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Mystery and Magic in Matobo

Mystery and Magic in Matobo

Mystery and Magic in Matobo

Zimbabwe born Paul Hubbard is a professional archaeologist with expertise in rock art studies as well as the pre-colonial period in southern Africa. Formerly a university lecturer, he now works as an independent archaeological consultant and tour guide. He can usually be found wandering in the Matobo Hills where he guides guests out of Camp Amalinda, some of whom have travelled far to meet him personally.

The Matobo Hills World Heritage Site is acknowledged by UNESCO as having the greatest density of ancient painted sites anywhere in the world, and more archaeological work has been done on these sites than anything else in the area. More than 3,000 are known and more are recorded every year.

At times, when out on a survey, it feels as though almost every place you look has a wonderful little painting - or even better a large panel filled with scores of images. Often, these paintings are so brilliantly preserved, the colours seemingly as fresh and bright as the day they were painted as to make you doubt their great antiquity.

Most paintings in the area are thought to have been done in the Late Stone Age, (dating from 13,000 to 1,500 years ago) as a part of the religion and spiritual practices of the nomadic hunter-gatherers who created them. Most images are probably at least 2,000 years old, created using pigments made from various mineral oxides.

The art is metaphorical and symbolic to a degree hard to appreciate today. One particular painting from Inanke Cave should be a World Heritage Site in its own right, because of the magnificent quality of its images. These closely packed, multi-coloured ovals create an image called a ‘formling,’ an important and highly complex group of images associated with termites, termite nests and spiritual potency.

The ovals mimic the egg chambers in the heart of the nest and careful inspection of the lower portion of the painting shows paintings of flying ants entering one end and exiting the other, confirming the hypothesis. The lovely giraffes painted over and around this image are likely metaphors for healing and healing rituals.

Ever a place of refuge and conflict, the Matobo Hills have witnessed trials and tribulations of human endeavour over the millennia.

Shattered fragments of their dreams and achievements are found everywhere in the hills – from pottery shards to overgrown battlefields. All give mute testimony to how these people lived, loved and died in this timeless environment. Paradoxically, it is a place of serenity, beauty and peace. Each group that lived within the hills has left their mark. The painted caves later became important shrines for the traditional worship of God, calling believers from across the region.

Today, walking around these hills becomes something like a pilgrimage. Almost every event of historical significance in Matabeleland can be traced back to the Matobo.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 08, March 2012)

Read more about the region in our destination guide: