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Kilifi Caves (Panga Ya Saidi, Mawe Meru and Chasimba Caves)

Date of Submission: 30/06/2023
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
National Museums of Kenya
State, Province or Region:
Kilifi County
Coordinates: S3 44 32.5 E39 42 06.4
Ref.: 6684

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This is proposed serial site comprised of Panga ya Saidi, Meru and Chasimba Caves which are in close proximity, related and similar based on their archaeology.

Panga ya Saidi

Panga ya Saidi is an archaeological cave site located in Kilifi County, southeastern Kenya, about 15 km from the Indian Ocean in the Dzitsoni limestone hills. The cave site has rich archaeological deposits dating to the Middle Stone Age, Later Stone Age, and Iron Age. Excavated deposits preserve an unusually long record of human activities, from around 78,000 years ago until around 400 years ago, a chronology supported by radiocarbon dating and optically stimulated luminescence dating.

The interdisciplinary archaeological investigations carried out by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in partnership with the National Museums of Kenya, have helped to establish the significance of Panga ya Saidi for understanding the Middle to the Later Stone Age technological transition as well as the proliferation of symbolic objects such as bone tools, engraved ochre, and beads in Late Pleistocene eastern Africa. Zooarchaeology and stable isotope analysis have been used to reconstruct Late Pleistocene and Holocene palaeoecology and subsistence from animal bone remains. Investigations have also focused on the role of the site in late Holocene agricultural and trading networks along the Swahili coast, with African crops such as pearl millet, non-native animals such as black rat, marine shell beads, glass beads, and Tana ware pottery documented in the Iron Age deposits. Ancient DNA recovered from a 400-year-old burial indicated that this individual was most closely related to ancient and present-day hunter-gatherers in eastern Africa, including the ancient individual at Mota, Ethiopia.

The site is located in Kilifi County in the larger coastal areas which include the limestone Dzitsoni Uplands. Thirteen rivers extend across the area, creating floodplains and alluvial valleys. The site's environmental surroundings are part of an overall transition from low coastal plains to coastal uplands to high coastal plains. In the Northern part of the region, the low and high coastal plains are separated by a foot plateau. The southern part of the region differs in that the low and high coastal plains are instead divided by a coastal range. This coastal range is defined by steep hills and erosional scarps. In terms of vegetation, the site is situated on the edge of the Arabuko Sokoke Forest, overlooking the Shale Savannah, and is west of the lowland dry forest on coral rag and the mangrove thickets on the low coastal plains. The region experiences two rainy seasons. The first short rainy season spans from October to December, and is followed by a long rainy season lasting from April to June.

Mawe Meru

This outcrop within the mining area is both of cultural significance to the local communities living around it, and has unique biodiversity that is endemic and thus found only on this outcrop in the whole world. The sense of identity and pride, as well as the sense of triumphs and endeavours within nature and culture, is in-built and inherent in humans. The Achonyi associate themselves with nature's phenomenal features and structures around them and natural features, such as this, are regarded as God-given gifts to humanity and, hence considered as a cultural and natural gem.

Mawe Meru is a cultural identity site used as a source of edifying spiritual and social fulfillment for the communities and individuals living around it. It is the platform onto which the societal values are built and the value system that cements a community’s socioeconomic and moral fabrics for a peaceful, cohesive and progressive society, complete with inbuilt conflict resolution mechanisms. It enhances mutual scoping in the universality of issues, and affirms and entrenches the commonality of humanity’s thoughts and beliefs, thereby safeguarding a group’s ability to see the good in others and the creation of a common view on unanimous issues affecting everyone.

The outcrop is a living heritage space where people visit for spiritual healing and prayers. Mawe Meru provides the Chonyi community with a sense of identity and continuity. This has always been transmitted to successive generations and loss of this living heritage space through acts of human destruction will cause irreversible damage to the community’s identity.

Culture has the potential to create and conjoin approaches towards the understanding of calamities that threaten human existence and can foster the ability to build consensus on solution formulation to serve the common good. It is a unique source of indigenous and scientific knowledge, which are valuable to society's good in terms of innovative solutions to shared challenges.

Mawe Meru houses endemic animal and plant communities, some of which have been mapped out by scientists, revealing the presence of unique types of plants, which are only found in this rock outcrop the world over. Some of the animals such as bats and hyraxes, both tree and rock hyraxes, are bound to be lost through loss of their habitats and pollution. It is common knowledge that mining through blasting weakens the geologic integrity of rock formations. Blast-mining is a great risk to this site and the area around Mawe Meru that can lead to loss of flora and fauna within this “island” setting and also to the community living around the rocky outcrop.

Chasimba Cave

The Chasimba habitat is unique in that it harbours unique geological features found nowhere else, and with cultural identity and spiritual significance. The site is also unique as it forms part of the unique outcrop ecosystem with unique and endemic biodiversity including rare and threatened species found nowhere else in the world.

The site has both cultural and natural resources, which are unique to this place. The outcrop is preserved in-situ for rehabilitation, restoration and development into a recreational area for the preservation and conservation of both the tangible and intangible heritage, complete with the unique fauna and flora in this site for enjoyment by global citizens besides the local communities.

Further thorough research should be undertaken to comprehensively target the natural and cultural landscape with a view to finding and documenting in all possible ways all unique fauna, flora and cultural artifacts on the landscape so as to rescue and produce a database of the cultural and natural heritage within the mining site. This should be professionally undertaken complete with a comprehensive plan on how the endemic species will be conserved and guarantee the sustainability of all the species.

According to Robertson and Luke, a total of 423 plant species are found in the outcrops out of which 59 species are rare according to the IUCN Red List. The Chasimba outcrops have 93 species out of which 34 are endemic to the outcrops. A new species, Premna mwademei, was recently recorded by scientists from the National Museums of Kenya , while some species such as Oxystigma msoo are Near Extinction, and Mkilua fragrans which are endemic to coastal Kenya are Highly Threatened.

The dominant trees, Lannea welwitschii, Inhambanella henriquesii, Cola pseudoclavata, Gyrocarpus americanus and Pandanus rabaiensis, are common only in this habitat and there are several species assigned by IUCN to the following statuses: Endangered (EN), Vulnerable (VU), Near Threatened (NT) and Critically Endangered (CR). These include Kalanchoe ballyi (EN), Isolona cauliflora (EN), Chytranthus obliquinervis (VU), Cyathogyne usambarensis (VU), Zehneria sp.nov, Euphorbia wakefeildii (EN), Combretum chionanthoides (NT), and Streptocarpus ionanthus sub-species rupicola (CR), endemic to Cha Simba, Oxystigma msoo (VU), Cordia torrei (EN), and Cola octoloboides (EN).

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Kilifi Caves are central to understanding human evolution and adaptations to complex environments. The sites open up questions about the origin and evolution of mortuary practices between two closely related human species, and the degree to which our behaviours and emotions differ from one to another. The caves system holds evidence that shows that inhumation of the dead is a cultural practice shared by Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals.

The caves system also holds the oldest stratified evidence of marine engagement in Eastern Africa and is the only site in Africa which documents coastal resources from the Late Pleistocene through the Holocene, highlighting the potential archaeological importance of peri-coastal sites to debates about marine resource relationships.

Criterion (ii): The site exhibits an important interchange of human values through the mortuary practices.

Criterion (iii): The mortuary practises are a cultural tradition that has gone on for a long span of time within the East African landscape.

Criterion (iv): The mortuary practice is an outstanding cultural practice which illustrates a significant stage in the life of humans.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The site’s authenticity is protected by the cultural norms that protect the forest due to its sacred nature. The thick forest and the association with traditional healer “Saidi” has helped in keeping the site intact.

Comparison with other similar properties

The Kilifi Caves sequence puts it alongside other key sites such as Enkapune ya Muto, Mumba Rock shelter, and Nasera Rock shelter that are important for understanding the Late Pleistocene and the Middle to Later Stone Age transition in eastern Africa.