Like prehistoric cave artists in Europe, the San/Bushmen of southern Africa used the rock walls as their canvas to create beautiful and complex works of art. Rather than making their paintings deep inside caves, the San artists painted the walls of shelters protected by rocky overhangs. It is thought that most of this art dates to within the last 10 000 years, although archaeological excavations in Namibia have found images on slabs of rock dated to about 27 000 years ago.
These paintings feature extraordinarily accurate and beautifully observed animals, especially antelope, as well as many human and abstract figures. There are also images that appear to depict part-human and part-animal figures, called therianthropes. These therianthropes can be part buck, part elephant, part bird, part baboon, or even part feline. Why did the artists paint these types of figures? It is thought that these images are of shamans or ritual specialists engaged in activities such as healing or rain-making.
Another feature of San art is to show animals or even human figures appearing out of, or disappearing into, a natural crack in the rock; and irregular bumps in the rock surface form part of the painted image. Why is this significant? Research has shown that the San believed that the rock face itself was a type of “veil” between this world and the spirit world. These paintings seem to show images moving between our world and that world of spirit.
Through careful analysis of these images, and through the study of ethnographic records (recorded interviews and discussions with San people), researchers believe that these paintings and engravings are very closely connected to San spirituality, ritual, and shamanism. Shamans are healers and spiritual leaders. To do their work they enter into a trance state through intense dancing or possibly by the taking of mind-altering substances. In a trance state, the shaman feels that he or she is able to enter another realm – a spirit world – where direct communication with higher powers and animals is possible. It is surmised that these experiences of the spirit world were painted on the rocks of southern Africa.
The San were not the only people who painted and engraved the rocks of southern Africa. Khoekhoe herders, who are thought to have originated from the regions now known as northern Namibia and Angola, appeared on the southern African landscape about 2000 years ago. These herder people would move with their animals in search of good grazing, and Khoekhoe artists would paint or engrave geometric patterns onto rocks, often close to water, and it is thought that these images were connected with their initiation and rites of passage.
Some Northern Sotho groups of people also have a rich tradition of rock art. Their images were however, very different to those of both the San and the Khoe. These Northern Sotho artists made images by applying white pigment to the rocks using their fingers. The animals they depicted were stylised, with the most important features exaggerated: for example, the long neck of the giraffe or the trunk of the elephant.
Also significant in the Northern Sotho rock art tradition are large paintings of trains by the Hananwa people of the Limpopo Province, believed to date from the late 19th century. Some experts say that these are an early form of ‘protest art’. The trains were symbols of disempowerment as they took all the able-bodied men and boys away to work in the gold mines of Johannesburg, often not to return.