Namibia

Highlight images

Country overview

Image count

1,338 images

Date range

Mainly 6,000 BC to the mid-1st millennium AD

Main areas

Throughout, with particular concentrations in the West and centre of the country

Techniques

Mainly brush painting and pecked engraving

Main themes

Human figures, large fauna, particularly giraffe and antelope, accoutrements such as personal ornaments and musical instruments, geometric shapes, animal tracks and human hand and foot prints

Introduction

Nambia is home to over 1,200 rock art sites countrywide. Most of these sites appear to correspond with the hunter-gatherer art tradition found throughout southern Africa, with certain specific regional features.

Geography and rock art distribution

Namibia covers an area of around 815,625km² in the south-west of Africa, bordering Angola and Zambia in the North, Botswana in the east, and South Africa to the south. Namibia’s climate is mainly arid or semi-arid, with the dry environment of the Namib desert covering the entirety of the country’s coastline in the west andbordered by southern Africa’s Great Escarpment, a rocky ridge at the edge of the central plateau running in rough parallel to the coastline. East of the ridge, the central plateau stretches towards the edge of the basin enclosing the western portion of the Kalahari, a semi-desert environment extending into Botswana and South Africa.

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Painted tableau showing giraffe, springbok, human figures and a tree. 2013,2034.21544 © TARA/David Coulson

Rock art is found across the country from the southern border almost to the northern border, although rock art sites are scarce in the far north. The majority of known rock art sites are found in the rocky and mountainous areas forming the escarpment edge in the west of the country. Particular concentrations of rock art are found in the west-centre of the country, north of the edge of the Namib’s coastal sand sea. Namibia’s most well-known rock art locales are clustered in this area, among them the Brandberg (also known as Dâures) and Erongo mountains and the Spitzkoppe peaks, as well as the well-known engraved rock art complex at Twyfelfontein /Ui-//aes.

Around 20km wide, the almost circular granitic intrusion of the Brandberg contains Namibia’s highest point at over 2,500 ft., and around 1,000 rock art sites, with around 50,000 individual figures recorded. These include both paintings and engravings but paintings form the majority. The Erongo mountains, a similar but less compact formation around 120km to the south-east, contain a further 80 sites and 50km to the west of this, the Spitzkoppe peaks, a group of granite inselbergs, has a smaller concentration of known sites with 37 so far recorded. Painting sites are most often found on vertical surfaces in rock shelters or the sides of granitic boulders, while engravings may survive in more exposed environments such as on boulders, often dolerite or sandstone.

The most well-known of the engraving sites is that of Twyfelfontein /Ui-//aes, around 50 km north of the Brandberg. The rock art complex here is dominated by collections of engraved images, though some paintings are also present. With well over 2,000 individual images, the Twyfelfontein engravings form the largest known discrete collection of engraved rock art in Southern Africa.

History of research

The first published mention of rock art in south-western Africa may be that of C. J. Andersson who mentioned “A strange tale of a rock in which the tracks of …animals are distinctly visible” in his 1856 book Lake Ngami. Further reports came in the 1870s when the Reverend C. J. Büttner published an article in a South African periodical reporting rock art in the Erongo Mountains, while Commissioner William Coates Palgrave made a report of paintings near Dassiesfontein, along with some the earliest known photographs of rock art in Africa. European public awareness of rock art from the region in Europe was spurred by the January 1910 publication of an article by Oberleutnant Hugo Jochmann featuring images from various sites in a German magazine. The first monograph on the rock art of the area then known as South West Africa was published in 1930 (Obermaier & Kühn, 1930), following further reports by officials, including the explorer and geographer Reinhardt Maack, who in a 1921 report first noted the existence of engravings at Twyfelfontein.

During the course of an earlier expedition, Maack had stumbled upon a singular painting in a Brandberg rock shelter. This image came to be well-known as the ‘White Lady’ of the Brandberg, after the renowned rock art researcher the Abbé Henri Breuil, who saw Maack’s copy of it and took a keen interest in the image. Eventually Breuil published a lavishly illustrated volume on the White Lady in 1955, which made it one of the most famous rock painting images in the world. During the 1940s and 50s Breuil also explored and published on rock art sites elsewhere in the Brandberg and Erongo mountains.

Ernst Scherz, who had acted as a guide for Breuil, would go on to conduct extensive documentation work throughout the country as part of the comprehensive research project investigating the archaeology of South West Africa run by the University of Cologne and sponsored by the Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft. Beginning in 1963, this resulted in the publications of Scherz’s three-volume opus Felsbilder in Sudwest-Afrika in 1970, 1975 and 1986, containing site by site descriptions and classifications of painting and engraving sites throughout modern Namibia, along with discussion of theme and context. The Cologne programme also supported the work of several other researchers, including the designer and artist Harald Pager, whose meticulous work recording rock paintings in South Africa’s Drakensberg had already gained him recognition in the field of rock art research. From 1977, Pager began a seven year project of recording painted rock art sites in the Brandberg, documenting around 43,000 individual images. Pager’s corpus has been organised by Tilman Lenssen-Erz and published posthumously in the six-volume Rock Paintings of the Upper Brandberg, as a result of which the Brandberg is one of the most comprehensively documented rock art regions on earth.

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The ‘White Lady’ painting, showing human figures, gemsbok antelope and a therianthrope (part-human, part-animal figure). Maack Shelter, Brandberg, Namibia. 2013,2034.21340 © TARA/David Coulson

The Cologne programme also sponsored the excavation work of archaeologist Erich Wendt, who between 1968 and 1970 worked at numerous sites investigating Late Stone Age activity in the country. During this time, Wendt recovered seven slabs bearing pigment from a layer in a cave of the Huns Mountains in southern Namibia, which have been scientifically dated to 30,000 years ago. Four of these exhibited pigmented imagery of animals including a possible rhinoceros, a portion of a possible zebra figure and a complete unidentified quadruped formed by two of the plaques fitting together. These remain the oldest known figurative art in Africa. Much further rock art recording and excavation work has been undertaken since the 1980s in the Spitzkoppe, Erongo, Brandberg and other areas, with key research led by archaeologists Erich Wendt, Tilman Lenssen-Erz, Rudolf Kuper, John Kinahan and Sven Ouzman, among others.

Themes

Much of the painted rock art in Namibia may be broadly compared to the wider hunter-gatherer rock art oeuvre found throughout southern Africa, similar in theme and composition and believed to be a part of the same general tradition, which is generally attributed to San|Bushman¹ people and their ancestors. Imagery includes scenes of human figures carrying bows and other implements, wild animals and unidentified shapes in different pigments. Overall, human figures dominate in the paintings of Namibia, making up more than 2/3 of the painted figures, and where the gender can be recognised, they are more commonly male than female. Prominent painting subjects and styles in the rock art of Namibia (particularly the best-studied west-central region) include, at some sites, clearly delineated dots and patterns on human figures, a particular tradition of showing human figures with voluminous decorated hairstyles, and more images of giraffe and kudu, gemsbok and springbok antelope than in other southern African regions. Other images of animals include those of zebras, elephants, rhinoceros and ostriches. More occasional motifs found include plants, cattle, sheep and handprints.

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.

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Painted women carrying bows and showing detail of white dots (personal ornament or body paint). Brandberg, Namibia. 2013,2034.21364 © TARA/David Coulson

Within Namibia, paintings come in a variety of styles, ranging from naturalistic to stylised. Paintings found at Spitzkoppe tend to be smaller and cruder than others in the region, where some sites feature tableaux in many colours while others are entirely monochrome. While the majority of rock paintings in Namibia seem to conform to the hunter-gatherer style, there are also some examples of finger paintings in the Brandberg and northern Namibia, which are much more schematic in style and appear to belong to a different tradition altogether.

As with much southern African rock art, the colours visible today may not always accurately reflect the original look as some pigments. This is particularly true for those used for pale colours or white, which may be ‘fugitive’, meaning that over time they fade or wash away faster than the more stable pigments around them, leaving gaps which were once coloured. Chemical analyses have shown that a major binder (used to coalesce dry pigment powder) for painted rock art in Namibia was blood, and in some cases egg white.

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Painting showing evidence of ‘fugitive’ pigment. Gemsbok or eland antelope with only the red pigment remaining. Omandumba, Erongo Mountains, Namibia. 2013,2034.21647© TARA/David Coulson

Engravings are often pecked and sometimes rubbed or polished. Although engravings, like paintings, feature animal figures heavily, with images of ostriches more common than those in paintings, there is a comparative dearth of engraved human figures. There is also less obvious interaction between individual engraved figures in the form of ‘scenes’ than in paintings, but instead more isolated individuals scattered on rock surfaces. Engraved rock art in Namibia also features a particular preponderance of images of spoor (animal hoof or paw prints). Some of these engravings are very naturalistic and may be identified by species whereas others, such as some showing human footprints, can be quite schematic. In addition, many engravings are geometric in nature.

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Examples of engraved spoor corresponding to eland hoof prints, Kalahari, Namibia. 2013,2034.22459 © TARA/David Coulson

Interpretation

Namibian rock paintings, and most engravings, have largely been interpreted in the vein largely espoused by researchers over the past 30 years. This postulates that much of this rock art reflects the experience of San|Bushman shamans entering trance states and that rather than being scenes from daily life, the depictions of animals and activities are highly symbolic within San|Bushman cosmology, with images acting as reservoirs of spiritual power. This avenue of interpretation originates largely from the study of rock art in South Africa and Lesotho. While it appears broadly applicable here, the fact that direct attributions to known cultural groups in this area are difficult somewhat hinders direct comparisons with Namibian rock art. While hunter-gatherer rock painting production in South Africa was practiced until the recent past, it appears to have ceased in Namibia around a thousand years ago and modern San|Bushman groups in the Kalahari area have no tradition of rock art production.

Additionally, hundreds of miles and different geographical environments separate the rock art centres of north-western Namibia from those in neighbouring countries. This is particularly apparent in the differences in terms of animal subject matter, with the numerous depictions of gemsbok and springbok, explicable by the rock art creators being semi-desert dwellers where gemsbok and springbok are found locally though largely absent from rock art elsewhere in southern Africa, where these animals are not found.

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Examples of painted motifs in rock art of the Brandberg, showing gemsbok antelope, giraffe, human, zebra and ostrich figures. Brandberg, Namibia. 2013,2034.21303 © TARA/David Coulson

Other differences are found in style and emphasis: the frequency with which giraffe feature in Namibian paintings and engravings contrasts with the South African rock art, where the emphasis is more on the eland antelope. This has led some to propose that the giraffe, similarly, must have held a particular symbolic meaning for the painters of the region. Based on associated imagery, placement of the rock art sites, and some ethnography (written records of insights from contemporary San|Bushman culture compiled by anthropologists) it has been suggested that giraffes may have been linked with rain in local belief systems, with some Namibian rock painting sites are associated specifically with rainmaking or healing activities.

While the more naturalistic examples of engravings are thought to have also been produced by ancient hunter-gatherers, as with the paintings, it has been suggested that some geometric engravings were produced by herding people, possibly ancestral Khoenkhoen, perhaps in relation to initiation rites. Schematic finger paintings have also been attributed to pastoralist people. All attributions are tentative, however, because the majority of the art is thought to be many hundreds of years old and the historical distinctions between hunter-gatherers and herders is by no means clear-cut in the archaeological record.

Chronology

The pieces from the cave Wendt excavated (named ‘Apollo 11 Cave’ after the moon mission which took place during the period of the excavation work) are not thought to have fallen from a cave wall but were made on loose rock pieces. The only parietal art (on a fixed rock surface) dated from excavated deposits in Namiba so far consists of pieces of painted granite from the largest painted shelter in the Brandberg, one of which, found in a sedimentary layer radiocarbon dated to around 2,700 years ago, had clearly fallen from an exposed rock surface into which researchers were able to refit it. Aside from this, estimates at the age of rock art are based on superimposition, patination and associated archaeological finds.

Based on archaeological evidence, it is thought that the majority of the fine-line hunter-gatherer rock art in the Brandberg area was produced between around 4,000 and 2,000 years ago, with the painting tradition in the wider region starting as much as 6,000 years ago. This ceased sometime after the introduction of small domestic stock to the area, although not immediately, as fine-line paintings of sheep and paintings and engravings of cattle testify. Across central Namibia, there appears to be a particularly strong correspondence of finds relating to paintings—such as grinding equipment and pigments—with dated layers from the 1st millennium BC.

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Finger painted rock art, northern Namibia. 2013,2034.22237© TARA/David Coulson

Engravings are more difficult to obtain dates for scientifically. Superimpositioning and other physical factors can serve to indicate which styles of image are more recent with both paintings and engravings. For example, in the Brandberg, monochrome tableaux appear older than detailed polychrome depictions of individuals, and certain images, such as those of zebras, are thought to be relatively late. Among engravings of central Namibia, a certain style of hoof print appears to overlie some figurative images, leading researchers to believe them younger. Overall it is thought that the engraving and painting traditions were concurrent, with some clear parallels in style, but that engraving probably lasted for several hundred years as a tradition after painting ceased.

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Engraved geometric rock art in the style thought to have been made by herder people. ǁKaras Region, Southern Namibia. 2013,2034.22295 © TARA/David Coulson