Angola

Highlight images

Country overview

Image count

26

Date range

1,000 BC BC to 17th century AD

Main areas

Tchitundu-Hulu

Techniques

Engravings and paintings

Main themes

Wild animals, human figures, hunting or war scenes, geometric symbols

Introduction

Angola is a country located in the south-west of Africa, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the centre of the continent. Angolan rock art consists both of engravings and paintings, and is mostly located relatively near to the coast, although some sites have also been documented in the easternmost part of the country, near the border with Zambia. Depictions are very varied, representing animals, human figures and geometric signs, in many cases grouped in hunting or war scenes. In some cases, firearms appear represented, showing the period of contact with Europeans from the 1500s onwards.

Geography and rock art distribution

Angola has a variety of climates. The flat coastal plain ranges between 25 and 150 km in width, and is a semiarid region covered by scrub, turning into sand dunes to the south, near Namibia. The coastal region abruptly gives way to a series of mountains and escarpments divided by the Cuanza River. The northern part has an average height of 500 m, but the southern region is far higher, with the peaks occasionally exceeding 2,300 m. This mountainous region is in fact a transitional area between the coastal plain and the great central plateau of Africa. This plateau dominates Angola’s geography with an altitude from 1,200 to 1,800 m, and consists of a region of plains and low hills with a tropical climate. The climate becomes drier to the south and wetter to the north, where a wide region of the country can be defined as rainforest.

Rock art in Angola is primarily located in the coastal region, from north to south, with a clear concentration in its central area. However some rock art sites have also been discovered in the interior of the country, especially in its east-central region, and therefore this concentration in the coast could be explained by different research priorities in the past. Although both paintings and engravings are present in Angolan rock art, the latter seem to be predominant near the coast, while paintings are more common in the interior and to the south.

Research history

Although there are some references in Portuguese chronicles from the 1500s and 1600s which could correspond to rock art paintings, the first clear mention of a rock art site was made in 1816 with research only starting in 1939, when José Redinha published the first news about engravings of Angola. Since then, research was intermittent until the 1950s, when the important site of Tchitundu-Hulu was studied and published. The relevance of Tchitundu-Hulu attracted the attention of important scholars such as Desmond Clark and the Abbé Breuil, who along with Portuguese researchers contextualized Angolan rock art within the continent. Research increased significantly over the next two decades, but during the 1980s political instability gave way to a period of stagnation until the 1990s, when new researchers began comprehensive surveys and organised the available rock art information.

Themes

The rock art in Angola has a wide variety of styles and themes, depending on the region and the chronology. The oldest images are painted or engraved geometric symbols and anthropomorphic figures. More recent depictions include axes, spears and firearms. The latest period of the Angolan rock art includes complex scenes of war and hunting, and in a number of cases human figures carried on a palanquin-like structure. Although schematic figures are widespread throughout the country, they are predominant in the south-west where most of the sites have been compared to those in the Central Africa Schematic Art zone, with parallels in Malawi and Mozambique. In the west-central area of Angola, in addition to the schematic symbols and animals, images of men holding weapons, fighting and hunting are common, including warriors holding firearms which make reference to the first contact with Europeans by the 16th century. Near the north-west coast, some of the paintings and engravings have been related to objects used in religious ceremonies –wooden statuettes or decorated pot lids. In particular, a close association has been establish between rock art depictions and the so-called Cabinda pot lids, which have different carved symbols—animals, objects, human figures—acting as a shared visual language.

Chronology

As is so often the case with rock art, the dating of images is complex due to the absence of direct correlations between rock art depictions and well contextualised archaeological remains. Some of the sites with rock art have been excavated showing dates of the 7th millennium BC, but the relationship with the rock art is unclear. In the Tchitundu-Hulu Mulume site, the excavation at the cave provided a 1st millennium BC date, and the only radiocarbon date taken from the pigments at this site provided a date of the 1st century AD, which corresponds with other dates of the same style in Central Africa. The second tool for assigning a chronology is the analysis of the subject matter represented in the rock art depictions: the presence of metal objects, for example, would imply a date of the 1st millennium AD onwards, when this material was introduced. Whereas, depictions featuring images of firearms would date from the 16th century onwards. The end of the rock art tradition has been associated with the presence of Europeans but was probably progressive as the control of the region by the Portuguese grew during the 17th and 18th centuries.