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. So I was thrilled when I found out that our tour through South Africa included seeing some prehistoric San rock art in Machete (or Matshete, depending on the source).
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 San rock art.
There were some simple rules to follow before seeing the paintings:
The rock shelter we explored was 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 at least 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 had supernatural potency that they could harness 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.) The San people painted kudu more often than any other animal. They seem connected both with girls’ puberty rites and shamans.
This is a better photo of the giraffe petroglyph. It’s a pretty good likeness, don’t you think? The Kalahari San people painted primarily with red ochre, although they also used yellow, white and black occasionally.
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, though. A hippo’s hide would have been too tough to penetrate with an arrow. It’s more likely that this represented the hunt for supernatural power. But of course, so much of this is just guesswork!
The petroglyphs are a bit difficult to decipher today. Luckily, these helpful interpretive signs outlined the images:
One of the most important rituals for the San people is the Medicine Dance. Not only does this dance heal the sick, but it brings health to the land, and binds the community together through social gatherings. Some rhythmic dances can actually put a person into a type of trance, or altered state of consciousness. The Medicine Dance is a common theme in rock art, as is the altered state the shamans experience.
And if the paintings weren’t cool enough, there is also evidence of an ancient board game!
Iron Age farmers may have created these games. But the San or Khoekhoen people might have created them as well. These game boards exist all over Africa. The Khoekhoen people from Namibia call them “Cloud Games,” and they were mystically linked to rain.
The geometric markings below are typical of Khoekhoen rock art. The Khoekhoen herders arrived around the first millennium AD. They also introduced sheep to southern Africa.
Researchers are not entirely clear what the painter was trying to depict here. But they believe that it represents the tassels on a woman’s apron. This was linked to girls’ puberty rites, when girls received a new apron to signal their initiation into womanhood.
The panel below contains a jumble of multiple faded images. How many can you recognize?
Well okay, there’s a lot happening in this one and the images aren’t that clear. Here’s a bit of help:
The petroglyphs include standalone loincloths or women’s aprons (indicated with red arrows). These y-shaped paintings signified the male and female gender roles. Men needed a loincloth to dance real medicine or to run fast while hunting. Meanwhile, the woman’s apron represented sexuality and the supernatural.
Also notice the paintings of giraffes, mongoose, gemsbok, and locusts. The San believed locusts had magical powers, and that healers controlled their appearance in swarms.
Note the section of the image that says “panel removed”. Back in the 1950s, the removal of rock art was still permitted. The missing image is now located in the National Cultural History Museum Tshwane. The removed image is of seven female figures.
Resources on San Rock Art
If you’re interested in reading more about the San rock art petroglyphs 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. Another great resource is: Capturing the Spoor: An Exploration of Southern African Rock Art by Edward B. Eastwood and Cathelijne Eastwood. This book is particularly good for finding explanations of what the paintings depict, and the meanings behind them. Along with the interpretive signs on site, this book helped me describe many of the meanings behind each painting.
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