Archeological sites in Uganda are evenly distributed across the country, making it easy to visit them from any part of the country you may find yourself. Uganda is home to over 50 tribes that are divided into four language groupings which include the Madi-Moru, Nilotics, Bantu, and Nilot-Hamites.
The Nilotics include semi-nomadic pastoralists such as the Karamojong in north east. The Bantu speakers are found in the kingdom of Buganda, Ankole, and Busoga, east, central and western parts of the country. There are the hunter-gatherer pygmies including Batwa found around the gorilla parks in the west and the Bambuti in Semliki near the border with Ituri province of Eastern DR Congo.
These people have for many generations left behind a wide range of archeological footprints including rock art paintings and earthworks that date back to the Late Stone Age period about 40,000 years ago. Visiting archeological sites in Uganda offers an opportunity to learn about the indigenous knowledge of Ugandans in several aspects such as traditional medicine, agriculture, food preparation, art and crafts, and education. There are 6 archeological sites in Uganda as highlighted below of which 5 are on the tentative list of UNESCO world heritage sites.Cultural heritage is recognized in the national cultural policy to boost tourism in rural communities.
Cultural tours are available for booking a responsible tour operator. This can include going to museums including Uganda national museum in Kampala capital city, Karamoja museum and cultural center in Moroto town, Igongo cultural museum in Mbarara city, and Great Lakes Museum along the Mbarara-Kabale highway.
Nsongezi Rock Shelters
The late Stone Age archeological site, Nsongezi rocks are located in Isingiro district 326 km (5-hour drive) south west of Kampala capital city and 57 km (1-hour drive) south of Mbarara city. The Nsongezi rock shelters are on the north bank of Kagera river valley near the border with Tanzania. The place contains rock shelters and caves where tiny tools of the Late Stone Age era called microliths were unearthed. These artifacts can be found at the Uganda National Museum.
Besides the microliths, pottery objects were also found at Nsongezi and are known to have been used from 900 AD to 1,000 AD by either the bushmen or hunter gatherer societies including the Batwa pygmies. Given that the bushmen are not mainly found in Uganda today, the Nsongezi rock shelters are attributed to the Batwa pygmies. Batwa originally lived in the tropical forests of East and central Africa and obtained food by hunting, fishing,and foraging rather than farming.
In addition to wild honey and fruits, Akagera river provided fish that sustained the pygmies. According to a scholarly paper by Nelson, M. Posnansky and Charles M. “The Stone Tools from the Re-excavation of Nsongezi Rock Shelter, Uganda ”, the hunter-gatherer communities lived in and around Nsongezi before the arrival of the Bantu cultivators in the Neolithic period (New Stone Age) that began around 1,000 AD.
Nyero Rock Paintings
Nyero rock art paintings are found in Kumi district south of Lake Bisina in Teso subregion north Eastern Uganda. Kumi is 241 km (4-hour drive) east of Kampala capital city, 163 km (2-hours) north east of Jinja source of the Nile, 55 km north of Mbale city, and 55 km south east of Soroti town.
The best way to get to Nyero is by private car given that there are no direct public buses. A guided tour is available for booking through a tour operator. Taxis to Kumi may be available in Kampala, Jinja, and Mbale towns. The paintings at Nyero rocks depict wild animals, canoes as well as geometric patterns, U-shapes, dots, and vertical lines of which the most dominant are the concentric circles.
According to the British Museum database, the Nyero rock art paintings are believed to have been created between 3,000 – 12,000 years ago. It is the oldest rock art in Uganda and was first documented in 1913. The age of the paintings may be known, however, there’s debate about the people who created them. Archeological studies first mentioned bushmen who are presently found in southern Africa.
The second study accounts that the paintings were done by the Batwa pygmies who originally lived in the tropical forests of East and central Africa. The Batwa people in Uganda live mainly on the edge of Bwindi impenetrable and Mgahinga gorilla national parks in southwestern Uganda. The most recent studies indicate that the Nyero rock art paintings were done by the indigenous Karamojong semi nomadic pastoralists. Most of the markings painted in red and white are well recognized.
However, some are fading off due to the washing away of the colors by rain. The rock art must be protected to safeguard the cultural heritage. The Uganda National Commission for UNESCO nominated the Nyero rock art paintings on the tentative list of sites to be inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list.
The commission is a quasi-autonomous institution working under the Ministry of Education and Sports to link Uganda to UNESCO agencies to ensure implementation of the national cultural policy. The rock paintings are on the Uganda shillings 1,000 note. Nyero rock paintings can be visited as part of the Uganda safari to Pian Upe wildlife reserve or Kidepo valley national park. The site is open Monday to Friday and entrance fee is 30,000 Uganda shillings per person.
Bigo Bya Mugenyi
Located on the south banks of Katonga river in Mawogola county in Sembabule district central Uganda, Bigo Bya Mugenyi is 184 km west of Kampala city. Branch off from Masaka municipality and drive 57 km to get there. The Bachwezi believed to be demigods had a strong presence in central and western Uganda as well as northern Tanzania between 1,000 AD to 1,500 AD.
The area in and around Sembabule commonly known as Bwera was the most important area of the Chwezi Empire. They built forts in Bigo Bya Mugenyi and in the neighboring Ntusi village which consist of several earthworks that include mounds, enclosures, and trench systems. The earthworks at Bigo Bya Mugenyi extend for 10 sq.km at an elevation of 1,256 meters above sea level, making for the largest ancient monument in Uganda.
Some of the ditches range from 10 meters wide and 1.5 to 4 meters deep and extend for 6 km. According to the Directorate of Geological Survey and Mines, the earthworks may have served a number of functions including for protection and defense, shelter, ceremonies and rituals, and storage of agricultural and other commodities.
The Bachwezi are famous for introducing the Ankole longhorn cows and relied on them for survival but also engaged in cultivation and gathering of wild fruits. Archeologists who investigated the site included British colonial administrators Baines and A.D Combe among others like P.L. Shinnie, and M. Posnansky. They found remains of artifacts including over 42,000 pottery jars and pots, beads, bracelets, iron spearheads and arrows, and fire kerbs, and some examples of African fiber and textiles.
They suggested that the trenches might have been constructed to guard against wild elephants that roamed in the Katonga wildlife reserve and the invading Luo speaking groups. The Bachwezi founded the Bunyoro-Kitara empire which became a unified state with a centralized government in the Great Lakes region with organizational techniques to build such earthworks. Bigo Bya Mugenyi earthworks are open for visitors. There’s a site tour guide and visitors should prepare for a nature walk around the area. The entrance fee is 15,000 Uganda shillings per person.
Ntusi village is in Lwemiyaga county 16 km from Bigo Bya Mugenyi. The place contains a man made basin and two mounds. The Uganda Department of Antiquities and Museums excavated some of the mounds in the early 1960s, determining that they date back to the Late Iron Age period between 400 AD and 800 AD. The Ntusi archeological site is two centuries older than the Bigo Bya Mugenyi earthworks. Though Ntusi and Bigo are both linked to the Bachwezi, some researchers speculate that the Bachwezi initially constructed mounds at Ntusi there before relocating to Bigo Bya Mugenyi.
Kibiro salt gardens
The Kibiro salt mining gardens are located in Kigorobya sub county, Hoima district Bunyoro sub region on the south eastern shores of Lake Albert. Kibiro village is 34 km north of Hoima municipality. Hoima town serves as a stopover for those traveling between Kibale forest and Murchison falls national parks.
There are restaurants that offer local and continental dishes as well as a wide range of accommodation. Visitors can stay in town or take a short excursion to Kibiro and learn about how salt is obtained from the soil. Demonstrations are done shortly for visitors to get a glimpse of the whole process which takes 7 days.
Boat rides on Lake Albert are also available. Mining and processing salt is done mostly by women and children given that men are engaged in fishing. Kibiro landing site contains a hot spring, sandy and salty soils which aren’t fertile for cultivation. Therefore, salt production and fishing constitute the major economic activities and it is not surprising that locals still engage in some form of barter trade of food stuff for salt.
The demand for salt is not high given that people use traditional methods and the output is not efficient. There’s also another well-established mining industry at Lake Katwe outside Queen Elizabeth national park that takes up much of the market. Kibiro salt mining and production industry has been operational for over 800 years, making for an important cultural heritage site in Uganda.
Archeological artifacts including broken pieces of clay pots were also uncovered indicating the technology that the local people used to produce salt. Kibiro salt gardens are considered to be of outstanding value to humanity and were added on the tentative list of the UNESCO world heritage sites. Despite the fact that Kibiro salt gardens has been recognized internationally, salt production is still challenged by lack of modern technology. People rely on traditional methods such as obtaining firewood which encourages deforestation.
Archeological sites in Karamoja
Karamoja is a semi-arid region in north eastern Uganda along the border with Kenya and South Sudan. The region is inhabited by several Nilotic speaking semi-nomadic pastoral groups including Karamojong, Matheniko, IK, Dodoth, and Jie. Cattle are central to their way of life and most of the Karamojong have maintained their traditional culture. They live outside protected areas including Kidepo valley national park and Pian Upe wildlife reserve.
The Karamoja history and archeology tour offers an opportunity to discover ancient rock art painting sites including the Rangi on Mount Kadam, Kobebe hills on Mount Moroto. Other rock art sites include Nakadanya, Loteleit, Nakapeliet, and Mogoth rocks. When visiting archeological sites, visitors are encouraged to be respectful of the local culture.