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date: 25 February 2024

People, Plants, Animals, and Formlings in the Rock Art of Zimbabwefree

People, Plants, Animals, and Formlings in the Rock Art of Zimbabwefree

  • Ancila NhamoAncila NhamoUniversity of Zimbabwe


In Zimbabwe, the term “rock art” refers mainly to prehistoric engravings and paintings that were executed on the walls of shallow caves, rock shelters, or faces of boulders across the country. Rock paintings were executed using pigments in a variety of colors and textures while engravings were etched into the rock using incisions, polishing, or pecking methods. The paintings dominate the corpus of rock art in the country. They are found within the granitic boulders that cover much of the country while rock engravings are confined to narrow belts in the eastern, southern, and southwestern parts where the sandstone is found. The spatial distribution of rock art in Zimbabwe helps to show that geology was the influential factor in choosing whether to paint or to engrave. In terms of subject matter, the rock art of Zimbabwe is mostly dominated by what is known as hunter-gatherer art, with a few sites having what has been termed “farmer art.” There is a possibility of some of the art having been made by herders but this requires further research and conformation. The hunter-gatherer art is made up of mostly animals and humans. Nevertheless, the occurrence of plants and geometric figures, especially the “formlings,” sets the rock art of Zimbabwe apart from that of other areas in southern Africa. Farmer art has animal and human figures, mostly in white kaolin and usually found superpositioned on top of the hunter-gatherer images. The color and superpositions led the art to be termed the Late Whites. The possibility of herder art has been raised due to the occurrence of depictions such as handprints and finger-painted dots. These images are associated with herders in neighboring countries such as South Africa and Botswana. Research in Zimbabwe has tended to favor the dominant aspects of rock art. As such, rock paintings have been extensively investigated at the expense of engravings. In the same vein, hunter-gatherer research art has been preponderant as compared to the study of farmer and possibly herder art. Nevertheless, it is important to note that although a lot of strides have been made in rock art research, fewer researchers, especially among the indigenous, have had an interest in these aspects of the Zimbabwean past. Rock art is often overshadowed by the archaeology of the farming communities, which has Zimbabwe culture and particularly Great Zimbabwe as its hallmark. However, it is encouraging to note that there has been an upsurge in students working on projects concerning rock art, which foretells good prospects for the uptake of rock art research in the future


  • Applied Anthropology
  • Archaeology
  • Sociocultural Anthropology

In Zimbabwe, the term “rock art” refers mainly to prehistoric engravings or paintings that were executed on the walls of shallow caves, rock shelters, or faces of boulders across the country. Rock paintings were executed using pigments in a variety of colors and textures while engravings were etched into the rock using incisions, polishing, or pecking methods. The rock paintings are more numerous than engravings (fig. 1). This skewed representation is more likely a result of the geological character of Zimbabwe rather than cultural reasons. Much of Zimbabwe is made up of granitic rocks (Lister 1987) that are difficult to engrave but provide good surfaces to paint. The areas with engravings are those with sandstones and other softer rock that are easier to engrave, yet they weather quickly; thus paintings would not have lasted long. Even though this material was not a desirable surface for paintings, some have been found on sandstone as evidenced in Chipinge, Hwange, and Beitbridge (Eastwood et al. 1994; Haynes et al. 2011; Nhamo and Bonyongwa 2015). About 6 percent of engravings recorded in Hwange were highlighted with paint (Haynes et al. 2011, 18).

Figure 1. Due to the prevalence of the granitic geology, which is difficult to engrave, most areas in Zimbabwe have rock paintings. Engravings are restricted to the margins of the Zimbabwean Plateau where there are sandstones and other softer rocks.

Map drawn by Seke Katsamudannga (adapted with permission).

Both paintings and engravings in Zimbabwe are further classified into several classes based on the assumed authorship, subject matter, and finesse of the art. Using authorship, rock art is divided into hunter-gatherer, farmer, and possibly herder rock art (Cooke 1974; Pearce 2009). However, in Zimbabwe, scholars have raised questions regarding these classifications (e.g., Manyanga et al. 2013; Nhamo 2014). It is thus important to note that these divisions are fluid and require rigorous re-examination. The hunter-gatherer rock art is usually regarded as fine-line due to the finesse with which the images were executed. These must have been done with a sharp instrument that produced fine edges with clean lines that rarely show any smudges (Garlake 1995). The farmer and herder arts are thought to have been executed by fingers rather than fine tools and therefore are thicker than the former (Cooke 1974; Smith and Ouzman 2004). The engravings from both farmers and herders are also believed to be thick and crude (Maggs 1995).

Research interest in Zimbabwe’s rock art began as soon as the colonial occupation of the country began. The first known report of rock art in Zimbabwe comes from the Pioneer Column.1 This was following their discovery of rock art in the area called Glen Nora, just outside the capital city of Harare (Garlake 1997). Rock art generated immense interest in the initial years of colonial occupation such that the first official legal document protecting cultural heritage in Zimbabwe was the Bushmen Relics Act, meant to protect rock art and related material. Although there is no written knowledge on how the indigenous Zimbabwean were relating to the numerous rock art sites before colonialism, ethnoarchaeological studies and oral histories have shown that some sites were integrated into the complex social systems of the local communities (e.g., Pwiti et al. 2007; Ranger 1999).

In the more than one hundred years since colonialism began, the rock art of Zimbabwe has become an important part of archaeological evidence in the world. Rock art is an integral component of the Matobo UNESCO World Heritage Landscape. Nevertheless, the intensity of Zimbabwean rock art research has not been uniform across the country, with a few geographic and thematic areas having been heavily researched while others are still “gray areas.” Beyond geographical bias, more research has disproportionately focused on hunter-gatherer art than that made by farmers and possibly herders. Geographically, the Matobo and “Mashonaland” have received much more attention as compared to other parts of the country.2 Therefore knowledge of the art shows these gaps accordingly.

Dating of Rock Art

One of the major problems bedeviling studying Zimbabwean rock art, as elsewhere, has been its placement within secure chronological frameworks. To date, no reliable method of directly dating rock art has been used on Zimbabwean rock art. Advances in the use of accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS) providing direct dates for rock art in South Africa (Bonneau et al. 2017; Mazel 2009) are promising that a breakthrough in Zimbabwe may be on the horizon. The indirect chronometric dates available for Zimbabwe come from spalls of granite with traces of paintings that were recovered from sites in Matobo (Walker 1987). These spalls of granite were recovered from LSA archaeological deposits dated to between thirteen thousand and five thousand years ago (Walker 1987). These dates provide a broad range of painting activities in the area. The rock art from other parts of the country may well predate this range, since it has been shown that the Matobo may not have been occupied during the terminal part of the Last Glacial Maximum (between twenty thousand and fourteen thousand years ago) due to prevailing an extreme cold and dry environment (Walker 1995).

Apart from the indirect chronometric dates from Matobo, rock art chronology has mainly been based on relative methods using color, motif, and technique of execution. The use of varying benchmarks of dating the art has resulted in the development of various classes which at times differ from site to site (Cooke 1971; Goodall 1957). These chronologies have been intemperately criticized for lack of consistency (Garlake 1988, 1998; Mguni 2002). Garlake (1988, 1995) argued that it would be difficult to apply the chronologies to all the rock art sites. Rather, they can only be applied to particular sites, especially the ones where the chronologies were developed. In dating the art, these chronologies have been considered useless or even misleading (Garlake 1988, 1998; Mguni 2002). Despite such misgivings, researchers still implicitly use them due to a lack of alternative chronologies (e.g., Garlake 1995; Mguni 2002; Nhamo 2007, 2014; Walker 1996). The alternative has been to disregard temporal changes and consider the art ahistorical without any changing context. This is also untrue and misleading, to say the least.

Most research is “loosely” based on the work done by Cooke (1963, 1971), which was summarized in Cooke (1974). Cooke (1974) presented seven chronological styles (six of which are hunter-gatherer while the one other style is of farmer rock art) as follows: Style 1, considered the oldest and having very simple paintings in one color; the images are simple silhouettes without outlines and show no movement. Style 2 shows some movement, but the art is still in monochrome and images are usually in outline. Large animals such as elephants, antelopes, rhinoceros, and buffalo predominate this style. Style 3 was considered an experimental phase that did not last long. It had realistic images in outline. Style 4 introduces bichrome and polychrome images. The paintings have a lot of movement and appear as portraits of groups of animals with human figures. Style 5 has crude copies of earlier art in black and white or a combination of the two; a few are in pinkish white and red. The last style of hunter-gatherer paintings was style 6 with large elephants plastered in kaolin clay, sometimes depicted with charcoal outlines. Style 7 has farmer rock art, commonly termed Late Whites due to the predominant color of the images.

The apparent use of these styles by modern researchers is due to the assumption that bichromes and polychrome paintings are younger that monochromes (Mguni 2015; Nhamo 2007, 2014; Walker, 1996). There is also the general assumption that kaolin pigments are later than ochre-based paints (Cooke 1963, 1974). Both assumptions are not supported by any further research other than that of Cooke (1974). The seven styles presented by Cook (1963, 1974) require revalidation since there are contradictory instances where the reverse is observed. For example, I have observed evidence that some ochre-based fine-line art is superpositioned on top of a kaolin-based finger-painted image of a feline in Mutorashanga, in northern Zimbabwe. This indicates that in this instance, the ochre-based art is younger than the kaolin art. Therefore, this one example serves as a reason why major re-evaluation and validation of the sequence presented by Cook (1963, 1974) is essential.

Dating of engravings is much more problematic, since there has never been even a rudimentary relative chronology as has been the case with paintings. Superposition and stylistic sequencing have not been attempted. There are also no chronometric dates. Engravings are usually assigned ante quem and post quem dates (e.g., Haynes et al. 2011). Those engravings with subjects referring to wildlife are generally considered to belong to the hunter-gatherer period and contemporary with the hunter-gatherer rock paintings (Haynes et al. 2011). Engravings with abstract images are regarded as belonging to the Farming Communities period since they share similarities with farmer engravings recorded in South Africa (Nhamo and Mlambo, forthcoming). These methods of assigning age are flawed at best, and there is a need to research further into the issues of chronology on engravings. Because the engravings found in Zimbabwe have not been widely studied like the paintings, issues of chronology and authorship still need further research.

The Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art

The hunter-gatherer paintings are ubiquitous across Zimbabwe. Traditionally, it was thought that they were only found in the granite belts of the country (Cooke 1974; Garlake 1995). However, the last thirty years of research, since the 1994, has documented paintings in other types of rocks (Eastwood et al. 1994; Haynes et al. 2011; Nhamo and Bonyongwa 2015). Although in the past the geographic distribution of paintings and engravings in southern Africa was once thought to indicate different groups (almost equated to races) (see, e.g., Goodall and Summers 1959; Rudner and Rudner 1970), further research has shown that hunter-gatherer paintings and engravings share similar features that do not justify the assignment to different cultural groups (Deacon 1988; Dowson 1992). In Zimbabwe, this traditional view is further disproved by the fact that in most areas, rock engravings and paintings occur within the same geographic area and sometimes at the same sites (Eastwood et al. 1994; Haynes et al. 2011; Nhamo and Bonyongwa 2015). Although different symbols were used in rock paintings to those found in the engravings, there is no justification to argue that different people made them. Some engravings were even painted (fig. 2a and 2b).

Figure 2. Engravings of spoors from Hwange in western Zimbabwe. Some of these were painted using red ochre-based pigment (b). The painting is evidence that paintings and engraving were not separate traditions done by different cultural groups.

Photograph by the author.

Even though the hunter-gatherer rock art of Zimbabwe shares similar traits across the country, it is not monolithic. There are differences in the form and style of images across space and time. The occurrence and frequency of subject matter also vary from place to place. These spatial differences have been connected to possible differences in minute cultural variations over space and time. Since modern hunter-gatherers in southern Africa live in small groups with varied cultural aspects such as language, dressing, and even religious beliefs, there is no reason to expect cultural homogeneity among the prehistoric groups (Nhamo 2014). There is also a need to consider change over time, since the rock art tradition seems to have spanned for tens of thousands of years.

The Paintings

In Zimbabwe, paintings have been researched in greater detail than engravings. This is in part due to their ubiquity. In the past, rock art research in Zimbabwe has always been concentrated in two major areas, Mashonaland Provinces and Matobo (also known as Matopo Hills) (Erwee 1997; Garlake 1987a, 1987b, 1989, 1990, 1995; Genge 1988; Mguni 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005; Parry 1997, 2000, 2001; Walker 1987, 1988, 1994). Recent research has shown sizable concentrations of the art in other parts of the country such as Zimunya Communal Lands, Chipinge, Malilangwe, and Beitbridge (Eastwood et al. 1994; Nhamo 2007; Nhamo and Bonyongwa 2015; Nhamo et al. 2007; Pearce 2009). Thus, as research broadens, the picture of the distribution of the art will likely change.

The paintings depict a wide range of subjects, with the most common ones being wild animals, humans, and geometric and abstract designs. Most of the images belong to naturalistic art where one can easily identify the animals, some to their family. Among such animals are antelopes (represented by animals such as kudu and eland), giraffes, or elephants. Human beings are depicted in various forms and styles. There are also figures with conflations of human and animal features although these are comparably fewer than those found in South Africa (Jolly 2002, 86). Apart from the naturalistic images, the paintings also include geometrics such as dots, flecks, lines, and other designs. The geometric depictions are often associated with naturalistic figures such as animals, people, and plants. They are also associated with formlings (Garlake 1995). However, flecks are known to occur on their own as large fields. I have observed that at some sites, flecks were used to depict some naturalistic images such as trees, snakes, fish, and bird-like creatures (Nhamo 2014). It is possible that they were mostly used to depict naturalistic images that are no longer discernible. Garlake (1995) has associated both dots and flecks with trance and trance-related experiences.

Animal Images

The animal symbolism in Zimbabwean rock art differs significantly to that of other well-known parts of southern Africa such as the uKhahlamba Drakensberg region in South Africa. Instead of the eland, the kudu is the animal that dominates in Zimbabwe. In particular, it is the kudu cow that is more widely depicted. Kudu cows usually have no horns, whereas those of the bulls are long and twisted (fig. 3). These regional differences are apparent and seem to have been emphasized in the art. Other animals depicted frequently are the elephant, sable, giraffe, buffalo, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, zebra, baboon, snake, and felines. Rare animals include the aardvark, porcupine, rodent, klipspringer, and tortoise.

Figure 3. Kudu is generally the most frequently depicted animal in Zimbabwean rock art. The cows are often depicted in groups or processions (a). Bulls are easily distinguished by their long, twisted horns, but they are less common in the art.

Photographs by the author.

Generally, the type of animals and their frequency vary from place to place, even among the most common ones (Cooke 1964; Nhamo 2014; Walker 1996). Although the kudu is found in most parts of Zimbabwe, the ratio to other animals differs from place to place. Some animals are more numerous in one area but rare in others. For example, in the Matobo, frequently depicted animals are mainly the giraffe and the kudu. The same has also been noted in the nearby Jahunda area (Muringnidza and Manyanga 2017). The giraffe is painted with particular attention to detail in bichrome and polychrome colors, with its skin patterns well-illustrated (Walker 1996; fig. 4). Although kudu also occur frequently in the rock art of Mashonaland and Manicaland, giraffes are rarely depicted in these areas. Rather, elephants are more numerous.

Figure 4. Giraffes are more frequently depicted in southern and southwestern Zimbabwe where they are often shown in bichrome and polychrome colors that exhibit the patterns of the hide.

Photograph by the author.

Animal images are thought to have been depicted in the art according to their social importance in hunter-gatherer societies rather than their economic (meat) value. Archaeological analysis of bones from hunter-gatherer sites has shown that any of the animals that were frequently depicted were not contributing greatly to the diet of the people (Cooke 1969; Walker 1995). Thus, they must have had symbolic value for them to be so ubiquitous in art. Kudu cow, for example, could have been chosen as a major symbol for its admirable qualities of gregariousness that encouraged togetherness and cooperation among community members (Nhamo 2007).

On rare occasions, one encounters images with conflations of two or more animal figures. The most common one of these is animal-headed snakes. These have been reported all across the country, although they occur in small numbers. Iconic examples of animal conflations come from the Matobo World Heritage Landscape at sites such as Gulabahwe and Silozwane (fig. 5).

Figure 5. Examples of animal-headed serpents that are a feature of Zimbabwean rock art and other parts of southern Africa. Prominent animal ears are often distinctive features of this imagery.

Photograph from Silozwane, Matobo UNESCO World Heritage, taken by the author.
Human Images

Representations of human figures vary in form and style of images. It is often possible to identify adult human figures in the art by their sex, but not children, who are rarely depicted. The commonest human image in the rock art is that of the male figure (Garlake 1995; Nhamo 2014). However, female depictions have been reported to outnumber males only in the Beitbridge area (Eastwood et al. 1994; Eastwood 2005). The dominance of the male figure has led researchers to argue that hunting (or related activities) was the focus of rock art in Zimbabwe (e.g., Garlarke 1987a, 1987b). In other parts of southern Africa, few images are directly related to hunting, but in Zimbabwe, this hunting theme permeates most of the depicted imagery. Males are mostly depicted carrying weapons, especially bows and arrows. They are often depicted surrounding animals or in processions. In some cases, they are shown shooting at animals and at times shooting at each other (Garlake 1987a, 1987b, 1995; Nhamo 2014; Thornycroft 1986, 1994; Walker 1996)

Human figures are depicted engaging in several activities. In certain areas such as Murehwa and Mutoko, human figures are depicted in family groups with baskets for women and hunting equipment. In other areas, women are usually depicted as either dancing or sitting and clapping their hands. The differences in the emphasized activities have led researchers to argue that the art reflects minute cultural differences that existed among smaller hunter-gatherer groupings who occupied distinct “regions” in Zimbabwe.

For the conflated images, the most common form of therianthropes in Zimbabwean rock paintings is where human figures have animal ears and leg features (Garlake 1995; Genge 1988; Walker 1996; fig. 6). Nevertheless, features of other animals such as crocodiles, snakes, and baboons are also found conflated with humans. Therianthropes are thought to represent the perceived beings that may be associated with the spiritual world. Ethnographic research among contemporary hunter-gatherers in southern Africa shows the existence of beliefs in powerful conflated beings (Biesele 1993, Parkington 2003; Vinnicombe 1976). The fact that different conflations are common in different parts of the country emphasizes the need to understand the minute cultural difference that existed within the prehistoric hunter-gatherers in Zimbabwe and the whole of southern Africa,

Figure 6. The most common human–animal conflation (therianthropes) in Zimbabwe is that with human-like bodies and animal ears. These images may also have animal hooves, as shown.

Photograph by the author.
Geometric and Abstract Designs

Geometric and abstract designs, characterized by dots, flecks, lines, and other designs, are the third most depicted subject. The most outstanding and well-known form of geometric design in Zimbabwean rock paintings is the formling. The most thorough and convincing interpretation of the formlings comes from Mguni (2015). Formlings are compartmentalized sets of oval or lozenge shapes (Mguni 2006, 53). The motif is depicted in monochrome, bichrome, or polychrome. Formlings are numerous in Matobo and Mashonaland but are very rare in parts of southeastern Zimbabwe such as Zimunya, Chipinge, and Chiredzi (Nhamo 2007; Nhamo and Bonyongwa 2015; Pearce 2009; Walker 1986). Even though they occur in both Matobo and Mashonaland, how they are depicted varies from place to place. In Matobo Hills, they are often depicted in bichrome and polychrome with many details in the form of dots, flecks, and sometimes insects (fig. 7). The same detail and manner of depiction occurs in formlings from areas in northern Zimbabwe such as Mutorashanga and Guruve. However, formlings found in the Harare area are mostly monochrome and rarely show any other detail (Nhamo 2014). It is quite common to find them in outlines. Mguni (2015) is convinced that the formlings were associated with and related to beliefs connected to termites.

Figure 7. Examples of (a) bichrome and (b) polychrome formlings.

Photographs by the author.

Another geometric design that seems peculiar to Zimbabwe rock paintings is flecks. These little dashes are often depicted concentrated together. On close inspection, one can recognize images such as snakes, fish, and birds (fig. 8). The flecks were also used to depict canopies of trees. As with other depictions in art, the occurrence of flecks is also not uniform across the country. They are most common in the northern part of the country in areas such as Guruve, Harare, Murehwa, and Mutoko. They are rarely found in other parts such as Masvingo, Manicaland, and in the Matobo. This fortifies the argument for minute variation of the symbolism over space, possibly reflecting cultural differences that existed among the hunter-gatherer groups. These differences, in turn, influenced choices in the selection of symbols in rock art.

Figure 8. Flecks are one of the distinctive imagery in Zimbabwean rock art. Flecks are often found in large groups with indiscernible shapes, but sometimes one can make out some identifiable image as exemplified by the bird-like figure illustrated here.

Photograph by the author.

When Leo Frobenius first saw rock art during his 1929 Southern African expedition, he pointed to the occurrence of plant depiction as one of the hallmarks of Zimbabwean rock art. Although these depictions are not as abundant as those of animals and humans, they are quite common in certain parts of Zimbabwe. Plants mainly come in the form of trees and tubers but grasses, aloes, and pods are also found (fig. 9). As with animals, some trees are identifiable to genera but it has not been possible to identify species. Brachystegia species, possibly spiciformis (msasa) or boehmi (mupfuti), are common in Manicaland, particularly in areas such as Zimunya. In Mashonaland East, in areas such as Wedza, there are a lot of depictions of Parinari, possibly curatellifolia (muchakata).

Figure 9. Various types of plants were depicted in Zimbabwean rock art. Tree and tubers, illustrated here, are frequently depicted. However, grass, pods, and leaves have also been reported.

Photographs by the author.

However, in most parts of the country, it is difficult to identify the depicted plants to species. The images can fit in with several tree or tuber species. In the Matobo, trees are often depicted showing branches but without leaves (Mguni 2002, 2015), which makes it difficult to identify their family and species.

Rock Engravings

Although rock engravings are significantly fewer than paintings, their subject matter and technique of execution also seem to vary from area to area. Rock engravings are divided into naturalistic and geometric categories. Engravings of naturalistic animal figures are generally rare in Zimbabwe. A few animals such as zebra, kudu, and giraffe are found near Beitbridge. Rather than naturalistic engravings, the usually depicted engravings in the Hwange are spoors of wild animals such as zebra, roan, kudu, impala, buffalo, birds, warthog, and other antelopes (Haynes et al. 2011; Mlambo 2016; fig. 9b). Zebra spoors dominate the engravings, followed by impala, kudu, and birds (Haynes et al. 2011, 16). Spoors of felines, baboon, and rhinoceros are less common. I have also observed that there are rare depictions of human hands and feet (see Mlambo 2016). Apart from Hwange, spoors are also found in rock engravings from Chiredzi and Beitbridge (Eastwood et al. 1994; Mlambo 2016; Walker 1986, 44). Spoors are a motif that is common in other hunter-gatherer engravings in southern Africa. For example, these have been discovered at Twyfelfontein in Namibia and the Shashe-Limpopo Basin in South Africa.

Interpretation of Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art

Rock art interpretation has always been the main focus in hunter-gatherer rock art research, especially in Zimbabwe. Many major publications are centered on discussing methods of interpreting rock art or the actual interpretation of certain aspects of the art. Although a wide variety of themes have been interpreted, still many more are yet to be tackled. Some scholars have tried to approach broad themes such as Garlake’s (1987a, 1987b, 1990, 1995) research on archetypes of hunter-gatherer social life. He believed that the art was done to reflect these archetypes, and their identification is of paramount importance. Walker (1994, 1996) has concentrated on exposing the ritual practice associated with rock art, in line with the shamanistic theory. Nhamo (2014) has focused on analyzing motif variability.

Particular subject matter such as kudu, elephant, formlings, and human depictions has also been studied. Human depictions have generally received widespread attention (e.g., Garlake 1987a, 1987b, 1990, 1995; Goodall 1947, 1949, 1959; Huffman 1983). Nhamo (2007) has looked at kudu depictions in the rock art of Zimbabwe. Kudu depictions and other aspects of rock art from the Limpopo region have been documented, analyzed, and interpreted by Eastwood and his colleagues (Eastwood 2005; Eastwood and Cnoops 1999; Eastwood and Eastwood 2006; Eastwood et al. 1994). Garlake (1989, see also 1995) has looked at elephants in rock art which he believes were as important in Zimbabwe as the eland was to South African rock art. Mguni (2002, 2004, 2006a, 2006b, 2015) has provided an interpretation of formlings, while Cooke (1974) has looked at depictions of birds in the rock art of Matobo Hills, a subject re-examined by Hubbard and Mabrey (2007). Parry (1997, 2001) has tackled motifs on snakes, bees, and honey, among others.

As for interpretation approaches, Zimbabwean researchers from time to time have adopted and discarded interpretive frameworks from international schools of thought, beginning with traditional sympathetic magic, art for art’s sake, and narrative hypotheses (Nhamo 2013). For different reasons, these theories did not gain traction in Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, the common huddle has always been the great diversity of the rock art imagery in Zimbabwe, which includes humans, animals, plants, and abstract depictions. The restricted focus of the art made the art for art’s sake theory untenable, while the occurrence of nonrealistic motifs such as therianthropes also further limited the applicability of the narrative approach. Because these attempts at interpretation were not satisfactory, many people who wrote about the rock art of Zimbabwe between the 1930s and 1970s were more concerned with describing the art and developing sequences and chronologies rather than trying to interpret it (see Cooke 1959, 1964, 1969; Goodall 1959). They were more interested in identifying and describing subject matter such as kudu, humans, and weapons without concern for the associations of the images (e.g., Cooke 1964). These depictions were considered simple, self-evident, and literal in meaning without any ritual or social importance to either the viewer or the artist (Mguni 2002, 2004). Furthermore, they produced detailed copies and records of rock art sites.

From the 1970s, Zimbabwean rock art researchers showed more interest in quantitative analyses, which began in the late 1960s with the New Archaeology era. The analyses became more common in the period beyond 1980 (e.g., Cooke 1974; Erwee 1999; Rudner and Rudner 1970; Thornycroft 1986; Tucker and Baird 1983). It was during the mid-1980s that the trance hypothesis, first postulated by Lewis-Williams (1981, 1982) in South Africa, began to appear in the interpretation of Zimbabwean rock art. Researchers such as Garlake (1987b, 1990, 1995) and Huffman (1983) began to subscribe to the trance hypothesis, which became popular due to its dominant application. The same dominance was experienced with the application of offshoots of the trance hypothesis, namely, the neuropsychological and shamanistic explanation (Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988). Scholars such as Walker (1987, 1994, 1996), Genge (1988), Thornycroft (1986, 1994), and Mguni (2002, 2004, 2005, 2006) subscribed to these hypotheses.

While noting the increasing use of trance hypothesis, other scholars such as Cooke (1982) and Cooke et al. (1983) were not convinced of its significance. The most well-formed opposition to the shamanistic model in Zimbabwe came from Garlake (1995, 1998). Although he applied the trance hypothesis to the interpretation of certain images, Garlake did not believe the shamanistic model could explain the entire corpus of images in Zimbabwean art. Instead, he believed that social issues symbolized through emblems such as man the hunter, woman the gatherer, and so on, informed the production of the art, which has set a tone for rock art interpretation in Zimbabwe.

Thus, in the 21st century, the dominant interpretation models tend to combine some aspects of the shamanistic hypothesis and those of general social theory (Eastwood and Eastwood 2006; Mguni 2002, 2004, 2006b; Muringaniza and Manyanga 2017; Nhamo 2007, 2014). The social theory is based on the thinking that depictions found in rock art are influenced by broader social systems in the society such as social relations, group identity, networking, and gender relations. This is broadly similar to the application of ethnography done by Vinnicombe (1976). The adoption of the social theory emanates from the fact that many researchers accept that the art depicts some religious aspects, which can be explained within the shamanistic hypothesis, but they do not believe that the art was restricted to these issues alone. Research has shown that hunter-gatherer religion and other social perceptions are so intertwined that it is very difficult to restrict symbols found in the art to one or the other.

The other major concern in Zimbabwean rock art surrounds the nature and meaning of spatial differences (Mlambo 2016; Muringaniza and Manyanga 2017; Nhamo 2014). Researchers have always noted that there are differences in the distribution of subject matter (Cooke 1964; Garlake 1987b; Walker 1996). This is also true for rock art in other parts of southern Africa (Hampson 2016; Ndlovu 2013). Mlambo (2016) showed that the same spatial variation is evident in Zimbabwean rock engravings. However, not much research has been done on interpreting the meaning of these regional difference. Nhamo (2014) argues that the variation of the motifs across space is a result of differences in beliefs and social circumstances surrounding the production of the art within a smaller grouping of hunter-gatherers in different geographic areas. However, there is still a need to examine the complexity of the variation and its meaning.

Farmer Rock Art

Rock paintings ascribed to the farming communities, generally made using fingers and white paint, are poorly researched in Zimbabwe. Cooke (1974) called these paintings the Late Whites. These paintings depict mostly animals and geometric figures (fig. 9a). At most sites, the Late Whites are found superpositioned on top of hunter-gatherer images and are located in different parts of Zimbabwe. They have been recorded in Matobo, Chivi, Gwanda, Zimunya, Murehwa, Mutoko, Musana, Concession, and Makonde. The Late Whites are kaolin-based, which is different from the ochre-based pigment used for hunter-gatherer art. The solvent is usually water-based and thus is not very durable.

In other parts of southern Africa, rock art produced by farmers has other characteristics beyond just the finger-painting technique. In Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia, for example, images known as spread-eagled designs are considered farmer art. These designs occur in Zimbabwe although at some sites they have been executed using pigment very similar to that of hunter-gatherers. These are accompanied by other geometric designs in similar pigment that are also known especially from the eastern parts of the country (Nhamo 2007, 2014). At one site in Chipinge, similar finger paintings show animals and humans.

The classification of farmer rock art is thus problematic when using established chronologies. This difficulty shows that there is a need to re-examine the definition of what hunter-gatherer or farmer rock art is in the Zimbabwean context.

The rock engravings ascribed to the farming communities are found in Chimanimani, Chipinge, and Nyanga and are significantly different in subject matter. They are only geometric and abstract. The images are also mostly pecked and incised (Mlambo 2016) rather than polished, as is the case in Hwange. In Chimanimani, engravings have been recorded at two sites, Bambiri and Ngorima (Goodall and Summers 1959). While Bambiri was revisited for further analyses (Nhamo and Mlambo, forthcoming), efforts to relocate Ngorima have been unsuccessful. At Bambiri, the designs are depicted on small movable slabs. Goodall and Summers (1959) reported forty-two of these designs but only fourteen were located in recent surveys (Nhamo and Mlambo, forthcoming). Other slabs may have been moved over the years. Since engravings at Ngorima were also reported to be on a small boulder, they may have suffered the same fate, thus the difficulty in relocating the site. At Bambiri, the engravings recorded are mostly ovals consisting of two circular rings with a ring of cupules in between them and a T-shaped appendage (fig. 9b). These designs are quite similar to those observed at Iron Age sites in South Africa (Maggs 1995, 1998). The ovals are often accompanied by other groups of cupules, although on some slabs, cupules were occurring on their own. Goodall and Summers (1959) reported dumbbell shapes and some roots and plants, but these were not observed. They may have been on the missing slabs. The designs at Ngorima were slightly different, with spirals joined together by fine lines. Similar depictions have been reported in the Nyanga area to the northwest (Goodall and Summers 1959, 225).

Figure 10. Farmer rock art is not as ubiquitous as that of hunter gatherers. The illustrations here show the Late White paintings and the engravings attributed to farming communities in Zimbabwe.

Photograph by the author.

Other Types of Rock Art

Handprints and dots are the typical characteristics of herder art in South Africa (Smith 2006; Smith and Ouzman 2004). In Zimbabwe, the occurrence of handprints has been reported in places such as Gwanda, Beitbridge, Chiredzi, and in Mavhuradonha (Cooke 1974; Eastwood et al. 1994; Marufu, personal communication; Walker 1986). In other places, such as Zimunya and Chivi, handprints rarely occur and are often interlinked with other typical hunter-gatherer rock art. At several sites, handprints and dots are found in association with hunter-gatherer art and thus it is difficult to argue for different authorship. This is possibly the reason why the art has previously not been classified as herder art even though the occurrence of many finger-painted dots and other geometric figures in southern Zimbabwe has been argued to show herder presence in the area (Nhamo and Bonyongwa 2015; Pearce 2009; Walker 1986). There is a need for further research into this art before its classification as herder rock art can be confirmed.

Rock Art Management and Conservation

For many years rock art research in Zimbabwe concentrated on classification and interpretation. Little substantive research was targeted toward the proper management and conservation of this heritage. The first major work on rock art conservation was by Taruvinga (1995) who investigated conservation issues at Domboshava, a national monument on the outskirts of Harare. While most publications on the management of rock art were discussing Domboshava, concerns raised were pertinent to many sites in the country. Pwiti and Mvenge (1996) discussed conflicts between traditional activities at the site and the formal management of the site through national institutions such as the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe. This led to conflicts between communities and heritage managers. The situation at Domboshava became a defining case study of conflicts between local communities and the application of formal heritage management when the site was vandalized using oil paint in 1998 (see Taruvinga and Ndoro 2003). Domboshava became the reference point in discussions of proper management of heritage places in Africa (e.g., Chirikure and Pwiti 2008).

Nonetheless, there still has been little research on rock art conservation for dealing with threats such as graffiti, dust, and soot. A review of the conservation of rock art in Zimbabwe showed a great need for targeted conservation efforts against these threats (Nhamo 2018), the major concern being a lack of awareness among members of the public as to the value of rock art and the impact of human activities on its conservation. A booklet was published to raise awareness in this regard (Nhamo et al. 2017). Another booklet targeted at school children was also published by Burrett (2018). There is still a need, however, to conduct further research on how to preserve the art from threats such as dust, which is prevalent at the sites and leads to the obliteration of the images (see Nhamo and Chigwende, 2020). Researchers are also increasingly looking at the value of utilizing heritage for the benefit of neighboring communities and national development (e.g., Nhamo and Katsamudanga 2019).

Future Research Directions

Although the rock art of Zimbabwe has been fairly well researched, there are many aspects that are still outstanding. There is a great need to continue research on the dating of the rock art to contextualize its interpretation within correct cultural frameworks. Both relative and chronometric dating of the art requires extensive re-examination. The relative chronology available is outdated and has many loopholes. It is also imperative that there is an exploration of chronometric dating methods to provide further input into discussions about the sequencing of Zimbabwean rock art. A convincing sequence of the art will expand research into the spatial and temporal cultural variation of hunter-gatherers through examining the changes in themes over time and space. Detailed comparative analyses of the art will help expand our understanding of issues of variation and diversity. Although Nhamo (2014) has tackled these issues, she was using case studies from a few selected parts of the country. Garlake (1998, 2001) rightly argues that the debate on variation should be based on a thorough knowledge of the art from different regions.

Authorship of the art is another area that needs further discussion. There is a general assumption that authorship has been resolved, but ongoing research has exposed the need to revisit this issue. Some researchers (e.g., Manyanga et al. 2013) have questioned the attribution of all fine-line rock paintings to hunter-gatherers. Related to the issue of authorship, we must further investigate the relationship between hunter-gatherers and farmers. In Zimbabwe, issues related to the contact period have not been analyzed as has been the case in South Africa (e.g., Hall and Smith 2000; Hammond-Tooke 1998; Jolly 1996a, 1996b). Rock art attributed to farming communities, the so-called Late Whites, needs to be included in these discussions. This type of rock art has been reported from many parts of Zimbabwe (e.g., Nhamo 2007; Nhamo and Bonyongwa 2015; Walker 1996) but has not been investigated in detail. The lack of research into this rock art is surprising considering that many aspects of the farming community’s archaeology have almost been tackled in Zimbabwe.

Research on the rock art of Zimbabwe has largely been geared toward rock paintings while engravings have generally been sidelined. This has happened even though many engraving sites have been reported. Thus, there is a need for documentation, identification, and (re)interpretation of these engravings. There is also a need for comparative analysis of engraved and painted motifs, since they sometimes occur together.

Further Reading

  • Garlake, P. S. 1995. The Hunter’s Vision: The Prehistoric Art of Zimbabwe. London: British Museum Press.
  • Mguni, S. 2002. “Continuity and Change in San Beliefs and Ritual: Some Aspects of the Enigmatic Formling and Tree Motifs from Matopo Hills Rock Art, Zimbabwe.” Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Witwatersrand.
  • Mguni, S. 2004. “Cultured Representation: Understanding “Formlings,” an Enigmatic Motif in the Rock Art of Zimbabwe.” Journal of Social Anthropology 4 (2): 181–199.
  • Mguni, S. 2005. “A New Iconographic Understanding of Formlings, a Pervasive Motif in Zimbabwean Rock Art.” In Further Approaches to Southern African rock Art, Goodwin Series 9, edited by G. Blundell, 34–44. Cape Town: South African Archaelogical Society.
  • Mguni, S. 2006a. “Iconography of Termites’ Nests and Termites: Symbolic Nuances of Formlings in Southern African San Rock Art.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 16 (1): 53–71.
  • Mguni, S. 2006b. “King’s Monuments: Identifying ‘Formlings’ in Southern African San Rock Painting.” Antiquity 80: 583–598.
  • Mguni, S. 2015. Termites of the Gods: San Cosmology in Southern African Rock Art. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
  • Nhamo, A. 2007. Immortalizing the Past: Reproductions of Zimbabwean Rock Art by Lionel Cripps. Harare, Zimbabwe: Weaver Press.
  • Nhamo, A. 2013. “Of Borrowed Concepts and Regional Variations: A Critique of Rock Art Interpretive Frameworks with Specific Reference to Zimbabwe.” In Zimbabwean Archaeology in the Post Independence Era, edited by M. Manyanga and S. Katsamudanga, 61–74. Harare, Zimbabwe: Sapes Books.
  • Walker, N. 1996. The Painted Hills: Rock Art of Matopos. Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press.


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  • Burrett, R. 2018. Our Heritage: The Rock Art of Zimbabwe. Bulawayo, Zimbabwe: Khami Press.
  • Chirikure, S., and G. Pwiti. 2008. “Community Involvement in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Management: An Assessment from Case Studies in Southern Africa and Elsewhere.” Current Anthropology 49 (3): 467–485.
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  • Cooke, C. K. 1963. “The Painting Sequence in the Rock Art of Southern Rhodesia.” The South African Archaeological Bulletin 18 (72): 172–175.
  • Cooke, C. K. 1964. “Animals in Southern Rhodesian Rock Art.” Arnoldia 1 (13): 1–22.
  • Cooke, C. K. 1969. Rock Art of Southern Africa. Cape Town: Books of Africa.
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  • Cooke, C. K. 1974. A Guide to the Rock Art of Rhodesia. Salisbury, UK: Longman.
  • Cooke, C. K. 1982. Review of Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meanings in Southern African San Rock Paintings, by J. D. Lewis-Williams, Man Newsletter 17 (4): 811–812.
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  • Lewis-Williams, J. D. 1987. “A Dream of Eland: An Unexplored Component of San Shamanism and Rock Art.” World Archaeology 19 (2): 165–177.
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  • Mguni, S. 2001. “Research into the Formling in Rock Art of Zimbabwe.” Antiquity 75: 807–808.
  • Mguni, S. 2002. “Continuity and Change in San Beliefs and Ritual: Some Aspects of the Enigmatic Formling and Tree Motifs from Matopo Hills Rock Art, Zimbabwe.” Master’s thesis, University of Witwatersrand.
  • Mguni, S. 2004. “Cultured Representation: Understanding ‘Formlings,’ an Enigmatic Motif in the Rock Art of Zimbabwe.” Journal of Social Anthropology 4 (2): 181–199.
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  • Mguni, S. 2006. “Iconography of Termites’ Nests and Termites: Symbolic Nuances of Formlings in Southern African San Rock Art.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 16 (1): 53–71.
  • Mguni, S. 2015. Termites of the Gods: San Cosmology in Southern African Rock Art. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
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  • 1. Pioneer Column refers to the first group of colonial settlers to occupy modern-day Zimbabwe.

  • 2. The geographic designation of this term differs among old researchers, but it loosely refers to areas around the present-day Mashonaland provinces (east, west, and central) and Masvingo. The rock art from the Midlands and Manicaland Province has rarely featured in past research.