Taita Skull Caves

The Taita are a historically significant and culturally rich people group in the Tsavo area.

Share the article

They traditionally lived in the moist forests that top the magnificent Taita hills, which rise dramatically above Tsavo's semi-arid landscape. The Taita hills are actually three distinct groups of hills: Sagalla, Dawida, and Kasigau. The people on each of these hills are named Wasagalla, Wadawida (also sometimes Taita), and Wakasigau, respectively. They speak unique dialects and practise unique traditions, but there are many similarities among them. One of the more popular traditions shared by these people are the skull caves.

Similar to the concept of a catacomb, the dead were stored in caves, but unlike the Roman Catacombs, only the skulls were kept. The practice died out near the beginning of the 1900's when Christian missionaries began to convert the Taita, but the caves remain (along with the skulls) as a symbol of their cultural heritage.

The skulls themselves were removed from the skeleton after the corpse had been buried in the ground for a year. In order to facilitate their removal, a sharp rock was placed under the neck above the last vertebra at the time of burial. As the body decomposed, the rock became a wedge, which separated the skull from the rest of the skeleton. In this way, when the body was exhumed, the skull could be lifted easily from the grave.

There was a methodology to the way in which skulls were arranged in the caves. Firstly, they were stacked near the entrance and directed to face the setting sun. Secondly, the skulls were placed in lines according to clan/lineage. Since the caves served as the final resting place for their ancestors, they became important religious sites. In times of need or disaster such as during famine and drought or during outbreaks of disease, the elders would appeal to their ancestors here for help.

Not all people were awarded the privilege of burial in the caves, however. Among the Wadawida, only the skulls of elderly men would be laid to rest in the caves. The Wasagalla included the skulls of women and children, but like other Taita groups, criminals were treated differently.

Many of the spectacular cliffs which adorn the sides of the Taita hills were used for disciplinary purposes.  Thieves, murderers and rapists would be thrown to their deaths from these cliffs after being found guilty by village elders. It was the responsibility of the criminal's uncle or another relative to push them over the edge. In some cases, what was not a massive drop was actually a large crevice into which a sack-bound miscreant would be shoved.

These traditions are no longer practised in the Taita hills, which are now principally Christian, but the caves remain and can be visited by tourists to Tsavo. Income from these visits in Sagalla are being used to fund conservation efforts in and around the hill. These efforts are vitally important, as the Taita hills are home to many endemic species of plants and animals including several varieties of African Violets, the Taita Thrush and Taita White-eye (birds), and the Sagalla Caecilian, a critically endangered worm-like amphibian native to the Taita hills. In addition, the cloud forests on top of the Taita Hills serve as important water catchments in an otherwise dry environment.