I have often wished over the years that Tanzania’s rock paintings might be better known and more widely appreciated. They are so beautiful and disappearing so fast.
Mary Leakey, 1983
In central Tanzania, high on an escarpment overlooking the Maasai Steppe, are some of the world’s oldest paintings. Hidden among woodlands or inside shallow caves – or sometimes brazenly on cliff faces or stone overhangs – are some of our ancestors’ earliest experiments with artistic expression. We do not yet fully know what the paintings mean . . . and may never know. But these rock ‘canvasses’ contain critical clues to understanding the distant lives and beliefs of our predecessors.
Rock art is found on every continent on earth except Antarctica, scattered across an estimated half a million sites in the “the largest open-air art museum ever known” - the natural world. In Africa alone, some 200,000 sites are home to 10 million or more images, an awesome collection stretching from the Cape to Cairo, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
There are many passionate disagreements as to the origin and purpose of these ancient paintings and engravings. Some suggest that rock art evolved as a way of teaching or passing information to the next generation; others that these are just pictorial representations of everyday life – our ancestors recording how they lived or what was around them. Still others suggest that the art may have been created for religious or magical purposes.
Looking at the ‘canvasses’ a little more closely, we can find ‘evidence’ to substantiate all these theories. Within the African oeuvre, for instance, one can see depictions of some of the continent’s most important historical events. In Egypt, rock art informs us of the invention of the wheel; in South Africa, it records the migration of the Trek Boers; in Tanzania, a chilling painting appearing to show a group of people fastened together by the neck may just be, as Mary Leakey speculated, the first visual representation of slavery.
Yet these historically situated images are unusual; the exception rather than the rule. It is much more common to see, as we do in Kondoa (Tanzania’s central art site), what appear to be initiation ceremonies, hunting scenes and dances – events that have probably taken place at regular intervals over millennia.
Yet lest we fall into the trap of complacently labelling these images ‘scenes of everyday life’, let us look at them more closely. When we do, we find that the paintings lack critical details of the natural world. Plants and trees, for example, are rarely depicted, horizons and the ground are absent, and proportion is often hugely distorted. These then are not simply naturalistic representations of what our ancestors saw in the woodlands around them. Something else is going on.
In Kondoa, some creatures (giraffes, eland, humans) feature much more than others (wildebeest, birds); some images (elephants, antelope) are painted again and again, whereas others (reptiles, insects) are seldom or rarely drawn. This means that our ancestors were making choices about what they represented. They chose sometimes to portray sexual organs, but never facial parts or expressions. They chose to paint what appear to be hunting and dancing scenes, but not images of children playing or women cooking. They did not depict sex or child birth or breast feeding. And although animals feature again and again, rarely do they include details of the landscape they would have roamed in.
The artists were thus making choices about what they drew, not randomly or arbitrarily copying what was before them.
Many archaeologists believe that we can only begin to unpick the secrets of the paintings by understanding the artists who produced them. But how can we do that when there are no living practitioners of rock art around? Who can we talk to, and who can we ask?
The Sandawe are one of the two remaining hunter-forager tribes of Tanzania, and they claim that it was their ancestors who created most of the ancient paintings we see in Kondoa. Although the tribe no longer paints, the few surviving accounts we have of Sandawe artists from the last century all link the creation of their art to certain rituals, and in particular to the Simbo, a trance dance in which local shamans imaginarily assume the power of the lion in order to communicate with the spirit world. Certain painted elements within the Kondoa collection make sense in terms of what we know of shamanistic rituals, and certain features can perhaps best be understood by reference to altered states of consciousness.
Other academics, however, have very different explanations for the art of Kondoa and elsewhere, and in truth there may not be a single purpose or meaning to the amazing images produced by our ancestors. The many paintings in Kondoa appear to have been executed over thousands of years by different cultural groups using different styles and materials, so that the art may indeed have – as archaeologists like Eric Ten Raa believe – “multiple motives” and “multiple uses”. The secrets of the paintings are, therefore, as excitingly mysterious as ever, and the search for their meanings goes on.
Until recently, rock art was being regularly created and renewed. But no longer. The Sandawe largely stopped painting in the 1960s for reasons we do not fully understand. Elsewhere on the continent, the fashion for creating pictographs and petroglyphs has also died out. It seems, then, that the environmental, spiritual and cultural forces that led the human race to draw and doodle on rocks have disappeared, along with the last practitioners of these ancient arts. The collection of images we have left is thus extremely precious . . . one of our only connections to extinct worlds.
Despite the excellent work being done by organisations at an international, regional and national level, so much is still needed to protect the art of Kondoa. Old and new threats cast a shadow over the future of the paintings, and expedite their destruction. Some are the ongoing effects of natural weathering, deforestation and an expanding human population. Others who have damaged the pictographs are the very ones we might have expected to revere them: rock art aficionados who clamber over painted panels to reach less accessible images, or who splash coca cola on the paintings to bring up their colour for a moment, or who steal painted fragments.
The ancient paintings of Tanzania are an amazing resource for historians and archaeologists, and open windows onto vanished worlds. Within the paintings may be important evidence about our human past, information that only time and further research will help us understand. Rock art is naturally robust – if it was not, it would not have survived for millennia – but humans seem to have changed their relationship to it so that it is no longer guarded and protected as something sacred.
For the past half century, Tanzania’s paintings have been vanishing at such a frightening rate that some archaeologists predict they will have been entirely destroyed within a decade. Certainly, some of the paintings that Mary Leakey recorded in the 1950s have already disappeared or been damaged beyond recognition, and all that now survive are the tracings made by her team half a century ago. Unless we protect them now, the Kondoa paintings will not survive for future generations to access and enjoy. And should we continue to treat them roughly and without regard, we shall have to accept the end result: that they will disappear forever.
For more information on how to visit Kondoa or help protect the rock art of Tanzania or Africa please contact www.racctz.org or www.africanrockart.org.
This article is an abridged version of ‘Land of Paint and Rock’ a chapter on the Kondoa paintings which can be found in my book, Seven Wonders.