This print depicts a procession of six stylized canid-like animals from a rock shelter in the Kondoa-Irangi districts of central Tanzania (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Although it appears rather simple in its execution, the subtle meanings and ritual practices behind it exemplify the Bushman’s complex conception of their material and spiritual universes, In her 1983 volume, Africa’s Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania, archaeologist Mary Leakey describes the images as “Six hyenas setting out on a foray…,” presumably in search of animal prey. Although she does not identify them to species, their occurrence as a group of this size infers they are probably spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). However, archaeologist John Cavallo offers an alternative explanation based natural history and the shamanic practices of the Sandawe Bushmen of Tanzania.
He first points out the obvious fact that the Bushmen were exclusively daytime (diurnal) hunters and gatherers who spent their nights in the relative safety of their camps usually located a mile or more away from waterholes that were regularly frequented by large and dangerous nocturnal predators. During the day, spotted hyenas are generally inactive and resting in the shade so most sightings rarely involve more than one or two individuals. A group of the size depicted in the painting would rarely if ever be seen during the day. Even at night, they usually forage alone but communicate with other single individuals through a series of low whooping calls. Large aggregations comprising a hyena “clan” only congregate at large animal kills or during territorial boundary disputes with a neighboring clan. The striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) is much smaller and slimmer than its burly spotted cousins and primarily insectivores that occasionally take small mammalian prey. It has large upright pointed ears rather than the rounded ears of spotted hyenas. Finally, it is strictly nocturnal, spending its days lying up in dense cover, and usually forages alone.
Alternatively, the carnivore most likely to be depicted in the Kondo painting is the highly social hunting dog (Lycaon pictus) that forages in packs of the size shown in the painting or in even larger groups. Their bat-shaped ears also closely resemble some of those shown in the rock painting. Of course the body markings have no resemblance to the actual splotchy, mottled black, tan, and white body markings that gave these dogs their nickname of “Painted Wolves.” Cavallo contends that the simple linear body markings on the individuals in the rock paintings represent “entoptic phenomena.” According to South African rock art specialists David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson, the term “entoptic” means “within the human optical system.” They consist of simple geometric patterns seen by Bushman shamans during altered states of consciousness (i.e. trance) as well as modern human subjects from many other cultures in trance induced by psychotropic drugs administered by doctors in clinical experiments involving neuropsychological research. Among the Bushmen, trance is reported in early ethnographies to have been induced by sustained, rhythmic all-night dancing, hyperventilation, and dehydration. Recently, however, Cavallo has found graphic and ethnographic evidence for the covert use of hallucinogenic mushrooms by small groups of mature and experienced shamans in both Tanzania and southern Africa.
When entering trance, subjects report the appearance of geometric images originating in the eyes and brain that are common to all humans both prehistoric and modern. They consist of zigzag lines, grids, dots and flecks, sets of parallel lines, meandering lines, and U-shaped curves. They are often described as luminescent, glittering, flickering, and pulsating. In the early stage of trance, they appear alone. In the next stage of deeper trance, subjects attempt to make sense of them by elaborating them into familiar realistic (iconic) objects such as people and animals. In the final and deepest stage of trance, they appear as fully recognizable iconic images. These iconic images are frequently accompanied by the same entoptic designs seen in the first stage of trance. Sometimes they are partly or fully superimposed over an iconic image or can appear juxtaposed with them or even fragmented and overlaying iconic images.
Cavallo believes that the body patterns on the Kondoa rock art image represent fragmented entoptic images of a grid, parallel lines, isolated curved lines, and nested curves. In other words, a Sandawe Bushman shaman-artist created the procession of wild dogs on the walls of a rock shelter after having experienced a deep state of trance during which these images appeared to him as “visions” (i.e. hallucinations). Perhaps his choice of subject matter stemmed from his knowledge of and admiration for the wild dog’s method of cooperative hunting of large prey, a strategy also employed by the Bushmen, and their high rate of successful kills compared to other large carnivores. (Redrawn from M.D. Leakey, 1983).