Throughout Africa, one finds many types of caves, along with rich evidence of human occupation of the entrance area of caves. Some of the inscriptions and paintings on cave walls are more than 30,000 years old. Caves were and are used in Africa for rest, shelter, fires, ceremonies, secret hideaways, mining of precious stones and metals, and rituals. After a brief look at the geology of caves, this entry examines their place in African culture, with a focus on religion.

Geological Background

Caves are rock or lava tubes with openings large enough for humans to find shelter or refuge. There are many types of caves in Africa. For example, some are formed at the same time as the surrounding rock and are called primary caves. Most of these are the results of lava activity. Normally created as lava flows down a volcano's side, the cave appears when the first crust cools and another flow of lava carves a path under the crust so that the resulting opening, when the lava flows out, is a cavernous area.
Secondary caves in Africa exist when processes inside rocks called solution and erosion occur. When rainwater, over many centuries, dissolves gypsum from between less soluble rocks, caves can be made. In Africa, one finds this type of karstification, a special land form produced in solution and erosion, in many cave formations. There are many other types of caves, but these are the most common in Africa. Fortunately for Africa's cave formation, there are lots of limestone areas where limestone has dissolved because of rain or groundwater and produced karsts, sinkholes, streams, and drainage areas. Often acidic water percolating from the surface creates stalactites and stalagmites.

Historical Context

The cave in South Africa's Gauteng Province, a World Heritage Site, has yielded the oldest and most complete human skull in science. It dates to 2.5 million years ago and figures in the search for human origins. In terms of evolution, the caves of southern Africa have simply confirmed the length of time that hominids and humans have occupied the continent.
The Khoisan people of South Africa left their marks on many caves. When one examines the myths of the Zulu, who say that they came from inside the Earth, it is clear that the idea of a cave origin is possible in their thought. Although the Zulu appear in the region long after the San and Khoi people, they may have been as struck by the mystical nature of the caves as the San. Of course, because the ancestors of the San and Khoi had lived in the area around Klasies Rivers about 125,000 years ago, they are considered some of the earliest cave dwellers having left indications of their presence on the Tsitsikamma coastline of South Africa. There are evidences of stone tools and flakes used for hunting and cooking. It is clear that the dwellers at the southern tip of Africa were modern humans in every way. They used the same skills, methods, and reasoning as modern humans, yet they lived in caves and perfected a lithic technology that included thin bladed stones and arrowheads.

The Sacred Chambers

One of the best-known caves in Nigeria is the Ogba Ogbunike Cave, which was used by the local people as a hideaway when European and Arab slave-raiding parties were seeking kidnap victims. The people retreated to the deep chambers of the Ogbunike from where they could defend themselves from their enemy. A network of chambers and tunnels made the cave especially difficult for those seeking to capture the people. Because of its rich history and the stories that accompany its long tradition, people have come to regard it with a special sacredness. In fact, one can only enter the cave with bare feet.
The Igbo people believe that a deity named Ogba lived in the cave inside of a large rock that allowed the deity to have an all-seeing eye. Nothing humans did escaped Ogba. If someone was a thief, Ogba could detect this crime. Thus, when a person was accused of a crime, he or she could enter the cave to prove his or her innocence. If he or she returned, the people considered the person innocent. However, the guilty party never returned alive. Another famous cave in the Igbo area is the Arochukwu Cave, which has become a major tourist attraction. This cave has a special formation that is apparently made of some form of metal through which the chief priest is able to speak to the people.

Other Functions of Caves

Obviously, the main uses of caves were for shelter and protection. For example, in southern Africa, the Mpumalanga people were able to use the magnificent Echo Caves to warn of the approach of the Swazi army and to hide themselves in the far reaches of the caves. The caves extend more than 40 kilometers, and when the Mpumalanga struck a special stalactite, it made a sound louder than any drum. When it was sounded, the people knew to take refuge in the cave.
Other caves are found in Cameroon, Algeria, Niger, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and several other African nations. The continent seems to be punctured by numerous caves, some quite deep and long, and others rather shallow, being nothing more than rock cliff shelters that have been carved out of rock through erosion. The Domboshowa Cave in Zimbabwe is famous for its rock paintings, but there are other caves in this country that are famous for evidence of some of the earliest mining in the world.
The Ndorobo people of Western Kenya have always considered the caves of Chepkitale Forest more suitable for living than the agricultural lands at the foot of Mount Elgon. Conflicts with the government and other clans over land and resources have forced the Ndorobo to choose their original homeland over the land given to them by the Kenyan government. The Ndorobo are related to the Soy and form the seminomadic group called Sabaot. But when the Ndorobo lived in the highlands and the Soy in the lowlands, they had community peace; but when the Kenyan government made their area a natural preserve and forced them away from the highlands and the caves, the Ndorobo believed they had lost contact with their ancestors.
Clearly, the use of caves in African history and culture is not limited to one function. In some cases, people have used the caves as hideouts where they could go to escape their enemies; in other cases, the cave has been seen as a sacred land, a special place, where the eye or the voice of a powerful deity could be seen or felt. Still other people have used the peculiar rock formations as drums to warn their people of impending danger. Ceremonies have taken place in some caves where Africans make contact with ancestors who are said to have come from inside the Earth. Caves in Africa have been the venues for all types of human behaviors. The cave, just as the river, the mountain, the forest, or the lake, is a powerful space for the union of people and the deity. It remains alive, historic, distant, close, and mysterious all at once.



  • caves
  • Africa
  • Southern Africa
  • Zulu
  • erosion
  • shelters
  • Zimbabwe


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Asante, M. K. (2007). The History of Africa. London: Routledge.
  • Balandier, G., and Maquet J. (1974). Dictionary of Black African Civilization. New York: Amiel.
  • Parrinde, G. (1954). African Traditional Religion. London: Hutchinson University Library.