South African Rock Art

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Friday 21st November 2003 and 40 degrees in the shade. The shade comes from a vast boulder – two hundred or more tons of it – perched upon a great slab of Table Mountain Sandstone overlooking the almost dry sandy bed of the Brandewyn river. Outside, it must be 50 degrees on the bare rock surfaces I have just crossed. I am here in the Cederberg Mountains, some 200 km north of Cape Town, looking at one of the world’s wonders – the rock paintings of the San Bushmen.
On the underside of the boulder the red paint has survived for, who knows, two thousand, perhaps even as much as eight thousand years. Animal shapes are clear – bodies and back legs at least – but where are their heads? Could they have been in a different colour paint now eroded away? Or are they mystical headless beasts, not intended to be real animals at all? What are these paintings really all about? What can we learn from them about these Late Stone Age people, whose material culture is about equivalent to that of the hunter-gatherers of the British Mesolithic?
I lie on my back under the boulder to get the right angle for a photograph. Then on, over the fantastically weathered rock surfaces, where nothing but dry, burnt scrub clings in the sand-filled cracks and hollows. Another rock painting, this time on the wall of a cliff overhang. Again some animals, this time bizarre monsters straight out of a horror movie.
Next, something more like reality. A San bowman, thin, delicately drawn, no more than 20 cm or so high. And a wonderful little zebra (or the extinct form of zebra known as a quagga, which they are trying to breed back from zebras at Cape Town University). The zebra/quagga looks like a newborn foal, prancing on its shaky legs as it gains strength. The drawing is exquisite, the artist a keen observer of nature and not without a touch of humour. Or so it seems to my European eyes.
And that is the problem with San art. Brought up in the culture of the West, how can I see the world through the eyes of the prehistoric San, or understand what was going on in their minds when they painted these pictures?
One of Archaeology’s great success stories in recent years, however, has been the development of plausible new ideas about the meaning of this art, both paintings and rock engravings. Older ideas saw the art as simply decoration (‘art-for-art’s-sake’), or straightforwardly narrative (‘everyday life among the hunter-gatherers’). Simple ‘primitive people’, so it was supposed, would not have been capable of complex thoughts, and their art could be easily understood by the same criteria that we use when looking at our own art. Imperial self-confidence, no doubt, added to the feeling that superior Western intelligence and common sense could explain the images perfectly well, and what could not be explained was scarcely worth bothering with.
What was being ignored, though, was a great archive of notes made in the 1870s and onwards by the few people who had taken the trouble to learn the difficult ‘click’ language of the San, who showed them copies of rock paintings, and who recorded what San individuals themselves said by way of explanation. Twelve thousand pages of notes were made by the German linguist Wilhelm Bleek and his English sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd in Cape Town, who talked with three /Xam San men, Diä!kwain, /Han#kass’o and //Kabbo. About the same time, an Irish-British colonial administrator William Orpen was noting what the San man Qing said about rock paintings a thousand kilometres to the east in the Drakensberg mountains in KwaZulu-Natal (then, revealingly and erroneously, called Nomansland). The results did not fit comfortably with European notions of the San being ‘simple children of nature’, without complex thought or religion. The huge Bleek and Lloyd archive, deposited in Cape Town University library, was largely ignored, and even now has not been fully published.
More recent thinking is more humble – or more politically correct some might say – and seeks greater understanding of non-Western peoples by paying more attention to what they have said about themselves. The 19th century records were made at a time when San culture was in decline as European ways were imposed upon the earlier inhabitants of South Africa. By the early 20th century, San culture and even their folk memories were fading or lost.
But San individuals in the 1870s were clear about the origins and purposes of the art, both rock paintings and engravings. They were produced or inspired by ‘shamans’ – the ‘witch doctors’ or ‘medicine men’ of colonial lore – whose various functions included healing, rain-making and predicting. These shamans were not directly concerned with real animals, but with spirit animals in a spirit world. Entry into this spirit world can be assisted by entering a state of trance, induced among other things by hallucinatory drugs, and in the early stages of trance, various dotted, zig-zag and other patterns come before the eyes (entoptic visions) which are closely matched by the previously inexplicable patterns which are part of the repertoire of the rock artists. Neuropsychologists believe that that these ‘altered states of consciousness’ and entoptic visions are universal characteristics of humankind.
Among the first to promote this kind of explanation for the art was Patricia Vinnicombe in her 1976 book People of the Eland. The ideas were vigorously pursued and popularised by David Lewis-Williams, Director of the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg in a vast output of books and articles from 1981 to the present day. Although primarily concerned with the rock art of the Drakensberg mountains, Lewis-Williams’s research took him to all parts of southern Africa and elsewhere in the world including the Upper Palaeolithic decorated caves of western Europe. I reviewed one key book in CA 189.
Lewis-Williams makes a clever comparison with how a Martian might interpret Leonardo da Vinci’s great fresco The Last Supper. It is a wonderful painting, finely planned and drawn, full of life and subtle colour; indeed, by any standard, it is Great Art. It can also be viewed as documenting the dining habits, food, utensils, costume and furniture of 15th century Italy. But knowledge of the Christian story gives the viewer a deeper understanding of the picture: the significance of thirteen men dining together (one of whom is divine although there is no halo or any indication of importance other than a central position in the composition). There are expressions of dismay among the diners as Jesus says ‘One of you shall betray me’ – and Judas clutches his bag of money, the root of all evil. Similar symbolism of course can be found in many Christian religious paintings, but without prior knowledge of the story, the meaning is lost.
So what the descendants of the rock artists said about the paintings is the key (or ‘Bible’) for our understanding.
Lewis-Williams is cautious, however, about explaining all rock art in terms of shamanism, and wisely so. But that has not stopped all and sundry jumping on to what has become a fashionable bandwagon. As the great South African archaeologist Ray Inskeep said to me last year just before he died, Lewis-Williams’s interpretations ‘have been hijacked for almost every daub and scratch around the globe. It is too easy a cop-out’. Not only do we have hunter-gatherer art explained in this way, but British Bronze Age grave groups and even Iron Age coins (CA 175 & 174 reviews).
But what about the Cederberg paintings? Could these have been by or inspired by shamans? I have to admit that I walked back along the valley feeling uneasy about the idea. I saw no geometric signs supposedly indicating entoptic visions. There were human figures, some in groups or processions. But none of them seemed in any way unusual. But then I had not seen every Cederberg painting. Could the apparently headless creatures beneath the great rock, or the strange monster farther along the valley have been spirit animals? Perhaps they were, but how difficult to prove them so. I needed Diä!kwain here.
There are said to be 50,000 San rock paintings in southern Africa, but even in the Cederberg where Janette Deacon, Tom Maggs, John Parkington and others have carried out an immense amount of fieldwork, paintings are still being discovered.
I spoke with Cederberg Wilderness ranger Donny Malherbe, who showed me images of paintings from new sites found in some cases only days before my visit. We are privileged to be allowed to publish some of them in Current World Archaeology for the first time.
Here were more animals – perhaps a ‘warty’ (warthog) with its little upright tail, and an antelope. Both, however, have curiously elongated legs. Next some groups of animals and humans, and now a human bent over at the waist just like those identified as shamans by Lewis-Williams in the Drakensberg mountains, which I visited when last in South Africa two years ago. There the humans have blood pouring from the nose, a known characteristic of shamans in a trance. No blood here, it seems, unless that part of the painting has worn away.
What happened to the San? With rather different traditions about the ownership of property, many were imprisoned or shot for stealing under 19th century colonial regimes. Some still survive, just about, in the great desert of the Kalahari in Namibia and Botswana, where they can be studied and popularized by condescending Europeans such as Laurens van der Post or more sensitive ethnographers. But in the Kalahari there are no rock shelters to paint and this kind of art, and the traditions are absent.no rock shelters to paint and this kind of art is absent. Some have been absorbed into other local communities, where their distinctive features can still be identified to this day even though their hunter-gatherer way of life has gone.
A poignant epitaph of the San speaks to us in one of their songs:

‘When we die
A soft wind will blow away our
footprints in the sand.
When the wind has gone,
Who will tell the timelessness
That once we walked this way
in the dawn of time’

San or Bushman?
‘Bushmen’, or ‘Boesman’ in Africaans, was the word used by European settlers for the hunter-gatherer people of the Kalahari Desert and elsewhere in Southern Africa. ‘Hottentot’, likewise, was the word for pastoralist herders who, it seemed, were later arrivals replacing the Bushmen and causing them to retreat into remoter desert and mountain regions.
Both terms more recently have been regarded as pejorative, and alternative words have become preferred, derived from what many of these people called themselves. So ‘San’ is now the commonly accepted word for Bushmen, and Khoekhoen similarly for Hottentot. More recent thinking prefers to see the newcomers merging happily with the San to form the Khoesan.
Ironically, ‘San’ is a Nama word for Bushmen meaning something like ‘cattle-less wanderer’ or ‘vagabond’, which is scarcely less pejorative, while some San people in Namibia and Botswana themselves prefer to be called Bushmen. There is no pleasing everybody.

Practise your clicks
(with help from David Lewis-Williams)
In the San language, tongue clicks are an essential element in the pronunciation of words. There are four basic types of click:
Dental click (indicated by /). The tip of the tongue is placed against the back of the upper front teeth. In the release, it is pulled away with a sound similar to the one that English-speakers use as a gentle reproof.
Alveolar-palatal click (indicated by !). The tip of the tongue is pressed firmly against the back of the alveolar ridge where it meets the hard palate and is very sharply snapped down on release. A loud pop results.
Alveolar click (indicated by #). The front part of the tongue, more than the tip, is pressed against the alveolar ridge and drawn sharply downward when released.
Lateral click (indicated by //). The tongue is placed as for the alveolar click. It is released at the sides by being drawn in from the teeth. Drivers of horses sometimes use lateral clicks to signal their horses to start or go faster.
If you can’t pronounce these clicks, substitute a ‘k’, or, where there is an adjacent consonant, omit them altogether.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 5. Click here to subscribe

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