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24 January 2010
Zimbabwe's prehistoric paintings are a celebration of life

Inanke cave is one of hundreds painted by the San people (commonly called Bushmen) about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago and located in what is now Matobo National Park (Zimbabwe). Unlike the dark, underground caves of Lascaux or Altamira in Europe, those in Matobo are located high up granite slopes in shelves scooped from the sides of the hills. They are shelters filled with light and open to surrounding vistas. Beneath Inanke's encompassing dome, herds of giraffe, eland, kudu, ostrich and duiker, among others, fill a broad painted band running the length of the back wall just above eye level. They offer a celebration of life equal to any of the mural cycles of the Renaissance.
     Generally rendered in silhouettes of ochre ranging from tan to mulberry in tone, this dense profusion of wildlife includes a giraffe so subtly modeled in yellow and white that one of the leading experts on African rock art, Peter Garlake, has called it the finest animal painting in the country. Next to this vivid creature, seven stick-figure men march in file with weapons on their shoulders, and many other human figures are scattered among the animals. But these are far from simple hunting scenes. A succession of highly unrealistic forms dominate the middle of the frieze and several peripheral areas. One figure towers over the menagerie, an extremely attenuated personage with the body of a man whose head is shrunk to a tiny knob and whose shoulders sprout branchlike stems.
     Unlike the images in European caves, whose cultures are lost, these can be interpreted with considerable clarity because of the pioneering work of 19th-century linguists who learned the 'click' language of the San and recorded beliefs that seem to have endured for millennia. This evidence has enabled archaeologists to unlock the significance of the many fantastic images in the San paintings. The hunched giant of Inanke almost certainly represents a San shaman deep in the state of 'trancing,' a ritual still practiced by the San as a means of gathering the forces of nature and healing suffering.
     Fundamental to San beliefs is the concept of 'potency,' a measure of spiritual essence that is represented in the paintings by the stippled ovals from which the giant rises. While possibly related to beehives prized by the San, these intricately crafted shapes are largely abstract evocations of spiritual forces unifying all of nature.
     The dense, overlapping paintings of Inanke probably accumulated over centuries, if not millennia, and do not constitute a continuous narrative in the sense of Western art; yet their very longevity and diversity make them especially compelling expressions of San cosmology. In 2003, Unesco's World Heritage Program named Matobo Hills one of two 'cultural landscapes' in southern Africa, although this recognition now includes no financial support for conservation. Despite the professionalism of Matobo's rangers, the political and economic instability in Zimbabwe places the paintings in peril. The unrestricted access that is so desirable for admirers leaves the works exposed to defacement by vandals unaware or dismissive of their place in our collective history.

Source: The Wall Street Journal (23 January 2010)

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