Stacks Image 153
Print No #2

Some Extraordinary Therianthropes:

The three images in this print were originally traced by Mary Leakey from the rock shelters in the Kondoa District of central Tanzania (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). They are unique in that they represent some of the only examples of shamans transforming into an insect rather than an animal therianthrope. Archaeologist John Cavallo bases this contention on his comparative study of the anatomical attributes of the painted figures and photographs of living insect species. From this he concluded that the closest modern analog to the surrealistic insect-like creatures in the rock paintings is the Red locust (Nomadicris septemfasciata). This member of the Family Acrididae (locusts and grasshoppers) is one of Africa’s largest insects with adults measuring between 70 and 85mm from the front of the head to the tips of their folded wings. The front wings of this species have seven distinct stripes on them. According to several sources, whenever overpopulation occurs in their breeding grounds, they congregate into huge swarms and migrate great distances using the prevailing winds. Enormous swarms of between 30 and 60 km long and 3 to 8 km wide have been recorded. These sojourns are reported to have lasted up to eight months and covered distances of hundreds of kilometers.

In her book on the Kondoa rock paintings, Mary Leakey notes that “the hands are shown with long fingers, one often larger than the others” (Figure 1). But in Cavallo’s estimation, the so-called ‘hands’ on these images look extremely insect-like as do the “feet” on the three individuals in this print. So too do their “hair or head-dresses” which look exactly like the fanned out, fluttering wings of large grasshoppers he had netted in fields as a young naturalist. Referring to the black and white photograph of a typical grasshopper or locust body (Figure 2), notice the striking similarity between its foreleg and forefoot (metatarsal claws) and the insect-like “hands” on the images in this print. Even more informative are what initially appeared to be an unusual pair of arms on the first individual on the left in this print. The resemblance to the rear jumping legs of the grasshopper in the photo that are connected to the terminal end of the insect’s ventral side is unmistakable. Finally, there are the buggy-looking eyes on stalks sprouting from the top of the central figure’s head in the print.

From this, Cavallo concludes that the trio in the print depicts shamans in altered states of conscious that have transformed into part-human, part-locust therianthropes. The first individual on the left even has the suggestion of the Red locust’s wing stripes. The position of the wings on all three individuals initially led him to believe he was looking at one elongated human-like torso. On closer inspection, however, he discovered that it was actually a stylized composite head and thorax attached to a bulging abdomen. In turn, these are connected to a long, lower human-like torso with human-like legs and insect-like metatarsal claws as feet. If we look closely at the individual on the left of the trio in the print, we can see more clearly from its ventral side what I interpret as a fully transformed locust therianthrope whose left rear jumping leg had been deliberately separated from its thorax to symbolically immobilize it. The same kind of dismemberment is evident on the two other members of the trio whose left rear jumping legs are missing altogether. In Figure 4, Cavallo has redrawn and separated the heads, thoraxes and abdomens of all three individuals so the reader can see them more clearly from his perspective.

Assuming his contentions are correct raises an important question. That is, why such an apparent reverence for an insect, especially one with a long-lived reputation as a devastating pest? Since biblical times, locusts have been viewed as a plague to agricultural societies in the Middle East and Africa. Although large commercial farmers can now control them in their breeding grounds and invasion areas with modern technology and pesticides, these methods are far beyond the economic reach of poorer and more numerous small subsistence farmers who still consider them a menace. But to Later Stone Age and modern hunters and gatherers, Cavallo argues that the sudden appearance of a huge, black swarm of these voracious insects raining down upon them would likely have been greeted and celebrated as a legendary windfall. As entomologist S.H. Skaife pointed out, “It is rather ironic that locusts are [now] destroyed… [since] the insect swarms themselves are a massive food resource of exceptionally high nutritional value to man.” They could be easily collected, quickly immobilized as previously described, dried and stored by the hundreds of thousands for future consumption or as an emergency food reserve.

Perhaps it was the combination of their rare occurrence, their ominous appearance in the form of huge swarms that no doubt blocked the sun and the bounty of food they provided that secured them a special place in the Kondoa shamans’ spiritual pantheon. They may have been viewed as a heavenly sign or gift from this unusual therianthrope. In San rock paintings the praying mantis is the only insect that appears as a therianthrope known as the God, Kaagen. The Red locusts’ absence in their art and mythology is probably due to the marked regional difference in its behavior. Entomologist Leo Braak notes that while the Red locust occurs in South Africa’s Kruger National Park “and is especially common to the northern plains… it exists in stable populations not known to form swarms.” (From M.D. Leakey, 1983 by J.A. Cavallo).