The Rock Art of Machete

As an anthropology major, I love all things historic, especially anything having to do with our early ancestors and understanding how they lived and interacted with each other. Which is why I was so thrilled when I found out that part of our journey through South Africa would include seeing some prehistoric rock art.

We spent a bit of time in Mapungubwe National Park, which is on the northern border of South Africa, joining Zimbabwe and Botswana. The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area was instrumental in international trade through the East African ports to India and China up to its decline in the 13th Century. There are still remains of buildings from the height of the kingdom’s power, but we only had enough time to explore the rock art.

There were some simple rules to abide by:

Machete Rock Art welcome sign

The rock shelter we explored was called Kaoxa’s Shelter. The name of the shelter came from the Kalahari San hunter-gatherers and their god Kaoxa, Lord of the Animals. The Kalahari San made these paintings, some of which are believed to be 2000 years old or more. There are around 200 paintings exhibiting over 16 different species of animals.

As you can see in the image below, there are numerous depictions of animals, the clearest being a giraffe (top right corner). In San belief, the giraffe was thought to have supernatural potency that could be harnessed to achieve altered states of consciousness. This altered state would then send them into the spirit world and give them the power to heal people. The image below also depicts kudu, hartebeest, antelope, a lion, and human figures dancing. Can you see them? (Hint: the human figures are in the lower right.)

Kaoxa rock shelter art

This is a better photo of the giraffe. It’s a pretty good likeness, don’t you agree? The rock art paintings were done primarily in red ochre, though yellow, white and black were also used.

Machete rock art giraffe

The following cluster of paintings depicts hunting, specifically antelope and even a hippo! It’s believed that the image of the hippo being hunted isn’t literal, as the hippo’s hide would have been too tough to penetrate with a San arrow. It’s thought that this was representing the hunt for supernatural power.

rock art of machete - hippo

If the paintings are a bit difficult to decipher, there were helpful interpretive signs outlining the images:

rock art sign

And if the paintings weren’t cool enough, there is also evidence of an ancient board game!

Kaoxa shelter board game

These board games are generally thought to have been created by Iron Age farmers, but they could also have been created by the San or Khoekhoen people too. These game boards are found all over Africa. The Khoekhoen people from Namibia call them “Cloud Games” and are mystically linked to rain.

The geometric markings below are typical of Khoekhoen rock art. The Khoekhoen herders arrived around the first millennium AD, introducing sheep to southern Africa. it’s not entirely clear what this painting was meant to depict, but it’s thought that it represents the tassels on a woman’s apron. This was linked to girls’ puberty rites, when girls are given a new apron signalling their initiation into womanhood.

Kaoxa rock painting

The panel below is also a jumble of multiple images. How many can you recognize?

rock art

Well ok, there’s a lot happening in this one and the images aren’t that clear. Here’s a bit of help:

rock art interpretive panel

The images include standalone women’s aprons (indicated with red arrows), giraffes, mongooses, gemsbok, and locusts. The San believed locusts had magical powers, and that their appearance in swarms were controlled by healers.

The section of the image that says “panel removed” indicates an incident from the 1950s, when removal of rock art was still being permitted. The missing image is now housed at the National Cultural History Museum Tshwane. The image is of seven female figures.

If you’re interested in reading more about the rock paintings and the 2009-2014 management plan for Kaoxa Shelter, there’s a great pdf from the Getty Conservation Institute and Southern African Rock Art Project that’s worth a read.

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