Home / Area Information / San Rock Art

The following information has been drawn from David Britow's Best Walks of the Drakensberg, 2003, Struik Publishers, Cape Town (by kind permission of the author and publishers). This is tremendous and highly useful reading for any avid Drakensberg hiker and can be found in bookstores, ordered from Getaway magazine or www.struik.co.za (this will open in a new window).

Some pointers on helping to preserve the rock art:

  • Please do NOT put water or any other liquids on the paintings
  • Please do NOT touch the painted surfaces
  • Please do NOT chip or scratch the surfaces
  • Please do NOT remove any part of the rock art
  • Please do NOT camp or make fire in a painted shelter
  • Please do NOT scribble or write your name on or near painted surfaces (or, for that matter, on any
    natural surface in the Drakensberg area - there are visitors books for that)

Please report any cases of damage to the closest Ezemvelo KwaZulu Natal Nature Conservation offices
Please encourage others not to interfere with the paintings

The thousands of rock paintings that can be found in innumerable caves and overhangs in the Drakensberg (and thousands more that can be found throughout Southern Africa) were painted by the Bushmen, or San as they are also sometimes called. In truth we know so little about these 'first people' that we are not even sure what to call them. They were tragically misunderstood, driven off the land they once roamed freely, enslaved and shot out to the last person before we took the time to ask them who they were - let alone what they thought about things. The tiny fragments of their history which remains are just sad tatters flapping in the winds of time.

We can tell some of these paintings must have been done between the 1840s and 1890s, since they show men on horseback, horses, cattle and sheep, and in one or two places covered wagons with teams of oxen. But what about the rest? Dating them is fraught with problems, since by taking samples you destroy the fragile and already widely vandalised works. Also carbon, the element most commonly used for archaeological dating, is found in such minute quantities in the pigment that it has not yet been successfullyused. From other archaeological evidence it has been estimated that the oldest may be around 35 000 years old, maybe more. They come to us from a time that dates so far back it lies beyond anything we know of human culture on this planet. Often, at first glance, they look quite crude. However, if you visualise the works as they looked in their prime you suddenly realise that even the oldest paintings reveal an artistic ability and an understanding of human and animal physiology and behaviour that has never been bettered.

Given this knowledge, it is hard to understand how anyone could wish to vandalise them - pouring water on the images, or cold drink, or rubbing them with half oranges to make the colours 'stand out', or shooting at them, scribbling over them with charcoal or stones, even crudely chiselling pieces off and ruining metre-long friezes. But people have done, and still do, all these things. Some damage is done inevitably by inquisitive and naughty children. However, something that has recently come to light is that sangomas sometimes steal into the caves to take scrapings of the pigments, to be used in strong muti. The irony is that these Zulu healers understand the spiritual power of the Bushman images better than anyone, and should behave better. Already probably less than 10 per cent of the original works remain in anything like recognisable condition. How do you stop this kind of destruction? It is hard, but we have to try, especially when we get round to answering the final question of why they were painted, and the significance of this massive outdoor art gallery becomes clearer.

There has never been any doubt that Bushmen did the cave paintings … well that is not strictly true.
Various researchers have in the past tried to attribute them to Bantu, Mediterranean and even Phoenician peoples, but we can disregard all that. In fact, one of the last Bushmen known to have lived in the Drakensberg was shot (Bushmen were seen as vermin and had a price on their heads) in what a few hundredyears later became Giant's castle Game Reserve. Around his waist he wore a leather thong from which hung small antelope horns that carried the pigments used for painting. We know now he would have been a shaman, for it was only they who did the paintings … but we will get to the 'why' a bit later. At first white settlers thought the paintings were crude if curious renditions of 'a day in the life of a Bushman' sort of thing. Hunters and wild animals were seemingly randomly rendered and often on top of another, with inexplicable lines and dots and strange that were of little interest to the viewers. The first attempts at any real understanding of the paintings (and this came from attempts to understand cave paintings in Europe), suggested the idea of 'sympathetic magic' - the images were an attempt to capture the spirit of an animal to ensure a successful hunt. This theory held sway until fairly recently, along with the theory that cave
paintings are just crude renditions of everyday scenes.

But not everyone was convinced, and ever since the first European contact with the hunter-gatherers there were people who were convinced the paintings went to the core of Bushman culture. Just how right they were was given scientific credibility only recently through the work of South African archaeologists, especially those at the University of the Witwatersrand's Rock Art Unit.

The first major piece in the jigsaw was historical record, what little there was. Most important was the findings of George Stow, Wilhelm Bleek and Bleek's sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, who made it their lifetimes' works recording the stories of the Bushmen as told to them by Bushman prisoners in Cape Town's terrible Breakwater Prison (in the present-day V&A Waterfront). Bleek and Lloyd took down some 12 000 pages of verbatim dictation. The first breakthrough was when Bleek heard the interpretation of paintings as given to aNatal magistrate Joseph Orpen by a Bushman guide Qing during the Langalibalele rebellion. When the Bleek treasure trove was rediscovered and, through a stroke of academic inspiration, compared with the cave paintings of the Drakensberg, a door on the Bushmen's secret world suddenly opened to rigorous scientific analysis for the first time.

There is a lovely road that runs from Bushman's River into the hills. These hills are grass and rolling and they are lovely beyond any singing of it… The road I speak of runs to Kamberg reserve, and not Ixopo as in Alan Paton's original version of Cry the Beloved Country. Mine is a little-used dirt road, but it is well worth the taking for it will lead you to arguably the most important rock art site in the world - Game Pass. Not only are many of the paintings here in near pristine condition, and of exceptionally high quality, but there is one particular frieze, the study of which helped to place the central pieces of the rock art jigsaw puzzle.

It was named the Rosetta Stone by Professor David Lewis-Williams as a sort of in-joke (and with reference to the nearby settlement of Rosetta); the name refers to the more famous Rosetta Stone that unlocked the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The main image is of an eland in red and white, its head held low and hooves crossed, with hairs standing up along its neck, back, dewlap and belly. Standing behind it is a human-like figure holding onto the eland's tail. This figure has an antelope-like head (a therianthrope, or shaman in trance state that has taken on the power of an animal) and its feet are crossed, except that they are hooves just like the eland's.

Looking at this image, and with Qing's words in mind about men figures with antelope heads, a penny dropped: 'They were men who had died and now lived in the rivers, and were spoilt ...'. To the Bushmen, a dance-induced trance and death were one and the same experience, so this painting is like an after-death experience conveyed in the world of the living. The eland in the painting is clearly dying, and, when the full meaning of the words 'died', 'river' and 'spoilt' came to be understood, it became apparent that there was a spiritual link between man and beast, between the painter and the supernatural world, that went much deeper than anyone had yet realised.

The truth that emerged here and everywhere else was that these paintings were painted by Bushman shamans after participating in an hallucinatory trance dance. They are reflections of what the trance had revealed to the shaman, who in turn conveyed the vision for his people to share and unwittingly to the world thereafter. The paintings have thus been called 'images of power'. In this context we need to re-evaluate these caves as holy places, as the churches of the Bushmen who until modern times were thought, in the words of a missionary and historian respectively, to have 'no religion, no laws ... a soul debased and completely bound down and clogged by his animal nature' and 'it was for the world's good that they should make way for a higher race'. Even our great 'holist' Jan Smuts considered the Bushmen to be no more than 'mentally stunted desert animals'.

Of course any artistically acute person looking at the images would have grasped something intrinsically sophisticated in them: they are incredibly fine renderings of humans and animals, often in motion, that couldhave been done only by true artists. That alone should have alerted arrogant critics to something a little deeper going on, but, alas, all that is past and now the best we can do is protect them. Luckily this is possible in the Drakensberg with a unified park under strong conservation authority. Unfortunately, it also means that the majority of caves with paintings in them are no longer accessible to the public. Only some can be visited and then only with a local guide accredited by Amafa, the KZN heritage authority.

The best such site, and one of the easiest to walk to, is Game Pass Shelter. The bonus here is that Kamberg reserve has a spanking new interpretive centre where for a very modest sum you can watch a 20-minute video on the Bushmen and their art, as well as take a guided walk to the cave. And it's always such a pleasure to stay at the EKZNW rest camps such as Kamberg, especially if you like throwing flies into trout-filled dams (there are several in the reserve), or just going walkabout in the Berg.

The keys to interpretation of the art can be gained by considering just a few almost universal, archetypal images. The most important ones to get a handle on are scenes indicating dying, which for the Bushman is synonymous with going into a trance. Once 'dead' (also variously conveyed as 'going underwater' or 'flying') the shaman assumes the character of an animal, which will often also be depicted as dying. The most common symbol for this dying is lines of blood streaming from the nose. Animals, mainly eland - the greatest of all creatures in Bushman mythology - man-animal therianthropes, and even such creatures as snakes (in Giant's Castle main caves) with bleeding noses are to be seen in most panels (although sometimesyou have to look carefully to make out the marks). Water scenes, including fish, denote 'going underwater' and are not to be taken literally.

In their book Images of Power (Struik) David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson make the point that rock art images should be understood as metaphors: just as a Bushman would be puzzled by our saying 'it's raining cats and dogs' so should we be viewing their painted language. Another symbol of dying is flying, and in the Drakensberg there are a number of strange antelope-like creatures with long, trailing wings. These are antelope spirits flying in a trance state. There are two fairly good examples in Junction Cave.

The next symbols to be discussed are lines or patterns of dots, which initially were considered graffiti, but mostly just confused people. But they too have 'power'. Firstly areas of dot patterns are called entoptic phenomena and they are widely found in Aboriginal art in Australia. Their meaning was discovered only through the research (if you can call it that) of Timothy Leary in the USA when he experimented with LSD and other drugs in the 1960s. These dot patterns are strongly associated with hallucinatory states, and this is the crux of the Bushman trance: it was an hallucinatory state in which the senses were both heightened and mixed, very similar to an LSD experience.

Lines and lines of dots that seem to connect unrelated things are 'power lines'. There are many battle scenes to be found, most famously those in Battle Cave in the Injisuthi Valley. Close analysis reveals that the fight does not take place in the physical realm, but in the supernatural, and the lines of potency coming from an arrow tip, pointed finger or wherever (call them magic spells if you like) are what the battle is about.

In fact all scenes which appear to depict everyday scenes need to be studied carefully to grasp their true meaning. For example in Junction Cave above the Didima/Mhlawazini confluence there is a well-argued painting that appears to show a group of Bushmen crossing a bridge. But the women on the left clapping suggest it's a painting of a trance dance, as does one figure that seems to have fallen off the bridge. He's also clapping - a shaman that's fallen into a trance. There are often symbols to be found in these scenes that are clues to their true nature, such as fly whisks and other 'sceptres' which were used only in rituals such as trance dances. Unfortunately, they are now hard to see on the faded, flaking cave walls and so often escape the viewers' attention.

In areas where guides are available (the cost varies considerably so ask a conservator at the local office), the paintings are there for any hiker to visit and they represent one of the greatest collections of religious art in the world. They are our very own mediaeval cathedrals, and, if you wouldn't miss a visit to Chartres or Rheims on a trip through the French countryside, why should you miss this?

The red, orange and yellow pigments were made from iron oxides in ochre stones found in the area. Black was made from burnt wood while white pigment came from white clay. The pigments were ground into powder and mixed with a binding medium such as blood, fat or water. Brushes were made from animal hair or feathers, small sticks, and pieces of bone were used to apply the paint. The artists quite probably used their hands to paint with as well.

Also see
Didima San Rock Art Interpretive Centre (opens in a new window)
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