All photos by Renato Granieri
Teetering precariously on top of each other like giant cairns, Zimbabwe’s balancing rocks are a national icon. While the dollar notes they once decorated are now out of circulation, their image is enduringly priceless. Because along with vast swathes of savannah and free-roaming wildlife, this African nation is proud of its hard stuff — and quite rightly so. And beyond providing jaw-dropping scenery, these sandstone and granite surfaces also once served another purpose: as a canvas for some of the world’s most remarkable rock art.
Who were the artists?
Most paintings were drawn by the San — or Bushmen — who arrived from the south of the continent during the Stone Age. Three or four of these hunter-gatherer families would live together in a cave, feeding on kudu (a type of antelope) and using the animal’s skin to make clothing.
Eventually they were dispersed by the Bantu, agriculturalists from the north, and later descendants were almost driven to extinction by colonialists. Today a San community lives in the Kalahari of Botswana and Namibia.
What’s on display in these granite galleries?
Ochre and red in colour, the San made paints by mixing plant extracts, egg shell, and even blood. Fingers, porcupine quills and bird feathers were used as brushes to paint scenes — such as men hunting with bows and arrows — on the rock faces.
The attention to detail is remarkable; both men and women sport muscular physiques, and rhino, cheetah, kudu, giraffe, zebra and many other popular safari characters are also easily identifiable.
But some of the tableaus are much more complex; ones featuring dancers with rattles around their ankles and phallic symbolism have — perhaps unsurprisingly — sparked debate amongst academics. It’s generally believed they depict communities in a trance: Dancers would whip themselves into a frenzy, often hallucinating and suffering nose bleeds, and several rock art paintings show humans with debris gushing from their nostrils.
The San were — and still are — big believers in the spirit world, and some clever artists would incorporate granite cracks into their scenes, using them as a portal for animals and people to enter another dimension.
It’s art! Of course it’s controversial
One of the country’s more risqué rock paintings appears to show three men engaged in homosexual activity. LGBT campaigners have seized on this particular painting to defy President Mugabe’s claim that gays do not exist in Zimbabwe.
How has rock art stayed so pristine?
Dry conditions and inaccessible locations have kept many paintings in good condition, although some haven’t fared so well.
Some were destroyed in the 1920s when well-meaning but ill-fated attempts were made to preserve them with linseed oil. In the 1980s, bogus healers would also chip off sections of the paintings, claiming they could be used to cure AIDS.
Where can I see these caves?
Zimbabwe has southern Africa’s highest concentration of rock art, and there are thousands of sites all over the country.
Matobo Hills in southern Zimbabwe, where British politician Cecil Rhodes is buried on the cloud-tickling World’s View escarpment, has more than 300,000 paintings with the oldest dating back 20,000 years.
Excellent displays can be found at Inanke cave, although it’s a three-hour hike to reach the remote spot. If you only have time to visit one place, aim for Nswatugi cave, which is easily signposted with green arrows along a boulder-strewn path, and features vibrant representations of giraffe, elephants and hunters dating from 10,000 to 6,000 years ago. Look out for the hidden lady who can only be seen when a shadow is cast over the painting.
Want to check out Zimbabwe's rock art for yourself? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to ZImbabwe here.