Eerie Figures With Giant Heads Found Painted in a Rock Shelter in Tanzania

In the Swaga Swaga Game Reserve in central Tanzania, archaeologists uncovered a startling find in 2018: 52 previously undiscovered rock shelters that had been purposefully decorated with rock art. All but a small number had been substantially damaged by weather, but one of those that had survived was a complete mystery.

Three enigmatic, humanoid creatures with incredibly large heads were among the frieze of figurative art that was intricately painted on the site, Amak'hee 4.

Archaeologist Maciej Grzelczyk of the Jagiellonian University in Poland claims that they might be a hint to identifying additional, like trios of figures discovered in other rock art panels.

Although Grzelczyk was able to estimate that the Amak'hee 4 panel is at least a few hundred years old in 2021, dating it is challenging. With the exception of five white-painted figurines, it is painted almost entirely in red pigment.

Because of the weathering on this pigment and the lack of domestic animals, it is likely that it dates to the time when the area's hunter-gatherer tribes were in existence.

Animals that resemble wildebeest, elands, buffalo, and even a giraffe, as well as a scattering of human-like creatures with big heads, are depicted on the panel. One group, though, sticks out.

"Particularly noteworthy among the Amak'hee 4 paintings is a scene that centers around three images," Grzelczyk noted in his article from 2021.

"In this trio, the figures seem to feature stylized buffalo heads. These shapes recall the central dip in the profile of the buffalo head from where the two horns rise and then curve outward away from the head, as well as the downturned ears."

The pictures may represent something different as the Sandawe people, who are descended from the people who once lived in the area, do not have themes of humans with buffalo heads or people who can transform into buffaloes (or vice versa). However, Grzelczyk points out that certain Sandawe rites do include buffalo horns in a major way.

Whatever they could be, the unusual figures have been seen before. Two rock shelter paintings in particular, in the Kondoa region of central Tanzania, not far from Amak'hee 4, bore a striking similarity to the trio.

Three people are shown standing together at Kolo B2 location. Three people are shown in Kolo B1 lying on the ground but represented horizontally.

Similar figures with big heads may be seen at all three locations, while the Kolo figures wear what can be considered a headpiece thanks to their striped attire. (It is assumed that other Kondoa figures had ornate hairstyles.)

The figures are joined at their midpoints in all three locations. Additionally, the positions and angles of the hands and arms are the same for all three.

There are some significant variations in Amak'hee 4. The heads appear to be filled in with solid color and have a greater significance to the surrounding movement.

"The figures from Amak'hee 4 are noticeably bigger than those at Kolo, and make this main motif a central focal point around which the rest of the narrative seems to take place. In contrast, the images at Kolo are isolated depictions, with no clear connection to the rest of the paintings," according to Grzelczyk.

Some of the rock art locations in Kondoa are still used by the Sandawe for various rituals. Local communities are also aware of the newly discovered locations, so it's feasible that they might provide some insight into the significance of the enigmatic symbols.

Archaeologists will continue their documentation work of the sites in the meantime so that they may be included in the written record.

The paper has been published in Antiquity.