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The Sandawe rock art of eastern Africa

In central Tanzania lies one of the most intriguing of Africa's hunter-gatherer rock art traditions. Whilst the other traditions cover huge geographic areas and are represented at many thousands of sites, this tradition occurs at just a few hundred sites in a small area of land less than 100km in diameter. This area is an island within the more widespread central African Twa rock art tradition. The art contrasts with the geometric Twa art as it is made up entirely of animal and human forms. Its closest parallels are with San art, but a number of its elements, such as its distinctive human head forms, are unique.

The area in which the art is found corresponds closely to the known distribution of the Sandawe people. The Sandawe speak a click language that has its only parallels amongst the San languages. The Sandawe are one of two East African groups who seem to have a hunter-gatherer ancestry extending back long before the time of the coming of Bantu-speakers to this area. The Sandawe have been living amongst farmer groups for nearly two thousand years and their beliefs and traditions show much evidence of borrowing, but, they also maintain a number of special rituals and beliefs that are not found amongst neighbouring groups.

There are a handful of accounts that, tantalisingly, describe Sandawe individuals making rock art early in the twentieth century. These accounts provide evidence that the practice of rock art was linked to particular Sandawe rituals, most notably to simbo. Simbo is a trance dance in which the Sandawe communicate with the spirits by taking on the power of an animal (the lion). Elements in the art provide independent confirmation of this link because they display a range of features that can only be understood by reference to simbo and to trance experiences. For example, groups of human figures are shown bending at the waist (just as happens during the simbo dance), taking on animal features such as animal ears and tails, and floating or flying. These last features show the experiences those possessed in the dance. The bizarre head forms seen in the rock art are no doubt another key element in the symbolism of simbo, but like much of this art, for now they remain enigmatic.