(ORDO NEWS) — In 2018, archaeologists made a stunning discovery at the Swaga Swaga Game Reserve in central Tanzania: 52 rock shelters deliberately painted with rock art. Weathering has basically wiped out all but a few; but of those that survived, one was an absolute mystery.
This site, called Amak’hi 4, was elaborately painted with a frieze of figurative art – including three enigmatic anthropomorphic figures with extremely large heads.
Amak’hee 4 is difficult to date, but in 2021 Gzhelchik was able to determine that it was at least several hundred years old. It is almost completely colored with red pigment, with the exception of five white figures.
The weathering of this pigment and the absence of domestic animals suggests that this is a rather ancient painting dating back to the existence of hunter-gatherer societies in the region.
The panel depicts animals that look like wild animals, elands, buffaloes and even giraffes, as well as several humanoid figures with large heads. But one group stands out.
The culture of the Sandawe people, who are descended from those who once inhabited the region, has no motifs of buffalo-headed people or people who can transform into buffaloes (or vice versa), so something else may be depicted in the images.
Whatever they are, the strange figures are not without precedent. Near Amak’hi 4, in the Kondoa region of central Tanzania, two refuge rock paintings in particular bear a strong resemblance to the trio.
At the Kolo B2 site, three figures are depicted standing together. In Colo B1, three figures are depicted horizontally and lie on the ground.
All three objects show similar figures with large heads, although the figures from Kolo have a striped motif, interpreted as a headdress. (Other figurines from Kondoa are interpreted as figurines with intricate hairstyles).
In all three places the figures are connected by a line through the middle. And all three have a similar arrangement and direction of the arms and hands.
There are several important differences in Amak’hi 4. The heads seem to be filled with solid color and they seem to be much more important to what is going on around them.
“The figures in Amak’hee 4 are noticeably larger than in Kolo and make this main motif the central focus around which everything else seems to be happening. In contrast, the images in Kolo are isolated images with no clear connection to the rest pictures,” writes Gzhelchik.
In Kondoa, some rock art sites are still used by the Sandawe for various ritual activities. The new documented sites are also known to the local population, so it is possible that they will be able to shed light on the meaning of the mysterious figures.
In the meantime, archaeologists will continue to work on documenting these sites so they can be added to the published record.
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