MYSTERIOUS figures painted onto the wall of a cave in Tanzania have left archaeologists baffled.
The elaborate artwork, which dates back hundreds of years, depicts three human-like characters with extremely oversized heads.
They appear to have been depicted with stylised buffalo skulls, although the meaning behind this is unclear.
The drawing was discovered in 2018 within one of 52 previously undocumented rock shelters in the Swaga Swaga Game Reserve.
However, images of it only came to light in a paper published last year by Maciej Grzelczyk, a researcher based in Poland.
The artwork forms part of a frieze of figurative art at a site named Amak'hee 4.
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Painted with a mix of red and white pigments, it's thought to date back to the time of hunter-gatherer societies in the region.
Depicted on the panel are animals resembling wildebeest, elands, buffalo, and even a giraffe.
A handful of human-like figures with large heads also feature, with one group, in particular, standing out.
"Particularly noteworthy among the Amak'hee 4 paintings is a scene that centres around three images," Grzelczyk, a researcher at Jagiellonian University Institute for the Study of Religions, wrote.
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"In this trio, the figures seem to feature stylized buffalo heads.
"These shapes recall the central dip in the profile of the buffalo head from where the two horns rise and then curve outward away from the head, as well as the downturned ears."
The culture of the Sandawe people – who are descended from those who created the paintings – does not have a history of depicting buffalo-headed people, Grzelczyk said.
They are not known to believe in legends about people who can shape-shift into buffaloes, so the images may depict something else.
However, buffalo horns do play a major role in some Sandawe rituals.
Nearby, two other shelter paintings depict similar trios of tall human-like figures boasting enormous heads.
The meaning behind the buffalo-headed figures remains a mystery for now.
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Some of the rock art sites are still used by the Sandawe for ritual activities today, and local communities might be able to shed light on what the figures mean.
The paper was published in the journal Antiquity.
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