Former UN Secretary-General (2005)
"Africa's rock art is the common heritage of all Africans and all people. It is the common heritage of humanity. As populations increase and vandalism and theft of Africa's rock art are on the rise, this irreplaceable resource is highly threatened. It is time for Africa's leaders to take a new and more active role. We must save this cultural heritage before it is too late".
Kofi Annan - Former UN Secretary-General (2005)
Africa has an embarrassment of rock art riches. When we hear the words ‘African rock art’ we think of the exquisite paintings made by the San in southern Africa, and the evocative desert paintings of the Tassili in north Africa. But, Africa has dozens more rock art traditions, made by many different groups and over thousands of years. Let us take a quick journey across the mother continent to explore these traditions and reconnect with the lands of our oldest ancestors and the place where art began.
The 'Fighting Cats' petroglyph
Wadi Mathendous, Libya
© David Coulson
Found in the Messak Settafet of Libya, the 'Fighting Cats' petroglyph is a striking depiction of two long-tailed figures confronting each other on their hindquarters as if fighting. They stand on an outcrop looking down over Wadi Mathendous, in a position of power and respect."
In the dry deserts of the Sahara. Here we find some of Africa’s oldest exposed rock paintings and engravings. We will see even older, buried, rock art images later, but for now let us travel back some 12,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age. 12,000 years ago much of the Sahara was a wet and rich grassland supporting great herds of plains animals. In the rock art of this time we see antelope, giraffe, elephant, rhino, lion, ostrich as well as forms of prehistoric cattle that became extinct about 5000 years ago. We even see images of hippo and crocodile, showing that there were pools and rivers in what is now a desert. Decades of research, by many specialists, have given us a rich understanding of the age, sequence and regional variation in Saharan rock art. But, the meaning of its complex symbolism remains elusive. Like all of Africa’s hunter-gatherer arts, this was far from a simple record of daily life: we see creatures that are part-human part-animal; giraffe with lines emanating from their mouths that meander across the rock-face until they finally join to a floating human form and many other mysterious beings. Cracking the code of this art is one of the greatest of research challenges today.
The Dabous giraffes of Niger are one such example, with lines carved from both the male and the female giraffe leading down to small human-like figures. For these to be included in the spectacular deep, polished engravings is surely significant. The giraffe engravings are located on an isolated outcrop; thought to be between 8,000 and 6,000 years old, the largest one measures almost 5.5 m. from horn to hoof. The outcrop has many other much smaller engravings.
From Uganda to Angola we find a remarkable tradition of geometric art
Moving south on our journey we enter what is now the tropical zone of Africa, famous for its dark impenetrable rainforests. This is the land of the forest hunter-gatherers that we know as the Pygmies. Genetic studies show that the varied Pygmy groups spread across central Africa are of great antiquity: they have lived in the region for at least the last 40,000 years. They are truly first peoples. Across the whole of the forest region from Uganda to Angola we find a remarkable tradition of geometric art. This area was termed “the Schematic Art Zone” by one of the fathers of African archaeology, Desmond Clark. Whilst geometric tradition art is not well known, nearly three thousand sites have been recorded. As well as the geometric images there are also a small number of sites with highly stylised and distorted animal figures plus rows of finger dots. The geometric art always dominates, but the two traditions appear together as a pair: they co-occur across a huge area and are regularly found close by. They seem to be kept near, but apart. Pygmy traditions are helping researchers to understand the reasons behind the existence of two Pygmy arts. Another film in this series will focus on this research. This pair of rock art traditions extends far beyond the forests suggesting that Pygmy groups once occupied a much larger section of central Africa.
The Kondoa region, Tanzania, Africa
The Kondoa Irangi Rock Paintings are a series of paintings on rockshelter walls in central Tanzania. The Kondoa region was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006 because of its impressive collection of rock art. These sites were named national monuments in 1937 by the Tanzania Antiquities Department.
In eastern Africa, in central Tanzania, lies one of the most intriguing of Africa’s hunter-gatherer rock arts. Whilst other traditions cover huge geographic areas and are represented at many thousands of sites, this tradition occurs at just a few hundred sites in an area of land less than 100km in diameter. It is an island within the Pygmy rock art zone. The art is made up entirely of animal and human forms. Its closest parallels are with the San art of southern Africa, but a number of its elements, such as its distinctive human head forms, are unique. The rock art distribution corresponds to spread of people who speak click-languages: the Sandawe and the Hadza. These groups, whilst much integrated with other groups today, have a hunter-gatherer ancestry that extends back long before the coming of pastoralists and farmers into the region. Again, geneticists confirm that these groups are of exceptional antiquity; along with the San of southern Africa, these are the oldest peoples on earth in terms of their genetic markers. There are a handful of accounts that, tantalisingly, describe Sandawe individuals making rock art early in the twentieth century. These accounts provide evidence that the practice of rock art was linked to particular Sandawe rituals, most notably to simbo. Simbo is an ecstatic dance in which the Sandawe communicate with their spirits. Elements in the art provide independent confirmation of this link because they display features that can only be understood by reference to simbo.
The Kondoa region was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006 because of its impressive collection of rock art. These sites were named national monuments in 1937 by the Tanzania Antiquities Department.
Kondoa Irangi Rock Paintings
Kondoa Irangi Rock Paintings
Kondoa Irangi Rock Paintings
Kondoa Irangi Rock Paintings
Kondoa Irangi Rock Paintings
Kondoa Irangi Rock Paintings
The Chongoni Rock-Art Area
Situated within a cluster of forested granite hills and covering an area of 126.4 km2, high up the plateau of central Malawi lies the Chongoni Rock-Art Area
, the 127 sites of this area feature the richest concentration of rock art in Central Africa. They reflect the comparatively scarce tradition of farmer rock art, as well as paintings by BaTwa hunter-gatherers who inhabited the area from the late Stone Age. The Chewa agriculturalists, whose ancestors lived there from the late Iron Age, practised rock painting until well into the 20th century. The symbols in the rock art, which are strongly associated with women, still have cultural relevance amongst the Chewa, and the sites are actively associated with ceremonies and rituals.
In view of this cultural importance, the Chongoni Rock-Art Area was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006 under Criteria III for the rich cultural traditions of rock art and Criteria VI for its continued link to the present society.
Far to the south, beyond the great Zambezi River, is the land of the oldest known of all the first peoples: the San or Bushmen. This is the place where, it seems, art began. The more recent San rock paintings and engravings of southern Africa, dating to the past 10,000 years, are amongst the most beautiful and fine of all world arts in terms of their technique. They are also amongst the most complex and sophisticated in terms of symbolism. Far from a general view of life, the art focuses on a particular part of San experience: the spirit world journeys and experiences of San religious specialists, people we know today as shamans. Thus we see many features from the all important trance dance, the venue in which the shamans gained access to the spirit world. We see dancers with antelope hooves, showing that they have taken on antelope power, just as San shamans describe in the Kalahari today. Then, we see shamans climbing up the ‘threads of light’ that connect to the sky-world. We see trance flight. But, the art was far from just a record of spirit journeys. Powerful substances such as eland blood were put into the paints so to make each image a reservoir of potency. As each generation of artists painted or engraved layer upon layer of art on the rock surfaces they were creating potent spiritual places. San rock art continued to be made into historical times. One of the last rock painters, Lindiso Dyantyi, was still painting as late as the 1930s.
From KwaZulu-Natal, a group of trancers in the process of capturing the "rain-bull"
San Bushmen describe their experiences of out-of-body travel as being like flying
Artists painted eland in a great variety of postures, from various perspectives
The spirit world journeys and experiences of San religious specialists or shamans
Rock Art images depict animals in relation to aspects of the San trance dance
Game Pass - The famous shelter in the Drakensberg Mountains of Southern Africa
The area exhibits a profusion of distinctive rock landforms rising above the granite shield that covers much of Zimbabwe. The large boulders provide abundant natural shelters and have been associated with human occupation from the early Stone Age right through to early historical times, and intermittently since. They also feature an outstanding collection of rock paintings. The Matobo Hills continue to provide a strong focus for the local community, which still uses shrines and sacred places closely linked to traditional, social and economic activities.
There were other rock art traditions being made in southern Africa at the time of the last San rock artists. Pastoralist groups, known as Khoekhoen, were finger-painting and engraving a tradition of geometric art; farmer groups such as the Northern Sotho were making white paintings as part of their boys and girls initiation ceremonies. These traditions have a particular history; they were brought to southern Africa when these groups moved into the region some 2000 years ago. Rock art traditions belonging to farmers and pastoralists are also found in a thin scatter across other parts of Africa. Typically each tradition is found at a few hundred sites rather than the many thousands of sites typical of hunter-gatherer traditions. The later arts tend to use white as their primary colour and pigment is often applied by hand rather than using a brush. Many pastoralist and farmer groups did not make rock art. They chose instead to make their ritual art in another medium, such as wooden and clay figurines or hut paintings. Farmer and pastoralist rock arts are therefore comparatively rare, even though they are some of the most recent.
Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
Mapungubwe is set hard against the northern border of South Africa, joining Zimbabwe and Botswana. It is an open, expansive savannah landscape at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. Mapungubwe developed into the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned in the 14th century. What survives are the almost untouched remains of the palace sites and also the entire settlement area dependent upon them, as well as two earlier capital sites, the whole presenting an unrivalled picture of the development of social and political structures over some 400 years.
To find out how this richness of ancient arts began we need to travel back far in time, nearly 80,000 years, to the dawn of modern humans. This was a time before our direct ancestors had reached beyond Africa and the Middle East. In the last decade we have found an unexpected richness in the early human archaeological sites of southern Africa. We have evidence that people were making harpoons. This means that they were planning their food collecting strategies in much more sophisticated ways than had ever been done by other animals or other hominids. They were also making awls and therefore were probably wearing skins for clothing. In terms of their mental capacity, they were just like us.
The key question is whether they thought like us, and the evidence seems to be that they did. What sets us apart from other animals is our ability to think ahead and to imagine things we cannot see. We can remember our dreams and we can imagine that they may come true. We can also imagine that we see visions of other things and other places, such as ghosts and a spirit world. We can think symbolically. We accept that an object can denote something that it is not. A shiny piece of stone can denote high status when it is worn, or a few lines on a rock can denote an animal. This ability is uniquely human and it has given us, and only us, the capacity to develop religion and to make art. We have the oldest proof of this kind of symbolic thinking 80,000 years ago in southern Africa. People in South Africa’s southern Cape were wearing beads and making complex patterned designs (or art) on pieces of ochre and egg shell. Other people in Botswana were carving into a strangely shaped rock that protrudes out of a cave and were bringing stone tools from hundreds of kilometres away and then breaking them in front of this rock. What exactly these early beliefs involved is hard to know, but a form of religion had begun and with it had come art. From this time we see art and religion continue and develop, and then spread out to other parts of the world. It is thus with good reason that we call Africa the place of Origins and recognise it as having the longest tradition of art on earth.
TARA - Trust for African Rock Art
David Coulson is the Chairman and founder of TARA, Trust for African Rock Art, a Nairobi-based international organization committed to the awareness and preservation of Africa’s Rock Art Heritage. The Trust’s Founding Patron was the Palaeontologist Dr. Mary Leakey. One of the leading photographers of paintings and petroglyphs. He has travelled extensively throughout the varied landscapes of the African continent capturing both the beauty and variety.
Since it was set up in the mid 1990’s TARA has worked in over 20 different African countries including 8 Sahara countries and the importance of its work has been endorsed by Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan. TARA partners internationally with UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and with the British Museum and with relevant state partners and institutions in Africa.
His book 'African Rock Art: Paintings & Engravings on Stone', co-authored by the late Alec Campbell, was published by Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York in 2001. The work of TARA in publicising the need for preservation is second to none. David is a member of the Bradshaw Foundation Advisory Board and a member of the Rock Art Network.
The University of Western Australia
University of Western Australia
Benjamin W. Smith gained his doctoral degree at Cambridge University, UK, in 1995. The topic of his doctoral research was the rock art of central Africa. From 1997 until 2012 he worked for the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, directing the Rock Art Research Institute from 2000 until 2012. He is now the Professor of World Rock Art in UWA Archaeology; Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Arts, Business, Law and Education; President of the ICOMOS International Scientific Committee for Rock Art..