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Pongo symbolism in the geometric rock art of Uganda.



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. Red pigment is more durable than most pigments. However, dating patina may reveal dates of post-deposition rather than the making of the image.

While it is not possible to directly date the rock art, it is highly likely to date back centuries if not millennia, to a time prior to the large-scale settlement of the areas where the sites are found. Several sites in Uganda present a degree of pigment stability. Figure 3a is a photograph taken in 1964, which, when compared to Figure 3b, suggests that there has been no change in deterioration of images (aside from deterioration of photographic film). Studies in South Africa indicate that the most recent paintings deteriorate the fastest (Ward 1997: 88-90).


Who were the authors?

In Uganda, LSA assemblages date to between 15 000 BP and about 1000 BP with most sites indicating a hunter-gatherer-fisher economy (Nenquin 1971: 132; Van Noten 1971; Sassoon 1973: 9; Ambrose 1982: 119, 133; Brooks & Robertshaw 1990: 151). While the Magosi and Nyero 2 sites reveal typical LSA artefacts, they are not dated. The earliest occurrence of LSA technology in East Africa dates to a minimum age of 39 900 BP (Ambrose 1998: 388) and continued in use well into the Early Iron Age (ELA) (Brooks & Robertshaw 1990; Phillipson 1985; Prendergast et al. 2007: 220).

Magosi 1, excavated in 1926 by Edward James Wayland and Miles Burkitt, yielded LSA artefacts and burins mainly covered in yellow ochre (Wayland & Burkitt 1932). Magosi 2, a large overhanging rock with geometric rock paintings, excavated in 1963 by Posnansky and Cole, yielded pieces of haematite, some red ochre 'pencils', pottery, ostrich eggshell with a few beads, hammerstones, several pestles, a shallow mortar, perforated stones, a partial bored stone and large quantities of LSA lithics, that probably represent the LSA and early Holocene period (Posnansky & Cole 1963: 105-106). These assemblages bear a strong resemblance to those of the Nachikufu.


Excavated archaeological evidence from Nyero 2 suggests a period of long LSA occupation and the likely supposition that the cave dwellers were the authors of the rock paintings (Lawrance 1953:12). A 1945 excavation yielded quartz (Harwich 1961), pottery (Posnansky & Nelson 1968: 151; Nelson 1973: 62), and a bone incised with three concentric circles (Figure 4) similar to designs found on the rock walls at Nyero 2, suggesting that the rock paintings belong to the LSA (Posnansky 1961: 109-110).



Further excavation of Nyero 2 in 1962 yielded two large pieces of prepared orange-red ochre 'pencils' and typical LSA artefacts (Posnansky & Nelson 1968: 154-5). Although the paintings and the excavated occupation layers are not necessarily contemporary, they indicate that the LSA occupants incised concentric circles on bone and used ochre (Posnansky & Nelson 1968:156). In Uganda, wherever geometric rock art has been found in association with an archaeological industry, this has been of LSA form. The occurrence of ochre and rock art at LSA sites marks the importance of symbolic behaviour among these LSA populations (Prendergast et al. 2007:219).

A relative consistency of geometric motifs across eastern, central and south- central Africa suggests that the red and white geometric paintings have been in existence for a long time. The high degree of congruency in the geometric rock art in Uganda demonstrates a clear, consistent, distinct, homogenous pattern in method and manner of depiction to that within the geometric rock art zone (Clark 1950a, 1958, 1959; Miller 1969b; Phillipson 1976a: 201; Juwayeyi 1981; Musonda 1983) (Figure 5) and the consistent pattern of evidence from excavated finds suggests a connection between the makers of the LSA objects and the rock art. Across space the minimal variation in image depiction raises the possibility that, if some sites are of different dates, the shapes depicted would not have changed significantly over time and, therefore, that the widely held beliefs and traditions amongst the authors of the rock art most likely have relevance to most, if not all, of the geometric rock art of Uganda. If it is accepted that the geometric imagery was made by Pygmy hunter-gatherers then the rock art of Uganda probably dates from 15 000 BP but may also date as far back as the LSA in East Africa, from between 39 900 BP to historical times, due to the absence of more LSA dates in Uganda.


The largest of the Pygmy groups and the nearest to Uganda are the Mbuti of the Ituri forest whose recent territory extends to the western and south-western Ugandan border where there still are Twa and Sua Pygmy descendants (Figure 5). Linguistics and genetic evidence (Bahuchet 1993) indicates that ancestral Pygmy populations diverged from the common genetic ancestors of modern central African farming populations at roughly 60-70 000 years ago (Quintana-Murci et al. 2008: 1600; Patinet al. 2009). The common ancestral Pygmy population genetically subdivided into western and eastern groups about 20 000 years ago, suggesting that the shared physical and cultural features of Pygmies were inherited from a common ancestor (Cavalli-Sforza 1986: 414; Patinet al. 2009; Verdu et al. 2009:315-17; Ramirez Rozzi & Sardi 2010: 8). Although Hewlett (1996) describes a western- eastern Pygmy patterning of ethno-linguistic-subsistence diversity (Cavalli-Sforza 1986; Hewlett 1996: 243) and suggests that it is probably difficult to refer to an African 'Pygmy culture' (Hewlett 1996: 244), cultural debris and techno-typological attributes in the lithic data indicate certain common beliefs across these boundaries despite the evidence for genetic divergence (Mercader & Brooks 2001: 198, 213-14; Cornelissen 2002; Mercader 2003). Beliefs and traditions found almost universally may be integrated to increase confidence that common Pygmy concepts will most likely have existed in Uganda with potentially deep historical roots, by whatever names they might have been called.


Broadly, a Pygmy cosmos revolves around the benevolence of the forest, ndura, whose centre is the most sacred space of all (Turnbull 1960b: 36, 1961: xv, 1985: 8; Mosko 1987: 900).

Adherence to social values, beliefs and attitudes that emphasise and maintain constant equilibrium, balance or harmony with ndura is at the core of the Pygmy cosmos. Ndura is personified--it is 'mother', 'father', 'sibling', 'friend' and 'lover'; a giver of life from whom help is ritually sought and to which thanks are given (Turnbull 1960c: 319- 20, 330, 1965b: 252-3; Mosko 1987: 898). Ndura's centre is dark, wet and moist (Turnbull 1990: 69), a metaphor for the primordial vagina that engenders the Pygmies. For the Mbuti, an overriding life force, pepo, the breath of the disembodied spirits that derives from ndura, animates all living things (Turnbull 1965b: 247-9, 1965a: 248).

Spirits move between the real world on the periphery and the supernatural world at the centre of the forest. For the Mbuti, individuals are believed to be normally at the centre of their own time-space capsule (Turnbull 1978b: 97-8). Disorientation occurs by moving 'too quickly or violently' from within one's sphere to its periphery causing 'noise' akami synonymous with sickness, trouble, chaos, quarrelling, disharmony, disputes and discontent (Turnbull 1961: 239), unruly antisocial adult behaviour (another form of 'sickness') (Woodburn 1982: 198; Turnbull 1984: 57) and other social aberrations. 'Noise' causes one to be 'on the edge' (Turnbull 1990: 77) and vulnerable to disembodied spirits that may pierce the capsule (Turnbull 1978b: 97-8, 1984: 32, 1985: 9), enabling movement into in-between space from one world to another (Turnbull 1985:11). In the in-between space, a mirror image, one's essence that resembles you but cannot be you (Turnbull 1983: 123), replaces you, as in death. This mirror reality is a constant phenomenon within the Mbuti cosmos that represents the co-existence of the sacred and the profane (Turnbull 1990: 61). Preferred movement should be 'silent' ekimi, 'peaceful,' quiet and gentle, synonymous with the absence of conflict, tension and anger (Turnbull 1985: 12).

Molimo, a trumpet, is blown at a special molimo ceremony to awaken ndura to the plight it is called to address (Turnbull 1983:51-2). When molimo, the spirit of ndura awakens, the plight in the camp may change (Turnbull 1965b: 259). Ndura, 'cures' akami restoring 'balance' and 'centralising' the individual and the camp; it 'cures' death by 'making it good' (Turnbull 1965b: 263, 1984: 57, 1985:11-14). When there is ekimi, molimo is called to rejoice in ndura and enable it to share the joy (Turnbull 1961: 87). Throughout the molimo ceremony, male-female contradictory oppositions come to the fore. The molimo trumpet, a metaphor for the primordial penis, is fiery, wet and phallic, its 'mouth' is filled with glowing coals with which hunters mime intercourse (see Zuesse 1979:50-51). Ritual copulation is explicitly linked to regeneration (Woodburn 1982: 145,280). The Mbuti do not explicitly refer to vaginal fluids and semen as pepo, but recognise ritual/real copulation as an axis of transferring and containing life (Mosko 1987: 899).

During elima, a ritual of menarche, of being "blessed by the moon" (Turnbull 1984: 57) the girl(s) is secluded in an elima hut (Mosko 1987: 907), a symbolic 'womb'. Hunters fight to enter the elima hut guarded by women, an act that equates to ritual coitus, deflowering the girl(s) for whom elima is held; a symbolic hunt (Namono 2010b: 187, 193). Elima and molimo take place within a Pygmy cosmos where the human and supernatural spheres mediate with spirits through the molimo ceremony. Molimo restores and ensures a harmonious relationship between people and ndura; it engages the central ritual elements --water and fire, metaphors for coitus and hunting and core aspects of the elima and molimo ceremonies. Coitus and hunting are real and supernatural mediating contexts and are ritually associated with water and fire.

I will now draw on my reading of this ethnography to propose the symbolism of spread-eagled and grid shapes in the geometric rock art of Uganda.


Spread-eagled and grid shapes

Within the geometric rock art repertoire of Uganda there are shapes commonly referred to as 'stretched-hide' (Chaplin 1974: 10; Smith 1995: 13943) or a 'spread-eagled' posture (Smith 1997), hence the name. They are depicted only in outline red pigment, often alongside concentric circles, circular and phallic shapes and on very prominent, exposed boulder surfaces (Figure 6). Conformity to this peculiar shape provides some useful insights into what they represent and suggests that depiction derives from a single common source. In addition, there are vertical or horizontal rectangular and square shapes with thin lines at the edges that sometimes protrude at the base of the shape (Figure 7). Often, these thin lines are parallel to the general shape, attaching to it at the top and running loosely towards the base of the rectangular shapes. Some of these shapes have a short protrusion at the centre of the base.

Permutations of spread-eagled shapes are found throughout southern and south- central Africa where they have been recognised as depictions of clothing (Eastwood 2003, 2007; Eastwood & Smith 2005). These interpretations raise the possibility that similar spread-eagled shapes in the geometric rock art in Uganda may be defined as aprons or loincloths. Close observation of Figure 6 reveals diagnostic features of a material culture item. A basic rectangular shape is interrupted with lateral appendages at the ends that proximate to the central rectangle, flayed out at the top and lower ends of the rectangular shape. These ends are very similar to the flaps on the bark cloth loincloth worn by Pygmy hunters (Figure 8a), fitting well with the possibility that depictions in Figure 6 are loincloths. The rectangular and square shapes (Figure 7) are very similar to female front bark cloth aprons (Figure 8b) (Meurant & Thompson 1995: 186). Figure 9 shows bark cloth being made.

Bark cloth, murumba in IG-Ngwana, Fongo or le-engbe or esele in Ki-Bira (Tumbull 1965a: 213, 1965b: 129, 1978a: 170; Tanno 1981: 33-4; Thompson & Bahuchet 1991: 36) is usually made from the bark of a young woody fig (Ficus spp.) termed kumo (Tanno 1981: 34). Kumo secures itself to the ground and eventually entwines around a big host tree trunk, gradually strangling it (Tanno 1981: 34; Akinsoji 1990: 88). The 'strangler' fig then grows into a tall canopy tree with light coloured bark and is then termed pongopongo. The Mbuti use the term pongo for bark cloth and it is adopted here.





The symbolism of pongo, I argue, may derive from the kumo, an implicit metaphor for regeneration (see Tanno 1981: 34) that evokes the strength and fecundity sought from ndura. The conglutination of the strangler Ficus has implicit connotations of coitus, a probable reason why the Pygmies developed special names for it and chose it for bark cloth. This symbolism is summarised in Figure 10.

The penis/phallus and vagina/womb are encased with the fecundity of ndura through the apron or loincloth. New-born babies are bathed in waters from forest mogongo leaves and wrapped in large pieces of soft, sweet-smelling, light-coloured pongo (Mosko 1987: 900; Meurant & Thompson 1995: 16), symbolically representing maternal and paternal dimensions of ndura (Mosko 1987). The pepo of pongo may symbolically heighten or protect that of humans. Hunters wear a special painted pongo loincloth for molimo ceremonies (Thompson & Bahuchet 1991; Meurant & Thompson 1995:19). During elima, a piece of pongo is thrown into the stream to "wash the blood" of the girls (Turnbull 1960a: 189) who receive a new oil-coated pongo at the end of elima (Turnbull 1961: 180).


Pongo links the human and the supernatural; this ritual symbolism embodies the spread-eagled shapes (loincloths) and the rectangles and grids (aprons). The rock art images are probably polysemous--their symbolism derives from contextual associations within ritualised fluid boundaries that emerge flora Pygmy social organisation (Turnbull 1972: 300-303). Why pongo was depicted is difficult to determine. If rock art is part of ritual, it enabled mediation and signalled transition from the real to the supernatural (Seligman et al. 2008: 84). Therefore, depicting pongo probably harnesses potency, the joy of ndura and evokes the centrality of coitus in a Pygmy cosmos as a mediating context in the real-supernatural realm.


In Uganda, amongst present communities, the significance of the rock art is no longer remembered; oral traditions link the art to people of short stature who lived amongst the rocky inselbergs and occupied the area 200 or 300 years ago (Lawrance 1953: 12- 13, 1957: 6, 1958: 42; Posnansky 1961: 109; Posnansky & Nelson 1968: 154). Previous researchers (e.g. Posnansky 1961; Posnansky & Cole 1963; Jackson et al. 1965; Chaplin & McFarlane 1967; Morton 1967; Posnansky & Nelson 1968) suggested a journalistic function for the rock art. Chaplin suggested the images, authored by more than one cultural group, served to identify migrant remnant hunter-gatherers, incoming cultivators and pastoralists or a combination of these (Chaplin 1974: 35, 46). My interpretation differs radically from these; the geometric rock art in Uganda is part of a broad Pygmy hunter-gatherer rock art tradition premised on the concept of a masculine-feminine forest that engenders the Pygmies; it is a cogent manifestation of human-cosmic relationships and provides a visible expression of gender synergies in Pygmy society.


This paper is adapted from my Doctoral dissertation (Namono 2010b). Research was funded by Jimmy Kutosi, a Susan Ward Xharo Award, the British Institute in Eastern Africa and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of Witwatersrand to whom I am grateful. I thank the Abasuba Community Museum, National Museums of Kenya, Uganda National Research Council; and Local Councils in Uganda for logistical support; Michael Robert Okwi, Dismas Ongwen and Alex Tamale for research assistance. I thank Thembi Russell for comments on early drafis, Alex Schoeman and the two anonymous reviewers.


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Catherine Namono, Rock Art Research Institute, School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, P/Bag 3, P.O. Wits, 1 Jan Smuts Ave., 2050 Johannesburg, South Africa (Email:

Received: 22 October 2010; Accepted: 30 January 2011; Revised 25 February 2011
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Title Annotation:Research
Author:Namono, Catherine
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:6UGAN
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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