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

Window on Culture
SEVERAL SCHOLARS have noted the extraordinary similarities between the mythology of San groups far distant from one another in time and space. All San peoples tell of a primeval time when animals were people; after an initial creation event, they were differentiated. But these first people were often stupid, lacking customs and manners, and only after a second creation did they become real people.

Many stories recount the doings of these animal people. Some explain the origins of fire, heavenly bodies and other physical phenomena. We hear why the baboon has a hairless rump, why people marry and why death is inevitable. Other narrative themes include encounters with warlike neighbors or dangerous carnivores. Food is a constant preoccupation, with a surprising number of stories featuring autophagy--the eating of one's own body. The stories dramatize the dilemmas of existence that faced San hunter-gatherers and emphasize themes involving death and regeneration.

The belief that animals were once people allows an interpretation of therianthropes--figures both human and animal. Some of these paintings, and others of fantastic creatures, may portray beings from the primordial world. Alternatively, some researchers contend that they depict the shamans experience of physical transformation during a trance--when shamans enter the realm of the spirits of the dead.

Some experts, notably David Lewis-Williams and his colleagues at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, have correctly observed that the art does not illustrate the mythology. They propose instead that rock art is connected to ritual--and to one ritual in particular: a healing dance that is still practiced by communities in Botswana and Namibia (these peoples do not make rock art). During a ritual dance that may last all night, shamans enter an altered state of consciousness induced by rhythmic movement, singing and clapping. In this hallucinatory state, they believe that they travel to the spirit realm to battle supernatural forces that cause illness.

Lewis-Williams and his associates have proposed that shamanic hallucinations may have prompted the first making of art, in Africa and elsewhere. They hypothesize that because humans all share the same neurological circuitry, visual hallucinatory forms should be similar throughout time--and that geometric designs drawn in the European Paleolithic and Bronze ages, as well as North American Indian art, may also be understood in terms of the healing trance dance and shamanic hallucinatory experiences.

It is certainly true that many creatures in San mythology are not portrayed in the rock art. Yet mythology does provide a crucial context for understanding ritual. Myths tell of the origin of death and disease, the trials of life that ritual practices address. Art-making can probably best be seen as being linked to ritual practices--such as rainmaking and initiation--recorded from recent San peoples.

RECENT STUDIES have shown that hunting scenes in rock art are not as common as early researchers believed. Some paintings originally thought to depict hunts almost certainly portray rainmaking. Testimonies from the /Xam show that they viewed the rain cloud as an animal walking the countryside on "legs" of streaming rain. Rainmakers had to lead a large herbivore from its home in a water hole, take it to a high place and slaughter it; where its blood ran, rain would fall. The rain animals depicted in rock art resemble large herbivores, such as cattle, hippos or antelopes, but often with strange features and proportions. The rain bull in myths and stories embodied the lethal thunderstorm, whereas the female rain animals brought gentle rain.

Qing, in Lesotho, also described rainmaking. He described one rock painting as depicting underwater beings who tamed "eland and snakes." This painting shows six humanlike figures and two bristly animals of no known species, one led by a thong attached to its nose, the other being approached by two men with spears. Despite their geographic separation, both Qing and the /Xam described markedly similar beliefs regarding rain.

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