Rhinos in rock art

Around 30,000 years ago, in the hot, arid environment of the Huns Mountains in southern Namibia, modern humans painted images of animals, including rhinoceros, onto plaques of stone. A couple of thousand years earlier, in the cold, harsh tundra-like conditions of the Ardèche in south-central France, modern humans were also painting images of rhinoceros onto cave walls. The oldest scientifically dated rock art in Africa and Europe may be 8000 km apart but coincide both temporally and in subject matter. One of the oldest images that humans selected to depict was the formidable rhinoceros. The choice of subject matter in rock art depictions was not simply based on the presence or abundance of a particular species; rather they were conveying messages about the significance of an animal.

Rhino Rifkin

'Drawn’ outline depiction of what conceivably represents a rhinoceros. black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) (© courtesy of Rifkin 2015)

Rhinocéros grotte Chauvet

Rhinoceros from Chauvet Cave, Ardeche, France (© Inocybe/Wikimedia Commons)

Representations of rhinoceros in rock art can be found throughout the African continent and while their meaning is not always known, they are often depicted using great artistry, skill and knowledge of animal physiology. However, research undertaken in southern Africa has demonstrated that in some contexts rhinoceros may be incorporated into the cosmological belief systems of the San|Bushman people (several culturally linked groups of indigenous people of southern Africa who were traditionally hunter-gatherers).

Southern Africa is home to two species of rhinoceros - the white or square-lipped rhinoceros and the black or hook-lipped rhinoceros - both of which we see depicted in the rock art.

White rhinos are the second largest land mammal after the elephant. Their name comes from the Afrikaans word “weit”, which means wide and refers to the animal’s muzzle. Adult males can reach 1.85m in height and can weigh up to 3.6 tonnes. Females are considerably smaller at about half the weight of an adult male. Their territory covers South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. They live in herds of up to 14 animals and are quick and agile animals being able to run up to 50 km/h.

White Rhino

White rhinoceros (© Ryan Harvey/Wikimedia Commons)

The black rhino is smaller than the white rhino, although adults can still reach 1.5 metres in height and weigh in at 1.4 tonnes. The black rhino has a reputation for being extremely aggressive, and will not hesitate to charge at a perceived threat. Black rhinos were once common throughout sub-Saharan Africa. However, persistent hunting by European settlers saw their numbers quickly decline, and they currently number around 5,000. The species is currently found in patchy distribution throughout South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya.

Black Rhino

Black rhinoceros (© Ikiwaner/Wikimedia Commons)

In both species, a layer of fat sits between the hide and the flesh of the animal and in the white rhinoceros this can be up to or exceed a thickness of 50mm. It is well known that San|Bushmen believed the fat around the heart of the eland contained high levels of supernatural potency, and like the eland, they believed the rhinoceros to be especially potent animals (Ouzman, 1996:45)

Rhinoceros in rock art imagery are both painted and engraved, but the prevalence of engraved images in southern African rock art is pronounced. Rhinoceros are well represented, even dominant, at numerous engraving sites in the Free State, Gauteng, Northern Cape and North West provinces of South Africa and at numerous Namibian sites (Ouzman, 1996:42)

Most rock art researchers consider the engravings of San/Bushmen, like paintings, to have been influenced by shamanism (Ouzman, 1996:36). Both painted and engraved images share certain distinctive traits which suggest that both art forms were the result of a single belief system. These shared features include: a selected range of animals, unusual body postures in human figures, complex ‘scenes’ and non-realistic features on both animals and humans such as the addition or absence of limbs, conflation of human and animal morphology and exaggerated attributes (Ouzman, 1996:36) These features are critical to our understanding of the images as they are inextricably tied in to San|Bushman belief systems.

There are very few references to rhinoceros in San|Bushman ethnography. However, what does exist indicates that rhinoceros were of supernatural importance to certain groups of San|Bushmen (Ouzman, 1996:42). One particular site named Thaba Sione in South Africa, is primarily known for its numerous engravings of rhinoceros and may have been chosen as an engraving site because rhinoceros were known to have frequented the site.

Thaba Sione (Zion’s Hill) a low hill of less than nine metres in height is an important archaeological and rock art site in the North West province. It is scattered with more than 450 engraved dolerite boulders with the seasonal Thlakajeng River running 350 metres south-west containing numerous waterholes. The hill is bounded by 27 standing stones that have been rubbed smooth by rhinoceros after wallowing in the muddy waterholes of the river (Ouzman, 1996:40). Interestingly, one third of all the stones that he been rubbed by rhinoceros are also engraved (Lewis-Williams & Blundell, 1998:111).

Dating rock engravings is always problematic, and the imagery at Thaba Sione has been estimated to fall within a broad estimate of between 1,200 - 10,000 years old (Ouzman, 1995:55). Rock art of the last 2,000 years correlates with a number of different cultural groups such as farmers, pastoralists, hunter-gatherers etc. However, the rock art at Thaba Sione is attributed to San|Bushmen and widely understood to reflect a shamanic belief system. Situated close to a waterhole it has been proposed that Thaba Sione was selected specifically by the San|Bushmen for rain-making beliefs and practices, but appears to have been modified as a result of Bantu-speaking farmers moving into the area from around 1500 years ago.

It is thought that the population of Thaba Sione were similar in social, economic and cultural terms to the now extinct |Xam, a cultural group who inhabited the central interior of South Africa and for whom we have extensive ethnographic accounts. Additionally, they are likely to have been similarly comparable to the !Kung and Ju ’hoan, contemporary cultural groups who live to the north of Thaba Sione in Botswana and Namibia. A comparison of rock art imagery at Thaba Sione and the ethnographic accounts of the |Xam and !Kung show strong similarities in belief systems pertaining to shamanism (Ouzman, 1996:39).

Thaba Sione has been a primary focus for archaeologists as there are 559 identified engraved images located on or close to the hill site showing a wide variety of depictions. Images include baboon, birds, buffalo, eland, elephant, felines, giraffe, human figures, lizard, ostrich, rhinoceros, warthog and zebra (Ouzman, 1996:41).

Rhinoceros constitute the second largest category of identifiable imagery (62 or 11.1%), after human figures (72 or 12.9%) (Ouzman, 1996:43). Of the 62 engravings, around 65% have been identified as white rhinoceros, based on the animals’ pronounced nuchal hump (the hump on the dorsal part of the neck), its large front horn and its square lip. The remaining 35% are of the smaller black rhino based on the hook lip that hangs from its upper jaw and its smaller nuchal hump. Historically, both species of rhinoceros were widespread in the area around Thaba Sione (Ouzman, 1996:45).

Rhinoceros show more ‘non-real’ features, combinations and variations in engraving techniques and occur in more complex ‘scenes’ than any other category of image at the site.

Five of the engravings of rhinoceros are notable by the presence of ‘non-realistic’ features. Although the number of rhinoceros with these attributes is very small in comparison to the overall number of images of rhinoceros, it has been proposed that the placement and number of these features outweigh those found on other images. Such features are thought to convey information which related to three aspects of San shamanism, namely “shamanic transformation, gender relations and rain-making” (Ouzman, 1996:42).

One of these five images shows a part-human and part-rhinoceros figure. The posture of this therianthropic figure has its hand to its nose. When shamans are performing their medicine dance, they sometimes experience bleeding from the nose both before and after they enter a trance-like state. This posture combined with other features such as two rhinoceros-like horns, a short, thick, rhino-like tail, one back leg akin to that of a rhinoceros and the other back leg terminating in a human foot, as well as a fat pendulous body has been proposed to be a “shaman in a trance who has assumed, in part, rhinoceros form and potency” (Ouzman, 1996:46).

Another engraving shows the horns of two black rhinoceros which have been deliberately elongated and truncated respectively in order to project towards a fissure in the rock face. It has been argued that cracks or fissures in the rock face were seen as entry and exit points to the spirit world and the rock face acted as veil between these two worlds. These two horns are thus not real but are closely associated with the spirit world which the rhinoceros are entering, leaving or even guarding (Ouzman, 1996:49).

An additional engraving of a black rhinoceros shows three horns and has been argued to indicate a supernatural significance and possibly a transformed shaman. However, in real life female rhinoceros sometimes have a third horn as a deformity and this engraving possibly attempts to emphasise the role of the female shaman as a potent guardian and protector. Yet the message is unclear since, as black rhinoceros are known for their anti-social, unpredictable and violent behaviour it is uncertain whether engraved rhinoceros with “nuanced horns” are indicative of feminine or masculine gender and power relations, possibly containing elements of both. The shaman was a person who moved between the real and the non-real world, and is characterised by ambiguity and tension, so maintaining an indistinct gender identity in this context conforms to what we know of shamanic practices and representations (Ouzman, 1996:50).

San|Bushman shamans were also inextricably linked with rain-making ceremonies. The ritual involved the whole of the community but it was the shaman, while in a trance-like state, that captured the rain in a perceived animal-like state. The rain animal was either seen as an ill-tempered ‘rain-bull’, characterised by thunder and lightning and harmful to life, or as a more pleasant ‘rain-cow’, which provided the temperate rains that renewed the grassland (Ouzman, 1996:51) Rain animals were not seen as a distinct species of animal, but were depicted with large bodies and were often horned; one of the few ethnographic accounts that refer to rhinoceros implicate them in rain-making (Ouzman, 1996:52).

In some contexts certain physical and behavioural characteristics of rhinoceros may have been perceived by some San|Bushman as closely paralleling the perceived appearance and behaviour of a rain animal. These features include its fat and horns, its association with water and its nocturnal habits (in San|Bushman accounts of rain-making, shamans capture the rain animals at night). If rhinoceros were associated with rain animals, the more gregarious white rhinoceros might have been equated with the rain-cow while the ill-tempered black rhinoceros with the angry rain-bull (Ouzman, 1996:54).

At further sites in the Free State province of South Africa and the Erongo Mountains of Namibia, painted therianthropic figures (part-human, part-rhinoceros) depicting unusual body postures reminiscent of the Great Trance Dance and non-realistic features such as exaggerated horn size also seem draw on the rhinoceros as an animal of potency (Hollmann and Lewis-Williams, 2006). Furthermore, a golden rhinoceros from the Iron Age site of Mapungubwe in northern South Africa is testament to the status in which these animals were held, not only by San/Bushmen, but by other cultural groups in southern Africa. Thriving between 1220-1300 AD, and inhabited by ancestors of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe was the centre of the largest kingdom in the subcontinent, trading gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt. Made of gold foil wrapped around a wooden core, the rhinoceros is a symbol of leadership among the Shona.

Rhinos have been represented in rock art for more than 30,000 years, and have played a significant spiritual and cultural role in African societies.


Hollmann, J.C. and Lewis-Wlliams, D. 2006. Species and supernatural potency: an unusual rockpainting from the Motheo District, Free State province, South Africa. South African Journal of Science102: 509-512.

Ouzman, Sven. 1996. Thaba Sione: place of rhinoceroses and rain-making. African Studies, 55(1):31-59.

Ouzman, Sven. 1995. Spiritual and political uses of a rock engraving site and its imagery by San and Tswana-speakers. South African Archaeological Bulletin 50(161):55-67.

Lewis-Williams, D. and Blundell, G. 1998. Fragile Heritage. Johannesburg: University of Witwatersranbd Press.

Rifkin, R., Henshilwood, C.S., and Haaland, M. 2015. Pleistocene Figurative Art Mobilier from Apollo 11 Cave, Karas Region, Southern Namibia. South African Archaeological Bulletin 70 (201): 113-123.