The Hadza/Sandawe rock art of Eastern Africa

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Whilst eastern and central Africa is dominated the Pygmy authored finger painted geometric art tradition, in central Tanzania there is a small island of art made up entirely of animal and human forms.

Similarities with San rock art

The subject matter and fine brushwork manner of this art make it appear somewhat similar to the San art of southern Africa. However, it is separated from this art by a nearly 1000 kilometre unbroken stretch of Pygmy tradition rock art sites.

And, whilst the San and Pygmy rock art traditions each spread across areas covering many thousands of square kilometres, and are represented by tens of thousands of sites, the Tanzanian tradition covers just a few hundred square kilometres and is represented at just a few hundred sites. The art has been known since the early 1900s, but was made famous by the work of Ludwig Kohl-Larsen, Henry Fosbrooke, Eric Ten Raa and Mary Leakey.

Distinictions from San rock art

A number of elements in the Tanzanian art make it distinctive from San art and from the fine-line traditions of the Sahara. Whilst the art depicts a wide variety of animals and a few birds and reptiles, it is also painted in an unusually varied collection of manners of depiction ranging from outline, through linear, dotted and gridded fills to partial and fully filled forms.

Humans are depicted in these same manners in a range of standing, bending and ‘floating’ postures, sometimes with bows, and often with large and bizarre ‘mop style’ head forms. A few humans are painted with animal heads.

Dating of the rock art

Early researchers tried to sequence the manners of depiction, showing that in some sites there were more than thirty layers of paintings. These grade from highly faded through to quite fresh-looking art. The nature of this fading has led Emmanuel Anati to claim that some of this art could be amongst the world’s oldest, perhaps more than 40,000 years old. Whilst few other researchers would place such a huge age on any exposed parietal art, much of this art does give the impression of great antiquity.

Detailed recent studies have shown no consistent changes within the multiple layers of art. With a great number of sites now studied, the early stylistic sequences cannot be sustained. There are conflicting overlay patterns at many different sites. It now appears that there has been great continuity over time in this art and that a degree of variety in the manner of depiction has always been a characteristic of this art tradition.

Similarities between the San and Sandawe and Hadza people

The area in which this art is found corresponds closely to the known distribution of the Sandawe and Hadza peoples. Both speak languages that contain clicks, a language trait for which the only parallel is the San languages of southern Africa. This has led to speculation about a distinct link between these separated groups. The Sandawe and Hadza stand out as distinctive from their neighbours not only because of their click languages, but also because both seem to have a hunter-gatherer ancestry extending back long before the time of the coming of farmers and pastoralists into this area.

Both Sandawe and Hadza have been living amongst farmer and pastoralist groups for many centuries and their beliefs and traditions show much evidence of borrowing, but, they also maintain a number of special rituals and beliefs that are not found amongst neighbouring groups. Neighbouring Cushitic-, Nilotic- and Bantu-speaking groups have their own particular historical distributions in the landscape and these do not fit well with the distribution of the central Tanzanian rock art; and indeed a series of more recent rock art traditions have been found that are more likely to be associated with these other groups and which reflect their specific cultural traditions.

Recent studies have shown that the Hadza and Sandawe are genetically distinct from their farmer and pastoralist neighbours. They, together with the southern African San, retain some of the oldest genetic signatures of all the world’s peoples. On the matter of if or when these click speaking populations were related, the genetic evidence is very clear. A series of studies have shown that the East African and Southern African click-speaking groups have remained genetically isolated from each other for at least the last 70,000 years. This implies that these groups have remained isolated in their respective parts of Africa for a remarkable length of time, presumably separated from each other by the varied Pygmy groups who made the geometric tradition rock art spread across the intervening area of central Africa. We are therefore left with the inescapable conclusion that it was the ancestors of the Hadza and the Sandawe and other related groups whose descendents no longer survive who made the Tanzanian rock art.

Rock art into the 20th Century

Eric ten Raa recorded a handful of eye-witness accounts that, tantalisingly, describe Sandawe individuals still making rock art early in the twentieth century. The Sandawe may therefore have been amongst the last hunter-gatherers in Africa to cease their ancient painting tradition. The ten Raa accounts provide evidence that the practice of rock art was linked to a few different Sandawe rituals, but most notably to simbo.

Simbo is a trance dance in which the Sandawe communicate with the spirits through a dance that involves the drinking of a hallucinogenic beer. Elements in the art provide independent confirmation of this link. They display a range of features that can only be understood by reference to simbo and to trance experiences. For example, groups of human figures are shown bending at the waist (just as happens during the simbo dance), taking on animal features such as animal ears and tails, and floating or flying. These last features show the experiences of those possessed in the dance. The bizarre head forms seen in the rock art are no doubt another key element in the symbolism of simbo, but like much of this art, for now they remain enigmatic.

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