The Matobart Rock Art & Stone Age Project (2017-2020)

Rock Art of hunter-gatherers in the Southern African Later Stone Age: apparition, filiations and ruptures in the Matobo (Zimbabwe)                                                                                                                                                                                  


    Fragment from the painted wall from Nswatugi shelter in Matobo           (c) Camille Bourdier

In short

For the very first time, a French-Zimbabwean mission conducts prehistoric explorations in Zimbabwe. The idea of conducting further research in the Matobo hills originated during an April-May 2016 mission in Zimbabwe, initiated and predominantly financed by IFAS-Recherche.

This four-year project began in 2017 with the support of the Commission on Archaeological Excavations of the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs (Commission des fouilles), the Institut universitaire de France (IUF), and IFAS-Recherche.


The Matobart Project is led by Camille Bourdier (Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès) and co-coordinated by Ancila Nahmo (University of Zimbabwe) and Guillaume Porraz (Université Paris Nanterre, former CNRS researcher affiliated to IFAS-Research).

This project emerged from a collaboration between the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès (UMR 5608 Traces), UMR 7041 ArScAn, the University of Zimbabwe and the National Monuments and Museums of Zimbabwe.


Located in Southwestern Zimbabwe, the Matobo Hills are extremely rich in rock paintings: over 3.000 sites are known to this day, which earned the region a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2003.


The Matobart Project aims to study the wide diversity of rock art among the 3.000 sites of the Matobo Hills. The programme combines field missions (recordings/inventory and systematic survey of engraved surfaces, characterization of paint pots, cartography of local colouring materials) and archaeological collections recovery (characterization of painted scales and stratigraphy colouring materials, typo-technological reassessment of lithic industries, datations).

Its main focus is to answer two interrogations:

  • When did rock art emerge in the Matobos, and in what conditions?

As a first step of the mission, the team aims to list all the relevant sites to create a reference stylistic sequence for the Matobos, through a multi-criteria analysis and a technological analysis of the paintings. This analysis should provide more information in order to understand the timeline and conditions of appearance of the hunter-gatherer societies.

  • How did the Matobo rock art evolve over time, and what does it say of the long-term socio-cultural dynamics of Later Stone Age populations of Zimbabwe-Limpopo? 

When did the local rock art shift from simple geometric drawings to complex figurative paintings? What can we infer from these evolutions? In order to gain a more comprehensive knowledge of these evolutions, the team will especially focus on the diversity of rock art in the Matobo area. Such diversity unmistakably speaks of the socio-cultural differences among the populations who produced them.

By integrating this stylistic sequence into the Zimbabwe-Limpopo chrono-cultural sequence, the team aims to single out elements of filiation and rupture in the production of rock art.

Pomongwe cave view from the shelter (c) Camille BourdierPomongwe cave view from the shelter (c) Camille Bourdier

A significant body of evidence points to the existence of rock art from the Pleistocene era, the Later Stone Age, if not even the Late Middle Stone Age — a phenomenon which remains unprecedented in Southern Africa. Proposing a chrono-stylistic reference framework for the region is therefore a major stake in order to characterize elements of filiation and rupture in the production of rock art.

Additionally, this programme is a major initiative in terms of international collaboration. It falls within a global goal to develop long-term scientific and academic archaeological ties between France and Zimbabwe, and it led to a groundbreaking bilateral agreement between the two countries. The mission is destined to become a true field-school, both for local students and young French archaeologists.

More on the Matobart project:

> Traces / Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès — Camille Bourdier lecture on the Matobo Hills Rock Art

> IFAS-Research — Camille Bourdier lecture on ‘Cold animals, vibrant animals’

> France Diplomatie — Rock Paintings in Zimbabwe, a new location for French research