Introduction to rock art in southern Africa

The southern African countries of Zimbabwe, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia contain thousands of rock art sites and southern African rock art has been studied extensively. Due to perceived similarities in subject matter, even across great distances, much southern African rock art has been ascribed to hunter-gatherer painters and engravers who appear to have had a shared set of cultural references. These have been linked with beliefs and practices which remain common to modern San|Bushman¹ people, a number of traditional hunter-gatherer groups who continue to live in Southern Africa, principally in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. There are, however, differences in style and technique between regions, and various rock art traditions are attributed to other cultural groups and their ancestors. As is often the case with rock art, the accurate attribution of authorship, date and motivation is difficult to establish, but the rock art of this region continues to be studied and the richness of the material in terms of subject matter, as well as in the context of the archaeological record, has much to tell us, both about its own provenance and the lives of the people who produced it.

Geography and distribution

There is wide variation in the physical environments of southern Africa, ranging from the rainforests of Mozambique to the arid Namib Desert of western Namibia, with the climate tending to become drier towards the south and west. The central southern African plateau is divided by the central dip of the Kalahari basin, and bordered by the Great Escarpment, a sharp drop in altitude towards the coast which forms a ridge framing much of southern Africa. The escarpment runs in a rough inland parallel to the coastline, from northern Angola, south around the Cape and up in the east to the border between Zimbabwe and Malawi. Both painted and engraved rock art is found throughout southern Africa, with the type and distribution partially informed by the geographical characteristics of the different regions. Inland areas with exposed boulders, flat rock ‘pavements’ and rocky outcrops tend to feature engraved rock art, whereas paintings are more commonly found in the protective rock shelters of mountainous or hilly areas, often in ranges edging the Great Escarpment.

Types of rock art

Rock art of the type associated with hunter-gatherers is perhaps the most widely distributed rock art tradition in southern Africa, with numerous known examples in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, but also with examples found in Botswana and Mozambique. This tradition comprises paintings and engravings, with both techniques featuring images of animals and people. The type and composition varies from region to region. For example, rock art sites of the southern Drakensberg and Maloti mountains in South Africa and Lesotho contain a higher proportion of images of eland antelope, while those in Namibia in turn feature more giraffes. There are also regional variations in style and colour: in some sites and areas paintings are polychrome (multi-coloured) while in others they are not.

Differences also occur in composition between painting and engraving sites, with paintings more likely to feature multiple images on a single surface, often interacting with one another, while engraving sites more often include isolated images on individual rocks and boulders. However, there are commonalities in both imagery and style, with paintings throughout southern Africa often including depictions of people, particularly in procession and carrying items such as bows and arrows. Also heavily featured in both paintings and engravings are animals, in particular large ungulates which are often naturalistically depicted, sometimes in great detail. Additionally, images may include people and animals which appear to have the features of several species and are harder to identify. Some hunter-gatherer type paintings are described as ‘fine-line’ paintings because of the delicacy of their rendering with a thin brush.

Hunter-gatherer rock paintings are found in particular concentrations in the Drakensberg-Maloti and Cape Fold Mountains in South Africa and Lesotho, the Brandberg and Erongo Mountains in Namibia and the Matobo Hills in Zimbabwe, while engraving sites are found throughout the interior, often near water courses.

A different form of rock painting from the hunter-gatherer type, found mainly in the north-eastern portion of southern Africa is that of the ‘late whites’. Paintings in this tradition are so-called because they are usually associated with Bantu language-speaking Iron Age farming communities who entered the area from the north from around 2,000 years ago and many of these images are thought to have been painted later than some of the older hunter-gatherer paintings. ‘Late white’ paintings take many forms, but have generally been applied with a finger rather than a brush, and as the name suggests, are largely white in colour. These images represent animals, people and geometric shapes, often in quite schematic forms, in contrast to the generally more naturalistic depictions of the hunter-gatherer art.

Sometimes ‘late white’ art images relate to dateable events or depict objects and scenes which could only have taken place following European settlement, such as trains. Other forms of southern African rock art also depict European people and objects. These include images from the Western Cape in South Africa of a sailing ship, estimated to date from after the mid-17th century, as well as painted and engraved imagery from throughout South Africa showing people on horseback with firearms. Such images are sometimes termed ‘contact art’ as their subject matter demonstrates that they follow the period of first contact between European and indigenous people.

This kind of imagery is found in a variety of styles, and some of those producing ‘contact’ images in the Cape may have been people of Khoekhoen heritage. The Khoekhoen were traditionally cattle and sheep herders, culturally related to modern Nama people and more loosely to San|Bushman hunter-gatherers. A distinct tradition of rock art has been suggested to be of ancestral Khoekhoen origin. This art is predominantly geometric in form, with a particular focus on circle and dotted motifs, and engravings in this style are often found near watercourses.

History of research

The first known reports of African rock art outside of the continent appear to come from the Bishop of Mozambique, who in 1721 reported sightings of paintings on rocks to the Royal Academy of History in Lisbon. Following this, reports, copies and publications of rock art from throughout modern South Africa were made with increasing frequency by officials and explorers. From the mid-19th century onwards, rock art from present-day Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana began to be documented, and during the first few decades of the twentieth century global public interest in the art was piqued by a series of illustrated publications. The hunter-gatherer rock art in particular had a strong aesthetic and academic appeal to western audiences, and reports, photographs and copied images attracted the attention of prominent figures in archaeology and ethnology such as Miles Burkitt, Leo Frobenius and the Abbé Breuil, researchers whose interest in rock art worldwide let them to visit and write about southern African rock art sites. A further intensification of archaeological and anthropological research and recording in the 1950s-70s, resulted in new insights into the interpretations and attributions for southern African rock art. Rock art research continues throughout the area today.

Interpretation

Rather than showing scenes from daily life, as was once assumed, it is now usually accepted that hunter-gatherer art in southern Africa shows images and motifs of spiritual and cultural importance. In particular, it is thought that some images reflect trance visions of San|Bushman spiritual leaders, or shamans, during which they are considered to enter the world of spirits, where they are held to perform tasks for themselves and their communities, such as healing the sick or encouraging rain. This interpretation, which has been widely accepted, explains certain features of the art, for example the predominance of certain animals like eland antelope (due to their special cultural significance) and themes such as dot patterns and zigzag lines (interpreted as geometric patterns that shamans may see upon entering a trance state).

The rock art attributed to ancestral San|Bushman hunter-gatherers has many varied motifs, some of which may also relate to specific themes such as initiation or rainmaking (indeed within its cultural context one image may have several significances). San|Bushman informants in the 19th century told researchers that certain ambiguously shaped animals in the rock art repertoire represented animals related to water. Images such as these are known to researchers as ‘rain animals’ and it has been suggested that certain images could reflect—or prompt—the shaman’s attempt to control rainfall. Some ‘late white’ art has also been proposed to have associations with rainmaking practices, and indeed the proximity of some geometric rock art images, proposed to be of possible Khoekhoen origin, to watercourses appears to emphasise the practical and spiritual significance of water among historical southern African communities. It has also been proposed that some forms of geometric art attributed to Khoekhoen people may be linked by tradition and motif to the schematic art traditions of central Africa, themselves attributed to hunter-gatherers and possibly made in connection with beliefs about water and fertility. Much in the “late white” corpus of paintings appears to be connected to initiation practices, part of a larger set of connected traditions extending north as far as Kenya.

The long time periods, cultural connections, and movements involved can make attribution difficult. For example, the idiosyncratic rock paintings of Tsodilo Hills in Botswana which appear to have similarities with the hunter-gatherer style include images of domesticates and may have been the work of herders. More localised traditions, such as that of engravings in north-western South Africa representing the homesteads of ancestral Nguni or Sotho-Tswana language speakers, or the focus on engravings of animal tracks found in Namibia, demonstrate more specific regional significances. Research continues and in recent decades, researchers, focusing on studying individual sites and sets of sites within the landscape and the local historical context, have discussed how their placement and subject matter may reflect the shifting balances of power, and changes in their communities over time.

Dating

Although dating rock art is always difficult, the study of rock art sites from southern Africa has benefitted from archaeological study and excavations at rock art sites have sometimes revealed useful information for ascribing dates. Some of the oldest reliably dated examples of rock art in the world have been found in the region, with the most well-known examples probably being the painted plaques from Apollo 11 Cave in Namibia, dated to around 30,000 years ago. A portion of an engraved animal found in South Africa’s Northern Cape is estimated to be 10,200 years old and painted spalls from shelter walls in Zimbabwe have been dated to 12,000 years ago or older. However, it is thought that the majority of existing rock art was made more recently. As ever, subject matter is also helpful in ascribing maximum date ranges. We know, for example,that images of domestic animals are probably less than 2,000 years old. The condition of the art may also help to establish relative ages, particularly with regards to engravings, which may be in some cases be categorised by the discolouration of the patina that darkens them over time.

The multiplicity of rock art sites throughout southern Africa form a major component of southern Africa’s archaeological record, with many interesting clues about the lives of past inhabitants and, in some cases, continuing religious and cultural importance for contemporary communities. Many sites are open to the public, affording visitors the unique experience of viewing rock art in situ. Unfortunately, the exposed nature of rock art in the field leaves it open to potential damage from the environment and vandalism. Many major rock art sites in southern Africa are protected by law in their respective countries and the Maloti-Drakensberg Park in South Africa and Lesotho, Twyfelfontein/ǀUi-ǁAis in Namibia, Tsodilo Hills in Botswana and the Matobo Hills in Zimbabwe are all inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

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.