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

The ancient art traditions had ceased by the 20th century. Today relatively few San speakers live in the old ways, except in parts of Botswana and Namibia. Only the wide distribution of archaeological sites, place-names and rock art alerts us to the vast areas once occupied by these peoples.

In studying the art, the archaeologist is forced to seek all imaginable clues. There are two classes of work: the paintings, which usually occur in caves and shallow shelters, and incised boulders and other surfaces that are found in the dry interior. The petroglyphs, which tend to be less figurative, have until recently attracted less attention than the paintings.

The style and, to a lesser extent, the subject matter of the paintings vary between regions. Often a single site includes works in several styles, so that it is impossible to tell whether it is the work of different artists or art from different historical periods. Early researchers suggested that simpler or less delicate images, in one color only, are the oldest, with color range and stylistic intricacy evolving through time. Today we know there is no such straightforward correlation. Some of the less accomplished work is probably the most recent--some perhaps made by shepherds and children.

Devotees have been trying to interpret rock art for more than a century. Those interpretations change with new knowledge, discoveries and intellectual currents. San testimonies would be extremely helpful in guiding us, but unfortunately, only one exists. It came from a Lesotho San man named Qing, who acted as a guide to a British official, Joseph Orpen, in the Lesotho Mountains in 1873. Qing was familiar with the making of rock paintings and commented on the paintings that they saw. Qing confirmed what some already suspected: that rock painting, as one contemporary European scholar wrote, was not "the mere daubing of figures for idle pastime" but "a truly artistic conception of the ideas which most deeply moved the Bushman mind."

In addition to Qing's direct testimony, researchers also draw on indirect accounts from San speakers. By far the richest body of material was collected a century ago, from people speaking a San language known as /Xam (the initial character is a click sound). In 1870 a group of /Xam San men from northern Cape Province were imprisoned in Cape Town for offenses ranging from stock theft to murder. Wilhelm H. I. Bleek, a German philologist, acquired custody of the men, who built huts at the bottom of his garden and worked as domestic servants. But their main task was sharing accounts of their traditions. While Bleek focused on the language, his sister-in-law, Lucy C. Lloyd, recorded thousands of pages of /Xam lore. A selection was published in Specimens of Bushman Folklore, written by W.H.I. Bleek and L. C. Lloyd (George Allen, London, 1911).

This extraordinary colonial encounter revealed the /Xam world: personal histories, myths, religious beliefs, and magical and mundane practices. Although by the late 19th century these people no longer practiced rock art, their commentaries have proved extremely valuable for interpreting it. Together with Qings account, the /Xam testimonies have helped show that African rock art is much more than mere decoration or reflections of everyday concerns. Instead rock art can best be understood as a religious art, reflecting the /Xam peoples relations with the spirit world and to ritual practices. And almost certainly the act of painting itself had magical importance.

A comparison of Qing's account with the /Xam testimonies shows broad similarities between /Xam and Lesotho San myths. Both San peoples esteemed a creator figure named /Kaggen. Both also spoke of underwater beings and of the creation of the eland. Qing supplied the long-sought link between rock art and myth, whereas the /Xam accounts provided crucial cultural detail that Qing's commentary lacked. Researchers since have relied heavily on both sources.

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