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Rock Art of Southern Africa

San rock art

San or Bushman rock art is perhaps the best known of the southern African rock art traditions, indeed, it is amongst the most famous rock art in the world. Although well known, misconceptions about the art abound. There is a lot more to it than many people realize?the San were not merely painting pictures of what they saw in everyday life. On the contrary, the art is replete with representations of San religious beliefs and practices.

The central religious rite of the San was the medicine or trance dance. In this dance shamans (medicine men) harness supernatural potency to enter the spirit world. In thespirit world they believed that they performed various important tasks. These included healing the sick, controlling the weather, visiting far-off places and controlling the movements of game. A number of common dance postures are frequently depicted in the paintings: bending forward at the waist (sometimes supported by dancing sticks), having the arms held out backwards, bleedingfrom the nose and the related hand-to-nose posture. In addition, certain items specifically associated with the dance are often painted, most commonly dance rattles and fly-whisks. These images all clearly relate the paintings to the trance dance. Much of the imagery goes beyond the dance itself, and depicts the experiences and actions of shamans in the spirit world.

We are fortunate to have this detail about the paintings because it provides important insights into the lives of the people living in the past. Unfortunately, it is difficult to know how old most of the paintings are: dating of rock paintings is an abiding problem the world over. The problem is simply that there is very little, if any, organic material in the pigment that can be dated. The majority of pigments are mineral in origin: red, brown and yellow pigments are made from ochres of various forms; white is derived from silica, china clay and gypsum; black usually comes from specularite or other manganese minerals and only very rarely from charcoal. Organic binders such as blood and egg albumin were sometimes used in the paint and current research is exploring the dating of these substances.

Rock engravings, or petroglyphs, are found in the interior plateau of Southern Africa. Unlike paintings, which are found in caves and rock shelters, engravings occur on rocky outcrops (usually of dolerite or diabase), sometimes in rocky riverbeds or simply on rocks in the flat veld. During the engraving process the dark, weathered outer skin (or patina) is removed to reveal the paler rock beneath. Three techniques were used to remove the rock patina: incision (lines cut with a sharp rock), pecking (hammering and chipping) and scraping. Over time the engraved surfaces weather and acquire the same dark tint as the original surface.

Despite the similarities, there are obvious differences between engravings and paintings. In the engravings, animals are more common than human figures, but fewer species are depicted than in the paintings. Although there are many large boulders or rock surfaces with hundreds of engravings on them, we often discover rocks with a single geometric shape or solitary animal.

Herder rock art

The rock art of herders is easily distinguished from San rock art because it is made up of geometric designs, finger dots and handprints. There are none of the animal and human images that characterize San rock art. Like the San, herders both painted and engraved. Where painted, the designs are always applied by finger, making a striking contrast with the delicate brushwork of the San.

Some descendants of the herder painters and engravers survive today. They speak (or spoke) slightly different languages from those of the older hunter-gathering San. These languages are called Khoe and today the former herder groups are known as Khoekhoe or Khoikhoi. The first name given to them, ?Hottentot? is now considered highly offensive and is no longer used. Khoekhoe groups first moved into South Africa about 2,000 years ago, bringing with them South Africa?s first domesticated animals. It is believed that they got their animals from early Bantu-speaking farmer groups in northern Botswana, southern Angola or western Zambia. On arriving in northern South Africa some groups moved on to the Lowveld and others continued through Gauteng Province and into the Free State Province, following the good pasture along the V l and Orange rivers. They followed these rivers into the Northern Cape Province before, finally, moving south to the Western Cape Province.

Excavated remains show that herder groups had reached the Cape at least by 400 AD. Some groups settled along the way, a few moved into the western parts of the Eastern Cape Province. Another group, now known as the Nama, moved north into Namibia. The resulting population was very thinly spread but covered a huge tract of land across the central interior of South Africa. Across this whole area one finds a thin scatter of herder rock art sites.
Given the relatively recent history of herder occupation and the low population densities, herder rock art is comparatively rare. Thus, while it may not be as beautiful as San rock art (from a Western perspective), it is just as important. Each new find is exciting because it helps archaeologists to map herder migration routes. The early Khoe-speaking herder settlers are one of the groups in South African history that we know least about and there remains fierce debate about the nature of their societies and their relationship with, and difference from neighbouring San groups. Archaeologists are now seeking out early herder sites to try to answer some of the many questions that remain about these groups.

As with the people themselves, herder rock art remains somewhat elusive. We have slim knowledge at present as to what the art depicts and why it was made. There is a strong association between herder rock art and water. Research is now underway to find out more about this art; preliminary findings point to a link between the art and Khoekhoe initiation sites. We hope that this new research will soon allow us to gain insight into the meaning of this enigmatic geometric art.

Iron Age farmer rock art


The rock art of Iron Age farmers (Bantu-speakers) is by far the rarest of South Africa?s three art traditions. It is easily distinguished from San and herder art traditions both in its colour and its form. Except for a few engravings depicting settlement layouts in northern KwaZulu-Nataland Mpumalanga Provinces, Iron Age farmer art is always painted. The art is predominantly in white and was applied by finger daubing, producing a very rough appearance. The choice of colour and the fact that this is the most recent tradition has led the art to be known as ?late white? rock art. The subject matter is highly varied, but is dominated by images of humans and animals.

Iron Age farmers have inhabited the eastern half of South Africa for most of the last two thousand years. The earliest sites in the Limpopovalley are securely dated to the fourth century AD. Farmer settlements reached KwaZulu-Natal Province just a few centuries later. Despite the long settlement and wide spread of Bantu-speaking groups fewer than five hundred of their painting sites are currently known from the whole of South Africa. Ninety percent of these are concentrated in the hills of the Limpopo Province. Iron Age farmer painted sites do occur in other provinces, but are very rare indeed. Just a handful of sites are known from KwaZulu-Nataland the Free State Provinces. Given the rarity of Iron Age farmer rock art, each new discovery is especially exciting. It is thus unfortunate that many landowners, unaware of the particular significance of this rock art, have treated it carelessly or ignored it because of its crude appearance and comparatively recent date.

Only people living in the Limpopo Province stand a reasonable chance of finding Iron Age farmer rock art. Even here it is confined to more remote hill areas. The painters were ancestors of the Pedi and other groups of Northern Sotho-speakers who, in the past, shared a common culture. The art falls into an earlier and a later period. The early art depicts a range of wild animals but is dominated by images of giraffe. This art played a part in traditional boys? initiation instruction. It seems to have been introduced nearly a thousand years ago and continued into the twentieth century. The art is concentrated in secluded hill areas because these were the venues used for the lengthy (3 month-long) and secretive initiation ceremonies practised by Northern Sotho groups in the pre-contact period.
With the Difaquane and then the coming of white farmers to Limpopo Province in the nineteenth century, life changed dramatically for the Northern Sotho. Taxes, wars and land clearances left many homeless and destitute. At this time whole communities fled to hill areas for safety. Many of the old initiation sites became refuge houses. The rock art reflects these changes. The later art is dominated by depictions of steam trains, soldiers, settlers and guns.


Etiquette when visiting rock art sites

Rock art is a non-renewable resource. Once destroyed it is gone forever. Each site is unique and important. Rock paintings and engravings were of deep importance to the people who made them: please treat them with care and respect. The law protects all rock art in South Africa, and visitors to rock art sites must observe certain rules and procedures. Following is a list of the ?dos and don ts? at sites:

  • Get permission from the landowner or relevant authorities before visiting a rock art site
  • If you find a site that is not open to the public, do not give the location to anyone else. Contact the nearest rock art institution or heritage authority.
  • Treat the art as you would a picture in your house or in a gallery. Never throw water or any liquid on the images or chalk the outlines of engravings to highlight them.
  • Never place graffiti on a rock art site; it is often impossible to remove. These illegal practices obscure and damage the art.
  • Look closely at the art so you can see fine details, but do not touch or lean on painted or engraved images. Fats and oils from the hands lead to the decay of the art and contaminate it for any future dating or chemical analysis.
  • Never remove stone tools or other archaeological artefacts from rock art sites. Even a single artefact can jeopardize further research and lead to the destruction of the site.
  • Avoid stirring up dust from the floors at rock art sites. Dust settles on the art and, in time, hardens to form a dark crust over the paintings.
  • Never attempt any tracing or rubbing of the art since it is easily damaged. Take only photographs (Flash photography will not damage the art).
  • Follow the wilderness motto: Leave nothing but your footprints behind . Litter spoils the experience for the next visitor.
  • Intervene if you see anybody damaging or vandalizing the art. If they persist, inform the police and/or contact the South African Heritage Resource Agency.
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