The cave of Inanke in southern Zimbabwe contains some of the least known but most magnificent prehistoric paintings in the world. Intricately varied animal, human, and geometric images stretch along a broad 30-foot (10 m)-long painted band of granite wall. This tempts us to read the band as a single narrative -- like a scroll unrolling before our eyes -- but this would be a mistake: the dense, overlapping pictures were painted, repainted, and over-painted during many centuries, if not millennia.
The Inanke cave is one of hundreds of shelters decorated by the San people (commonly called Bushmen) dating from least 2,000 years ago. It is located in Matobo National Park, an area best-known in recent years as a sanctuary for the white and black rhinoceros.
The domed cave is located high up a granite slope on a shelf that nature scooped from the side of the hill. Unlike European Palaeolithic caves, the shelter is filled with light and open to stunning surrounding vistas.
The painted frieze runs the length of the back wall just above eye level (right). Herds of giraffe, eland, kudu and duiker antelope, and ostrich stride stiffly across the panorama (below, left). The animals are generally coloured from tan to mulberry ochre in tone, with no regard to reality, and rendered in flat silhouettes without any modelling. Little monochrome stick-like male figures carrying sticks or bows are scattered here and there among the wildlife. Sometimes, the male images are superimposed over their prey.
But these are far from simple hunting scenes.
Serious selection is at work. The animals depicted bear no relation to the game actually eaten by the San, as can be shown by analysis of the bone debris left by the early occupants of the caves. They don't even represent the tastiest, fattiest meat -- with few eland antelopes and almost no wildebeests.
Fascinating though the choice of animals may be, that's not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the human beings. Or, rather, about how their images are understood and interpreted by modern observers. I am thinking especially about an article I read recently in the Wall Street Journal.* It is by Michael Fitzgerald and I encourage you to read it now -- and have a look, too, at the excellent slide-show illustrating his points.
Then, I want to show you what he has left out of the story.
What we think we know.
Since the 1970s, anthropologists have been mining a large body of evidence on southern San culture collected in the 19th century and then largely ignored. Together with recent studies of the surviving Kung San of modern Botswana, it's now possible to grasp how such paintings expressed the fundamental beliefs of the San people who once inhabited a very wide swathe of southern Africa over a very long time.
Central to San beliefs is the concept of personal energy or potency (num, in the San 'click' language), a power which many people in the community can acquire and develop. A 'master of num' shoots the stuff like arrows into the belly. Num gets activated during trance that is induced by prolonged dancing in which the whole community participates. Trancers (a more neutral word than 'shamans') harness num to cure illnesses, to control game or weather, or enable the spirit to travel outside the body. As trancers dance, the num heats up, the stomach tightens, the num 'boils over', rises up the spine and explodes. Then the dancers enter trance. They sweat, tremble and convulse, stagger and fall. The trancer can become rigid or violent, jumping, running and somersaulting. In trance, the spirit may leave the body and travel far away; it struggles with supernatural creatures, such as ghosts, gods, and sickness, to conquer disease and take control of game
Are these the beliefs illustrated in the paintings?
The artists often drew the human body and limbs in very distorted postures. Even though perfectly capable of showing precise features, they reduced the heads to a simple circular or oval shape. Clearly, human elements were altered to communicate some spiritual essence that we don't understand yet very well. Most important, many human images contain motifs that have no resemblance to anything real or natural.
It's striking that a great many people have strange shapes attached to their heads: vertical lines across the crown or parted in the middle, lines covering the whole face, or triangles on top of the head, and so forth. Long, thin lines emerge from different parts of the body, often curving down from the chest or stomach, or, on male figures, from the penis.
Big Men, Big Shamens
Particularly striking are male figures falling down or lying supine (right). Some men are relaxed, others more rigid and contorted. Many have extremely long thin limbs and a long sinuous line coming from the penis. Some men are unusually large and have smaller figures sitting or kneeling beside them.
One giant trancer is described by Michael Fitzgerald (featured as slide 6 in the clickable slideshow), as a figure that
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. His upper torso leans forward as if struggling to stand, and lines of reddish pigment cascade to the ground from his armpits. 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. Trancing is so grueling that shamans often collapse and bleed from the mouth, nose or armpits, as their imaginative connection to the natural world causes a sensation of enlargement and, sometimes, transformation into an animal or tree.
This is true, as far as it goes. But you will not be surprised to learn on the Zenobia blog that this is only half of the story. Fitzgerald, like so many other reporters, does not even mention the words 'female' or 'woman', though the weaker sex is often pictured, and sometimes shown in a very special way.
Where are the women?
The San believe that people have different amounts of num, that some healers are 'masters of num', the essence of which is located in the belly area and that, as num expands, it swells before it bursts out. This, too, is depicted in the Zimbabwe caves.
Mistresses of Num
The figures have lines coming either from their upper bodies or coming from between their legs. Small figures may be attached to these lines (below, left). These small figures are often crouching, with knees bent, grasping the lines with both hands.
Using the imagery of num, the fat-bellied figures can be seen as masters -- or, in most case, rather, Mistresses of num -- swollen with powerful quantities of energy. This energy is activated and released in communal dance. It passes to and affects lesser figures who also experience trance as a result of their contact with the energy of the 'Mistresses of num'.
But is that the whole story?
The release of this potency is represented by the streams coming from the chests and genitals of the painted figures. It is remarkable that this 'stream' flows to a particularly extravagant extent, in the case of some female figures.
The supernatural power and energy that the San depend on receives even greater emphasis in the lines and zigzags emanating from between the thighs of the female 'spread-legged' figures.
Why, I wonder, has no one considered the possibility that these lines connote the 'potency' of female menstruation?
Or, at least, have someone pose the question: 'why are females (and only females) regularly shown with such genital flow?' After all, even today, some rural southern African tribes believe that menstrual blood is a substance bearing powerful num.**
And not only that, they also believe that women synchronize their periods with the moon.** The moon in conjunction with menstruation (as may be pictured left) is possibly the emblem of female blood potency, a power vital to the tribe's success in the hunt, health, and harmony.
If whole paintings are, in fact, representations of the San idea of num -- the fount of potency -- that power is as much female as male. And, surely, that is the invisible charge that holds together the painting tradition so brilliantly lit up at Inanke.
I have made much use of two essential works by the archaeologist and author of many books on Africa, P. Garlake, "Structure and Meaning in the prehistoric Art of Zimbabwe", 17th Annual Hans Wolff Memorial Lecture, 1987; and The Hunter's Vision: The Prehistoric Art of Zimbabwe, 1995.
* My thanks to Nancy B. of Archaeology Briefs for the heads-up on the WSJ article.
** C. Power & I. Watts, The Woman with the Zebra's Penis: Mutability and Performance , JRAI 3 (1997) 537-560.
Colour Top left: from DK Images Christopher and Sally Gable © Dorling Kindersley.
Colour Top right: Inanke Cave showing rock paintings | Nomination File © Nomination File.
Colour Middle left: from DK Images Christopher and Sally Gable © Dorling Kindersley.
Black & White, all from figures published in P. Garlake, "Structure and Meaning in the prehistoric Art of Zimbabwe".