The Taita Skull Caves are the spectacular end result of an ancient and strange burial culture practised among the Wasagalla, Wadawida and Wakasigau people who inhabited Taita Hills for centuries before Christianity arrived.
When people died in the Taita community, they were buried for a year after which their bodies would be exhumed and the skull severed from the rest of the body and taken to a sacred cave, to be buried ‘properly’ among the ancestors.
A sharp rock would be placed just above the last vertebra of the neck at the time of burial to enable easier detachment of the skull later. The rock would form a wedge on the decomposing body thereby making separation from the rest of the skeleton much easier.
There was a system of arranging the skulls in the caves. The first row of skulls would be stacked near the entrance facing the setting sun and thereafter subsequent skulls would be lined up according to the clan or lineage of the deceased.
The burial caves became important religious sites where the elders of the community would come to appeal to their ancestors for help in times of need such as during famine and drought or during disease outbreaks.
Not all people were accorded this type of burial. Among the Wadawida, for instance, only the skulls of elderly men above 70 years would be laid to rest in the caves. The Wasagalla, however, included the skulls of women and children in their caves.
Thieves and murderers received a totally different treatment – they were thrown to their deaths over the numerous cliffs that dot Taita Hills. Their skulls, trapped in the crevices of these cliffs, can be seen to date in Mount Sagalla.
Quite similar to the Roman culture of burying the dead in catacombs, the practice differed only in what part of the anatomy got buried and where it was buried – skulls and caves. Historians believe this practice went on until the beginning of the 20th century when early Christian missionaries began to arrive in Kenya.
The caves, along with their ancient assets comprising 32 skulls, still remain a highly revered symbol of the Taita culture. Interestingly, perhaps by coincidence, it is at the Taita Skull Caves where the first original African violets were discovered.
Violets are extensively sold as pot plants in Europe and America. Most of the subspecies are today listed as either critically endangered or threatened due mainly to habitat loss although they seem to thrive around the caves.
Try to see if you can also spot the rare and critically endangered Sagalla Caecilian, a worm-like amphibian, native to the Taita Hills. The equally rare and critically endangered Taita Thrush is also endemic to these parts. When will you be going to the Taita Skull Caves?