Matobo Hills
Matobo Hills
Cultural Zimbabwe Africa Matebeleland, South Province

The Matobo Hills have one of the highest concentrations of rock art in Southern Africa. The rich evidence from archaeology and from the rock paintings at Matobo provide a very full picture of the lives of foraging societies in the Stone Age and the way agricultural societies came to replace them. The interaction between communities and the landscape, manifest in the rock art and also in the long-standing religious traditions still associated with the rocks, are community responses to a landscape. The Mwari religion, centred on Matobo, which may date back to the Iron Age, is the most powerful oracular tradition in southern Africa.

The area exhibits a profusion of distinctive rock landforms rising above the granite shield that covers much of Zimbabwe. The large boulders provide abundant natural shelters and have been associated with human occupation from the early Stone Age right through to early historical times, and intermittently since. They also feature an outstanding collection of rock paintings. The Matobo Hills continue to provide a strong focus for the local community, which still uses shrines and sacred places closely linked to traditional, social and economic activities.

The landscape is visually and ecologically distinguished from the surrounding dry savannah. A profusion of distinctive granite landforms, densely packed into a comparatively tight area, rise up to form a sea of hills. Their forms have resulted from the varied composition and alignment of the granites, which responded differently to millions of years of weathering, leaving inselbergs (large individual vertical rocks), kopjes, crenellated ridges, dwalas or hump-backed domes, and what look like randomly heaped boulders.

The discrete and often small sheltered spaces, formed between this dense collection of rocks, have fostered a wide variety of microclimates, allowing the development of an extremely diverse range of habitats. The resulting species rich vegetation has in turn provided much sustenance for a wide range of fauna. The valley between the rocks contains numerous streams and springs supporting a wide range of flora. Out of 189 mammal species indigenous to Zimbabwe, 88 have been recorded in the Matobo Hills, plus a further 70 pairs of bird species.

These natural attributes have also been the dynamic focus for people living in the area since the early Stone Age. In fact within natural caves, and on boulders and cliff faces are to be found a dramatic corpus of rock art.

The earlier paintings, dated back at least 13,000 years, are essentially naturalistic interpretations of people, animals and trees. They are associated with hunting and gathering and are mostly executed using a red ochre pigment, mixed with an as yet unknown binder. The later paintings associated with farming communities used white pigment from kaolin or quartz. This distinction is common within the region, but stylistically Matobo is part of a rock-art 'region' stretching from South Africa to Tanzania. It is also impressionistic in that many of the paintings distorted body proportions to convey a sense of movement, or size to convey importance. In many sites there are layers of paintings superimposed one on top of the other. Images in the later paintings also appear to display a complex cosmology linked to religious beliefs.

An abundance of archaeological evidence has been amassed from the shelters for the Stone Age and Iron Age, which when combined has contributed a great deal to the understanding of the pre-colonial history of the region. However, the Matobo Hills also contain very important historical sites and sites from the colonial and post-colonial periods.

Matobo is the home of the wide-ranging oracular cult of the High God, Mwari, whose voice is believed to be heard from the rocks. This powerful oracle links the indigenous communities to the hills where the ancestral spirits live in sacred forest, mountains, caves, hollow trees and pools. Within the Matobo Hills, certain places have become known as shrines.