Tanzania

Highlight images

Country overview

Image count

1447

Date range

10,000-3,000 years - a few hundred years ago

Main areas

Kondoa region and Lake Eyasi basin

Techniques

Predominantly paintings with some engravings

Main themes

Stylised human figures, animals, geometric motifs

Introduction

Containing some of the densest concentrations of rock art in East Africa, Tanzania includes many different styles and periods of rock art, the earliest of which may date back 10,000 years. Consisting mainly of paintings, rock art is found predominantly in the Kondoa region and the adjoining Lake Eyasi basin. Those at Kondoa were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006, and were the first to be documented by missionaries in 1908.

Geography and Rock Art distribution

Situated within the Great Lakes Region of East Africa, Tanzania is bordered by Kenya and Uganda to the north; Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west; Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique to the south; and the Indian Ocean to the east, with a coastline of approx. 800km. At 947,303 km², Tanzania is the largest country in East Africa and is home to Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro (5,895 m, 19,340 feet), located in the north-east of the country.

Central Tanzania is comprised largely of a plateau, which is mainly grassland and contains many national parks. The north of the country is predominantly arable and includes the national capital of Dodoma. The north-east of the country is mountainous and contains the eastern arm of the Great Rift Valley. Further north-west is Lake Victoria adjoining the Kenya–Uganda–Tanzania border. Concentrations of rock art are found mainly in the Kondoa province of central Tanzania and also the Lake Eyasi Basin in the north of the country.

The rock art of the Lake Eyasi Basin and that of Kondoa share many similarities related to subject matter, styles, pigments and even types of sites. This may possibly reflect a shared art tradition among hunter-gatherers, which is feasible as there are no natural barriers preventing the movement of cultural ideas and techniques.

History of rock art research in Tanzania

The existence of painted rock art was first reported to Europeans in 1908 by missionaries, but the first scientific explorations date back to the 1930s. Early surveys were undertaken by Ludwig Kohl-Larsen (1958), a German physician, amateur anthropologist and explorer, who traced images in more than 70 rock shelters in 1935. The renowned paleoanthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey (1983) were the first to extensively study the rock art of Tanzania during the 1930s and 1950s (having noted many sites in the 1920s), documenting over 1600 painted images at 186 sites north of Kondoa. In the late 1970s and during the 1980s Fidelis Masao (1979) surveyed 68 rock paintings sites and excavated four of them while Emmanuel Anati (1996) recorded 200 sites in Kondoa. Other researchers include Eric ten Raa (1971, 1974), David Lewis-Williams (1986), Imogene Lim (1992), and Emmanuel Bwasiri (2008, 2011); all of whom have recorded numerous sites, contributing to identifying chronologies, styles and possible interpretations. Conservation and preservation of the rock art has been of importance since the 1930s, and many of the paintings recorded by the Leakeys in the early 1950s are now severely deteriorated, or in some cases completely destroyed.

Chronologies

Scholars have classified the rock art in Tanzania into three main stylistic groups: Hunter-gatherer, also known as Sandawe, Pastoral, and Late Whites. Hunter-gatherer and Late White paintings are often found in the same rock shelters and in some instances, all three types occur at the same site.

No paintings have been scientifically dated, but some researchers have proposed the earliest dates for the art: Anati (1996) has suggested paintings at Kondoa may be up to 40,000 years old; Leakey (1985) and Coulson and Campbell (2001) up to 10,000 years old. Masao (1979) has estimated the earliest art at perhaps 3000 years old. These are estimates and not based on radiometric dating techniques, and as the paintings have been exposed to considerable weathering these very early dates currently cannot be substantiated.

Hunter-gatherer

Hunter-gatherer or Sandawe rock art is characterised by fine-line paintings and includes images of animals, human figures, handprints and circular designs. These are the earliest paintings, thought to date to between 3,000-10,000 years ago, and are attributed to the ancestral Sandawe, a hunter-gatherer group indigenous to north-east Tanzania.

This tradition of rock art occurs in the Kondoa region, with just a few hundred sites in a concentration of less than a 100km in diameter and corresponding closely to the known distribution of the Sandawe people. Animals, such as giraffe, elephant, rhinoceros, antelope, plus a few birds and reptiles, dogs and possibly bees, make up more than half of the images depicted. In addition there are a few animal tracks depicted: cloven hooves, porcupine and aardvark.

Typically, human figures are slender and elongated, wearing large elaborate coiffures or headdresses, and sometimes with animal heads. Occasionally they are bent at the waist but they always appear in groups or pairs. A few of the figures are painted with bows and arrows and occur with animals, although whether these represent a hunting scene is uncertain. Women are very scarce. The few handprints present are painted depictions rather than stencils and circular designs are made up of concentric circles sometimes with elaborate rays and occasional rectangles and finger dots.

Pastoral

About 3,000 years ago, Cushitic herders from Ethiopia moved into the region, and were followed by Nilotic cattle pastoralists, ancestors of today’s Maasai. In comparison to hunter-gatherer rock art, Pastoral rock art yields many fewer paintings and generally depicts cattle in profile, and sometimes sheep and/or goats, a few dogs and figures holding sticks and bows. Predominantly painted in black and sometimes red and white, the colour of many images has now faded to a dull grey colour.

Late White

Late White paintings are crude, finger painted images and often superimpose older images. These were made by Bantu-speaking, iron-working farmers who moved into the region in the last 300-500 years. The most common type of depiction are designs and motifs that include circles, some of which have rays emanating outwards, concentric circles, patterns of dots and grids with outlines, what look like stick figures with multiple arms, as well as handprints. Animal depictions include giraffe, elephant, antelope, snakes, reptiles, baboons and domestic species. Human figures are less common, but when present are notably men facing forwards with hands on hips, sometimes holding weapons.