One of the things I love about rock art is the many windows into forgotten pasts it opens, and the opportunity to imagine what those pasts might have been like from these small glimpses. We recently found ourselves going through our 25,000 image strong archive in search of representations of clothing and dress choices from past cultures. In a word, fashion. There are a variety of fascinating representations of dressing and head gear choices in African rock art, some whose purpose we might never know and some which we can posit possibilities for. From warrior accoutrements, spiritual embodiments, cultural significances we don’t know about, and even beauty.
Fashion in African rock art
Take for instance the so called “tulip-head” figures in Niger’s rock art. These figures are quite likely warriors since they are often represented holding weapons like spears. And what of their tulip shaped heads? These are likely to be some sort of helmet or other head covering.
Speaking of headgear, my favourite is from this Algerian painting. Two figures, possibly women, sit facing each other, both of them wearing outsized hats on their heads. I like to imagine what might be happening in this scene: a tea party perhaps? Maybe one of the ladies dropped in at her friend’s homestead for a chat. And what is one of the ladies pointing out to the other?
Fashion in African rock art also includes the interesting things people carry or hold on their arms. In an Algerian painting, a chariot and horse rider gallop through the streets past a pair of women. One of the figures carries a small round purse on her wrist. In an engraving from Niger depicting multiple figures facing forward, the figures on either end carry rounded bags as well.
Other decorations are present in African rock art too. These may represent forms of body paint, scarification or other adornment such as beads. In this image from Chad for example, a richly decorated female figure wears a series of bands around her neck as well as around the waist and hips. The series of dots around her hips may be beads sewn into her skirt, or worn over it, as is done in many African cultures today. In another image from Libya three human figures hold what appear to be shakers or maracas in their hands and have white extensions on their backs and waists resembling capes.
On the opposite end of the continent, we have an example of dress that holds deeper spiritual significance. Karosses are animal hides worn long or short, to protect oneself from cold. Karosses appear in South African rock art, often enveloping a human figure or substituting their torso for an animal’s. These figures, known as therianthropes, are posited to represent one’s embodiment of the qualities of the animal whose hide is ‘worn’. Most common and identifiable in paintings is the eland kaross, whose potency participants in various trance dances aim to acquire.
So what can fashion in rock art tell us?
Besides how fashionable ancient people were, a couple of things.
First, decorations such as beads and paints in the archaeological record have long been used to suss out economic and social relations among groups by archaeologists and anthropologists. These include, possible trade relationships, power and gender markers, and so on. Rock art fits into this archaeological record, and resource.
Second, depictions of elements may be used to set apart or date different when some artworks were made and place them in a broader historical record. For example, the above image of women in large and full skirts might seem more at home in Victorian England than in South Africa’s rock art record. But it tells of the contact between two cultures that happened with the invasion and colonisation of the Western Cape by Dutch settlers in the 1700s.
Check out the images of fashion in African rock art mentioned above, and more in our video below. From pantaloons, wrist purses and fanned skirts, to fly-to-the-sky hats and tunics tell us, will you be taking the next cue for your outfit from African rock art?
by Wangũi Kamonji