South Africa

Highlight images

Country overview

Image count

1,506 images

Date range

Mostly 8,000 BC to the 20th Century

Main areas

Throughout, with particular concentrations in the Drakensberg and Cape Fold mountains and the Karoo

Techniques

Brush painting, finger painting, pecked engraving

Main themes

human figures, large fauna, particularly eland antelope, geometric shapes, occasionally subjects dating to the recent past such as firearms and people riding horses

Introduction

The rock art of South Africa has probably been studied more extensively than that of any other African country. It is estimated that South Africa contains many thousands of rock art sites, with a great variety of styles and techniques. The most well-known rock art in South Africa is that created by the San|Bushman¹ people (several culturally linked groups of indigenous people of southern Africa who were traditionally hunter-gatherers) and their ancestors, with the painted rock shelters of the Drakensberg mountains some of the most well-known rock art sites in the world. However, the range of South African rock art is wide, spanning great distances, many centuries, and different cultural traditions.

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.

Geography and rock art distribution

South Africa covers around 1,213,090 km², encircling Lesotho and bordered in the north by Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe and in the west by Mozambique and Swaziland. Much of the interior of the country consists of a high central plateau bordered by the Great Escarpment, a rocky ridge which forms the bulk of the long Drakensberg mountain system in the east and several smaller ranges in the centre and west of the country, as well as the western border with Lesotho. Further to the south, the Cape Fold Mountains mirror the bend of the cape coast. Much of South Africa’s known engraved rock art is found on igneous or metamorphic formations in the semi-arid environments of the central plateau. In contrast, painted rock art sites are more commonly located in the sandstone and quartzite rock shelters of the mountain systems, which form the edges of the more temperate, low-lying coastal regions in the east and south of the country.

Hunter-gatherer rock art

Much of both the painted and engraved rock art of South Africa is characterised by its naturalistic depictions of animals, as well as numerous images of people, ambiguous figures with mixtures of animal and human features, and certain ‘geometric’ or abstract shapes and patterns. These images are the work of San|Bushman people and their ancestors. Although San|Bushman communities now live mainly in Namibia, Botswana and north-western South Africa, historically San|Bushman cultural groups lived more widely throughout southern Africa. Hunter-gatherer people are thought to have been the only inhabitants of what is now South Africa until the arrival of herding and farming people from the north from around 2,000 years ago.

Farmer rock art

Some paintings and engravings in South Africa were made by Bantu language-speaking farming people. These include a distinct tradition of rock shelter paintings found in the north-west of the country, featuring mostly white finger-painted images of animals such as crocodiles and giraffes and other motifs. These paintings, located in remote areas, are known to have been created by Northern Sotho people. Further to the south and west, engraved designs showing conjoined circle motifs are found throughout KwaZulu Natal and some areas of Mpumalanga and Gauteng Provinces, and appear to have been made by the ancestors of Sotho-Tswana and Nguni language speakers, perhaps ancestors of modern Zulu people.

Herder rock art and other traditions

Some rock art styles and motifs elsewhere in South Africa seem to belong to other unique traditions. It has been proposed that engraved rock art patterns with particular features including circular, linear and oblong motifs found at sites across the country, particularly near watercourses, may be the work of the Khoekhoen people or their ancestors, herders culturally related to the San|Bushmen. Some paintings also appear to reflect this tradition. Local rock art traditions specific to certain areas include, among others, conglomerations of handprints near the coast in the south-western part of the Western Cape and rows of engraved cupules in the north east of the country. There are also several examples from different rock art traditions across South Africa, of depictions of European people, items or events (such as horses and firearms) which clearly date from the 17th century or later. In the Karoo region, rock gongs (natural rock formations with indentations indicating that they have been used as percussive instruments) are sometimes associated with engraving sites.

Research history

Rock art sites throughout what is now South Africa have likely always been known to local communities, even where the art’s creators were not from within them. The presence of rock art in the Cape region has been known to Europeans since at least the mid- 18th century AD, with one of the first known reports from the expedition of Ensign A. F. Beutler in 1752, describing paintings near the Great Fish River in the Eastern Cape. Further written references to rock art from the area were made throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, with some of the earliest known reproductions of Southern African rock art made in the 1770s. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, painted copies were made of San|Bushman rock art by amateur artists such as George Stow, Mark and Graham Hutchinson and Helen Tongue.

SOANTC0050054

Engraved eland, Northern Cape, South Africa. 2013,2034.18803 ©TARA/David Coulson

Scholarly interest in Southern African rock art increased in the early 20th century and pioneering efforts were made to record both painting and engraving assemblages. In 1928 renowned archaeologist and ethnologist Leo Frobenius mounted an expedition to record sites in South Africa as well as Zimbabwe and Namibia, while in the interior regions over the previous twenty years, Maria Wilman had instigated the first systematic rock engraving recording work. This endeavor was built upon from the late 1950s onwards with the extensive work of Gerhard and Dora Fock. In the same decade Alex Willcox pioneered the practice of recording rock art through colour photography, and over the next twenty years, further recording and analysis projects were undertaken by researchers such as Tim Maggs in the Western Cape region and Harald Pager and Patricia Vinnicombe in the Drakensberg mountain area.

In 1976, Vinnicombe published the seminal work “People of the Eland”, analysing paintings from 150 Drakensberg sites and attempting to gain insight into their execution and significance through a combination of quantitative study and reference to San|Bushman ethnography (written records of insights from San|Bushman culture compiled by anthropologists). Through the 1980s, interpretation of rock art was further developed, perhaps most significantly by David Lewis-Williams, a collaborator of Vinnicombe’s. Lewis-Williams originated an approach to understanding San|Bushman rock art which posits that the motivation and meaning for most, if not all, San|Bushman rock art is based on the centrality of the spiritual leader or’shaman’ and the shaman’s actions in San|Bushman life and belief. Over the past 30 years, the idea that much of San|Bushman rock art is essentially ‘shamanistic’ in nature has been dominant in academic discourse.

Themes and interpretations

Shamanistic interpretations of San|Bushman paintings and engravings draw on both past records of ‘Southern’ or /Xam San|Bushman people living historically in South Africa and more recent ethnography based mainly on San|Bushman communities in Namibia and Botswana, suggesting that their imagery illustrated and reinforced the power of the actions of shamans. Much of the imagery is proposed to reflect the shaman’s hallucinatory visions from the ‘trance dance’, a tradition common to San|Bushman groups where shamans enter a trance state during which they visit a ‘spirit world’ in which they may go on spiritual journeys or perform tasks on behalf of their communities. It is thought that the rock art panels may have acted as reservoirs for the ‘potency’ that shamans are considered to possess, with the rock face considered a veil between both worlds. The images are thought to reflect trance experiences including those of ‘therianthropes’, images of figures with both human and animal features, explained as shamans who in a trance state feel themselves transformed into animals. Certain other poses and features found in San|Bushman rock art, such as so-called ‘entoptic’ motifs—geometric shapes such as zigzags and dots—have also been interpreted as reflecting visions that shamans experience while in a trance state.

Discussion continues around the extent of the applicability of ‘shamanist’ interpretations for all aspects of San|Bushman art, with research ongoing and scholars also exploring the potential roles of other elements in rock art production, such as mythology or gender and initiation rites. Other avenues of study include more regional foci, on specific cultural and temporal contexts and how the imagery may reflect local power dynamics through time.

Although the focus in South African rock art research has been on San|Bushman art, research has also been done on other rock art traditions, suggesting different cultural origins. For example, investigation of Northern Sotho rock art has shown much of it to have been created in relation to boys’and girls’ initiation ceremonies, while Bantu-language speakers’engravings of interlinked circle patterns have been interpreted as images of idealised conceptualised homesteads. Work on attribution for some rock art of uncertain authorship also has been undertaken. Certain geometric forms of rock engraving may be of Khoekhoen origin, possibly showing influence from central African geometric traditions and tracing historical migrations southwards. It has also been suggested that some finger-painted images in the centre of the country are the early 19th century work of the Korana people, a group of mixed ancestry living as raiders on the Cape frontier and incorporating motifs from San|Bushman and other traditions.

Chronology

The earliest scientifically dated examples of clearly visible painted parietal art in South Africa comes from Steenbokfontein Cave in the Western Cape, where collapsed painted portions from the wall buried in sediment have been radiocarbon dated to at least 3,600 years ago, while in the Drakensberg, AMS dating carried out on the oxalate crust superimposing a painting of a human figure has suggested it to be at least 1,800 years old. While it is thought that the beginnings of the painting tradition in the Drakensberg region are probably older than this, the relative lack of durability in paint means that many of the existing paintings were probably made sometime within the past few hundred years. Sometimes it is apparent when this is the case - several painting sites in this region show images of both San|Bushman people and Europeans riding horses and bearing firearms, which dates them to within the past 350 years and particularly the 19th century. Images of sheep and cattle also place images within the last 2,000 years.

The oldest reliably dated evidence for deliberate engraving in the country is several ochre pieces incised with abstract patterns found in a buried layer in Blombos cave in the Western Cape and dated through a number of methods to between 70 and 100,000 years ago. The earliest known figurative engraving date from the country comes from a slab with an image of a portion of an animal on it, excavated from Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape and dating from around 10,200 years ago. Engravings remaining in the open are more difficult to date scientifically, and various attempts have been made to date and sequence both engravings and paintings based on style and superimposition, while recent years, work has been undertaken to apply the Harris Matrix (an archaeological sequencing technique for relative dating) method to painting chronologies in the Free State, Drakensberg and Western Cape. This involves using techniques originally conceived for charting chronology in stratigraphic layering to compare and sequence different superimposed motifs.