Nsalu Cave

The Cave is reached by turning west off the Great North Road thirty kilometres north of Kanona, then south after a further fourteen kilometres. The road from the Great North Road to the cave is signposted and in good condition but visitors is advised not to proceed from Nsalu Cave to the Livingstone Memorial by the direct route.

Nsalu Cave is kept locked, but the rock paintings can easily be seen from outside the fence. Visitors wishing to enter the cave must be accompanied by the caretaker, Mr Thomas Mambwe, whose home, clearly signposted, is on the approach road seven kilometres from the Great North Road. A fee per party is payable to the caretaker for this service. A guide leaflet giving full details of the site is available from the caretaker. The caretaker is not on duty on Wednesdays.

The cave opens two-thirds of the way up the northwest side of Nsalu Hill and about fifty metres above the plateau surface. It is a large semi circular cave, about twenty metres wide, ten metres deep and up to eight metres high.

Archaeological investigations have shown a long prehistoric occupation of the site. Excavations conducted by Dr. J. Clark in 1949 demonstrated that the site was probably first inhabited by Middle Stone Age folk perhaps as long as 20,000 years or more. The majority of the remains discovered were of Late Stone Age type and these may demonstrate a prolonged occupation by these peoples from around 12,000 years ago until about AD 1000. At that time Iron Age farmers were gradually replacing the Late Stone Age people and traces of both Early (first millennium AD) and later Iron Age occupation are found at Nsalu. Two decapitated human skeletons that were found buried in shallow graves in the cave probably to the late Iron Age.

The great part of these blue quartzite walls of Nsalu Cave is covered with schematic rock paintings, and displays larger and more varied collection of these paintings than any other site so far discovered in Zambia.

The earliest paintings are yellow and include find delicate grids, parallel lines, ladders, concentric circles and elongated loops, but thick line paintings in yellow are more frequent and may have been painted with the finger.

The next oldest series, overlying the yellow, is drawn in claret to rust-red paint and is characterized by line drawings probably also executed by means of a finger dipped in paint. The main designs are parallel lines, several forms of grid, loops and large, inverted semi-circular design forming a bridge-like motif. Belonging to this stage also are certain boat-shaped designs and concentric circles, some with internal radiating lines.

Overlying the red paintings are bichrome designs in red and white. The commonest motifs consist of two parallel lines in white with a red line filling the space between them. In other designs only white paint was apparently used. These motifs take the form of short parallel lines both vertical and horizontal, loops and carefully executed lines of fine dots.

The latest paintings in the cave are in a dirty white to grey pigments and represent a break with the earlier geometric paintings. Both style and technique are distinctive and these drawings have a fairly recent appearance for the fat, with which the pigment was mixed, still gives it body and has formed a halo round some of the signs. The paint is thick and has been clumsily applied either with the finger or some kind of broad brush. Besides crude copies of some of the earlier paintings there are “trees”, sun motifs with rays, anthropomorphic designs, a snake-like motif and three figures, which resemble stretched-out hides.

It is now thought that most, if not all, of this schematic art is the work of Iron Age people and dates from within the last 2000 years.


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