Zimbabwe has more than 10,000 rock art sites within its borders. Just what do we know about them?
What is art?
How best to define the term “art” is a subject of constant contention. Theodor Adorno, the German-born international sociologist, philosopher, musicologist, and composer claimed in 1969 “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident”.
Art refers to a diverse range of human activities, creations, and expressions that are appealing to the senses or emotions of a human individual. The word “art” may be used to cover all or any of the arts, including music, literature and other forms.
It is most often used to refer specifically to the visual arts, including media such as painting and sculpture.
Art is a system for communication and is probably humanity’s most powerful way of communicating and sharing ideas, concepts, feelings, hopes and dreams.
What is Rock Art then?
It can be defined simply as paintings and/or engravings on a rock surface.
In Zimbabwe, prehistoric paintings are found almost wherever there is a granite outcrop, and to a limited extent in the sandstone regions to the south and west of the country.
Few engravings are known in the country’s borders. The most commonly painted animal in Zimbabwe is the female kudu, while in Namibia it is the springbok and in SA the eland.
Who were the painters and engravers?
The question of which group is relatively easy to answer.
The Shona people have no connection in oral tradition with the painters.
It is generally accepted that the painters were the hunter-gatherer ancestors of present-day San, otherwise known as the Bushmen.
When were they done?
Radiocarbon dating of the actual paint, although never used in Zimbabwe, has been difficult to use because of the tiny amounts of original carbon or organic matter in the paint.
A few broken slabs of granite with paint on them were recovered in the deposit (soil) at Pomongwe Cave in the Matobo Hills.
These levels date to at least 13,000 years old. Archaeologists also recovered worn, broken slabs of granite marked with traces of paint in laters dating to as much as 35,000 years ago in Pomongwe Cave, Matobo Hills.
They argued that these were very early examples of art mobilier or portable art which if confirmed, would make this the oldest such art in the world.
The oldest positive and complete art object found in Zimbabwe is a stone engraved with a grid design recovered in excavations at Bambata Cave. It is at least 8,500 years old.
Therefore how long people have been painting here is unclear but it was certainly during the Later Stone Age (13,000 – 2,000 years ago), although there is no reason why the artistic tradition could not have started much earlier, and finished much later.
Materials and Techniques?
The paint used comprised two elements – a pigment such as ochre or a mineral which gives colour; and a binder such as plant sap, blood or egg albumen which gives paint its fluidity.
The reds and oranges are natural ochres of weathered banded ironstone; blacks are thought to be weathered manganese, while the source of the very unstable white paint is debated.
Some suggest it was naturally occurring weathered clay but others have proposed that it was fired lead oxides.
Paint was mixed in eggshell or skin containers and stone palettes were used. It was applied to the rock surface with the finger, quills, reeds, feathers and thin bones.
Why paint at all?
The hardest and most asked question has been left to last. Why? This takes us into a labyrinth of academic interpretation and personal opinion.
It is now accepted by professional researchers that that the art is not the simple depiction of everyday life.
Neither is the art simplistic totems or identity symbols for regional groups. Rather the art is a depiction of the complex religion of the Late Stone Age hunter-gatherers, and although undoubtedly beautiful, it has meanings that go beyond the aesthetic.
The images are likely to signify various aspects of human emotions, relationships and interactions with each other and the world around them.
Ok, so what do we know?
The dominant interpretive model for rock art in southern Africa is believed to be ‘essentially shamanistic’. This means that the art represents a range of San religious beliefs, rituals and experiences.
It consists of symbols of San supernatural potency, images of trance dancers, fragments of trance dances, visions, transformed shamans, monsters and beings from the spirit world.
Animals are part of the spirit world which it is surrounds us unseen except as hallucinations and visions encountered by shamans during trance.
What is trance?
Medicine men would go into altered states of consciousness, through strenuous dancing (trance dance) or perhaps even the use of certain herbs and plants.
They would do this in order to contact the supernatural world, heal any sick people, ‘control’ animals and influence weather, especially with regard to rainmaking.
Research on human nervous system has shown that when people go into trance/altered states of consciousness they experience similar visions, sounds and hallucinations regardless of differing cultural backgrounds.
The different ways people interpret these visions depends on their cultures.
Far out! But why paint?!
In much of the rock art in southern Africa, the real world and the spirit world appear to be interwoven, mingling reality and non-reality.
The painting of images in rock shelters would suggest that these were places of power where the material world intersected with the spirit world.
The rock faces themselves became reservoirs of supernatural potency, aiding and reinforcing the efforts of the medicine men.
The painting itself served as a permanent record of what was achieved in addition to becoming a way to make sure that the results lasted.
We do not, however, fully understand the forces that drove these hunter-gatherer communities to engrave and paint.
It is argued that the dance behaviour and the encounters of the shaman in these “other worlds,” are frequently represented in the art in metaphorical and literal portrayals.
The creation of the rock art was one way that the experiences of the shaman in trance could be communicated and shared with the group, part of the egalitarian nature of the society.
Any dissenting ideas?
While it has proven to be an extremely able approach in interpreting the hidden meanings to the art the shamanistic model is not universally accepted by academics, nor should it be. It is clear that it explains some of the images but not all.
Conflicting ideas about the relevance and viability of this method exist and are hotly debated by researchers around the world, often on the basis of personalities rather than the actual understanding of heritage.
Others, including the foremost rock art researcher in Zimbabwe, Peter Garlake, suggest that the art is cultural iconography, others that it represents myths or are statements of social structuring.
So what was painted?
All rock art studies have shown that, in spite of the apparent variety of animals painted, not all species were drawn.
Furthermore, the animals portrayed do not always correlate with those generally eaten in different societies.
Excavations at sites around Zimbabwe have shown that the majority of bones recovered from LSA contexts come from small animals but in their art big antelopes, especially kudu, dominate.
We must understand that the animal figures are not just replicas of living animals but they are selected symbols included in the art for what they represent to the artists and their intended audience, similar to the way the lamb has deep spiritual meanings in Christian religions.
One could argue that the hunter-gatherers used the animals to “think with,” painting them to express complex ideas and social values.
Animal symbolism chosen by the prehistoric Matopos communities reflects the complex relationships that existed between humans and between humans and animals in the natural environment.
What about people?
The human figures are also not realistic pictures of events in people’s lives, such as success in a hunt or good party.
They are equally symbolic invoking metaphoric human relationships both with each other and the wider world in which these people lived.
Human figures are found at most of the sites. Most humans are shown are depicted in groups but at others sites “seemingly” solitary figures can be found.
As in other parts of Zimbabwe the most frequently occurring human figure is that of the “male hunter;” reflecting the gendered bias in their society.
Did other societies paint?
Little research has been done on so-called Iron Age rock art, that created by farming communities.
People often refer to all the art as the creation of dzangara mudzimu (non-ancestral spirits) or the “little people”. But this is a mistaken idea.
It is quite different from that of the hunter-gatherers, often appearing to be more rudimentary and schematic.
The paintings are almost always a single colour smeared on by hand and finger using a white clay-based pigment.
Black drawing and paintings, done with charcoal are known while the use of red vegetable dyes for the art, while known, is extremely rare.
Pictures of elephants created from clay plastered onto the walls of the shelters are or were used in rain-making ceremonies.
Shadow-like images are left when this clay later flakes off. Other symbols painted are reminiscent of similar figures used in initiation ceremonies practised elsewhere in the region.
There is a lot more to say on this topic, which will be the subject of a future briefing.