Matobo Hills Cultural Landscape

World Monuments Watch
Matobo, Matabeleland South, Zimbabwe

2018 World Monuments Watch

Matobo Hills in southern Zimbabwe is a dramatic cultural landscape most known for its granite rock formations that extend approximately 3,000 square kilometers. A continuously inhabited area, sites within the Matobo Hills mark critical stages in human history and evolution, reaching back 100,000 years. The first settlers were the hunter-gatherer San people, who created the rock art that is found throughout the landscape. The Ndebele settled in the area during the early nineteenth century and in the 1890s, the British conquered and incorporated the region into a new nation-state known as Southern Rhodesia—named after Cecil Rhodes, a prominent figure in the expansion of the British Empire in Africa and Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890-1896. The cultural landscape, including the Rhodes Matopos National Park, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2003.

The site continues to be deeply associated with cultural and religious traditions. Adherents of the Mwari religion venerate the site and visit it to carry out rainmaking ceremonies and other rituals. Sacred sites (including pools, hills, wetlands), in particular Njelele, Dula, and Zhilo are important regional pilgrimage destinations. With over 3,500 rock art sites recorded in the region, in caves, cliffs, and boulders, the Matobo Hills feature the largest concentration of rock art in the country and the African continent overall. They depict a variety of motifs, including anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures, as well as plants and abstract imagery. Numerous burial grounds, memorials, and shrines from the colonial period also form part of the material culture of the landscape.

While traditional and religious customs safeguard the authenticity of some areas by restricting passage, development or removal of vegetation, others areas and rock art are threatened by deforestation, grazing, graffiti, and damaging fires caused by human activities at the Matobo Hills. The natural environment of the landscape is under severe stress due to a number of environmental and economic factors. Population expansion coupled with the scarcity of natural resources has led to rapid degradation. This in turn threatens the rock paintings as their protective tree barriers are slowly disappearing, exposing them to direct sunlight and rain. The interests of surrounding communities and those of conservationists often clash as the locals derive their livelihoods from the natural resources of the World Heritage site. Inclusion of the Matobo Hills Cultural Landscape on the 2018 World Monuments Watch is a call to explore ways to engage local custodians in the protection and preservation of the site and its rock art, in light of the new challenges of increasing tourism in the area.

Watch Day 2018

On October 17, 2018, Watch Day was held in Matobo at Silozwe Primary School. Festivities included entertainment and educational activities, welcoming over 900 school children and 400 community members. Watch Day was an opportunity to promote community engagement in managing rock art sites, and mobilising community members' awareness of conserving rock art sites while highlighting the planned conservation activities for the site. The day was marked by cultural dances from local groups, songs and poems from school children, with the objective to restore a sense of ownership within locals and build local activism and support towards heritage preservation. 

One of Eight Sites Awarded Funding by American Express

In June 2018, American Express announced $1 million total in funding to support preservation efforts at eight 2018 Watch sites. Included among these was Matobo Hills Cultural Landscape. With this support, WMF started a project to work with local heritage authorities on improved documentation and conservation plans at the site. The project was completed in 2019.

Last updated:
March 2021

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