The Kondoa rock art sites are located on the eastern slopes of the Maasai escarpment, which borders the western side of the Great Rift Valley in central Tanzania, covering an area of over 2,336 km². Stretching for around 18 km along the escarpment, the exact number of rock art sites in the Kondoa area is unknown but is estimated to be up to 450, the oldest of which are thought be more than 2,000 years old. The extensive and spectacular collection of rock paintings are attributable to both hunter-gatherer and pastoralist communities and the images are testament to the changing socio-economic environment in the region. The hunter-gatherer rock paintings of Kondoa are dominated by human figures and animals. While a dark reddish brown predominates, other colours include yellow, orange, red and white. Some of the shelters are still considered to have cultural associations with the people who live nearby, reflecting their beliefs, rituals and cosmological traditions. In 2006, Kondoa was nominated and listed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage rock art sites in Africa.
The sites at Kolo are the most famous of the Kondoa paintings. Kolo comprises three rock art sites, known as Kolo 1, 2 and 3. The main site, Kolo 1 (known locally as Mongomi wa Kolo) is a large, imposing rock shelter that is only accessible by following a winding path at the end of a dirt road. This site contains many fine-line red paintings, some of which are very faded; but the site is still used by the local community for secret rituals. Kolo 2 is located south of the main site and includes human and animal figures, while Kolo 3 is north of Kolo1 and is characterised by human, animal and geometric figures. The renowned palaeontologist Mary Leakey surveyed and documented many of the paintings at Kolo in the 1950s. The examples we see here are thought to have been made by early hunter-gatherer groups, ancestors of the modern Sandawe, one of the first cultural groups to inhabit Kondoa.
Among the animals depicted are elephants, giraffes, antelopes, eland, rhinoceros and wildebeest; while human figures are represented as slender and elongated, often with elaborate hairstyles or headdresses, holding bows and arrows. Groups of figures are also shown bent at the waist, with some appearing to take on animal characteristics. These paintings have been associated with Sandawe cultural beliefs.
The Sandawe communicate with the spirits by taking on the power of an animal and some features at Mongomi wa Kolo can be understood by reference to the Sandawe traditional practice known as simbó (Ten Raa 1971, 1974). Developing Ten Raa’s observations, Lewis-Williams (1986) proposed that simbó is the ritual of being a lion, and that simbó dancers are believed to turn into lions. Lim (1992, 1996) adopted a site-specific approach to the rock art and has suggested that the importance of place is as important as the images themselves. According to Lim the potency of a place is produced through ritual activities, so that meaning resides in the process of painting in a particular location, rather than in the painted image itself.
Ritual sites are generally located near fig and baobab trees, and springs. However, about 3 m south of the main Kolo shelter, a cavity underneath a huge boulder is used, even today, by local diviners, healers and rainmakers to invoke visions and communicate with the spirits. Oral traditions indicate that Mongomi wa Kolo is considered more powerful than other ritual places in Kondoa, and its unusual location may contribute to its efficacy. The other two shelters of Kolo 2 and 3 are also used for ritual ceremonies.
When Mary Leakey was surveying the Kondoa rock paintings in 1983 she predicted that if serious preservation and conservation measures were not put in place the paintings would be destroyed by 2020. Although inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006, it has been noted paintings are being destroyed by the dust from the ground and in some cases rainwater is causing the paintings to deteriorate.
Moreover, the documentation of paintings at Kondoa is incomplete, and some areas have not been surveyed at all. Bwasiri (2008) advocates an urgent need to collate all existing information in this region and implement a sites and monuments record that also takes into account living heritage values.