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.
Chongoni Rock-Art Area
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).