Nearly three thousand hunter-gatherer rock art sites have been found within the ‘schematic’ zone and more than ninety percent of these comprise superimposed layers of massed, finger-painted, geometric designs. The other ten percent of sites comprise highly stylised and distorted animal forms plus rows of finger dots.
The two arts seem to be separate traditions: they co-occur across a huge area and are regularly found close by, but in only a handful of cases can they be found together. Yet, the geometric art always dominates and this makes central Africa immediately distinctive from the other hunter-gatherer rock art regions in Africa all of which, by contrast, contain a high percentage of brush painted animals, humans and human-animal conflations.
They seem to be kept near, but apart; they act as a pair. We know that both arts are hunter-gatherer because of their distribution and massive extent of the superposition sequences.
Throughout most of central Africa, the pre-farmer hunter-gathering populations are gone and they exist today only in the archaeological deposits and in oral traditions. Modern central Africans remember these people as the Batwa: a word that is used widely in eastern, central and southern Africa to refer to any ancient hunter-gatherer people. The Batwa are consistently remembered in oral traditions as “short-statured, dark-skinned and hairy”.
The geographical location of Pygmy rock art
In those areas close to southern Africa they distinguished from the San. The rock art supports this division: it is entirely different from San rock art. The dividing line between southern African San rock art and central African Batwa rock art follows the Zambezi River and the Anglo/Namibia border. The archaeological remains also show strong divergence along this same line. The later Stone Age lithic technologies vary to such an extent that they have been given different names: those in southern Africa are known as the Wilton/Smithfield whereas those of central Africa are known as Nachikufan. The cultural distinctions between central, southern Africa hunter-gatherers are thus profound.
The symbolism of Pygmy rock art
So, what do the pair of hunter-gatherer rock arts in central Africa comprise? And why are there two? The geometric art comprises a wide range of circles, concentric circles, oblongs, nested ‘U’ shapes, parallel lines and rare handprints. The shapes initially defy recognition, but researchers have commented that a few of the designs resemble meteorological subjects like the sun, the moon, rainclouds, rain and rainbows. Others have seen sexual symbolism in the art; identifying some of the designs as vulva’s and phallic depictions. The recognition on formal grounds of these two separate subjects becomes more plausible when one discovers that many modern day groups still ascribe both weather and fertility divination powers to geometric rock art site, and, when we learn that for most central African people weather and fertility are concepts that are integrally associated.
The animal art is harder to penetrate; most of the beasts have no traits that allow the identification of species, indeed the body forms are so distorted and strange, with hugely exaggerated bellies and tiny heads, that one wonders if these beasts are real-world creatures at all. Human figures are all but absent. Alongside the animals one finds, time and time again, long lines of carefully placed finger-dots, running around the animals, over them or encircling them. To penetrate this ancient art we need to know more about the former hunter-gatherer beliefs of central Africa.
The ancestral history of the Pygmies
The only surviving groups of central African Batwa are the so-called forest “Pygmies”. Genetic studies appear to confirm the archaeological division between the ancestral heritage of these groups and that of the southern African San. Geneticists suggest great antiquity to the division between the San and the Pygmies, perhaps with a divergence in excess of 40,000 years. Pygmy groups are known to have occupied many sections of the central African “Schematic Art Zone” even into historical times, and it is probable that the full former distribution of these groups can be recognised from the distribution of the art. Certainly, elements within recorded Pygmy traditions help us to understand central African rock art.
Pygmy ceremonies and the interpretation of Pygmy rock art
Pygmy traditions, such as those recorded by Colin Turnbull amongst the Mbuti, are dominated by two major ceremonies. The Mbuti call these molimo and elima. Molimo is organised by men and elima by women. Both ceremonies traditionally take place in a clearing in the forest and involve singing around camp fires for night after night, sometimes for as long as a month. Molimo is often held after the death of a member of the group or in the case of a violent argument. Elima usually marks important women’s occasions, such as a girl’s coming of age. Turnbull describes how the songs in both ceremonies seek to bring out and enchant the spirit of the forest. In molimo the spirit of the forest literally comes out and its unearthly song may be heard encircling the campfire in the darkness (the song is in fact sung by a boy through a special molimo pipe).
Turnbull argues that the purpose of calling out the spirit of the forest in these ceremonies is to restore harmony within the camp and the forest. He argues that the Mbuti see this state of harmony as essential to allowing the dead to be released back to the forest and to giving health and fertility to the girls. It could be that these same concerns underlie central African rock art. The stylised animal depictions fit well with the symbolism of the molimo ceremony. The painted animals resemble the concept of a sacred animal spirit and the dots mimic the belief in the encircling power of the forest and the power of the songs. The geometric designs mirror the symbols and concerns of elima that relate to fertility and weather control. This pair of ceremonies provides a good explanation as to why two arts exist and occur in separate sites, but together within the landscape. The elima and molimo fires were always kept in separate ends of an Mbuti camp. Perhaps the arts, like the ceremonies, were made so as to bring out the spirit of the forest, literally in the case of the rock art, so as to restore harmony to society and to the world.