Formlings 1: The Toghwana Dam formling

overview of paintings-

These well-known paintings, close to Toghwana Dam, in Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park, are important in understanding mysterious paintings that have long puzzled researchers – the so-called ‘formlings’. These are large, segmented, organic-looking shapes, different in their details, but still recognisable as the same basic thing. They are painted at hundreds of rock art sites, mostly in Zimbabwe, but also in Limpopo Province in South Africa and, possibly, in Namibia too. 
What‘s striking about the Toghwana Dam paintings is that they show a human figure interacting with a ‘formling’ in a very purposeful manner. A figure – with tasselled hair and what may be a porcupine quill in its hair – kneels on one leg and holds an object in right hand towards the ‘formling’. Three sets of dashed lines seem to enter or exit the ‘formling’.
What is being shown here? One explanation is that the figure is smoking out a bees’ nest. The object in its hand is a torch of smouldering plant material whose smoke will confuse and stupefy the bees. The ‘formling’ is a bees’ nest with red honeycombs inside, and the three dotted lines depict the flight paths of bees. Not surprisingly, variations of this composition are very popular with beekeepers – they use it on their labels – as you can see on this bottle that I took to Zimbabwe!
An alternative interpretation is that the ‘formling’ is a termites’ nest and that the dotted lines are winged termites leaving the nest. These creatures are a delicious food, sweet and nutty, and very nutritious. Kalahari San people apparently watch the entrances of termite nests and may close them with a grass plug in order for large numbers of winged termites to build up at the exit from the nest. Then they remove the plug and are able to gather large quantities very efficiently. The Toghwana Dam paintings may therefore show somebody who is controlling the flow of the winged termites.
How does one decide which explanation is right? After all, the artists themselves are dead, so there can be no final proof from them. But then that’s the point of research – to construct explanations for things (like rock art) that puzzle us. And in the absence of final proof, explanations cannot be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – rather, they compete with each other – one explanation strives to be better than another.
So which explanation (if any) is best? To find out we need to look at more examples of ‘formlings’ at other rock art sites, to see if there are ‘patterns’ in the way they are depicted and associated with other images. In future posts I’ll show how ‘formlings’ are painted in more complex painted panels that include serpents, a menagerie of animals, fish and plants.

Honey bottle-
Detail of Toghwana Sam figure-
Toghwana formling channel A-
Toghwana formling with figure-

You can see that the label designer made a few changes, perhaps to avoid copyright infringement — not of the original painting, but of a copy made by Harald Pager many years ago. So this one has a bow at its feet and it’s holding the ‘torch’ away from the nest, not towards it. And the ‘streams’ of bees have been altered too. For the record, it was very good honey!

It’s really hard, if not impossible, to tell whether these lines of dashes are supposed to be ‘bees’ or ‘winged termites’. They are not detailed enough to identify I think…

Formlings 2: variations

Following up on a previous post about a very distinctive element of the Zimbabwe hunter-gatherer rock art – paintings of large bee or termite-like nests that are known as ‘formlings’. I posted photographs of the Toghwana Dam formling that one might imagine depicts hunter-gatherers of the past harvesting insects or insect products (honey). 
All the formlings seem to be based on the same basic model. Each is made up of individual lozenge-shaped cells or chambers, usually stacked more or less upright.
Often, these chambers are filled in with solid colour – usually red, sometimes yellow or a combination of red and yellow. Chambers sometimes have ‘caps’ painted in a contrasting colour on either end. Chambers are sometimes partially painted with rows of white, sometimes red, dots. Some formlings are shown with an opening through which ‘things’ (minute painted flecks) enter or leave these massive ‘nests’.
Paintings of formlings are often surrounded by other images, as though the presence of a formling draws other images, of powerful animals and human figures, to cluster around them. As a result there are paintings around and on top of many formlings.
But most of the paintings of formlings are just too big and complex to be realistic representations of bees’ or termites’ nest. It has long been recognised that the paintings of so-called formlings depict things beyond realistic illustrations of gathering honey and/or termites. So what are the formlings about?
In a following post I will show you one of the most spectacular formlings in Zimbabwe and present the latest ideas about their meaning and significance

Formlings 3: eNanke Cave, the ‘ultimate’ formling

This is eNanke Cave, in the Matobo of Zimbabwe, the final place we visit on our tour of formlings. Here is one of the largest, most spectacular, and well-preserved formlings in southern Africa.

In his book Termites of the Gods (2015) rock art researcher Siyakha Mguni argues that the formlings are paintings of what some 20th century San people call ‘God’s house’, the divine residence of the Great God.
God’s house is the ultimate source of cosmic potency, and the formlings are, as Mguni puts it, “wombs of creative potency”.

He bases his argument on close observations of details in the paintings, the natural history of termites, and records of San hunter-gatherer beliefs. To grasp his argument you need to follow it through step-by-step.

The formling at Nanke is much bigger than your ‘average’ formling – over 2 metres wide and at least 1,2 m tall in places! It is surrounded by a variety of San ‘power animals’ – those species believed to have potency – such as elephant, kudu, zebra and eland.

There are especially many giraffe painted around and inside the chambers of this massive nest structure, as well as very uncommon paintings of fish (at left of formling) and termite alates (to the right). Many of the paintings show the use of shading and subtle tone transitions. The presence of such a variety of delicately painted and unusual creatures is perhaps in keeping with the massive and detailed formling.

More unusually, there are paintings of people (or spirit beings) that seem to be part of the formling itself.

There are some very detailed and strange looking humans with white faces and red stripes behind (or coming out of) a part of the formling that looks like a thumbnail. Just above them is a snake-like form in red and white that is draped over the large thumb-like part of the formling and stretches over to lie across another, smaller, thumb-like shape. There are three long red lines hanging down from this snake-like image with small white shapes at the end, and pairs of very small red flecks of paint in close proximity.

At the other end of the formling are images of human heads (also white-faced) that are perhaps emerging from inside the chambers of the formling, as though they were larvae hatching out of their nest chamber! And instead of the more commonly painted rows of tiny dots, here the artists made a circular pattern and two bands on a small, single chamber from which a human head protrudes.

We currently have no explanation for what these human images signify, but their depiction here is potential information about the relationship between people and formlings for future researchers who want to explore the further intricacies of formlings.