Discovering Southern African rock art

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Farmer art

Eight years ago, two South African archaeology students were walking in the breathtaking Drakensberg Mountains. As the sun began to set after a hard day’s searching for ancient rock paintings, they made their way back to camp. Suddenly, a ferocious lightning storm struck. One of the students pointed to a rock shelter at the top of a steep hill to the west.

by Jamie Hampson MA (Oxon)

TRACCE PHP-Nuke version, 2002-2011

Discovering Southern African rock art

Eight years ago, two South African archaeology students were walking in the breathtaking Drakensberg Mountains. Above them loomed towering basalt cliffs reaching to 7000 feet. As the sun began to set after a hard day’s searching for ancient rock paintings, they made their way back to camp. Suddenly, a ferocious lightning storm struck. One of the students pointed to a rock shelter at the top of a steep hill to the west; both climbed as quickly as possible in a desperate bid to avoid the eye of the storm.
Earlier, and from a distance, they had been arguing whether the rock shelter contained paintings. At first, as the two of them recovered their breath, it seemed that there was none. Then, a flash of colour caught their eyes. Hidden behind a fallen boulder was a 20-foot panel containing 231 awe-inspiring images. Appropriately enough, they named their find ‘Storm Shelter’ (Figs 1 & 2).

Figure 1. ‘Storm Shelter’. Note large shamans, numerous eland and single white rhebuck (Photo: G. Blundell)


Figure 2. Detail of shaman from ‘Storm Shelter’ (Photo: G. Blundell)

Storm Shelter is now recognised as one of the great discoveries of recent times. It was featured in the February 2001 issue of National Geographic and on the cover of the South African Journal of Science.
Until recently it was assumed that all of the large and spectacular rock art sites in southern Africa had been found. During the last two decades, however, dozens of remarkable discoveries, such as Storm Shelter, have put paid to that assumption. Researchers, landowners, journalists and members of the public are showing more and more interest in rock paintings (pictographs) and engravings (petroglyphs) throughout the sub-continent. In 2001 the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in South Africa unveiled a spectacular reproduction of Storm Shelter in Pretoria, the nation’s capital. At last, some of the world’s earliest art traditions are receiving the attention they deserve.

San beliefs and southern African rock art

All too often, articles on southern African rock art imply that little is known about the San (more famously known as Bushmen), hunter-gatherers who populated the whole of southern Africa for many millennia. In fact, despite widespread decimation by both black and white settlers, several San groups survive in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and Namibia. Thanks to the work of anthropologists during the last few decades, and also to ethnographic records from the nineteenth century, we are fortunate to know much about the San way of life, complex religion and deeply religious rock art.
The central tenet of San religion was (and still is) ritualised interaction between the ‘real’ (material) and spirit worlds. The San cosmos has three levels. The spirit world both above and below the real world is connected to the material world by places such as waterholes (places of transformation and breakthrough) that feature prominently in San myths and beliefs. For the San, the spirit world is never far away. It impinges on daily life, and, as we shall see, this overlap of realms can be clearly seen in the rock art itself.

Movement between the material and spirit realms in the San cosmos is achieved by shamans or ‘medicine people’. These ritual specialists are believed to have the power to alter the weather, heal the sick and to control the movements of animals. Shamans enter a state of trance (or altered state of consciousness) by intense dancing, audio-driving and hyperventilation. Unlike many other hunter-gatherer societies around the world, they do not rely on the ingestion of hallucinogens. Shamans both male and female harness spiritual potency by dancing around the campfire while women clap ‘medicine songs’; in this way the shamans are transported to the spirit world.

The fact that the San belief-system has lasted for many thousands of years explains why the oldest images of which we know (about 27,000 years old, in Namibia) possess elements similar to the most recent San depictions (produced about 100 years ago).
Shamanic (or trance) dances, as well as individual elements of the dances, are depicted in the art. Human figures, for example, are often in a bending-forward posture. Today San shamans in the Kalahari say that, as potency boils in their stomachs, their muscles contract and they bend forward, often requiring the aid of one or two ‘dancing sticks’. Sometimes when this happens shamans suffer nosebleeds. The San believe that the smearing of nasal blood on people keeps sickness away.
Hand-to-nose postures are also found in the art. These are probably connected with the potency of nasal blood, but they also have a greater significance: some San groups used their word for ‘nose’ also to mean a shaman’s ability to enter trance and thus the spirit world.
Fundamentally, the art presents the shamans’ privileged view of the trance dance and of the spirit world to which they are transported. This ‘shaman’s eye’ view explains why there are so many ‘non-real’ images in the art. In addition to spirits leaving the top of people’s heads, sickness expelled through a ‘hole’ in the back of a shaman’s neck, and malevolent spirits of the dead encountered in the underworld, there are also numerous depictions of therianthropes (part-human, part-animal figures), ‘flying’ bucks (antelope) and other unusual creatures. San art like much hunter-gatherer rock art throughout the world is about the ‘re-creation’ of shamans’ visions of the spirit world. In fact, the paintings were considered powerful ‘things in themselves’. Inherently potent blood was often used as a binder to adhere the pigments (e.g., ochre, clay, charcoal) to the rock face.
Before the use of San ethnography, a straightforward analogy had been overlooked: The stained glass windows of European cathedrals cannot be understood without some knowledge of Christianity; similarly, San rock art cannot be understood without some insight into San beliefs.

New discoveries

Southern Africa is sometimes referred to as one of the richest ‘storehouses’ of prehistoric mural art in the world. For many decades the rock art of France and Spain caught and held the world’s imagination. Now, thanks to the research outlined above, and also to recent discoveries such as Storm Shelter, the art of Africa is taking its place alongside sensational finds of early human skeletons to form a crucial part of the heritage of all humankind.
There are at least 15,000 known San rock art sites in South Africa alone; it is estimated that there are at least as many again undiscovered. If one includes the neighbouring countries of Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia, this figure rises to at least 50,000 sites. Unlike rock art sites in other parts of the world, those in southern Africa are often largely as they were when the artists left them. People who take the trouble to journey through spectacular scenery to see them are seldom disappointed.
For the past twenty-three years, it has been the task of the staff and students of the Rock Art Research Institute (RARI) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, to discover, document and analyse the many thousands of stunning paintings and engravings found throughout the sub-continent. RARI’s research officers spend weeks trekking through deserts and negotiating mountain passes South Africa is a land of vastly different terrains and vegetation.

Rain snakes and wildebeest

In 1999, a RARI field team rediscovered a ‘lost’ painting allegedly depicting the wreck of the Grosvenor, a famous ship which sank in 1782 with what people believed to be a treasure of gold and diamonds near Port St John’s on South Africa’s southern coast. Despite the efforts of hundreds of diving expeditions, no treasure has been found, but the myth lives on. In 1959, a famous South African artist thought that he had discovered a painted representation of the Grosvenor in a rock shelter on a farm 100 miles inland of Port St John’s, high in the windswept Drakensberg Mountains. A sensational newspaper report printed a black and white photograph of the surrounding scenery, and also the artist’s sketch of what he believed to be the ship. Great excitement followed, but the discovery was then forgotten. Over 40 years on, using the photograph of the hills, a RARI field team consisting of two research officers managed to relocate the site in a deep, remote valley. What people in the 1950s thought to be a ship with “a mast with rigging, bearing a tattered flag or sail” is actually a ‘mythical’ rain serpent a creature connected with San shamans in trance. It is flecked with white dots representing supernatural potency, and it has a tusked, antelope-like head (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. So-called ‘Wreck of the Grosvenor’. The image is actually a rain serpent (Photo: J. Hampson)

Unfortunately (in the eyes of many) it seems that another romantic myth has been laid to rest. Detailed study of San beliefs over the last few decades, however, means that the old ‘gaze-and-guess’ approach to rock art can no longer be applied. Declaring that an image is a ship because “it looks like one” is no longer acceptable.
Another exciting discovery connected with the Grosvenor concerns the path of a Dutch expedition in the 1790s to find the survivors of the shipwreck, some of whom had attempted to walk back to Cape Town, nearly 1000 miles away! Using the expedition’s journal and early, crude maps, RARI research officers pinpointed several valleys through which the expedition was likely to have travelled. The diary refers to a rock art site beside a “thorny river”, with a rock painting of a soldier sporting a grenadier’s cap and several ‘realistic’ wildebeest (gnus). Badly scratched and weary, the field team found the site, but unfortunately the image that may have been a representation of military apparel (although ‘narratives’ in San art are rare) was no longer visible another sad example of the threat of weathering to rock art.

Ostriches, snipe and moths

Even more recently, another huge site was found. A fascinating discovery 150 miles east of Cape Town shows that, unlike the San art in the Drakensberg Mountains where human: antelope combinations are the most common spiritual conflation, the artists here based their visual metaphors on a species from a quite different taxon the ostrich. For insight into the meaning of these part-human, part-ostrich figures researchers scoured the wide-ranging and plentiful San records concerning ostriches, and ostrich behaviour. The unusually large, striding painted figures some of whom are over two feet in height have richly striped legs and bellies, and decorated faces; some have head ornaments. The ovoid white forms on the back of a bag are, in all probability, ostrich eggs, often used by the San as water carriers. There is little doubt that this stunning panel is not merely narrative, but redolent with much less obvious complex meaning.
Birds are not common in San rock art, but another awe-inspiring find in the great whaleback, granite hills of the south-west revealed a painting of a yellow bird, fringed by small red dots. The bird has been identified as the Ethiopian snipe (Gallinago nigripennis). The outline in the painting featuring a flared tail and rounded wing is the same as that seen when snipes ‘drum’, or dive at great speeds through the air. The ‘woer-woer’ call of ‘drumming’ snipe is similar to the sound produced by bullroarers, which are also known as ‘woer-woers’. Flight is, of course, a cross-cultural metaphor for altered states of consciousness. Interestingly, another site nearby features shamans depicted as swallow-tailed figures. Just as in North America, there is a strong link between shamans and paintings of birds. The yellow bird in South Africa is probably a transformed shaman, too. The red dots surrounding it strengthen this probability. Since the dots are depicted on and surrounding the body, it is likely that they are representations of potency, or, at the very least, representations of the tingling sensation experienced during trance


While paintings of birds are rare, a painting of a moth in the east of South Africa is unique. Ethnography informs us that moths were supernaturally as well as naturally linked to game animals; the death of a moth in the fire presaged the wounding of an animal out on the hunting ground. There are also striking similarities between the three levels of the San cosmos and the life cycle of the moth, and fascinating links between moths and the San trickster god’s (/Kaggen’s) protean nature.

A Zimbabwean enigma

Expeditions into Zimbabwe are always exciting. The massive, red granite domes in the south of the country abound with rock paintings of enigmatic depictions of ‘formlings’ and botanical motifs, images that are rare elsewhere in southern Africa. Formlings are oval- or oblong-shaped cores, often painted in a series, and placed vertically or horizontally inside bounding lines (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Redrawing of formlings by S. Coleman. Traced by W. Challis.

Early researchers based their interpretations of these images on the narrative gaze-and-guess approach, believing that San paintings were simple and direct depictions of daily life and material phenomena. As a result, it was suggested that formlings represented anything from clouds and xylophones to cultivated fields and scenery such as hills, boulders and trees. Perhaps the most widely accepted and well-known proposal was that the shapes represented beehives or honeycombs.
Recent trips, however, have revealed paintings that show convincingly that formlings are strongly and symbolically linked with supernatural potency. Formlings are, in fact, biological phenomena, and connected to insects important in San cosmology. Trees painted alongside formlings form an important component of the supernatural symbolism.


Returning to South Africa, current RARI research in the arid Waterberg Mountains in the snake-ridden north of the country concentrates on an unusual and recently discovered distinctive posture, dubbed the ‘Waterberg Posture’. Researchers stumbled across this male human viewed in profile at the end of a long day’s hiking through thorn-infested dry riverbeds. Only one leg and one arm, short, and angled out and upwards, can be seen in the paintings. The penis also protrudes upwards and outwards like the arm. These human figures are often found in close association with stylised hartebeest antelope images. The hartebeest, like the human figures, are viewed in profile, with only one front and one back leg. The front leg is shorter than the back leg. These ‘strange’ hartebeest form a category of subtle therianthropes (part-human, part-animal figures); they are Waterberg Posture figures that have taken on the potency of the hartebeest a seminal new find.
The Waterberg Mountains are also rich in the rock art of Khoekhoen herders and Bantu-speaking black farmers, two previously neglected rock art traditions.

Khoekhoen (herder) and Bantu-speakers’ (farmer) art

San art is not the only rock art tradition in southern Africa. Recent discoveries have drawn attention to the long-neglected herder and farmer paintings and engravings.
Several thousand years ago, the hunter-gatherer San were living alongside Khoekhoen people (formerly called Hottentot) who herded sheep and cattle in addition to hunting. Herders’ animals were obtained originally from Bantu-speaking farmer groups farther to the north. The San and Khoekhoen were genetically related communities (linguists refer to ‘Khoisan’ languages today), and there was interaction between the two groups.

The rock art of Khoekhoen herders is easily distinguished from that of the San despite the fact that there was considerable overlap between the two cultures, even in their art because it is made up primarily of geometric designs, large dots and handprints. Paint was applied to the rock face with the finger and not a brush.

Khoekhoen ethnography is, however, scant, and research still in its early stages. There is a strong association between herder rock art and water, although whether this will tell us why the Khoekhoen painted and engraved is debatable. Preliminary findings point to a link between the art and traditional Khoekhoen initiation sites. Certainly, the rock art was made for different reasons from that of the San.
Thrilling new discoveries in the north of South Africa depict the presence of newly arrived herders on the landscape, in direct association with the geometric images of the herders themselves. At one site overlooking a river, three fat-tailed sheep (herders’ animals, painted by the San) were found in a small alcove next to a group of herder finger dots. We cannot be sure which images were painted first, but we do know that one set of paintings is a direct reaction by one group to the presence of the other. A similar scenario exists at only one other site in the country. This is an exciting and important new find. Discoveries such as this are crucial to researchers’ understanding of the more recent rock art traditions, both Khoekhoen herder and Bantu-speaking farmer.
At least 2,000 years ago, Bantu-speaking black farmers crossed the Zambezi River, the geographical boundary separating southern Africa from the north. San relations with these farmers probably varied from place to place: many groups intermarried with the San and sent their initiates to learn rainmaking skills from San shamans, while others fought bitterly.
The rock art of these Bantu-speaking farmers, like that of the Khoekhoen herders, comprises mostly paintings; paint was always applied with the fingers, producing a ‘rough’ appearance. At present, only 500 or so Bantu-speakers’ sites are known in South Africa (compared with the 15,000 or so San, and several thousand Khoekhoen sites). Most of them are found in the north of southern Africa, which abounds with deep, dry gorges, dense scrub and legions of scorpions.
Bantu-speaking farmer art falls into two periods. The earlier art depicts a range of wild animals (dominated by images of giraffe) and played a part in traditional boys’ initiation instruction. It seems so have been introduced nearly 1,000 years ago, and continued into the twentieth century.
The more recent period brings us up to colonial times. It comprises depictions of European soldiers and settlers, their guns (Figs 5 & 6) and remarkably steam trains. European settlers reached the north of South Africa in the nineteenth century, and imposed taxes and land clearances. We know that the San produced ‘contact’ art (such as depictions of black farmers’ cattle, Khoekhoen herders’ sheep, and Europeans) in order to try to influence their own fate, through the shamanistic ‘ritual’ of applying potent paint to a rock face. Bantu-speaking farmers of the Northern Province also tried to overcome the stresses of the time, often by poking fun at the new arrivals via the medium of rock art. In a way, Bantu-speaking farmer art marks the origins of protest art in South Africa ordinary people protesting their right to land and self-determination, fighting the destruction of their traditional structures and cultural values.

Figures 5 & 6. Farmer art. Note the aggressive hands-on-hips posture of the European settler (photos: P. Bass)

Figures 5 & 6. Farmer art. Note the aggressive hands-on-hips posture of the European settler (photos: P. Bass)

The future

In 1999, the world’s first ‘Rapid Response: Rock Art 911’ service was established in order to combat the pressing threat posed by weathering, vandalism and construction work to rock art sites in southern Africa. The field team documents such sites and advises farmers and landowners on how best to preserve the diverse legacies of southern Africa’s past. At the same time the team searches for undiscovered sites there are so many waiting to be found.
Every year, dozens of new sites are discovered throughout southern Africa. Regardless of whether these are small, containing only a few, poorly-preserved images, or large, with many, well-preserved paintings and engravings, all new finds lead to a greater understanding of southern African rock art. There can be no closure on this colossal research enterprise. In fact, new discoveries help researchers to understand previously documented but hitherto ambiguous motifs, as well as to answer questions and formulate new foundations for further research.


The Rock Art Research Institute’s website can be found at: Bio.
Jamie Hampson has an MA in history from the University of Oxford. He has co-authored several papers on the rock art of South Africa since moving to Johannesburg in 1999. He has recently developed the web site of Rice University, Houston, Texas.
byJamie Hampson MA (Oxon)

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