Pongo Symbolism in the Geometric Rock Art of Uganda

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The rock art in Uganda sits within a broad geometric rock art belt straddling East and Central Africa (Santos Junior 1950; Whiteley 1951; Breuil & Mortelmans 1952; Clark 1959; Collinson 1970; Odak 1977; Ervedosa 1980; Willcox 1984; Mabulla 2005; Smith 2005).

The regional distribution of this homogenous geometric rock art tradition, defined by Clark as the 'Schematic Rock Art Zone', marches the distribution of a distinct Late Stone Age (LSA) culture north of the Zambezi defined as the Nachikufu (Clark 1950a: 43, 1958) dating from about 17 000 BP to historical times (Miller 1969b, 1971; Sampson & Southard 1973; Sampson 1974); it may have parallels with LSA Tshitolian assemblages of Central Africa (Phillipson 1976b). 'Nachikufuaff was subsequently used to describe sites in south-central Africa with similar artefacts (Clark 1959; Miller 1969b; Juwayeyi 1981; Musonda 1983). The Nachikufuans are believed to have been hunter-gatherers who continued to live with or alongside intruding farming and iron-using communities (Clark 1950b: 93; 1959: 211 ; Miller 1969a; Mgomezulu 1978).

Clark postulated a link between the Nachikufu and the geometric rock art tradition (Clark 1950a: 43-5, 1950b; Posnansky & Nelson 1968; Chaplin 1974; Leakey 1983; Anati 1986; Garlake 1995; Smith 1997; Mabulla 2005: 37), which was adopted by Lawrance, who further proposed a possible connection between the Nachikufuans and the geometric rock art in Uganda (Lawrance 1953: 12, 1958). If a connection indeed exists, then the authors of the geometric rock art tradition in Uganda were most likely Pygmy groups, forest hunter-gatherers of the Congo Basin (see Namono 2010a). I use the highly contested term, 'pygmy' as an academic word to describe hunter-gatherer groups of the Central African Congo Basin rainforest to distinguish them from the savannah hunter-gatherer groups of southern Africa (Lewis 2002: 47). I reject all pejorative connotations of the word. There is no single emic word for all the 'Pygmy' groups, each of whom has their own name. Not using 'Pygmy' may equate to denying these groups a rightful place in historical and archaeological narratives (cf. Frankland 2001: 239); hence I retain its use.

Turnbull's ethnographic accounts of the Mbuti Pygmies, although largely criticised, are extremely valuable in highlighting the intricacies of a Pygmy cosmos (Turnbull 1960a, 1960c, 1961, 1965a, 1965b, 1978b, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1997). His visits to the Epulu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1954, 1955 and 1957, make his own interactions with the Pygmies, repetitive, prolonged, deep and valuable empirical observations (Douglas 2003: 16). My reading draws on ethnographies of other Pygmy groups (e.g. Mosko 1987; Lewis & Knight 1995; Lewis 2002) to develop an understanding of the Pygmy cosmos, whence I will infer meaning of the prehistoric rock art by analogy. It is clearly not the only one possible.

Rock art

The present easterly distribution of the rock art in Uganda is probably a factor of the granite, gneiss surfaces dotting the area that are suitable for painting or engraving on (Figure 1). The rock art is predominantly geometric, depicted in red and white monochrome or bichrome pigment, and occasionally in orange pigment, a pattern consistent with rock art in the broad geometric rock art belt. The shapes predominantly comprise circular and rectangular shapes, sausage and 'U' shapes, grids, dots and lines (Figure 2).

Secure dates are not yet available for the rock art in Uganda, making direct association with archaeology difficult. However, relative dates may be proposed by observing similarities/differences in the manner of depiction that may suggest a common authorship or patterns of occurrence in rock art that equate with excavated archaeological contexts. Degrees of chemical and physical weathering of rock engravings and paintings are also indicative of relative age. …