Highlight images

Country overview

Image count


Date range

1,000 BC onwards

Main areas

Chongoni Hills



Main themes

Cattle, anthropomorphs, geometric symbols


Malawi is a landlocked country in south-eastern Africa, located between Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. It stretches from north to south with the eastern boundary of the country marked by the Lake Malawi. Rock art can be found throughout the country but is especially abundant in central Malawi, near the western border with Mozambique. It consists exclusively of paintings attributed to two very distinctive groups (hunter-gatherers and farmers), and shows obvious links with other sites located in Zambia and western Mozambique. The images consist mainly of animals, anthropomorphic figures and geometric symbols, with a chronology that ranges from the Late Stone Age to the 1950s.

Geography and rock art distribution

The geography of Malawi is conditioned by the Great Rift Valley, which runs from north to south and which contains Lake Malawi (also known as Lake Nyasa). Almost 600 km long and more than 50 km wide, Lake Malawi is the second biggest lake in Africa and a key geographical feature of Malawi and the surrounding countries, as well as an important economic resource for the country. The rest of the country west of the Rift Valley is dominated by high plateaus, mostly ranging from 900-1200 m above sea level but reaching 2500 m in the Nyika Plateau to the north and 3000 m at Mt. Mulanje, to the south. The climate is equatorial, with strong seasonal differences, and hotter in the southern part of the country.

Although rock art can be found in several areas in Malawi, the main concentration of sites is located in the Chongoni area, in the westernmost part of central Malawi, very near the border with Mozambique. In that area around 150 rock art sites have been located so far, belonging to the two main traditions of rock art found in the country. Other smaller concentrations of rock art can be found to the south and to the north-west, and around the southern side of Lake Malawi. The distribution of the different styles of Malawian rock art varies substantially: while the older paintings attributed to hunter-gatherers can be found everywhere throughout the country, those made by farmers are concentrated in the Chongoni area, as well as nearby areas of Mozambique and Zambia. Rock art is usually scattered throughout the landscape, in hilly areas where gneiss outcrops provide shelters and well-protected surfaces adequate for painting.

Research history

Rock art in Malawi has been documented by Europeans since at least the 1920s, although it wasn’t until the 1950s when the first articles on the subject were published, and it was only in 1978 a first synthesis on Malawian rock art was undertaken (Lindgren, N.E. & Schoffeleers, J.M. 1978). In the 1980s research increased, especially on Chongoni rock art as its importance as a secret society artefact became evident. In 1995 the Chongoni rock art area was comprehensively studied by Benjamin Smith as a part of his doctoral research (1995), which is still the main reference on the topic. Most of the research on Malawi rock art has focused on the study of the two different painting traditions found in Malawi. A basic proposal was made in 1978 when the red paintings—mostly geometric—considered older and attributed to hunter-gatherers, while white paintings were related to more modern groups of farmers which arrived early in the 2nd millennium AD and preserved their painting traditions until the 1950s. Since 1978, the knowledge of these two groups has substantially improved, with a more refined proposal made by Benjamin Smith in his doctoral dissertation.

Another important aspect of rock art research in Malawi has been to look at the maintenance of painting traditions until relatively recent times. These exceptional examples have provided fertile ground for further research, as many of these later paintings have been effectively interpreted as parts of initiation rituals that are still undertaken today. The study of the secret societies that preserve this knowledge has been a characteristic feature of Malawi rock art research since the 1970s (Lindgren, N.E. & Schoffeleers, J.M. 1978).


Rock art in Malawi is clearly defined in two groups with different styles, chronologies and production contexts. The first one is characterized by red schematic paintings with parallels in Central Africa from Malawi to Angola. These paintings are associated with the ancestors of modern Batwa hunter-gatherers, and can be classified into two different types. The first can be considered the most characteristic and is represented by circles with radiating lines, concentric circles, ovals, wavy or parallel lines. In some cases, red figures are infilled in white painting or white dots. The second type is very scarce (only two examples have been found in Chongoni) and depicts very schematic animals, sometimes accompanied by humans. Both types are finely executed with red oxide pigment. Regarding their interpretation, the figures seem to have been associated with rainmaking and fertility concepts.

The second and more modern rock art tradition found in Malawi is represented by white figures made with white clay daubed onto rock surfaces with the finger. Associated with the agriculturalist Chewa people, the depictions usually represent zoomorphic, spread-eagled or snake-like figures which could represent mythological beings, sometimes accompanied by geometric symbols. As in the case of the schematic figures, two types of paintings have been proposed: those related to spread-eagled figures and those representing zoomorphs (animal-like figures). The paintings were made until several decades ago, as testified by depictions of cars that can be found at some sites. In this case, the interpretation of the paintings is straightforward, as the images depicted can still be related to current rituals often employing masks in a variety of shapes. The spread-eagled paintings may be associated with a Chewa girl’s initiation ceremony and would act as a mnemonic tool during the ritual, while the zoomorphic paintings may depict spirit characters of the Chewa men’s secret society, the nyau. In many cases, these paintings can overlap the older red paintings already existing at some sites


Although it is generally accepted that the red schematic paintings are older than the white ones, the exact chronology of these styles is still under discussion. The earliest evidence for human occupation in the region according to the archaeological record is around 2,500 years ago, and it is generally assumed that Late Stone Age hunters and gatherers made this rock art. Unfortunately no datable evidence has been found although groups of these people survived until the 1800s in Malawi. For the white paintings, chronologies are more accurate: the Chewa people are thought to have arrived to central Malawi in the 15th century, and as aforementioned, painting traditions were still alive in the mid-20th century.