Botswana, a landlocked country in southern Africa, has a landscape defined by the Kalahari Desert in the west and the Okavango Delta in the north. Rock art can be found in the north, north-west and east of the country. One of the most well-known locations is the Tsodilo Hills in the north-west which contains evidence of human occupation that goes back 100,000 years. This area has yielded more than 4,000 paintings and has been termed the Louvre of the Desert. It also has engraved cupules and grooves dating back to the first millennium AD.View featured rock art site
At least 2,000 years ago - around 150 years ago
Tsodilo Hills, Gubatshaa Hills and Tuli Block
Paintings and engravings
Wild animals, domestic cattle, stick-like figures and geometric motifs
Botswana, a landlocked country in southern Africa, has a landscape defined by the Kalahari Desert in the west and the Okavango Delta in the north. Rock art can be found in the north, north-west and east of the country. One of the most well-known locations is the Tsodilo Hills in the north-west which contains evidence of human occupation that goes back 100,000 years. This area has yielded more than 4,000 paintings and has been termed the Louvre of the Desert. It also has engraved cupules and grooves dating back to the first millennium AD.
Geography and rock art distribution
The Republic of Botswana is bordered by South Africa to the south, Namibia to the west and north and Zimbabwe to the north-east. It shares a short border consisting of a few hundred metres with Zambia to the north. The majority of this flat country, around 70%, is made up of the Kalahari Desert, with the Okavango Delta, one of the world’s largest inland deltas located in the north. Botswana has a subtropical climate of hot summers and warm winters due to its high altitude and is semi-arid due to the short rainy season. Rock art is scattered across the country with the main sites being found in the Tsodilo Hills in the north- west; the Gubatshaa Hills in the Chobe National Park, east of the Okavango Delta; Tuli Block in the far east of the country and Manyana in the south-east.
German geologist Siegfried Passarge visited the Tsodilo Hills on the 1st July 1898, mapping the area, writing on the geology and photographing a few rock paintings. In 1907, he published tracings of his photos in Die Buschmänner der Kalahari. A passing mention of the Hills was made in 1913 in a brief report by Max Happe, but it was François Balsan, a French industrialist and explorer, who raised the profile of Tsodilo Hills when over two days he photographed and prepared tracings of what has come to be known as the “Rhino Panel” on September 27-28 1951.
Laurens van der Post’s publication of The Lost World of the Kalahari in 1958 brought Tsodilo Hills and its rock art to the attention of the wider world. Van der Post, an Afrikaner, had planned to make a film of the rock art in the region, but a number of events including the shooting of a steenbok (a severe crime locally), the cameras jamming and swarms of bees descending upon their camp, conspired against him and resulted in van der Post leaving the Hills in despair. However, he also left an apologetic note at the rock art panel he had been trying to film as a way of assuaging the wrath of the “Spirit of the Hills” as he put it. The rock face he was trying to film, comprising eland, giraffe and handprints, is now known as “Van der Post Panel”.
In 1963 Alec Campbell visited the region with George Silberbauer, an ethnographer who had studied the San|Bushmen in Botswana. As Director of Botswana’s National Museum, Campbell had a little government funding to record the rock art and excavate the rock shelters. Subsequently he collaborated with archaeologists Larry Robbins, Mike Murphy, and paleo-geographer George Brook.
During the 1990s, Campbell, along with the staff from the National Museum recorded around 400 rock art sites numbering over 4,000 individual paintings. In 2001 Tsodilo Hills became a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its spiritual significance to local peoples, as well as its unique record of human settlement over many millennia.
Distribution and themes
Tuli Block is a narrow fringe of land in the far east of the country that borders South Africa and lies on the banks of the Limpopo River. This area is characterised by rock engravings of human and animal footprints, and cupules, which hold spiritual importance both for San|Bushman¹ hunter-gatherers and Tswana farmers. The engravings are thought to refer to a local myth that tells of an ancestor, named Matsieng, who is believed to have emerged from a waterhole followed by his animals. However, there are several localities in the region that claim this origin myth. It is thought the engravings in this area were created by the San|Bushmen and linked to their belief system, appropriated later by the Tswana farmers.
The most renowned rock art in Botswana comes from the Tsodilo Hills in the north-west of the country. With more than 4,500 paintings preserved in an area of 10km² it has been termed the “Louvre of the Desert”. Tsodilo is made up of four main hills; Male Hill, Female Hill, Child Hill and North Hill, and paintings occur on all four. The subject matter, comprised of red and white paintings, includes animals, human figures and geometric designs. Red paintings are likely to have been made by San|Bushmen, while the white paintings are more difficult to attribute authorship to but may be a later continuation of the red tradition. There are no engraved images at Tsodilo but cupules and ground grooves are a common feature. Dating of the paintings at Tsodilo has been difficult, and because many of them occur on exposed surfaces where they are susceptible to damage by the sun, rain and wind, what remains is probably not very old. However, paintings of cattle, which are also badly faded, probably date to between AD 800 and 1150 when people kept these animals in this area.
¹ San|Bushmen is a collective term used to describe the many different hunter-gatherer-fisher groups living in southern Africa who have related languages and cultural traditions. Both ‘San’ and ‘Bushmen’ are considered offensive terms by some members of these groups, although others have positively adopted them.
250 km east of the Tsodilo Hills, on the eastern side of the Okavango Delta, lie the Gubatshaa Hills. Paintings here consist of geometric designs and finger painted animals such as eland, elephant, antelope and giraffe. Geometric designs are stylistically different from those at Tsodilo but share similarities with some painted designs in Carnarvon District, Northern Cape, South Africa.
Rock art is rare in the south-east of the country, but the site of Manyana is noteworthy because it is the only one that has been excavated. The paintings are found at five sites along a rock outcrop of 0.75 km at the base of the Koboleng Hills, and while once richly decorated, many of the paintings have now faded. It is difficult to determine exactly when the paintings were made, but excavation shows the use of ochre from the earliest occupation levels dating to the Late Stone Age, around AD 100 - 800, with the latest occupation levels dating to the Late Iron Age, around AD 1600-1700. Interestingly, none of the paintings were done in white, a colour found at many other sites in Botswana and other regions of southern Africa, and often attributed to paintings of Iron Age date. In addition, there are no images of eland or figures combining human/antelope form which are common occurrences in South African rock art.
Cupules and grooves
Cupules and grooves engravings can be found in the Tsodilo Hills, and also in the eastern part of the country in Tuli Block and Gubatshaa Hills. Engravings include human footprints and animal tracks. Most sites with engravings and/or cupules occur near water; for example at the site of Riverslee in the Tuli Block they encircle a waterhole while at Basinghall the cupule site is near the Limpopo River.
Because the identity of the artists are unknown to us we can only speculate on the function and/or meanings of the art in relation to other rock art traditions in southern Africa. These may include fertility, health, abundance, protection against evil spirits or summoning rain. Contemporary communities at Tsodilo Hills believe that spirits live in the Hills and have explained how those who enter the Hills must be respectful as the spirits are capable of both curing and punishing people. In particular, White Paintings Shelter in the Tsodilo Hills was used as a place to perform curative dances that involved the placing of hands on the paintings in order to use its power. Geometric designs are more difficult to interpret but may fit into a tradition of other geometric symbols in the region and represent weather and fertility symbols.