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See Inside Mysteries of the Ancient Ones

Rock Art in Southern Africa [Preview]

Paintings and engravings made by ancestors of the San peoples encode the history and culture of a society thousands of years old

For more than three hours, a colleague and I walked through the grassy foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal, meeting not a soul on the way. Ultimately, we came to a wide cave half-screened by bushes and a splashing waterfall. Behind this watery veil are some of the finest specimens of ancient San, or "Bushman," rock painting in South Africa. The water has not damaged them, although vandals have. We gazed at walls covered with more than 1,600 images of humans and animals engaged in myriad activities. That night, we slept in the cave, continuing our trip the next day.

That expedition, 10 years ago, was to obtain paint samples that might be radiocarbon-dated. One sample, from a painting of an eland (the biggest of all antelopes), contained microscopic quantities of organic material that allowed the image to be dated to about 400 years ago. Such a direct measurement is rare. Most pieces of rock art, painted in red, brown or yellow ocher--a hydrous iron oxide--contain no organic carbon. So radiocarbon dating, which measures the steady decline of the isotope carbon 14 in organic materials, cannot be used. Our earliest date comes from a Namibian cave, where excavated floors contained painted slabs between 19,000 and 26,000 years old. The oldest date we have for painting on cave walls indicates that mural art was being made at least 3,600 years ago.

Rock paintings and engravings, testimony to a once ubiquitous hunter-gatherer presence, are found from coast to coast in thousands of diverse sites in southern Africa. Some sites are sheltering sandstone caves with hundreds of images; others contain only one or two figures. Some paintings look exquisite, their lines and colors still fresh. Others are faint and crumbling, damaged by time, water and the graffiti of unthinking visitors.

By far the most common subjects in rock art are humans--usually shown in profile, sometimes unclothed--and a wide variety of animals. The most revered of the animals are the larger herbivores. The eland is widely celebrated, although different areas have their own favorites: the elephant in South Africas Cape Province, for example, and a species of antelope called kudu in Zimbabwe. A variety of other creatures are also pictured. Snakes, lions and fish are not uncommon in the art of the Drakensberg Mountains. Hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, rhebok, baboons, ostriches and domesticated animals appear in the art of many areas. Rarer themes include the aardwolf, aardvark and other creatures both real and imaginary. With the exception of snakes and bees, the San people rarely painted reptiles and insects.

Rock art research is among the most demanding of archaeology's subdisciplines. Without recourse to conventional archaeological methods--weighing, measuring, mapping and statistical comparison--rock art research relies on theoretically and culturally informed interpretations, supported by particularly rigorous argument. We do know that the artists were among the earliest inhabitants of southern Africa, the ancestors of the modern-day "San" peoples. The term San is a linguistic label: the San and Khoekhoe--formerly Hottentot--languages make up the Khoisan group of many related languages and dialects, characterized by click sounds. The plant-gathering and hunting economy of the San has been extensively studied as a model for how people lived until relatively recent times, when animals and plants were domesticated.

Although rock art occasionally provides historical information, paintings and petroglyphs are not historical documents. It is only after the 15th century, when Europeans "discovered" southern Africa, that we begin to have a clearer picture of historical conditions. In 1652 the Dutch established the first permanent settlement in Cape Town. As the newcomers expanded their domain over the next three centuries, they frequently displaced indigenous peoples, whose traditional ways of life changed or disappeared entirely. In some areas, theft of cattle and horses by the San led to retaliatory raids by European farmers. Episodes are recorded in which entire San groups were massacred. Survivors of these communities were eventually absorbed into indigenous herding and farming societies or became laborers around European settlements.

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