Saturday, January 23, 2010
Masterpieces in Zimbabwe Caves
Story from the Wall Street Journal Online: January 23, 2010 Magnificence on Cave Walls Inanke's prehistoric paintings are a celebration of life (Slideshow) By MICHAEL FITZGERALD Matobo Hills, Zimbabwe The trail to the great cave of Inanke in southern Zimbabwe begins confidently with arrows painted on bare patches of granite and soon vanishes into four miles of often pathless wandering through fields of shoulder-high grass, dense scrub forests and formidable thorn bushes. Without the direction of our guide, the archaeologist Paul Hubbard, our group would never have found this cave containing some of the most magnificent prehistoric paintings in the world. But reach the approximately 30-foot-long frieze of intricately varied paintings and you will find it free of the man-made barriers, tourist hype and even substitution by reproductions that prevent modern visitors from directly experiencing most of the ancient sites in Europe. The 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, an area best-known in recent years as a successful sanctuary for white and black rhinoceros. A sign at the entrance cautions visitors that "anyone seen or suspected of poaching activities may be shot on sight," and a ramble to the caves can entail an encounter with these solitary beasts or machine-gun-toting rangers, not to mention ubiquitous packs of baboons raging at trespassers crossing their territories. The park also contains a large population of leopards. 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. His upper torso leans forward as if struggling to stand, and lines of reddish pigment cascade to the ground from his armpits. He stands on two expansive ovals, both filled with dots, a design that is repeated in at least 16 similarly rounded and dotted shapes at the center of the wall. These ciphers define the meaning of the paintings for the San. 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. 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 (apparently shown at Inanke). 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. Scattered across the frieze and clustered at the center of Inanke, they suggest a huge reservoir representing an entire community's potency and its integration with the bounteous wildlife thronging around and over it. 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. As Mr. Garlake wrote: "For visitors able to reach Inanke, the reward is unsurpassed." The case of the San is worth particular attention. In 2009, the largest study so far undertaken of genetic diversity among Africans found the San, who once ranged across most of southern Africa, the most diverse of all peoples on the continent. This genetic abundance makes the San the most likely origin of modern humans, the population from which others spread out of Africa and across the world. Inanke and the other San paintings scattered throughout Zimbabwe and the region offer an extraordinary chance to look far back into a past we may all have shared and appreciate the early richness of the human imagination. Centuries ago, the San were driven from this verdant area into the Kalahari desert to the west, where some live in what is now Botswana and Namibia. Nonetheless, the caves have remained important. They served as hideouts during the war that brought majority rule to Zimbabwe in 1980, and they continue to be shrines revered by many. 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.—Mr. FitzGerald teaches the history of modern art at Trinity College.