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

Some have argued that rainmakers depicted in such paintings were living shamans, but there is ample evidence that they were in fact considered to be benevolent spirits--dead family members who helped their living kin. Qing, for example, described antelope-headed men in rock paintings "as men who had died and now lived in rivers." These men, as well as the underwater beings leading the rain animals, can best be interpreted as spirits of the dead. /Xam commentators specifically stated that "sorcerers of rain" were dead people, as were game sorcerers to whom the living would appeal for help in the quest for food.

Understanding San beliefs about rain is crucial to understanding their art. Like Kalahari peoples today, the San told of two important beings, a creator figure and a master of death and disease. In the /Xam narratives, this death deity is the Rain Bull. He is the dangerous thunderstorm and the water in the waterhole. People became stars after they died, which then fell into the water where the Rain Bull lived. Qings accounts of dead people living underwater derive from this same complex of beliefs.

Clearly, rock art images of people catching a rain animal allude to more than just controlling the weather. As master of the spirit world, the Rain Bull controls not just rain but also life and death, sickness and health. The "rain paintings" common in rock art can therefore be linked to people's efforts to prevent disease and misfortune and not just storms or drought.

Importance of Initiation
HUNTER-GATHERER societies such as the San are egalitarian, with both sexes having equal access to resources. Nevertheless, social distinctions do exist, and the two most important in these societies--gender and age--meet in the institution of initiation. Ceremonies for girls at puberty, copiously documented, seem to eclipse male initiation, which seems at most to have been a lesser celebration of a boy's first kill. Contemporary Kalahari hunter-gatherers also have conspicuous female initiations. Numerous /Xam stories tell of female initiates who disobeyed the puberty seclusion rules, sneaked off, and were then abducted and drowned by the Rain Bull. (After entering the cultural repertoire, the Rain Bull and other visual images may have been used in varied contexts for different purposes. Initiation paintings, for example, do not seem to involve interactions with the spirit world.)

/Xam initiation stories tell of the dangers attractive female initiates posed to men. The purpose of the rites, however, was probably equally to protect young women from inappropriate male attention. In the close proximity of band societies, members are highly dependent on social cooperation and harmony. Tensions between kin arising from sexual jealousies and misdemeanors may be socially and economically destructive. A purpose of initiation was surely to regulate interpersonal behavior and avoid such conflicts.

Though not abundant, some rock art sites and compositions may have been part of gender-specific initiation rites. Hugely voluptuous female figures with genital details, brandishing crescent-shaped objects, may well relate to female initiation. Paintings of womens dances may be linked to initiation or birth. A remote shelter high in the southwestern Cape Province mountains--unusual for its abundance of female figures and total absence of male imagery--may also pertain to female initiation or birth. Another composition apparently depicting a female initiation ceremony is found in a KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg site. It shows a prone figure and three clapping women in a circular enclosure. Other figures dance outside. On the periphery of the composition (not shown in the illustration) is a male figure with considerably overemphasized genitalia.

Many sites contain a profusion of diverse imagery, different in theme and style. Some may have been used over centuries for a variety of purposes, others only once or twice, for a particular end. Recent interpretations have emphasized healing of the sick, an action only rarely rendered explicitly in rock art. However, some images previously thought to depict rain animals may be of the Rain Bull himself. Because he is the death figure, these images may have been painted in an effort to cure physical illnesses.

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