Ancient Tanzanian Paintings of Bizarre Humanoids Perplex Experts
Rare, multidimensional art has been discovered in a Tanzanian cave shelter. However, the ritual scenes depicted in the ancient art don’t tally up the traditions of the modern Sandawe people.
Archaeologists exploring in Tanzania have discovered rare examples of cave art made by the ancient ancestors of the Sandawe people. These indigenous descendants of the older “Gogo” group are credited with having the oldest DNA lineage known to science, which can be dated back at least 87,000 years. The recently discovered images show a range of human figures, some speared with horns and some eating other humanoid characters, and other paintings show buffalos, giraffes, and domesticated cattle.
General view of the paintings at Amak'hee 4, in Tanzania. ( M. Grzelczyk, Antiquity, 2021 )
The paintings were discovered in June 2018 hidden beneath a rock overhang in what is known as the Amak'hee 4 rock shelter site, in the Dodoma area of central Tanzania. Researchers from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland, told Sci News that while many of paintings depict unknown figures, others show animals like domesticated cattle, buffalo, and giraffes. However, none of the rituals depicted in the artworks can be correlated with modern Sandawe people rituals.
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The team of Polish researchers said that the Tanzanian cave paintings were “well-preserved and in good condition.” This is because the rock overhang served to protect the pigments from centuries of flowing water and sunlight, which both degrade the vibrance and luminescence of inks and paints. One thing the team of researchers couldn’t do, however, was accurately date when the paintings might have been executed. Dr. Maciej Grzelczyk, from the Institute for the Study of Religions at the Jagiellonian University, explained that the team were only able to summarize that the artworks were “several hundreds of years old.”
Comparison of the Amak'hee 4 (A), Kolo B2 (B) and Kolo B1 (C) trios. (M. Grzelczyk, Antiquity, 2021 )
In a Daily Mail article the newly discovered Amak'hee 4 paintings are described as centering around three primary images, consisting mostly of stylized buffalo heads. Dr. Maciej Grzelczyk said that based on “superimposition,” the Tanzanian paintings were probably created from right to left. One disturbing section of the large mural shows what appears to be a collection of small figures that look like they’ve been speared by horns. Another area depicts what the archaeologists have interpreted as someone crushing someone else in their mouth.
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The team of Polish scientists were slightly perplexed during the research because “no elements of anthropomorphisation of buffaloes, nor belief in the possibility of transformation of people into these animals,” exists within modern Sandawe people groups. However, Dr. Maciej Grzelczyk pointed out that the present day “simbó ritual,” requires people entering “trance states,” which is a key element in Shamanic transitionary processes.
Comparison of the head of figure 059 (top left) and African buffalo (top right) and close-up of the digitally enhanced photograph (using DStrech) showing finer detail and superimposed layers. ( M. Grzelczyk, Antiquity, 2021 )
Furthering their speculations into the possible ritualistic or ceremonial nature of the Tanzanian cave site, and the artwork, the researchers said the modern Sandawe group believe caves in hills “harbored spirits and would travel to such structures to perform rituals and shout prayers not to disturb the ghosts.”
Moreover, evidence suggests the Tanzanian site was use repeatedly over many generations. When the paintings were analyzed it was discovered that the artists had “intentionally respected” an existing figure by not superimposing the new image onto it.” Rather than simply painting over the older image, the painter incorporated the preexisting image into the new scene.
The study says that a great example of this same sympathetic painting technique, where the work of an older artist is included in a new piece, can be seen in one of the buffalo paintings. The new study shows how the tail of one buffalo was interrupted so that it would not superimpose onto the leg of a human figure.
Digital tracing of the Tanzanian paintings at Amak'hee 4. (M. Grzelczyk, Antiquity, 2021 )
What this shows is not only artistic prowess, but a significant degree of foresight, preplanning, and logical thinking. The artist must have first conceived the image, before conceptualizing it within the bounds of the available space. Then, before executing the painting, the painter must have studied all of the preexisting figures and forms, looking for ways that parts of animals could be used to represent human parts.
Top Image: A trio of anthropomorphic figures from the Tanzanian cave art at the Amak’hee 4 site. Source: Maciej Grzelczyk, Jagiellonian University
By Ashley Cowie