bull they slaughtered and ate.
There were about five or six people in the shelter at that time; Most of them focused on cooking, while two brothers created rock art.
Although there are indeed many rituals in Sambu culture, rock art is not part of such practices.
Of course there are guidelines for creating rock art, but the artist is free to express himself as long as the images reflect the experiences of young men.
It is a unique opportunity for rock art researchers worldwide to hear the artist’s own reflections, perspectives and stories about specific paintings.
Our ongoing community-led project aims to learn more about the Samburu Lammuran life-world and bring their stories to the world, also benefiting local Samburu communities.