The Maloti Drakensberg region is a treasure trove of some of the most outstanding rock art to be found anywhere in the world. The unique style of the paintings is instantly recognizable, by children and adults alike, and the techniques that the San used to achieve this visual distinctiveness are truly remarkable. Even if you have seen examples of some of this rock art in museums, or in photographs, nothing can quite prepare you for the wonder and excitement of seeing the real thing close-up.
There is something deeply spiritual about standing in the very spot where the original artist stood as he painted a majestic eland, skilfully using black, white and different shades of red, yellow, and brown to define its form and to make its muscles ripple under the surface of its skin. Marvel at the way the magnificent animal is shown in a three-dimensional pose, looking backwards over its shoulder at the hunters who are closing in on it. Puzzle over mystical-looking creatures and strange markings painted near them – then turn and gaze over the beautiful grassy hills and valleys, as the artist might have done.
What did they use for paint?
Red, orange and yellow paint were made from rock or soil rich in iron oxide.
Black pigment was usually made from black clay or soils rich in manganese, and occasionally from burnt bone or charcoal.
White pigment, the least durable, was made from fine clay and perhaps sometimes from bird droppings.
Sometimes binders such as melted fat, egg white or eland blood were used in the paint. Earlier paintings have survived better than those done more recently, suggesting that artists in more recent times had lost the knowledge about binding paints.
What do the paintings show?
Until recently people saw the rock paintings as scenes taken from San daily life: quaint depictions of hunting, fighting, food collecting and strange rituals. But in the 1970s researchers came to believe that the paintings relate to the religious beliefs of the San and are reflections of the spirit world.
A popular view is that the paintings were probably created by shamans – healers or medicine people. According to this view, a shaman would go into a hallucinatory trance, enter the spirit realm and interact with the spirits. The paintings are a record of what was revealed in that altered state of consciousness.
As such, the paintings are believed to be imbued with a special power. So much so that some African izangoma (diviners) scrape pigment off the paintings to use in making particularly powerful muti (medicine). Others use these powerfully sacred places as venues to train their students, and some rock art sites are still visited in secret by people of San descent.
Many of the paintings show fantastical spirit creatures such as rain animals (often eland) and therianthropes (partly human, partly animal forms). These suggest that the medicine person has taken on the power of the animal. A shaman in a trance would experience nasal bleeding like a wounded eland and this blood was sometimes rubbed onto other participants of the ritual to ward off bad luck and sickness.
Eland are the most frequently-painted animal subjects and are the most elaborately-treated of all the images. Depictions of eland have multiple meanings – related to rainmaking and puberty ceremonies; used as a symbol of group identity or a metaphor for the trance state; or an attempt to capture the spirit of selected animals to ensure a successful hunt.
What do we know about the San of this area?
The San have lived in this region for many thousands of years. Carbon dating suggests that the oldest remaining paintings were created about 4 000 years ago. Other archaeological evidence indicates that the San people were already here thousands of years before that.
The themes and styles of the rock art over the centuries appear to be relatively consistent, but there is evidence that stone tools, social networks, and even economic strategies changed over the last 18 000 years. The San remained hunter gatherers and foragers until the arrival of other immigrant groups.
That has changed dramatically over the last few hundred years, with the arrival of the black Nguni tribes, followed later by white hunters and farmers of the European colonial period. Some of the rock art shows these intruders as seen by the San – in fascinating paintings of black herdsmen and their cattle, of men on horseback, covered wagons and soldiers carrying rifles. These images testify to what must have been fearful times for the short-statured and relatively peaceable San. They could no longer roam freely in the area between the coast and the Drakensberg. They withdrew to the relative safety of the mountains, from where they raided the intruders’ cattle in the surrounding countryside. This led to a British garrison being stationed at Fort Nottingham to halt such raids and pursue the San raiders. The retribution of the farmers was merciless and by the dawn of the twentieth century there was almost no trace of the many San who had lived in the area.
The living heritage of the secret San
By the 1920s popular opinion held that the San of the Maloti Drakensberg were extinct. Then in 1928 a farmer found a perfect bow and arrow set in Eland Cave in the Didima area, giving rise to much speculation that there were still pockets of San living deep in the mountains. This did not prove to be the case, but it is certainly true that the descendants of the San have secretly continued to visit significant sites.
Now that popular opinion toward the San is no longer hateful, the exciting truth is more readily announced: the San were not totally annihilated – many intermarried with their African neighbours, changing their names and taking on new cultural identities. Some kept aspects of their culture alive, visiting each other in secret, frequenting their rock art sites under cover of darkness and still performing healing and rainmaking ceremonies for their African neighbours as their ancestors had for centuries. Today about 600 people in the area are proud to regard themselves ethnically as San, and have adopted the Nguni term Abathwa – meaning “first people” – for themselves. This includes the Duma clan in the Kamberg area, who have recently been granted the right to perform their annual sacred eland ceremonies at Game Pass Shelter. The last known painters were Lindiso Majola, from the Maclear area, and Kerrick Ntusi, who is still alive, living in the southern KZN Drakensberg. Both painted around 1920.
Rock art etiquette
Rock art is of immense archaeological and cultural worth – and it is irreplaceable. It is protected by law. Observing the following basic rules will ensure that you uphold the spirit of the law and help to preserve this wonderful heritage for future generations.
- Rock art sites must only be visited with a guide. Get permission in advance from the relevant authorities or landowner
- Never touch or lean on the paintings – fats and oils from your skin damage the paint.
- Never wet the art with water, saliva, or any other liquid, not even “just to make the colours stand out”.
- Avoid stirring up dust – some of it settles on the art and hardens into a crust which obscures the paintings.
- Never trace the art – it is easily damaged.
- Don’t interfere with the paintings in any way. Don’t scrape them, highlight the outlines or add your own drawings. The damage is irreversible and graffiti anywhere within 50 m of a rock art site could cost you a fine of up to a million rand and/or imprisonment for up to five years.
- Never remove stone tools, pottery, bones or other objects from a site.
- If you see anybody damaging the art, please report the incident.
- Never make fires in shelters containing rock art.
- In the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site you may not overnight in shelters where there is rock art.
In addition, remember that for some the rock art sites are sacred places worthy of reverence. Behave respectfully and speak quietly, especially when accompanied by descendants of the San.
Enjoying rock art with children
Most children love tales of long ago and are enchanted by the idea that people lived in these caves and overhangs, in the heart of the beautiful mountains.
Before entering a rock art site, be sure that your children understand the do’s and don’ts of how to behave around rock art. The challenge with younger children is sure to be that they naturally want to touch the paintings, so you will need to keep your eyes on them at all times.
An easy way to include them in the experience is to ask them to tell you what animals they can see in the paintings and also what the people are doing, carrying or wearing. They usually thoroughly enjoy piecing together stories from pictures, so stand back and enjoy a stream of highly imaginative interpretations!
Older children will be able to appreciate some of the finer details of the history and interpretations of the art – if you don’t have a guide with you, be prepared to give them some of the background information yourself.
After the outing, give your budding artists some paints and paper, and watch them produce their very own “rock art” – at this stage a reminder to “never draw on walls” would probably be a good idea!