Zimbabwe

Highlight images

Country overview

Image count

1150 images

Date range

Unknown, but most probably several thousands of years old

Main areas

Concentrated to the north around the area of Mashonaland and to the southwest in Matabeleland

Techniques

Mostly painted in a wide range of colours, sometimes combined

Main themes

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

Introduction - Geography and rock art distribution

Zimbabwe is a landlocked country surrounded by Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa, occupying a large, granitic high plateau between the Zambezi and Limpopo river systems, with a tropical climate moderated by altitude. The highest part of the country is the eastern Highlands; a north-south mountain range reaching altitudes of 2,500 m. Rock art is located in two main areas, the northern region of Mashonaland and the south-western area of Matabeleland. These areas are full of granite hills and boulders that provide excellent shelters for the paintings. The Matobo hills in Matabeleland constitute one of the most outstanding examples of rock art in Southern Africa. The total number of Zimbabwean rock art sites is unknown, but estimations made point to thousands of sites throughout the country, with more being discovered annually.

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Rocky outcrop in Mashonaland, Zimbabwe (2013,2034.23240). ©TARA/David Coulson

History of the research

Zimbabwean rock art was first reported by Europeans in 1927, when Miles Burkitt visited southern Africa, but is especially linked to Leo Frobenius, one of the most renowned researchers in the first decades of the 20th century. Leo Frobenius travelled to the region in 1928 with a German team and thoroughly documented numerous paintings, identifying many of the most characteristic features of Zimbabwean rock art. However, he failed in identifying the authors of the paintings, ascribing them to external influences of “high civilizations” instead to the local communities who made them. Subsequently, work was continued by Elizabeth Mannsfeld-Goodall, who for forty years documented rock art paintings constituting a huge corpus of tracings, but without developing an interpretative framework for them. In the 1950s, another historic researcher, the Abbé Henri Breuil, visited Zimbabwe and studied the paintings, again suggesting an Egyptian or Minoan origin. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s when a more objective approach to the study of rock art started, with Peter Garlake the most prominent figure in research from the 1980s onwards. Garlake wrote the first comprehensive books on Zimbabwean rock art (Garlake 1987), integrating it within the general framework of southern Africa and raising awareness about the importance of these archaeological expressions. In 2003 the Matobo Hills were included in the World Heritage List acknowledging the relevance of Zimbabwean rock art for African heritage.

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Yellow elephant calf painted on the roof of a shelter. Mashonaland, Zimbabwe (2013,2034.22675). ©TARA/David Coulson

Themes

The rock art of Zimbabwe is some of the richest in Africa both in variety and complexity, the vast majority being painted figures infilled or outlined usually with just one colour, although bichrome examples are also known. The human figure is the most often represented engaged in different activities -hunting, walking, dancing- either isolated or in groups of up to forty people. The figures are depicted in different styles, from the very schematic to relatively naturalistic outlines, with men far more represented than women, and usually depicted carrying bows and arrows. In some cases, these figures are part of very complex scenes including animals and geometric symbols, some of which have been interpreted as trance-like scenes similar to those in South Africa with figures bleeding from their noses, crouching or dancing in groups or sharing animal traits. A very specific type of depiction is human figures with hugely distended abdomens, a trait that is associated either with fertility or mystic potency concepts.

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Complex scene of human figures and antelopes. Mashonaland, Zimbabwe (2013,2034.23055). ©TARA/David Coulson

Along with human figures, animals are widely represented in Zimbabwean rock art, with kudu depictions dominating, but also with zebra, tsessebe and sable antelopes commonly represented. Surprisingly, other antelopes such as eland, waterbucks or wildebeest are very rarely represented, while other animals (lions, cheetah, birds, ant bears, porcupines, baboons or warthogs) are very scarce. Fish and crocodiles are relatively common, the latter represented as if seen from above or below. There seems to be a preference for the depiction of females rather than males, especially in the case of antelopes or elephants. Regardless of the type of animal, the depictions seem to have a deep symbolism far beyond the representation of animals just hunted and consumed, often being surrounded by dots, flecks or networks of lines. That symbolism is especially important in the case of the elephant, which is often depicted being hunted by groups of men.

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Group of human figures and different types of animals including giraffes, antelopes and warthogs (2013,2034.22962). ©TARA/David Coulson

Human figures and animals are accompanied by many geometric symbols, usually related to trance-like contexts and include dots, wavy lines or stripes. One of the most original types of symbols known as ‘formlings’, are oblong figures divided in clusters and frequently combining several colours. These are difficult to interpret but could be associated with complex ideas related to trance states, although some other interpretations, such as their relating to beehives, have been suggested (Garlake 1995: 97).

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Depiction of a formling surrounding by animals. Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (2013,2034.23465). ©TARA/David Coulson

Traditionally, the themes expressed in Zimbabwean rock art have been identified as the same as those of the San|Bushmen¹ from South Africa and in many cases are undoubtedly related, and provide key hints for their interpretation. However, there are also differences, such as the emphasis given to different animals, the higher presence of trees and plants in Zimbabwe or the smaller presence of trance scenes in the north compared to that of the Drakensberg. Moreover, the lack of ethnographic information for Zimbabwean paintings and their older chronology make it difficult to establish the same type of associations as those made for other areas with more direct connections rock art to known cultures, as happens in South Africa. Although in a minority, rock art of a later chronology can be attributed to Iron Age farmers, characterized by more schematic figures, usually white and painted thickly with the finger or the hand. As is the case in other areas in Central Africa, some of these later depictions are related to rain making and initiation ceremonies.

¹ San|Bushmen is a collective term used to describe the many different hunter-gatherer-fisher groups living in southern Africa who have related languages and cultural traditions. Both ‘San’ and ‘Bushmen’ are considered offensive terms by some members of these groups, although others have positively adopted them.

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Iron Age painting depicting a zebra. Mashonaland, Zimbabwe (2013,2034.22780). ©TARA/David Coulson

Chronology

As with much rock art, the dating of Zimbabwe paintings is a challenging subject, although there is a consensus about them being significantly older than those of the Drakensberg and probably dated at before 2,000 years ago. The lack of any type of agriculture-related images in the paintings, which was established by the 1st millennium AD, sets a relative dating for the depictions, while the scarcity of sheep (introduced by the second half of the first millennium BC in the area) points to a time period in which these animals were still uncommon. These hints and the fact that, unlike in other areas there are not historical subjects represented in the paintings, seems to indicate that Zimbabwean paintings are at least 1,000 years old. However, archaeological evidence (Walker 2012: 44) suggests that rock art could be significantly older than that, at least several thousands of years old.

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Sable antelope, crocodile or lizard and human figure. Mashonaland, Zimbabwe (2013,2034.23028). ©TARA/David Coulson