Chongoni Rock-Art Area
Situated within a cluster of forested granite hills and covering an area of 126.4 km2, high up the plateau of central Malawi, the 127 sites of this area feature the richest concentration of rock art in Central Africa. They reflect the comparatively scarce tradition of farmer rock art, as well as paintings by BaTwa hunter-gatherers who inhabited the area from the late Stone Age. The Chewa agriculturalists, whose ancestors lived there from the late Iron Age, practised rock painting until well into the 20th century. The symbols in the rock art, which are strongly associated with women, still have cultural relevance amongst the Chewa, and the sites are actively associated with ceremonies and rituals.
Outstanding Universal Value
Situated within a cluster of forested granite hills and covering an area of 126.4 km2, high up the plateau of central Malawi, the 127 sites of this property feature the richest concentration of rock art in Central Africa. They reflect the comparatively scarce tradition of farmer rock art, as well as paintings by BaTwa hunter-gatherers who inhabited the area from the Late Stone Age. The Chewa agriculturalists, whose ancestors lived there from the Early Iron Age, practiced rock painting until well into the 20th century. The symbols in the rock art, which are strongly associated with women, still have cultural relevance amongst the Chewa, and the sites are actively associated with ceremonies and rituals.
The rock art of the Chongoni sites records the cultural history and traditions of the peoples of the Malawi plateau: the transition from a foraging lifestyle to food production, the subsequent Ngoni invasion of the Chewa people, and the coming of the white man. The paintings also depict symbols significant during initiation ceremonies and ritual practices. As a centre of traditional and religious ceremonies, the rock art area encapsulates living cultural traditions. The area’s topography of rock overhangs amongst wooded slopes and grassy clearings provides a protective setting that is integral to the outstanding universal value of the rock art sites.
Criterion (iii): The dense and extensive collection of rock art shelters reflects a remarkable persistence of cultural traditions over many centuries, connected to the role of rock art in women's initiations, in rain making and in funeral rites, particularly in the Chewa agricultural society.
Criterion (vi): The strong association between the rock art images and contemporary traditions of initiation and of the Nyau secret society, and the extensive evidence for those traditions within the painted images over many centuries, together make the Chongoni landscape a powerful force in Chewa society and a significant place for the whole of southern Africa.
The great majority of the Chongoni rock art sites are within the boundary of the property, which corresponds to the boundary of the Chongoni Forest Reserve. Five of the 127 designated sites are outside this boundary but are within the buffer zone. The rock art survives in its original state apart from the natural weathering processes over time, some problems with graffiti and water ingress.
The integrity of the rock paintings in their natural surrounds has been to a limited extent compromised. The people who lived in the area were relocated when the forest was declared a reserve and the natural miombo (Brachystegia) woodland has been planted in parts with exotic conifers.
Threats to the integrity of the Chongoni sites relate to lack of staff on site to oversee implementation of the Management Plan, with consequent lack of control of access to the sites.
The Outstanding Universal Value of the rock art sites is expressed through their actual art – design and materials; their location and setting, their function and the spiritual traditions associated with them, all of which continue to thrive today. The same Chewa Nyau masked figures that inspired the rock art can be seen conducting rituals in most villages around Chongoni at all times of the year. The Chewa girls’ initiation ceremony – Chinamwali, continues to be practiced (mostly in secret) in some of the painted shelters containing older Chinamwali rock art.
Protection and management requirements (2009)
The rock art and archaeological sites of Chongoni are protected under the Monuments and Relics Act of 1990. The property corresponds with the boundary of the Chongoni Forest Reserve protected under the Forestry Act of 1997.
In the light of the provisions of these two acts, a management plan was prepared for the cultural resources in order to achieve the objectives of Government policy on cultural heritage preservation.
Construction of a management office and interpretation centre is underway in accordance with the management plan. However, management of the site is suffering from lack of funds and trained staff. The Department of Antiquities does not have permanent staff at Chongoni. Periodic inspections are made from the Malawi capital Lilongwe, 80 kilometres to the north.
Trained management staff needs to be stationed permanently at Chongoni as envisaged in the management plan in order for the sites to become officially accessible to the public.
There is also a need for formal agreement between traditional leaders and the Department of Forestry for the use of individual sites, and the forest in general, for religious and traditional ceremonies, and for integration of forestry work with other community initiatives in the property.
A few early Stone Age artefacts suggest that the area was first settled in the Upper Pleistocene time, although substantive evidence for earlier than the Late Stone Age occupation is lacking. The oldest archaeological evidence is from materials dated to 2,500 BP.
The Late Stone Age people were hunters and gatherers who seem to have been responsible for the earliest rock art - although there is no datable evidence.
During the 1st millennium AD, Iron Age farmers moved into the area from the north and introduced white rock art of naturalistic figures made in white clay. The farmers did not entirely displace the hunter-gathers and the two communities appear to have lived in a symbiotic relation ship until some time around the 19th century when the hunter-gathers seem to have been assimilated into the farming community.
During the 15th century new groups of farmers, the Maravi Chewa, arrived in central Malawi (The present name of the country derives from Maravi). They are believed to have migrated from the north-west of Lubaland (the home of the Luba peoples) in what is now the south-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Maravi quickly integrated several groups of peoples into a centralised Maravi Empire ruled from eastern Dedza. Its influence extended throughout central and eastern Malawi and into parts of what is now Mozambique. Within the Maravi state there existed a sharp division between central and local government, the former being dominated by the Maravi immigrants and the latter by the original inhabitants. The nyau society flourished at local level and initially seems to have been a way of checking political centralisation. In time, however, the distinctions became blurred and representatives of the non-Maravi clans became chiefs and the Maravi rulers gained rights over the nyau organisation.
In the mid 19th century Ngoni peoples, fleeing Chaka in Zululand, South Africa, moved north and some settled south of the Chongoni area. The Ngoni appear to have despised the nyau, who as a result were forced into hiding. The nyau became used as a focus for Chewa resistance to the invading Ngoni. Thus the nyau came to be the guardian of Chewa culture in the face of opposition - a role it performed again as a refuge for those who refused to be drafted for porterage in World War I. The nyau was discouraged by missionaries and to a certain extent by the Colonial government. In spite of this it has survived and is now recognised as a valued and vigorous expression of traditional culture.
In 1924 the Chongoni and surrounding hills were declared a Forest Reserve. The boundaries were revised in 1928 and 1930 to exclude the villages. Further areas were excluded in 1961 and 1965 in the face of encroachment. The boundary has remained unchanged since 1965. In the late 1960s a programme of planting softwoods was introduced and roads created throughout the reserve to service the plantations.
The first recording of the rock art was in the 1930s. In the 1950s several sites were published.
The five Chentcherere shelters were declared a protected national monument in 1969 and opened to the public (five out of 127 shelters).Source: Advisory Body Evaluation