In 2018, archaeologists discovered a shocking finding in the Swaga Swaga Game Reserve in central Tanzania: 52 previously undocumented rock shelters deliberately painted with rock art. Weathering had mostly destroyed all but a few, but one was a complete mystery.
The site, named Amak'hee 4, was meticulously painted with a frieze of figurative art, including three mysterious, anthropomorphic figures with enormous heads.
According to archaeologist Maciej Grzelczyk of the Jagiellonian University in Poland, these are an indication of what other, similar figures may be.
The Amak'hee 4 panel isn't very well-known until 2021, but Grzelczyk was able to establish its age as at least a few hundred years old. It's almost entirely painted in red pigment, except for five figures in white.
The ageing of this pigment, as well as the absence of domestic animals, suggests that it is quite old, dating back to hunter-gatherer societies in the region.
A diagram of the finished product. (M. Grzelczyk, Antiquity, 2021)
On the panel, you see animals that appear to be wildebeest, elands, buffalo, and even a giraffe, as well as a handful of human-like figures with big heads.
Grzelczyk wrote in his 2021 book that one scene that focuses on three images is "particularly noteworthy."
"In this trio, the figures appear to be stylized buffalo heads. These shapes recall the central dip in the profile of the buffalo head from where the two horns rise and curve outward away from the head, as well as the downturned ears."
The similarities to buffalo heads. (M. Grzelczyk, Antiquity, 2021)
The Sandawe people's culture, which is derived from those who once inhabited the area, does not include features of buffalo-headed people or people who can shape-shift into buffaloes (or vice versa), thus the images may represent something else. However, Grzelczyk notes that buffalo horns do play a significant role in certain Sandawe rituals.
The strange figures that are displayed near Amak'hee 4 in central Tanzania bear a strong resemblance to the trio.
Three figures are depicted standing together at Kolo B2, while three others are depicted horizontally, although lying on the ground.
Paintings of the figures. (M. Grzelczyk, Antiquity, 2021)
Although the Kolo figures have a striped motif, they are interpreted as a headdress. (Other Kondoa figures have elaborate hairstyles.)
The figures at all three are connected by a line across their midsection. All three have the same hands and arms arrangements.
Amak'hee 4 has a few minor differences. The heads appear to be filled in with true color, and they seem to be much more important to the action around them.
"The figures from Amak'hee 4 are substantially larger than those from Kolo, and make this main theme a central focal point around which the rest of the narrative appears to take place," according to Grzelczyk.
Some of the rock art sites in Kondoa are still used by the Sandawe for a variety of ritual activities. Local communities may be interested in the newly documented sites, so they might reveal some information.
In the meantime, archaeologists will continue documenting the sites so that they may be added to the published record.
The paper has been published in Antiquity.
In February 2021, a version of this article would be published for the first time.