Stacks Image 153
Print No #26

A Reputed “Trapped Elephant”


The painting in this print was originally traced by archaeologist Mary Leakey from a rock shelter in the Kondoa-Irangi districts of central Tanzania. She later published it in her 1983 volume, Africa’s Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania. In this book, she describes the images as “A large circular object with spikes protruding from the exterior… just below the forefeet of the elephant: this probably represents an unsprung trap into which the elephant is about to fall.” More recently, archaeologist John Cavallo reinterpreted it using the shamanistic model developed by South African rock art specialist David Lewis-Williams to explain many of the rock paintings created by now extinct southern /Xam Bushmen.

From this perspective, Cavallo notes that Bushman shamans did not conceive of the rock faces on which they painted in the same way as Western artists view their raw canvasses. To Bushman shaman-artists, the rock faces were a penetrable “veil” that separated the material world in which they resided, and the realm of the spirits that lay directly behind it. Like waterholes, these rock faces were also considered entranceways into the spirit realm that appeared in the form of holes and crevasses in the rock surfaces. However, if none were present, they simply created an entranceway using paint. In this context, the so-called “trap” is just such an image and the circle with the spiky lines inside represent the holes and tunnels that shamans often refer to in ethnographic accounts.

The elephant in the picture is what the shaman-artist saw during altered states of consciousnees behind the veil of the rock surface—a powerful and highly potent rain animal capable of bringing rain during droughts if it were captured. The rock painting may therefore be documenting what a particular shaman saw behind the rock surface while in a state of trance and the successful capture of this highly revered animal. (Redrawn from M.D. Leakey, 1983 by J.A. Cavallo).