Chikupo Rock Art Shelter

National Monument No.: 
Why Visit?: 


  • Peter Garlake states the caves, two adjoining and one a short distance away, contain probably the greatest number of paintings on any site in Zimbabwe, many in excellent condition.
  • Fairly easy to access from Harare, perhaps 90 minutes journey on good to fair road. 4WD not required, although high clearance is advised for driving in the Communal lands




How to get here: 

Leave Harare on the Borrowdale Road, distances are from Borrowdale police station. 13.4 KM the road crosses a grid and enters the Chinamora Communal Lands. 16.3KM pass the signpost to Domboshawa National Monument. 26.6 KM pass the signpost to Ngomakurira National monument. 30.0 KM leave the tar road and turn left onto the dirt road. 34.8 KM pass Chinamora School primary / secondary school, 39.4 KM pass Jingo School, 43.1 KM turn right at T-junction. 51.0 KM turn right at Chisiga store for Masembura School; 52.3 KM pass Masembura School turnoff. Do not take the right fork. Pass the large granite dome on your right. Chikupo is the large low hill ahead on the right; 56.5 KM turn right onto the track and park at the foot of the hill. I suggest you ask a local person to guide you the last few hundred metres.  The Borrowdale road to the Chinamora Communal Lands is a good tar road. The next 17 KM of tar road is much repaired with numerous potholes. The dirt road to site is quite passable in 2WD as long as caution is taken where the road gets eroded in the rains. Journey takes about one and a half hours.

The caves are facing you on the east side of the hill and are reached by taking the path and then turning right up a short, scree slope.  There are three caves within close proximity. Cave (1) is easily reached, but Cave (2) has a slippery exterior rock face and is most easily climbed at the western end. Cave (3) is out of sight of the first two caves, but west of the Cave (1) and is best reached by scrambling over the neck of the bare granite hill. Once passed the caves are visible above you. Alternatively walk west around the base of the hill and climb. The paintings are in the higher of the two caves. If you run out of time, I suggest you omit cave (3)

There are three adjoining caves

Cave 1 GPS reference:  17⁰26′42.55″S  31⁰17′21.18″E

Cave 2 GPS reference:  17⁰26′40.48″S  31⁰17′25.78″E

Cave 2 GPS reference:  17⁰26′41.83″S  31⁰17′17.30″E


Cave (1) is very easy to enter at ground level under a fence that has been erected to keep out stray cattle.There is a mass of paint remains on the western side; the original paintings were probably ruined by cattle being penned in the cave and rubbing up against them at some time in the past.

The largest painted objects are four large elephants, one filled in thick orange, another black, the third in ochre pigment, and the last is painted in a white clay material. To their right the remains of another two large elephants drawn in thick white paint are discernible; the leading one has lost its head and forelegs, the rear one only has its head, tusks, and trunk remaining. 

The central frieze has a mass of superimposed painted images, mostly in red and yellow pigments, but also rarely for Mashonaland, figures painted in white, including a magnificent hunter wearing a headdress and holding six arrows upright in his right arm, his bow and a single arrow in his left arm. Superimposed over his feet are the finely drawn horns of a kudu bull in yellow ochre outlined in white.

There are many images of male and female kudu, a number with their bodies outlined in white pigment, zebra with their stripes highlighted in white, tsessebe, a yellow feline (possibly a lion) and buffalo with some hunters painted in white.

At the front right of the cave, beneath a cache of weapons and bags, a line of 30 dancers (men, women and children) all with attenuated limbs, mostly with headdresses, some holding sticks, are painted in black pigment.

Many paintings are seen as superimposed, that is they have been painted over and superimposed on other paintings, often obliterating and destroying the beauty of earlier paintings. This practice bewildered many earlier researchers, as it is almost unknown to destroy earlier works. However, the San may have seen each painting as a living, continuing and potent force. If a frieze was seen as never finished, or completed, then it would be legitimate for later artists to add to earlier paintings, to superimpose and juxtapose new work with earlier work.

Numerical analysis in South Africa indicate that superimpositioning and juxtapositioning in painting followed definite rules. The process of adding to and altering paintings would add to their power, or potency and results in dense masses of images that spread from the centre of the frieze to the periphery.

Cave (2) is harder to enter with a short steep and slippery slope on the western end to negotiate, but once done has wonderful views over the adjoining kopjes and communal lands to the north and west.

Starting from the eastern end are many well-drawn outlines of elephants, including babies, in four rows; the lower ones largely obscured by later paintings. One, top right and shown in the photo below, has an ochre infill; the remainder are in outline with their bellies and backs highlighted in red ochre. They show great observation and realism and probably will be the highlight of this rock art site for many visitors.

In a scene very rare for Zimbabwe rock art, a line of handprints overlies the elephants. It probably once extended right across the cave as examples can be discerned all along the wall. There were probably over 150 originally, of which at least 50 remain. Paint was applied to the palm and fingers and the hand pressed against the rock, some are visible on the photo above. Interestingly the yellow ochre on the elephant above was clearly added later than the outline, as it overlies the handprints.

Under the elephants are many files of hunters, some outlined and decorated in white. They have been defaced by several crude, post-Stone Age imitations of hunters over one metre high finger painted in a white clay-like substance.

In addition to the mass of painted antelope images are well-painted baboon, some kudu outlined in white paint and two felines, probably cheetahs.

In the centre of the cave is a large area of yellow clay, representing a crude elephant, superimposed over the remains of a large ovoid. The remains of many kudu and a feline are visible. On its right is the clearest and largest of several ovoids, or formlings, composed of eight white elements with white semi-circular tops and bottoms and the usual red rectangle of in the centre. A figure just below them has lines coming from his arms and hand. Below him, a kudu has been over painted with a pattern of white lines, another lies supine.

To the right of the supine antelope, not easily seen, is a white snake with an animal head. Below and right of its head are three hunters with hair on end and a figure also with lines coming from the head, one ending in an animal head. 

Moving west on the cave roof, is a dance scene. Seventeen crouched dancers including children, some wearing capes and a feather in their heads, some with tail feathers or lines from their rumps, are surrounded by participants and typical camp equipment of shoulder bags and weapons.  Superimposed in the centre, in a different style and paint colour, a trancer lies prone. Five larger hunters with weapons, some in headdresses, have been superimposed on the trance scene.

Some San dances are simply for pleasure and socialising. The most significant dances are concerned with curing, not so much of sick individuals, although this does happen, as of removing potential evil or sickness from every member of the group. All dances take place in the centre of the group. The men lean forward with knees bent and move with small controlled hops and skips in a circle. Their only musical instruments are rattles made of seed pods tied around their ankles. The women squat, singing and clapping rhythmically or may join in the circle of dancing men and participate fully in the dance.

In a medicine dance, some of the participants, although not more than two or three at a time, pass into trance, a state called !kia, achieved mainly through hyperventilation. The trance state induces shivering, trembling, sweating, rigidity and sometimes nose bleeding. It produces visions and hallucinations for the trancer and they enter the spirit world. In trance, they can cure patients, by removing evil influences from the patient to the curer. This is done by fluttering the trancer’s hands against the patient’s chest and back and finally throwing the evil out and back to the gods with a violent gesture of both arms. The spirits of those in deep trance are believed to leave the body and travel outside it.  Read the Thetford Game Reserve Rock Art article for a more detailed explanation of trancing.

This western side of the cave has a long line of animals painted across it with over 30 beasts including kudu, buffalo, roan, sable and warthogs.  Their variety and abundance, rather than their quality, is unusual. This small segment of the line shows some have young with them.

Many are unfinished, headless and with the body blank or partially filled in. In one instance, a kudu is complete, but for one hind leg, an unusual indication of the painting procedure followed by the painter.

In the centre of the cave roof is a small obese male figure, in characteristic frontal posture, with arms raised and legs apart. He has a tulip penis, rattles on his shoulders and lines coming from his upper arms. These lines do not appear as losses of blood, sweat or bodily fluids as the figures do not appear distressed and are not engaged in activities likely to result in such losses. The best explanation is that they represent the release of various forms of spiritual energy or potency, in the way that the San believe their individual potency, n/um, is released from their bodies through dancing and trance. 

The obese figures like the one above, are often found in pairs, male or female, with legs bent and spread-eagled and arms raised. Limbs and head have normal proportions, but the stomach is grossly extended, often they look like tortoises. They may have elaborate rattles or crescent objects, the rattles indicating they are dance participants. They are usually naked and without equipment; but their heads and headdresses take various forms. In Mutoko, they have short muzzles, antennae and bobbed hair, in Marondera they have long animal ears and long pointed muzzles. Females may have double-lines zigzagging from between their legs and small figures may crouch or climb up and down on these lines.  In the historic literature, these figures were referred to as “mother goddess”; an assumption based on European prehistoric cave art.

From what we know of dance, trance, potency and its release, these obese figures are dancers with unusual concentrations of potency, or n/um, within their stomachs which is becoming active and expanding. The release of this potency is represented by the streams that emerge from the chests and genitals of these figures.  

There are at least four ovoids, or formling objects in this section. The one below has white dots in the upper left-hand segment. The meaning behind these ovoids is covered in more detail in the article on Zombepata Cave. They appear in almost every frieze across the country varying in size from a few centimetres to a metre or more. Within the ovoids is usually a field of white stippling, like tiny arrowheads or dots, as appear below. These may enter the ovoid through a single opening. The ovoids maybe attached to people, as in Diana’s Vow, or appear in association with animals, or trees.  

They are not realistic representations of actual objects such as clouds, boulders, hills, fields, landscapes, huts, grain bins, xylophones, quivers, seedpods, bird’s nests, bees’ nests, or honeycombs. Rather, they represent aa single concept of great power and significance to the artists; this source of spiritual energy is known by the San as n/um. This idea seems to have been central to the beliefs and spiritual life of all San groups and developed a long time ago.

N/um is released through communal dancing and its use and control are essentially communal acts. Connected ovoids express the potency of the entire group through dance and explain why it is such a dominant and widespread motif in their art. Together with the obsess figures, ovoids  represent a single coherent system of imagery representing the central ideals and beliefs of San Society concerning personal potency and its release.

On the roof towards the rear, on the right is an ostrich with five chicks.

Nearby is another trance scene. Eleven figures, outlined in white, standing, sitting and lying, have extraordinarily attenuated bodies and limbs. Long meandering lines issue from mouths, chests or hands. Two hold birds, one a crescent, some have shoulder bags. The lines represent a release of potency and the attenuation of the bodies represents a characteristic sensation induced by trance. The figures on the right are on all fours; this signifies they are in a deep level of trance. On the right are five bichrome figures edged in white led a therianthrope with large ears, the others are crouched, crawling and recumbent.  This scene probably is an attempt to portray the supernatural inhabitants of the spirit world, the gauwasi, seen by the artist whilst in trance.

At the front of the cave, high at the southern end is a large elephant, drawn in an unnatural style, its body filled in with a few rough brushstrokes. Two large hippos are crudely painted in a thick cream pigment. Superimposed on one hippo is a beautiful kudu cow with white outline and details and a line of six warthogs.

These two very tortoise-like obese figures are drawn on the ceiling. They are probably portrayals of human dancers with unusual concentrations of potency, or n/um, within their stomachs which is becoming active and expanding. Through their dance and by hyperventilating they are going into trance and will soon enter the spirit world.  

On the vertical projecting curve of the cave wall are two small elephants, left of them what were once five very fine, dark sables with white body markings and white bellies, now much faded with a kudu covered in fine white stripes above them.

In the only scene of its type in these caves, a line of at least five small therianthropes ( a dancer in trance who gains the animal features from which he / she derives their potency) with long snouts, large ears, long thin delicate limbs and wearing capes with some supported on sticks are painted. Thick white clay lines, probably drawn with a finger run vertically through them.


I have already discussed communal dancing in San Society which may induce trance and the release of potency, or n/um. Animal dances are important to the San, but in performing, animal masks and skins are not used. At most, the dancers may wear a skin cap with ears attached and paint their bodies. So the figures below are not depictions of San in animal costume.

They are best interpreted as creatures with animal attributes that exist in the supernatural, or trance world of the artists. They commonly have human bodies, arms and feet, but their limbs are extremely long, thin, and stick-like and may end in hooves. Often they have long tails, pointed muzzles, and the ears of an antelope. They walk upright and are naked, although they may wear capes on their shoulders.


They may represent the gauwasi, the ghosts, and spirits of the dead who inhabit the supernatural world of the gods.  

The western section has at the top two zebra with four elephants below. One is in the same style as those rows of elephants drawn on the eastern side of the cave and has a thick cream pigment infill, the others are less well drawn. One is in black pigment. There are many paintings, but most are now quite faded.

Other images include a large antelope torso upside down, a group of warthog and a single warthog, its’ tusks drawn in white using a twisted perspective technique.

At the front of the cave is another trance scene comprising a line of 18 women and children dancing, some wearing rattles on their necks and holding short sticks, their stomachs extended from the effects of n/um. Nearby are the familiar weapons and shoulder bags laid out.

Above an unusual scene of hunters with attenuated bodies carrying large shoulder bags, or bundles of sticks, escort a red painted crescent shaped symbol with white paint at the open end. This appears to connect with a white horizontal line. One figure on the left kneels facing the open end. On the right are five bichrome figures edged in white led a therianthrope with large ears, the others are crouched, crawling and recumbent.  This scene probably is an attempt to portray the supernatural inhabitants of the spirit world, the gauwasi, seen by the artist whilst in trance.

Cave (3) also has a mass of paintings, but most are now rather faded and indistinct.

Numerous images are enclosed within a bichrome snake-like shape that undulates across the rock surface. They include kudu and some beautifully drawn, small, bichrome buck, as well as buffalo, rhino, bush pig, sable and zebra, a few painted in black paint and outlined in white.  These are over painted by some later crude clay images of animals and humans.

Peter Garlake describes a line of 29 men, in black, with long thin legs and large feet, some divided to form two toes. They wear aprons or tails, and have tufts above their aprons. Their hair is long and on end. Three are armed. Some carry switches or rattles. Behind them are their weapons and bags, hanging from bowed withies, on one of which a warthog head is impaled. This may well be a dance, the near absence of weapons; the tufts worn on the buttocks, the location near a camp, the rattles, the uniform rhythmic postures are all suggestive of this. One figure holds his arms rigidly in front of him, suggestive of dancing and the start of trance. However, at the time I visited, the day was very overcast and I was unable to discern most of the above.

There are a number of characteristic formlings in red ochre outlined in white and with white caps.

The roof is dominated by a large elephant outlined in red and within a faded yellow pigment. On the rear roof are some large faded antelope (>60cm) and a hippo.  Towards the floor of the cave is a therianthrope painted as a crouched figure with antelope ears, baboon tail, hooves, human legs and torso and tulip penis.

The large amount of pottery and dhaka and numerous cupules (small round holes) worn into the granite may indicate that this cave was used in recent times for rain-making ceremonies.  



Martin D. Prendergast. Early Iron Age furnaces at Surtic Farm, near Mazowe, Zimbabwe. SAAB Bulletin 38: 31-32. 1983

Richard Katz. Boiling energy: community healing among the Kalahari Kung. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press. 1982

Lorna Marshall. The Medicine Dance of the !Kung Bushmen. Journal of the International African Institute 39: 347-381. 1969

J. David Lewis Williams. Believing and Seeing. Academic Press. 1981

Peter Garlake. The Painted Caves, an introduction to the Prehistoric Rock Art of Zimbabwe. Modus Publications. 1987

Lorna Marshall. The Medicine Dance of the !Kung Bushmen. Journal of the International African Institute 39: 347-381. 1969

Peter Garlake. The Hunter’s Vision, the Prehistoric Art of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe Publishing House. 1995

Rupert Isaacson. The Healing Land. Geographical 73.7; 7 (2001): 53

Thomas N. Huffman. The Trance Hypothesis and the Rock Art of Zimbabwe. South African Archaeological Society. Goodwin Ser. 4. 1983

When to visit: 
All year around Monday to Sunday 6am to 6pm
Entrance free, but if a local guide shows you the route over the last section of road, or up the steep slope to the cave, they should be rewarded